A visit to Douarnenez: sailors and smoked sardines

It was the height of summer on the far western tip of Brittany, we didn't even need a sweater at night. We reserved a room in a beautiful circa 1890 hotel, with a view on the sea and a small swimming pool. Of course there was work to do, Marc, had interviews for his orchestra and I had edits to finish on a film I was producing for a wonderful maritime festival. However, we still had time to soak in the atmosphere of Douarnenez,  a working fishing town of 15000. It still has a few canning factories, mostly sardines and mackerel although sardine fishing has fallen off in recent years. Douarnenez has rebranded itself as a tourist attraction,  but not with the same success as Cannery Row in Monterey. Its Maritime Museum, its marinas and the lovely expanses of sandy beaches and rocky coastlines are worth the trip for people seeking the simple and authentic. 

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Every two years, Douarnenez brings together some of the most beautiful tall ships and old boats for a 4 day maritime festival. 600 of them crowd into the tiny harbor, from Scotland, Italy, Spain, even the Sultan of Oman dropped by in his huge dhow. Booze flows freely, sailors roam the town and everybody is packed like sardines in the tiny bars along the port.  It's not a fancy crowd... This is definitely not "bourgeois France" at all. It was one of France's first communist municipalities. In the 1920s, the men brought in tons of sardines from the Celtic Sea and the women worked in the canneries more than 15 hours a day. These women led one of France's toughest work strikes. They called the ladies the "Pen Sardines", in breton "Penn" means head. The Sardine Heads fought and obtained a salary raise and decent work conditions. To this day the people of Douarnenez are still called Les Penn Sardines. A story worthy of Monterey's John Steinbeck. He would feel at home even today in France's cannery row. 

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Cold smoked sardines 

So of course, we had to have sardines... Well, actually, it's that not that easy to find a restaurant or a café that serves sardines in Douarnenez. Apparently, nobody here would dream of ordering sardines. They are to be eaten at home. If you want to spend good money eating out, then you'll have to eat a nobler fish, or meat! 

But somebody on the Vieux Port Rhu was using old barrels to cold smoke sardines, salmons, pollock and haddock. They were honestly some the tastiest smoked fish we ever had. Moist, melting in your mouth, the smokiness enhanced the taste of the fish and didn't overpower it. It reminded us of the best Seattle smoked fish, only a lot - I mean a lot - less pricey. 

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First, the fish is cut in filets, washed with sea water and let to dry for a few hours. Then it's lightly salted and put on long sticks called "ainets". Then it's put top of the smoking barrels.

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Cold smoking is a precise and delicate process where the smoke's temperature can never go above 86°F (30°C) when it reaches the fish. Covered by a heavy burlap cloth, the fish are then smoked for about 2 hours.

It was hard to get any more information on the process, as our smoker, Mr. Guy Planchette, was quite reticent to give its trade secrets. The wood he used? "Can't tell..." Is it his full time work? "Hell no ... smoking fish is not a profession." Any more laconic and he'd be from Maine. 

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I also met  the most interesting cookbook author from Brittany, Françoise Buisson. We bought her last recipe book " La cuisine des îles"  - the Cuisine of the Breton Islands - which will be a great reference for traditional breton cooking. I'm thinking of interviewing her for this blog...

Tomorrow, i'll post one of my favorite recipe for sardines.