THE white oyster shack with picnic tables overlooking an inlet in the Gulf of Morbihan beckoned. It was not on the itinerary for our budget gastro tour of southern Brittany, but there was no way to drive past it.
A phone call cancelled a planned lunch at a restaurant in Vannes and my wife and I sat down to a seafood platter for two at oysterman Julien Gouguec’s family-run affair in Larmor-Baden, in glorious sunshine.
The oysters, from right out the back door in one of the great oyster-producing areas of France, tasted like essence of the sea.
The shrimp, clams and periwinkles were as fresh as they come. With a bottle of refreshing white Muscadet, the bill came to €40.
“They have a special, iodised taste,” Gouguec said of his oysters, which he is out tending at 4am.
Sampling the seafood and produce of southern Brittany provided a nice excuse for a six-day visit, by car on a return-trip with Brittany Ferries from Cork to Roscoff.
The idea was to find out what you get at restaurants that the Michelin and other guides say are good value for money.
The short answer is impressive food for €20 to €25 per person. The more complicated part is how do you put a price on delicious meals served in beautiful surroundings, often with gorgeous views of the wild Brittany sea coast?
Gouguec’s shack wasn’t in a guide, but it was great food at a great price, and the setting was unbeatable.
Most of the restaurants we sampled were on or near the Gulf of Morbihan, a spectacular bay that has one opening to the Atlantic, runs 20km inland and has 42 islands dotted about it.
The island of Gavrinis has a neolithic tomb containing dozens of stones carved with swirling patterns — just like in Ireland.
It is not far from Carnac with its 6,000-year-old alignments of hundreds of megaliths, tombs, and menhirs that predate Stonehenge and still defy modern attempts to explain their purpose.
“The Gulf of Morbihan is unique, it’s like a huge lake with islands and its own microclimate,” said Camille Le Gouguec, one of the owners of Golfe Croisieres (), which runs boat tours.
“It’s our little Venice.”
West along the coast from Morbihan is the delightful Presqu’ile de Quiberon, an “almost island” connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.
The Atlantic waves lure surfers to the western shore while the more sheltered eastern side has sandy beaches for family swimming.
It’s also a gastronomic paradise, with superb dining available in the Michelin “bib gourmand” category — the guide’s rating for restaurants it deems good value for money.
At “La Chaumine” in the town of Quiberon, Sevrine Prado and her brother Cyril serve local seafood, sometimes with a twist ().
On the day we visited, the €25 menu offered oysters, ray wings with capers and dessert.
The menu at €40 swapped the ray for a trio of scallops, daurade and grouper in a Jura-region sweet “vin de paille” (straw wine) sauce — a mouthwatering speciality of the house.
“The ‘bib gourmand’ rating means you get diners who want good food for a good price,” Sevrine Prado said, breaking away from chatting with regular customers.
“If you go up a category, to one star, it means you’d need more help, a different kind of service. We’re happy keeping it the way it is, simple and local.”
At the northern end of the “almost island”, in St Pierre de Quiberon, husband and wife team Catherine and Herve Bourdon have one Michelin star, but still offer a €25 menu — plus others ranging to more than €100 — at Le Petit Hotel du Grand Large ().
Our €25 meal consisted of a seafood ravioli followed by grilled bonita, which is in the tuna family, and dessert of crème caramel or local farm cheese. All this served with an enchanting seaside view through bay windows.
Chef Herve thinks Breton cuisine is special because it is not bogged down in the established traditions of regions like Burgundy or the Mediterranean.
“In Brittany it’s the produce that comes first, then the chefs, while in other parts of France it’s the chefs first and then the ingredients. I like it this way,” he said.
He also invites more Irish to drop by.
“I think we are all the same family, the Irish and the Bretons, culturally we are the same country, so come visit.”
The Bourdons offer tastefully decorated rooms with sea views for getting away from it all — no television, no telephone, no mini-bar and no lift.
We stayed in the nearby yachting hub of La Trinite-sur-Mer at the Trinite Hotel, where the main attraction for one of us was the six-foot-long bathtub, despite the splendid boats on view.
Owner and host Christoph Achard was a sommelier at Maxim’s restaurant in Paris for 30 years, so wine lovers may want to spend an evening at his wine bar, sampling some of his 30 vintages of bio wines. There is, of course, more to life than eating and drinking.
The medieval market town of Auray, at the end of a long inlet from the Gulf of Morbihan, has cobbled streets, one of which leads to the tranquil old port of St-Goustain.
American diplomat Benjamin Franklin stepped ashore here in December, 1776 on his way to Paris to ask for French help in the American War of Independence.
The port’s stone quays are lined with cafes and restaurants, one of them inevitably named Bar Franklin. They are places to linger, admire the half-timbered 15th century buildings and listen to the water rushing under the stone bridge spanning the Auray River.
Vannes, on the opposite side of the Gulf, is a medieval walled city that is proud of its extensive battlements and lights them up at night.
A walk along the walls leads to the Place Gambetta, hub of the city’s nightlife and a thriving cafe scene.
Sitting at an outside table with sailing yachts moored in front of you and the medieval city behind you is not the worst way to pass the time.
If shopping beckons, then Vannes has that too. The Rue Billaut is lined from one end to the other with the likes of Kookai, Naf Naf, and Sergent Major.
If you’re searching for something out of the ordinary, a 30km drive to Rochefort-en-Terre will do the trick.
One of the most popular tourist sites in Brittany, Rochefort is a charming hotch-potch of old buildings, some half-timbered, and some symmetrical stone Renaissance structures.
The French-born American artist Alfred Klotz revived Rochefort when he purchased the ruins of the 12th-century chateau in the early 20th century and encouraged the townspeople to plant geraniums — which are everywhere.
Today Rochefort is a hive of boutiques and ateliers where artists and craftspeople sell paintings, jewellery, antiques, handicrafts — a mix as eclectic as the look of the town itself.
Sadly, six days is not very long and we were soon back in northern Brittany, awaiting our return crossing to Cork.
This moment, traditionally, is an occasion for Irish to stock up on wine that is often half the price it would be in Ireland.
There are several warehouse outlets in Roscoff, but we opted instead for the Leclerc supermarket in nearby St Pol de Leon.
The Leclerc had on one of its big wine sales, so in addition to its usual wide range there were vintages not usually on offer. Spoiled for choice would be an understatement.
There was time for one last meal, also in St Pol de Leon, at the one Michelin-starred Auberge La Pomme d’Api ().
Set on a quiet side street, the auberge has a charming, bared-stone dining room and does a €25 menu, including a glass of wine.
The fresh cod in a black garlic sauce was smashing, just the thing to leave an excellent taste in the mouth for the sail home.
Rooms at the Trinite Hotel in La Trinite sur Mer start at €107 for a double with courtyard view, €123 for a deluxe room with harbour view, in season.
Rooms at Le Petit Hotel du Grand Large in St. Pierre Quiberon are €115-€135 for a double in season.
Brittany Ferries and Irish Ferries offer car ferry service between Ireland and Roscoff in northern Brittany.
Ryanair offers year-round service and Aer Lingus has seasonal service between Ireland and Nantes — about a two-hour drive from the Gulf of Morbihan.