J'aime la Bretagne, j'y trouve le sauvage, le primitif. Quand mes sabots résonnent sur ce sol de granit, j'entends le son sourd, mat et puissant que je cherche en peinture.
- Paul Gauguin, letter to Emile Schuffenecker, 1888
The boisterous clamor drags up from the street below and bangs on my window, calling for attention. I pull myself away from my work and press my nose against the cool pane to see what the hullabaloo is all about. A sea of black and white dotted with red swims by, banners unfurled, flags waving. Another demonstration, you say. The French taking to the streets, yet again, to voice disagreement and disillusionment? The French marching, chanting, stirring up controversy and making uncompromising, impractical demands? Well, almost but not quite. This is Nantes, after all.
Nantes is a city of light and dark, innovation and strategic importance, peace and revolution. Henri IV selected Nantes to be the signature city of his famous Edict in 1598, an order of tolerance and religious freedom; her valiant resistance during the French Revolution and the World Wars stands elbow to elbow with her turbulent role in the Commerce Triangulaire, the Slave Trade. Anne, Duchess of Brittany and twice Queen of France, called Nantes her home; the gorgeous, majestic, newly-renovated Château des Ducs de Bretagne in which she lived when present in The City of Dukes graces the center of Nantes, a stone's throw from the brilliantly white stone Cathedral in which lies Anne's parents, Duke Francis II of Brittany and Margaret of Foix. Yet Nantes, a former capital of Brittany, was separated from the region many times. Against her will and desire.
Red everywhere – La Revolt des Bonnets Rouges – the Red Caps, a symbol of the insurgency during the Revolution. It was like being caught in a Where's Waldo album.
I stare down at the crowd, a group of Bretons and Nantais who reclaim the reunification of Nantes, the re-assimilation of Nantes into Brittany. Currently a hot button topic. I grabbed my camera and went down to join them, weaving in and out of the rowdy, cheerful crowd, capturing the festive ambiance.
Kilts – Bretons are Celts, after all, traditional Breton outfits, flags worn as capes and as skirts (or kilts)
My own personal opinion of the matter, I am well aware, is thoroughly and completely romantic. I am enamored of the Bretons, their music, traditions and cuisine, their history and their joyous bravado and spirit. I have long admired Anne de Bretagne for her compassion, strength and courage, no matter if any of it is controversial; I look at her, at Brittany through the eyes of a foreigner, the poetic, passionate side of the personage and the history.
And what better way to support Brittany than the baking of Palets Bretons, a sweet, crumbly shortbread-type cookie of the region. A dough quick and simple to put together, then formed into a boudin, a log or sausage, and refrigerated before cutting and baking in any size one likes. Whether the plainer, more traditional butter version or a chocolate version, palets Bretons are, like all baked goods from Brittany, made with salted (demi-sel) butter. The delicate hint of salt against the chocolate of these cookies is sensational. My own cookies are less crumbly, slightly more tender and moist than palets traditionally are (my husband would have preferred them dryer and more crumbly) but wow are they delicious…. Something truly worth celebrating!
On another topic, the postmen and postwomen of Nantes are on strike. All week. Not so romantic.
* I like Brittany…I find a certain wildness and primitiveness here…when my clogs resound on this granite soil, I here the muffled, dull and powerful tone I’m looking for in my painting.
CHOCOLATE PALETS BRETONS or BRETON COOKIES
1 cup + 1 Tbs (140 g) flour
5 g (1 tsp) baking power
8 g (1 Tbs) cocoa powder, optional
Pinch (about 1/8 tsp) salt or fleur de sel
2 large egg yolks
2/5 cup (80 g) sugar
5 Tbs + 1 tsp (80 g) salted butter (beurre demi-sel), softened
¼ tsp vanilla, optional (or replace with orange extract or orange flower water)
Stir the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa powder together in a bowl. Beat the egg yolks and the sugar together until thick and pale, scraping down the bowl a couple of times. Beat in the butter and vanilla until blended and thick. Beat in the dry ingredients in 3 or 4 additions. Scrape down the bowl and beat it briefly to make sure it is well blended and the dough should pull together.
Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap; lightly pat and shape the dough into a log, giving it the desired diameter depending on how wide you want your biscuits – I roll mine into either a 7-8 or a 10 - 12 inches long log, depending upon how large I want them. Wrap the dough in the plastic wrap, make sure the log is even and smooth and refrigerate to firm for about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C) Carefully unroll the cookie dough and slice; the dough may still be soft and pliable so try and keep the dough in the log shape. Cut ½ inch slices; gently reshape the discs into rounds and place on a baking sheet or in muffin tin cups or small metal circles (so they are less likely to spread and will better keep their disc shape.) Bake for about 10 minutes or until set and just firm in the center.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before lifting them to a cooling rack to cool completely before devouring.