©France, Ille-et-Vilaine (35), Cancale, épicerie Roellinger|Emmanuel Berthier

Brittany on the spice road

From the adventures of ‘spice-hunters’ who sailed from Port-Louis, Lorient and Saint-Malo, to the sophisticated flavours of powders created by famous chefs, the story of Brittany and its spices is a tale that’s still being told…

©Benoit Teillet

A little bit of history…

The history of the peaceful seaside town of Port-Louis in southern Brittany is closely linked to that of the spice trade. The view from the citadel’s ramparts over Groix Island is breathtaking. In 1664, Colbert chose this site in Blavet bay to set up the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, which he had just founded, in order to develop trade with Asia. On the other side of the bay, shipyards were created, around which the town of Lorient was born. For 40 years, Port-Louis and Lorient witnessed the transit of spices, tea, fabrics, silk and porcelain, which made the fortune of Compagnie des Indes. Wars against Holland, Spain and England weakened maritime trade and in the early 1700s, the now bankrupt Compagnie des Indes became the possession of the “Messieurs de Saint-Malo”, a nickname given to the shipowners and privateers of Saint-Malo. It was these “spice hunters” who had the Malouinières (shipowners’ houses) built. These large country residences are steeped in history, and some are open for visiting…

Museum of the French East India Company

The citadel of Port-Louis is now the home of the Museum of the French East India Company, which traces the adventures of these splendid ships. Criss-crossing the seven seas during the 17th and 18th centuries, they sought out the treasures of Asia. Among the museum’s collections are models of the vessels, prints, old maps, Indo-European furniture, Chinese porcelain and Indian cotton. It’s a fascinating voyage that takes you from Lorient to Pondichery and then to Canton, Africa and the Mascarenes. You can explore the museum on your own or with a lecturer-guide on a commentated tour.

Musée de la Compagnie des Indes

Olivier Roellinger spices:the gold standard

Two of the most recent creations from Olivier Roellinger, unrivalled master of the art of spices, are a ‘Cajun powder’ – a tribute to the Acadians who reinvented the cuisine of Louisiana – and a ‘Breton gomasio’, a blend of Breton buckwheat, Egyptian sesame, nigella, Indian coriander etc. Roellinger’s inspiration is simply flawless. The famous Breton chef grew up in Cancale Bay and set up his laboratory in his Saint-Malo homeland, where he works on his famous powders. Most of the raw spices, roasted and ground on-site, come from organic farming or fair trade. Olivier Roellinger chooses the spices himself in their country of production, carefully selecting the rare bulbs, leaves, flowers and barks that go into his blends. The range is impressive: the chef-explorer has more than 80 blends on his shelves in their instantly-recognisable red and blue jars.

Where to buy spice?

Les entrepôts-épices Roellinger

Cancale, Saint-Malo, Paris

Teak and rosewood furniture, jars of vanilla pods and a mashrabiya cabinet evoke the road to India. Entire walls of red and blue bottles containing the famous spices with often surprising names tempt you to dive nose first into distant horizons. The spices – Szechuan pepper, cardamom, turmeric, etc. – are rigorously selected in their country of production by Olivier Roellinger himself and are mainly sourced from organic farming and responsible trade. Identifiable by their red and blue bottle, the ground spices are available in the Epices-Roellinger warehouses and from the on-line shop.

Epices Roellinger

The ‘Kari Gosse’: a curry that is pure Breton

Its recipe has been a closely-guarded secret since the 19th century. It was passed by a shipwrecked Indian sailor to Mr Gosse, an apothecary with a store in Auray in Morbihan who welcomed the Indian to his home. Xavier Pézat, his descendant, continues to make it, in some secrecy. The ‘Kari Gosse’ is a pure Breton curry powder characterised by its distinctive fragrance with notes of clove, and its beautiful ochre colour. The blend also includes ginger, turmeric, chilli, cinnamon and pepper and is a perfect accompaniment to any shellfish dish, especially lobster.

On sale at some pharmacies in Brittany

Saffron from Brittany

It’s the most expensive spice in the world as it takes nearly 150,000 flowers to make 1 kilogram! Everyone has heard about this spice, but did you ever imagine that it could be grown in Brittany? For a few years now, a number of producers have taken the gamble to produce this rare and highly sought-after product. The crocuses are harvested at the start of autumn. Breton producers:

Didier Corlou

A nose for spices

He is said to have a ‘nose for spices’, and Morbihan chef, Didier Corlou, certainly uses his sense of smell as well as every other sense to create his own blends.  Didier Corlou has been an expat in Vietnam for 25 years, where he runs five highly-acclaimed restaurants. In Vietnam he found the perfect environment to express himself and create new flavours. A confirmed globetrotter, he never stops searching mountains and plateaux in Vietnam to hunt down the best producers of cassia cinnamon, star anise, black cardamom, turmeric, Vietnam pepper and talauma. The Breton chef has begun marketing his spices in France, a range that incudes Ha Long, Hanoi, Tangier, December and Siam Curry, to which “a dried green lemon leaf brings freshness and exoticism”.

Epices Corlou

Where to buy spice?

La “cale aux épices”

Paimpol, Vannes and soon Rennes

A schooner serves as the company logo in a nod to Paimpol’s maritime past. ‘La Cale aux épices’ (Ship’s hold of spices) was born of the long-haul voyages undertaken by the globe-trotting spice enthusiast Christophe Lemaire, who also crushes them himself and then shares his discoveries and creations. After Paimpol, Vannes was the next location for a store, to be followed shortly by Rennes. In his retro-look stores with apothecary-style counters, Christophe Lemaire sells around 20 of his curry compositions as well as 30 or so marinade blends, and around 80 peppers and berries. Even now, he selects his own products from sources all over the world, returning from each pilgrimage armed with new recipes.

La Cale aux épices

You might also like

Official website of tourism in Brittany