Destination Guide – Cancale (Brittany, France)

Cancale is at the gourmand heart of the Emerald Coast. Of course, great local food is waiting to be found all over Brittany, but some towns seem to have more than their fare share of deliciousness.

Stretching from the dramatic cliffs of the Cap Fréhel in the West, to the iconic Mont Saint Michel in the East (one of Brittany’s biggest tourist draws), the Emerald Coast’s craggy coastline is a dream destination; and the quaint fishing village of Cancale warrants a few days stop of its own, to hike the breathtaking coastal paths, sip coffee by the harbour and cool off in the beach’s bracing Atlantic waters.

It’s also one of the best places to sample the best of Breton gastronomy: butter-laden pastries, salted caramel, pristine seafood, spice-infused surf and turf dishes (‘armor’ and ‘argoat’ in the local language), all washed down with exceptional dry ciders, and other locally-made apple-based liqueurs and sprits.

Cancale Bay – at the heart of Brittany’s Emerald coast.

Above all else, though, Cancale is known for the quality of the seafood hauled in daily from the Mont Saint Michel Bay. Its oysters have been reputed since Roman times, and were a favourite of Louis XIV who would have them delivered by horse daily to the Versailles Palace.

Oysters by the dozen to be enjoyed overlooking the Emerald Coast
Cancale Oyster Market

These days, the best way to get you hands on the day’s haul, is at the Cancale oyster market. This daily pop-up market hosts only a handful of vendors, but flocks of hungry customers travel from all over France to sample Cancale’s most famous export. Do as the locals do, and enjoy a douzaine on the nearby steps with a panoramic view of the bay, and a bottle of local cider brought from home.

A dozen Cancale oysters, and the giant Pied de Cheval

When in season, be sure to try the native and increasingly rare European flat, a smooth shallow oyster, with a more distinct seaweed and mineral flavour, referred to as belons or plates by the locals. And if available, don’t skip the locally famed pied de cheval, harvested very late (up to 15 years) after several years growth resulting in a very large but tender oyster that requires some brute strength to prise open (around €5 a piece).

“The town’s harbour side cafes and restaurants are reputed for their abundant seafood platters, which combine lobsters, seas snails, langoustines and prawns in all sizes, with (of course) more oysters.”

It’s not just Cancale’s oysters that are worth travelling for, though. The bay here, thanks to its nutrient rich waters, plays host to an abundance of marine life making it a paradise for seafood lovers. The town’s harbour side cafes and restaurants are reputed for their abundant seafood platters, which combine lobsters, seas snails, langoustines and prawns in all sizes, with (of course) more oysters. Our favourite lunchtime spot here is Le Pied de Cheval, easily distinguished by its prominent oyster station in the middle of the terrace below a bright blue and white awning, where oysters are shucked to order throughout service. Platters here are the best quality in town, are fairly priced and are excessively abundant.

And don’t leave any shell empty, as the extra energy will come in handy if you head off on one of the hikes or costal walks surrounding Cancale. The main destination for ramblers here is La Pointe du Grouin, a soaring cliff point that offers breathtaking views of the coastline, stretching all the way to the iconic Mont Saint Michel, which can be seen far in the distance on clear days.

For those who are particularly keen, there is a bracing 23km hike following the coast and beginning in the centre of town. For the rest of us, it’s only a five-minute drive from town to the car park at the pointe, and an easy walk to the trails that take you to the edge of the cliff face. If you’d rather take in the views sitting down, you can do so with a glass of wine on the terrace of the dramatically situated Hotel Restaurant La Pointe du Grouin.

For a pre-dinner aperitif back in town, head to one of our favourite spots, Le Galliano, a relaxed café bar with a decent selection of local beers and cider, wine by the glass and simple snacks overlooking the central square.

Leave plenty of room for dinner though, as Breton cooking is not a light affair. Perhaps the best-known export of this region is the crêpe; that paper-thin pancake now served by street vendors the world over. Lesser known outside of France is the crêpe’s savoury cousin the gallette, a thicker salted crêpe made from local buckwheat flour (sarrasin in French), lending it a darker appearance and heartier flavour, and making it a great accompaniment to anything from your standard ham and cheese toppings, to more extravagant seafood combinations.

Cancale is also home to Breizh Café, a temple to this ultimate Breton comfort food. The team now has outposts in nearby Saint Malo, Paris and even Tokyo, but nothing beats a visit to the original, which now also boasts an outstanding Japanese restaurant, which was recognised with a Michelin star in only its second year for its inspired fusion of the highest quality local produce with Japanese cooking techniques. Best of all, after a night of indulgence, you only have to make your way upstairs to stay the night in one of Breizh Café’s luxurious guestrooms, starting from €118 a night.

An unlikely marriage; Japanese sensibilities meet Breton produce at the Table de Breizh Café in Cancale. Pictured: buckwheat beer ice cream with caramelised apple, quince, buckwheat pastry and spiced apple cider coulis.

When rooms aren’t available here, our go-to is Le Querrien, a quaint three star hotel and restaurant, with plum views over the bay, and a playfully nautical theme restaurant serving hearty Breton seafood.

If you really want to splash the cash, though, you’ll be heading up the road to Le Coquillage, headed by chef Olivier Roellinger, notorious for having “returned” his three Michelin stars in 2008. Roellinger is revered for his mastery of exotic spices, which have featured in cooking in this part of Brittany since the 17th century, when neighbouring Saint Malo was home to France’s swashbuckling corsairs, and was the home base for France’s booming spice trade from the East Indies.

You can learn more about the spice-laden aspects of Breton cooking in town at Roellinger’s cooking school, La Cuisine Corsaire Ecole. Nearby is his flagship spice shop (outposts now exist all over France), Epices Roellinger, where you can find an abundance of spice blends, an encyclopaedic list of black peppers and salts, and the local salted caramels to take home as mementos.

Having shrugged of the constraints of fine dining, visitors can now enjoy Roellinger’s much vaunted cuisine in his more relaxed restaurant, Coquillage, perched above Cancale and overlooking the bay. The views can be enjoyed overnight with luxurious rooms available at the onsite lodge, Le Chateaux Richeux, with doubles from €195, one of the properties scattered throughout town available from Roellinger’s accommodation group, Les Maisons de Bricourt.

And don’t worry if you can’t fit all this in in one weekend, you’ll probably be planning a return visit to this Breton gastronomic destination long before you’ve left. Cancale is the kind of place that leaves a gourmand soul coming back again and again.

When to Go

Cancale is worth a visit any time of year. In summer, it transforms into a resort town, and accommodation is harder to find. But fear not, because oysters are available year round, and are best in the winter months.

How to get there

Cancale is only accessible by road and is a 30-minute drive from Saint Malo. From Paris to Saint Malo, there are direct trains daily, or the drive is just over four hours. From the UK, there are seasonal ferries from Poole, Weymouth and Portsmouth, and a direct Ryanair flight from London Stansted.

Where to eat

Breizh Café, Crêperie & Japanese Restaurant
Crêperie, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Japanese Restaurant, €€ (count €120-200 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 7 Quai Thomas, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 61 76

Pied de Cheval
Seafood Bistrot, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 7 Quai Thomas, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 76 95

Gastronomic Restaurant, €€ (count €120-200 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: Le Buot, 35260 Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes
Phone: +33 2 99 89 25 25

Where to drink

Hotel Restaurant La Pointe du Grouin
Address: Pointe du Grouin, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 60 55

Le Galion, Cancale
Address: 13 Place du Calvaire, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 65 71

Where to shop

Epices Roellinger
Address: 1 rue Duguesclin, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 23 15 13 91

What to do

La Cuisine Corsaire – Cooking School
Address: Place Saint-Méen, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 63 86

Where to stay

Café Breizh Guest Rooms
Restaurant with guest rooms, doubles from €118
Address: 7 Quai Thomas, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 61 76

Château Richeux
3* Hotel Restaurant, doubles from €195
Address: Le Buot, 35260 Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes
Phone: +33 2 99 89 25 25

Le Querrien
3* Hotel Restaurant, doubles from €69
Address: 7 Quai Duguay Trouin, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 64 56