From time to time, we all need a bit of gentle sweetness. For me, childhood food comfort comes in the form of Crêpes, savoury or not, but also apple compote my grandmother used to do by the gallons at this time of year. I brought some back from her garden last month, trees planted over 35 years ago, ideal for a breakfast treat. Here it goes.
What on Earth is or even are avaloù? Well nothing too exotic I am affraid, they are just “Apples” in Breton. But I should be careful… Apples are considered sacred in Brittany, there is even a ceremony in the west of the peninsula were an “apple tree” is paraded; Gwezenn an Anaon… “The tree of souls”. But for now, here is the recipe for my apple tart, made by my Great Grand Mother, Grand Mother and Mother… All adding a little something in the process!
September 1991 After two months spent on the side of a mountain in Glenveagh National Park, I decided to enjoy a couple of weeks off, around Donegal town before heading back to Brittany; many long walks around Lough Eske , its abandoned castle, native oaks and mountain ashes. We didn’t drive. One of my friends suggested to hitchhike to Killybegs, Fishing Harbour few miles west of the town. I like fishing harbours, for some strange reason, the smell of marine gasoil mixed with the smell of rotting fish has a certain appeal. Or is it the screaming swarms of cheeky Herring Gulls? Lorient, St-Guénolé, Galway or Howth, no matter how big or small they might be, the atmosphere surrounding them is always the same; dressed with rich colours, fumes, sadness and excitement, noise… Life, purring Diesel engines… Superstition… What’s not to like really?
Have you ever tried Fish’n’Chips?” , asked my Orleans flat mate, while my native Irish friend rolled her eyes, as if saying: “Jayzus… Not again”. He was, let’s put it mildly, very enthusiastic by nature. We climbed the small hill overlooking the Harbour, sat at a corner table of this local chipper, just like teenagers do (yes we were still – just about – in that age bracket) and gazed at our laminated and slightly greasy menu; ketchup, mayo, salt and vinegar at the ready. Vinegar? On chips? Seriously? Truth be told, I had tried Fish and Chips; the previous September to be precise. The curator of Cap Sizun’s bird sanctuary and myself, after 6 months spent on the western peninsula cliffs counting kittiwakes, had just closed the reserve for the year. My mentor had to deliver fragile plaster birds of his creation to the yet to open maritime museum of Brest… Oceaonopolis. I was then treated to lunch in the Commercial Harbour. The decor was set, the name of the restaurant? “People Of The Sea”. Overwhelming with truth. We both went for the “Poisson-Frites”, fish of the day with chips. That was the day, the first time… My thoughts? The same any other Breton lad of my age would’ve had: “Fish with chips? What a weird combination!” Boy was I wrong! It somehow made our traditional rice and boiled potatoes abruptly redundant. I visited Donegal again this week, walked on the foot prints of cherished memories, one recalling the other, every time. This time I wanted to push a bit further west, what hitchhiking v time never allowed me to do before; I wanted to see the sun setting on Sliabh Liag’s mountain cliffs and its wild Atlantic coast. On the way back to Donegal Town, I stopped for a few minutes in Killybegs, I took it all in, the bells, the smells, the colours and the diesel engines purrs. They say the sea makes people hungry… Well it is true and I already knew what I would pick from the menu.
I was sitting at my desk at home yesterday, trying to send a few emails, get some inspiration by playing music while staring through the sash window at the swaying Crocosmia. My attention got caught when I noticed a little blue box, containing some neatly sharpened coloured pencils my nieces and nephews enjoy drawing with. As I was bored, I stuck my nose in it, expecting a flash back memory that didn’t disappoint; back to school and my pencil case, the last week of bliss before being sent to the pillory. As a form of acceptance, the last few days of freedom were quite pleasant, mostly foraging blackberries, with our neighbours and friends. The pain of lacerated limbs was soon to be healed and forgotten by my mother’s legendary “slurpy special” , straight from the pot, soon to be devoured by a small army of stained faces; the last meal for the condemned scallywags we were. As I was trying to reconnect with these delicious berries, nature sometimes gives so generously, I imagined them as a savoury ingredient, definitely with fresh goat’s cheese, a great companion to a pork filet roast … But I had another plan this time!
A friend of mine, organic grower from another local Meath townland gave me some fresh raspberries and apples; mine are still a bit green. What I have though, is a field at the back of the house full of blackberries and my first crop of Aronia berries, I planted last year, a taste between a blackcurrant and a blueberry if you wish with a lovely zing. Not as tart as sloe berries, we used to eat as a dare and it felt like your whole mouth was shrinking from the inside!
When we were good, or rather when she felt like it, my mother used to make this lovely apple cake, moist and delicious; she used to let it cool on the window seal of the kitchen of the old school we used to live in… Well, above the school. Since she was a teacher that was handy! I realised that the recipe leaves the door open to a lot more things than apples. All the fruits of my local foraging were going to go in. The recipe includes 200g of flour, I did twist things a little and put 150g of organic white and 50g of organic buckwheat flour… For extra nuttiness…
This recipe is a great little number. Its simple frame will allow you to have a bit of fun. Berries, Apples and also quince paste, which makes it an amazing surprise with a good Irish Blue cheese! I have posted the recipe in the “recipe” area of the blog (dah…), my Mum would be pleased to share this one with everybody, the same way my “compadres” broke bread and shared her blackberry jam by the side of the road… Before heading back to the classroom benches!
Classic Breton Crêpes
Autumn is trying to come back, pointing its nose through my window. Time for the ultimate comfort food, perfect with the blackberries I gathered at the back of the house … If I have any left, as I can’t stop eating them, I might gently stew a few and pour over my Breton Pan Cakes!
- 250 g of Organic white flour
- 50g of melted butter
- 1 pint of milk (500 ml) or ½ Litre
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tbsp. of honey (or sugar)
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 scraped vanilla pod (or a splash of vanilla essence)
- 1 tsp. of baking soda
I guess, like Brown Bread in Ireland, everybody have their own recipes, I have several hidden in books and note books, in safes, under the mattress… I like this one; I think it is as good as any.
In a bowl, place the flour, salt and baking soda and give it a brief whisk; it will help breaking the clumps, I don’t believe in sieving… (Us Bretons are like that, rebels and contrary to the max). In another bowl, whisk the eggs until homogenized. In a pan, gently melt the butter and the honey together. Back to the flour bowl, pour the eggs in the middle and start stirring gently; Little by little, add the butter and honey mixture, then start pouring your pint of milk. Gentle now! You should start getting a ribbon like texture, almost there… Cut a vanilla pod in half and scrape the seeds inside the mix. Give it another gentle stir and cover, in the fridge it goes for 45 min to 1 hour. It needs a rest. If you don’t have a vanilla pod or vanilla extract, pour in a bit of dark rum, my Mum used to put a dash in her Breton dessert… Very good too!
Ok, you’ll need a cloth, butter and a hot pan… Off we go! One ladle at a time, once it doesn’t stick anymore, flip the crêpe to the other side for a few seconds to a minute, in a plate, butter the pan again, and repeat the operation until you are out of Crêpe batter…
Enjoy with more honey, homemade jam, chocolate, stewed apples, etc., etc…