This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
The sky above Rennes spits gentle rain. In French we call this crachin, from the verb cracher, meaning to spit. Brittany is harsh. It has the pointed chin of a witch, jabbing out into the Atlantic Ocean on the northwestern peninsula of France. Along 2,863 kilometers of coastland, glacial waves froth up against sharp cliffs, while inland, constant rain tenderly strokes the green farmlands. There is a softness to Brittany in the seawater warmed by black seaweed that swirls around the legs of swimmers at high tide in the Golf du Morbihan, sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean. Sand beetles and flies boil under the linen towels of would-be sunbathers whenever they sit still.
Rennes, the Breton capital, is a three-hour drive west from Paris. The old Rennes has wide, cobblestoned streets through which stream university students. Alongside Zara and H&M, over two hundred houses from the 15th and 16th centuries offer their proud faces to the day. Red, brown, and beige timber frames crisscross over their facades. Forests surround Rennes, and homes were built with wooden structures until the great fire of 1720. Their exteriors hide beautiful inner courtyards and squat apartments with warped, crooked floors. The streets of Rennes are wet from the spitting rain but they are rich with the scent of butter cooking on buckwheat.
To be Breton is to love buckwheat, the blé noir, the black wheat, also known as sarrasin. Buckwheat arrived in Brittany from Asia in the 15th century. A noble plant, it thrives in poor, acidic soil. A thirsty plant, it requires the cool moistness of Brittany.
With buckwheat flour one makes galettes. One beats buckwheat and water with such force that the wooden spoon bangs like a drum; it sucks and slaps loudly like feet sinking into the fermented seaweed of the Golf du Morbihan or the quicksand along the north coast. The longer one beats, the lighter and easier the batter will be to spread. Bretons are elated by the bitter, sharp flavor of buckwheat covered in salted butter. On Saturdays the famous Marché des Lices sells thousands of sausages wrapped in galettes, the Breton hot dog.
Germaine Goualin, who lives on a farm just south of Rennes, suggests that one avoid buckwheat at night. She fears asphyxiation. Buckwheat is heavy, she says; it expands like wet earth in your stomach. Eat lard and green beans for dinner instead.
In 1960, Germaine’s mother-in-law, Anne-Marie Goualin, left her farm at age 50 to begin a new life in Rennes as a marchande de galettes. At 129 Rue de Nantes, she opened a narrow, six-square-meter storefront where she sold galettes by the dozen for 25 cents each. From morning to evening she cooked hundreds of galettes and crepes over two circular cast-iron griddles, heated with gas. Customers asked for a galette with a fried egg. They ate their galette at the café next door where they purchased bowls of cider. On Fridays at noon, when they fasted according to Catholic tradition, they ate two or three galettes filled with fresh mackerel, grilled sardines, and a fat knob of salted butter.
And where did that cider come from, that they served at the café next door? Germaine Goualin’s in-laws Maurice and Madeleine Lemoine were the first to sell bottled cider to the booming crêperies of Rennes and along the Atlantic coast, after Maurice, as a ploy to marry Madeleine, whose health was too fragile for farm life, left the countryside and bought a run-down cider and apple brandy factory from 1924. Maurice tinkered with blends of apples, growing his trees without chemical fertilizers in a soil rich with humus, while Madeleine ran the business from their basement. They went on to create a cider that has won the most gold medals, a total of eight, in the history of artisanal cider. The land around Rennes, in the valleys and along the banks of rivers, is ideal for apple trees. “The soil needs to be thick and deep for the robust and long apple tree roots,” Maurice explains. I ask if the spitting rain of Brittany is important too. He nods.
Today the galette shops have been replaced by bustling crêperies on every street corner of Rennes. Their kitchens radiate heat and remind one of the land, of reddish cider and pungent tripe sausage (andouille), of castrated chickens with flesh the color of a winter radish, of buckwheat fields blooming under pleasant Breton spittle.