Looking through the window of the bakery, it did not look like much. A large round flattened bit of baked dough, crusty and oily, lay with its many siblings on top of stark white parchment paper. As I walked past, however, the whiff of fresh pastry overwhelmed me. There was something so familiar and intimate about the glorious mixture of caramel, butter, and honey fragrances seeping from the golden-brown disks that it sent my memory reeling back to childhood days when my mother would spend Saturday afternoons baking muffins, scones, and other treats in our old crotchety oven. Until late Sunday morning the same aroma would hang around our entire house, permeating every room with deliciousness. Now here I was many years later and certainly thousands of miles away, in Brittany France, experiencing the same incredible bouquet. My feet turned to the left on their own and entered the crowded shop. Rows upon rows of freshly prepared croissants, baguettes, and cross-hatched biscuits met my greedy eyes. Iced layer cakes, fruit-filled tarts, and gauzy meringues competed for my sensory attention. I was not to be waylaid by any of them, however, because my one aim was to taste the unusual coil of puffed pastry that lay waiting inside the glass case to my right.
The portly lady with the flour-laden apron called it a kouign-amann, pronouncing it “queen-amahn.” Like everything else in this northwestern pocket of France, the comestible looked both familiar and strange. I had never seen anything like it before, never heard such a name, and I was excited to sample one.
“It felt flaky and fragile in my hands, so I cupped it tenderly, afraid it would shatter before I could get a taste.”
I hurriedly paid, the scent of it embracing me in a bubble of warmth as I sought a shelter where I could enjoy my goodie in peace. I found an abandoned street corner across from a restaurant getting ready to open for lunch and took my first bite. The crisp and crunchy crust melted in a profusion of butter, sweet but not cloying. I took another bite and the chill of the rainy day melted away from me. I was no longer standing, slightly shivering in an alley in Saint Malo. I was reliving the coziness of weekend afternoons smuggling bites of baked delicacies from under my kitchen table. Licking the last flakes in my hand, I went back to the bakery for another kouign-amann.
“So, you are back for another one,” the proprietor stated in English. “You like my pastries?” I nodded at her and said I especially loved her kouign-amann. “Ah that one, that is a specialty of Breton. We make the best, lots of butter and sugar, eh? Good for your figure!” She winked at me and grinning walked over to her next customer. I stood there a little out of sorts. I had wanted to find out more about this regional delicacy, but had lost my chance. So much of this part of France is different, but subtly so, that it was difficult for me to feel I was truly understanding the place. The Bretons were descendants of Celtic tribes who emigrated to France early in the third century. Since then, despite forced cultural assimilation Bretons have staunchly, though quietly, held to their identity. They speak their own language, maintain traditional folk music, and preserve ancient religious customs. Though I wanted to experience this unique culture and felt its ripples, I couldn’t seem to enter into their world.
“On the surface Saint Malo was simply another quaint French seaside resort.”
Perhaps it was the years of suppressing their heritage, but I found the Bretons to be polite, yet self-contained. On the streets I heard only French spoken, not the native tongue. Locals smiled sweetly, but were strangely incurious to my investigations. I found no obvious ingress into this society.
The sighting of the kouign-amann had been my first foray under the façade, but I seemed to only scratch the veneer. Outside with my second helping, I decided a drink would be a good accompaniment to the kouign-amann and sidled into the small café I had seen earlier. The waiter from whom I ordered a water and an apple cider asked me how I liked the famous kouign-amann. I told him it was amazing how baked dough had the power to transport me back in time and allow me to relive past memories.
To which he replied, “I feel the same way, even though each kouign-amann tastes different to me. None of them compare to the ones my mother used to make, a recipe that has been passed down for generations in our family.” I asked him what made the pastry so distinctive to the Breton region. “There is a legend that long ago a baker in the town of Douarnenez had too much dough after making the day’s requirement. Not wanting to waste his material, he decided to make a cake out of it by adding sugar and butter.”
“A straightforward story for this sweet treat!” I exclaimed to the waiter.
“A sweet cake for us sweet Bretons,” he replied, “It is not a fancy cake, but it is beloved by us. We eat it at every celebration.”
“Only at celebrations?” I quizzed him, guiltily pulling apart my apparently very special sticky bun.
“They say that after trying the baker’s cake, locals were so enamored of the taste they asked for it only on special occasions. Mind you, in this part of France we have plenty of special occasions: saints’ days, feast days, fairs, the list goes on. There is a reason to celebrate every week of the year and at every one of them we indulge in this wonderful concoction. We Bretons, we love our local butter, our seven founding saints, and our kouign-amann! I hope you enjoy yours.”
As he left to get my drinks, I contemplated my half-eaten kouign-amann. This simple cake the size of my palm had become a portal through which I had plunged straight into the heart of Breton culture! One bite and I was tasting a way of life in this region. I was reenacting a rite of passage, a scene thousands of other Bretons from Douarnenez to Rennes had experienced before me. I was experiencing the deep roots of Breton culture because this amalgam of yeast, salt, butter, and sugar was more than a gourmet indulgence.
“Its very ingredients spoke to me of the love these people had for their fertile, marshy pastures.”
I learned later from my waiter that the process of making the kouign-amann involved inordinate amounts of folding, re-rolling, and waiting. Biting into the ambrosial results I then had to admire the patience of Breton cooks and bakers! It was no wonder they reserved the kouign-amann for family get togethers and special occasions. The way it was made, the shape of the cake, even its very ingredients were a part of the history of this region. I was ingesting Breton with every crumbly morsel.
As I munched through my delectable pastry, I understood how deeply food is intertwined with a people. This distinctive pastry had the ability to make me feel a true part of Brittany. In the sweetness of my kouign-amann I tasted the passion of a region that is closely tied to its landscape, a diaspora struggling to maintain its heritage from across the Channel. Perhaps desserts are for the hopeless romantic in all of us, but a local specialty like the kouign-amann was more than an intriguing dessert to me. It both tied my own distinct past to that of a foreign land and opened up a window into that separate, and often unrecognizable, world. Having finished my kouign-amann I felt more connected to this new society I was exploring. Surely eating some more of these honeyed pastries would fuse me deeper into the many threads that make up beautiful Breton. I stared down at my empty plate and saw that the last bit of my delicious kouign-amann was gone. I absolutely must find another one. Long live the kouign-amann!
The kouign-amann in the Breton language means “butter cake.” The original kouign-amann historically hails from the town of Douarnenez in Brittany, France. If you are looking to attempt making the fabulous Kouign-amann at home, you can follow Irvin Lin’s easy recipe here, or David Lebovitz’ more traditional method here.