French Tradition

What stood out during a visit to Brittany was the traditional life of the French family.

That patterns that I knew from childhood were still in place. When my family lived for a year in Ormesson-sur-Marne outside Paris, I was sent to the boulangerie every morning to get French bread and then to the local dairy to get a large glass container of fresh milk.

The day unwound from there.

That basic pattern was still in place in Thorigny-Fouillard just outside the Breton capital of Rennes. That was where Francoise, the daughter of the woman who was my mother’s best friend, now lives with her husband and two daughters.

The day’s routine started with the coffee maker springing into action, set up the night before by the father, Jean-Luc.

Family members in various states of wakefulness came down the stairs to congregate in the small kitchen, seated at a table that maxed out at five people. The young dog Moon, a Berger Blanc or Swiss shepherd, greeted one and all.

The kitchen counter and cabinets were dark green and the table stood next to a big window that opened onto the street in a verdoyant setting evident throughout Brittany. The breakfast fare was consistent and modest, fresh bread from the bakery nearby and some fruit, along with coffee.

On the kitchen table was France-Ouest, the region’s newspaper with virtually nothing about the American president, a blessing. While I was visiting, two big stories dominated the paper.

France’s environmental minister Nicolas Hulot, a former television star, had resigned in a political context where the president was courting a small nativist party organized around hunter’s rights.

Daniel Cohen-Bendit, the famous student leader from the 1968 upheaval in France, considered the job but decided that he could not be a yes-man for Macron whose approval rating was languishing at 19 percent.

The other big news story had to do with a tax reform where the state was going to mandate taxation “at the source,” which meant take taxes out of the paycheck – something we in America have long been accustomed to.

Conversation flowed easily at the breakfast table, often regarding the activities of the day and arrangements for dinner. From there, the family spread out to work or school. They are a traditional middle-class family, of the kind that is vanishing in the U.S., living modestly but well.

In the evening, the pattern was repeated with preparation for dinner as the central focus of activity. Francoise and her daughters working quickly and in coordination to get the meal together, not a time for conversation.

On one Saturday night, we had fresh mussels bought in a supermarket in Combourg, not far from St. Malo on the Manche or English Channel. They were minuscule and I wondered how we could make a meal out of such small mollusks. The brine shrimp bought at the same supermarket were even smaller.

But come the evening, the tiny shrimp were a perfect appetizer and the mussels were indeed satisfying. One aspect of French tradition I had misunderstood, however. The drinking habits were surprisingly modest. Wine or cider were taken sparingly, and on some work nights, not at all.

One Saturday, we stopped by the old farm of Francoise’s grandfather, a testament to the fact that similar forces of land accretion are at work in France as have long been in place in the U.S. She recalled an orchard of pear trees, an outdoor oven to bake bread, and a long farmhouse built of stone.

But the family had sold the land and the new owner had torn down most of the farmhouse simply to sell the stone, while clearing the orchard to graze cattle. It was the long-term trend, Francoise told me, where small family farms were being bought up, primarily by big cattle outfits.

Francoise remembered having the run of the place that included a creek and two medieval towers, known as La Roche-Montbourchet.

Francoise knew the way by heart and as we walked down a faint path, amid trees and brush, there suddenly loomed a pair of stone towers, one round, one square, partially covered in vines. Inside we saw the massive old fireplaces still set in the walls at different heights, representing floors in the castle.

The violent medieval history of Brittany is in evidence all around the region.

Two exits up the freeway from Thorigny Fouillard, where I was staying, is Saint Aubin du Cormier, the site of the pivotal battle between France and Brittany in 1488.

In the late afternoon, on the road back from a day trip to Fougeres, the site of an enormous and well-preserved castle, Jean-Luc pulled off the freeway to visit a monument commemorating the death of 6,000 Bretons plus thousands of additional archers, longbow men and infantry men from England, Spain and Austria in support of the Bretons.

Looking at the valley in front of the monument, it was occupied only by a couple cows. The tranquility of the sunny scene held no hint of the brutal carnage from a battle of thousands fighting at close quarters.

But then it was time to return to the house and have a good French dinner, a glass of wine and some conversation with the family.

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