I guess I could say we went on a buckwheat bender a few weeks ago while visiting family in Brittany. Our niece Anne-Laure – who lives near Quimper in Pays bigouden – shares my love of blé noir (literally “black wheat”) as buckwheat is often called in France and, to our delight, she wove it into almost every meal, be it at local crêperies when we lunched out or at home where she prepared local specialties for us. If that wasn’t enough, in between our several buckwheat encounters, she took us sightseeing. I hadn’t been back to Brittany since my kids were, well, kids, and I had forgotten about beautiful it is. She led us for long walks along the shore…
…to old seaside villages…
…and around the countryside where the fields were abloom with flowers of all kinds (except for buckwheat for which we were too early)…
Originally from Asia but grown in Brittany since the fifteenth century from seeds brought back by returning Crusaders, buckwheat is in the same family as sorrel or rhubarb. While it isn’t a cereal and contains no gluten, it is rich in fibers, amino-acids and antioxydants and therefore very much appreciated for its nutritional value. Seeded in late spring (to avoid frost which it doesn’t tolerate), it is harvested from mid-September to mid-October.
In the Brittany of yesteryear, it was part of a subsistence diet together with pork or beef fat and whatever meat or fish was occasionally available. Poor local farmers and fishermen often lacking the necessary ingredients and/or fuel to make bread, used to make a sort of buckwheat mush which they boiled inside a linen bag alongside bacon or meat scraps, a recipe known as kig-ha-farz (literally “far in a bag”). In subsequent variations, the buckwheat mush was thickened in a pot over the fire, then poured into a dish and baked in an oven. It then become a far, as in far breton (a popular dessert often made with dried plums). Today far breton is usually made with wheat flour.
To fully understand why buckwheat was so readily adopted back in the old days, one should also remember that, by law, farmers bringing wheat or other grains to the miller had to pay a tax to the local lord for the use of the mill not to mention a percentage to the miller as well as a tithe to the church. Buckwheat, le blé du pauvre (the poor man’s wheat) was exempt of such dues and could legally be milled on demand at home in rudimentary wooden mills. Moreover its flowers were extremely attractive to bees, which made for bumper crops of fragrant honey. On the downside, its leaves were toxic to cattle and couldn’t be used as straw or hay. Interestingly, popular belief held that blé noir was a creation of Satan while wheat, which produces white flour, was credited to God.
Had our stay in Brittany be longer, we would certainly have seen many more examples of the use of buckwheat in cooking and baking but because of our time constraints, we experienced buckwheat in four of its avatars only: fish and chips, galettes, kouign-amann and farz. We didn’t make it to any of the amazing bakers I had heard of in the region (they were either inland or further north) and I saw no trace of buckwheat bread at the regular bakeries we saw along the way. Which means I am already making a list for next time! Meanwhile here is a recap of our buckwheat encounters.
Buckwheat fish and chips
Anne-Laure had suggested we meet in Concarneau’s ville close (walled city) where she knew of a little restaurant featuring “fish and chips breizh.” Breizh is Bretton for Brittany and in a food context, it is often a strong hint that buckwheat is around. She was curious to find out and once she told me about it, so was I.
I can’t say that I actually tasted the buckwheat but the fish was extremely fresh (any fresher, it would have jumped on the plate by itself) and the outer layer of the fillets was arrestingly crunchy: they had been perfectly deep-fried in a finely textured batter. Anne-Laure asked the owner what percentage of buckwheat she used but she wouldn’t say. It had taken her a while to develop the recipe and, understandably, she didn’t feel like jumpstarting the process for the competition. Coming from the United States, what struck me the most is how small (three pieces) the serving was compared to what we are used to back home…
After lunch we made for Le Guilvinec, a major fishing hub where our niece had said we would watch the fishing ships come in and buy fresh seafood for dinner.
But on the way over, we glimpsed a road sign advertising a buckwheat kouign-amann. Since kouign-amann (Bretton for “butter cake”) is usually made with wheat flour, we were intrigued enough to stop.
The legend says that the cake was invented in the late nineteenth century by a Bretton baker who found himself one day short on flour but long on butter and sugar. I was amazed to see how different the cake we got was from the leavened laminated pastries generally known as kouign-amann. So was it the local version of the real thing or a tourist trap? As we were leaving, we saw a passel of silver-haired seniors exit a bus and head determinedly towards the store (which offered souvenirs as well as local bakery items), so who knows? In any case, such as it was, our buckwheat kouign-amman had a pleasant nutty flavor and if you could get over the amount of butter and sugar (the Man clearly had no problem with that), it was a lovely dessert, more flavorful (and actually less sweet) than the wheat version (the person behind the counter kindly had kindly let us sample both).
Farz en sac (literally mush in a bag)
In our honor, Anne-Laure decided to make far en sac one night. Since we were out and about all day, she didn’t have time to make a true kig-ha-farz, so she decided to boil the farz on its own in salted water seasoned with seaweed and to serve it alongside fillets of lieu jaune (pollock) gently cooked over a bed of sautéed leeks. She already had the bag (which she had fashioned out of an old linen dish towel), she had buckwheat flour, she had sea salt, she had eggs, she had cream and butter, and she had not one but two identical recipes (from the back of the bags of flour). We were in business!
(Anne-Laure used two different flours because she had some flour leftover from another recipe).
I found a gold mine of information on farz in Fars bretons et Kig-Ha-Farz by Patrick Hervé. While researching his book, he had talked to many elders (some of whom were born in the 1890s) who told him that there was no vegetables in kig-ha-farz until after the French Revolution and that the authentic recipe actually called only for meat and buckwheat. The farz was also sometimes boiled separately in water, with a bit of lard added for taste. When a household had no dedicated bag, the homemaker would either use a dish towel (as Anne-Laure did) or sacrifice an old shirt and use the sleeves, seams on the outside, (one sleeve for wheat and one for buckwheat). After use, the bag was rinsed out, never washed. Fully seasoned, the best ones were kept in the same family for generations. Some seniors recalled that the boiled buckwheat mush sometimes became so compact that it could be sliced and that leftovers were pan-fried the following day. Others said it should crumble when taken out of the bag so that it can be rolled almost as fine as couscous. Differences in texture may be due to cooking times and to the various ingredients used or skipped (poor families sometimes had nothing more than buckwheat and water, sometimes milk, at their disposal). It’d be interesting to experiment. As it was, Anne-Laure’s farz was of the crumbly sort and the perfect foil for the delicate taste of the just caught fish. Merci, Anne-Laure!!! It was a memorable dinner.
Galettes de sarrasin (buckwheat crêpes)
On our last night, our niece took out her billig (crêpe maker) and made galettes.
Since we had been on a steady diet of buckwheat crêpes whenever we lunched out, she first checked with us to make sure we hadn’t been over-crêped. We had not. Actually we had heard so much about Anne-Laure’s galettes through the family grapevine that we would have been disappointed to leave Brittany without having any. So once again she whipped out her buckwheat flour, took an egg out of the fridge, measured milk and water, and went for it.
I wish I had taken more pictures but the minute Anne-Laure put the first galette on the table, all thoughts of reporting left my mind. Let us just say that of all our buckwheat encounters during this trip, galettes de blé noir were my absolute favorites. Especially Anne-Laure’s… I could practically live on those! And in case you are wondering about the technique involved in using a bilig, here is an informative video from the Krampouz website:
It looks simple but it isn’t. As I discovered from experience, working a bilig is a lot like getting into Carnegie Hall, it requires a lot of practice. But then what doesn’t?