Winter gray, the Breizh Café, the Marais

How many shades of gray are there?  When I look up to the winter sky in Paris I can think of many: pewter, pearl, slate, stone, dove.  You get the picture.  When I first moved here I was disheartened by the long, unbroken stretches of gray days that befall Parisians during the winter season.  This is, after all, northern Europe.  I missed (and still do) those invigoratingly cold but sunny days in Canada when temperatures drop below zero but the sky is magnificent, blue and cloudless.  Not so, here.  Just endless gray and fairly mild days.  No ice. No snow. Just gray.

To lift my spirits, I took the metro to the Marais district and had an early lunch at probably one of the best creperies in town located at 109 rue Vieille du Temple.  The Breizh Cafe is a snug place full of Breton music and patrons sitting at wooden tables happily tucking into crepes and drinking cider.  As I shed my damp coat and joined the fray, I felt a surge of exultation just thinking about what was to follow. The name Breizh, incidentally, means Brittany in Breton, the indigenous Celtic language.

You must know that there are two different kinds of crepe: sweet and savoury.  The savoury ones aren’t called crepes, they’re called galettes and they’re made from buckwheat flour called sarrasin.  The classic galette is ham, cheese and egg; the cheese being grated gruyere or emmenthal.  It came to my table hot off the griddle, thin and tasty as all get-out.  The exterior slightly crunchy, the inside oozy with melted cheese and quality ham.  It’s the simplicity and sheer deliciousness of certain foods that makes France a great destination for foodies.  A crusty baguette with butter, ham and mustard, for example, can be a memorable experience if the ingredients are quality.  Or a simple green salad (just lettuce and nothing else) with a well-done vinaigrette.  In the case of the Breizh, the secret of its success is the authenticity of their products.  All products, including the butter, are shipped in from the French region of Brittany, the home of galettes and crepes, cider, sea-salt caramels and a dozen other delectable delights.

Seeking to quench my thirst, I ordered cider.  The waiter uncorked a large bottle of apple cider and filled up a small earthenware bowl. The cider sparkled and swirled and the taste of it was clean, dry and very flavourful.   After my second bowl of cider, I asked to see the dessert menu.  I don’t think anyone has left the Breizh Cafe without ordering a sweet crepe which is made from a different kind of flour called froment.  The simplest you can get is garnished with lemon juice and sugar; I chose the strawberry jam.  The sweet crepes have that slight rubbery texture that the galettes do not; it was as hot and delicious as my first course.

Next door is a small shop attached to the restaurant where you can buy the cider, the butter, the sea-salt caramels, and all the other delicious products transported from Brittany in north-western France.  I love visiting Brittany.  A few summers ago I took the train to the Morbihan coastal town of Lorient and then a boat to a small island called l’ile de Groix (to my dismay the place was crawling with Parisians because it was August.)  I think it’s time to make a return trip, not to the Morbihan but probably back to Saint-Malo, a walled port city, and the charming town of Dinard nearby. There are some lovely coastal walks in that region and the sea air is cold and fabulously briny.  Saint-Malo is the birthplace of explorer Jacques Cartier who set off from that seaport in 1534 to discover Canada. But I’m digressing.

Back outside, I walked north, purposefully avoiding the trendy, touristy part of the lower Marais because I prefer to stroll off the beaten track in order to see the authentic Marais, the part that hasn’t been gentrified, Gap-ified and Starbucks-ified.  So walk north, fellow travellers, and admire the historic buildings, the shops and lived-in squares and courtyards that the locals, not the tourists, inhabit.

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