Home About Writing Books Services contact

Hit Counter

Wendy Mewes writing about Brittany

Douarnenez – sardines, communists and butter-cake

‘…le Naples Breton…’

Max Jacob

The wide Bay of Douarnenez on the Atlantic coast is the most favoured location for one of Brittany’s seminal stories, the destruction of the city of Ys. It was also the scene of the arrival of St-Ronan, skimming along on his stone boat amongst the fishing craft, before being driven inland by angry natives to the settlement now bearing his name, Locronan. The locals did not appreciate his action in causing a great light to shine on the coast to put an end to the evil habits of wreckers. The prickly and awkward Ronan, like many other Breton saints, often had trouble getting along with folk.

He picked a good spot, however. This shallow bay stretches for over 20kms, between the more rugged arms of the Crozon peninsula and Cap Sizun, softly edged by rounded hills and low cliffs. The height of Menez Hom looms to the north, marking the end of the Montagnes Noires. This adds to the rich religious mythology of the area: the height was once a pagan pinnacle. King Marc’h, who had horse’s ears, was said to be buried there and an apparently Celticised statue of Minerva, transformed into the goddess Brigitte and dating from the 1st century AD was unearthed in 1913.

By contrast one of the haut lieu of Breton Catholicism in Brittany also borders this bay. The shrine of Ste-Anne-la-Palud still attracts many thousands for the Pardon on the last weekend of August. Legend holds that Ste-Anne, female patron saint of Brittany and mother of Mary, whose role in the story of Jesus is relayed in the Apocrypha, came from Brittany and went to the Holy Land to escape an abusive marriage. Later in life, she returned to visit her native shores at this spot – some say with her grandson in tow. A canticle sung at the festival includes the words:

Mirit tud an Arvor

War zouar ha war vor

Protect your Breton people

On sea and on land

The town of Douarnenez, folded unobtrusively into the southern rim of the bay, was an important fishing settlement at least as long ago as the Roman period. At the northern tip of the town lies the green strip of idyllic calm known as the Plomarc’h which retains the rather fine (restored) remains of a Roman fish-sauce factory, the pungent garum made from rotting entrails, a most desirable condiment shipped all over the empire. The oily sardine was perhaps ideal for this purpose and this shimmery little fish has continued its significance in the history of the town right up to the present day. The chapel of St-Helene above the port of Rosmeur has an unusual carving high up on the street façade: a diving fou de bassan (northern gannet) looks set to beat the little fishing-boat to a shoal of sardines. Indeed, the epithet Penn sardin (sardine head) was given mainly to the female workers who processed the catch in the canning factories that gave the town its prosperity in the 19th century. The firm of Chancerelle, established in the town in 1853, is still functioning at the time of writing. By 1880 there were 40 similar establishments providing significant employment for the local population. During that century the number of inhabitants rose from less than 1500 to 11,500, a sign of the success of the fishing industry and its associated processes.

Douarnenez, like Concarneau on the south coast, was highly dependent on its annual sardine catch. The shoals arrived in early summer to feast on the rich plankton of the bay, the shallowness of the water compacting the fish in a mass which boosted the volume of the catch. When the sardine suddenly deserted the Breton coast in 1902, it was a social and economic catastrophe, bringing incredible hardship to all those whose living was directly or indirectly linked to the trade. In Concarneau, which suffered a similar trauma, the first Filets bleus festival in 1905 was set up with the aim of raising funds and support for the fishermen and their families. In Douarnenez social support was also forthcoming, but the fishermen were forced to adapt to survive, chasing mackerel and deep-sea fish like tuna further afield or even langoustine off the coast of Africa. Those who got rich from the latter were locally referred to as ‘Maurentanians’ who built large showy houses and whose wives put on airs.

Douarnenez has a history of radical socio-political action, much of it stemming from its role as a major sardine port. The factory owners were reaping great profits from the processing and conserving industry, derived from the gruelling work, mainly of women, in poor conditions with minimal pay. Girls went into the factories as young as 10, and up to 18 hours a day of labour was expected in high season. Little wonder they sang together at their work to alleviate the toil. Pay was according to the number of sardines processed, an unsatisfactory system given it was not the workers themselves who assessed their achievement. A strike in 1905 – the women sported red flags – was initially successful in gaining hourly rates, but relations between management and staff were poor.

The rise of socialism in the early 20th century highlighting inequalities and injustices in the workplace sprang from just such situations. In Douarnenez a socialist triumph at the polls in 1919 was followed by the first communist municipal success for the party of Sébastien Velley two years later. When he died soon after Daniel Le Flanchec took over the mantle and his support was invaluable to the women at the Carnaud factory who took strike action in 1924, soon followed by other factory-workers. Their slogan was Pemp real a vo – it will be 1.25 francs (the hourly rate they demanded). This time the cannery bosses played hard-ball, calling in notorious strike-breaker Léon Raynier.

The mounting tension in the port was followed all over France, publicity stirred by the communist press, and the enforced new perception of a traditional rural society like western Brittany now immersed in ‘Zola-ism’ – the struggle of the proletariat. As the months dragged on, families left without any income were hard-pressed to survive but they went on in the face of ruthless tactics of the owners determined to ride roughshod over the women on whose work their wealth was founded. Matters came to a violent height when Le Flanchec and his nephew were fired on and wounded when at a café with friends during New Year celebrations. The mayor survived but the outrage that followed the attack led to a speedy settlement of the dispute in the workers’ favour. One woman at the forefront of this struggle, Josephine Pencalet, was named on the mayor’s list for the elections of 1925. Her success at the polls was symbolic: at that time women were ineligible for the vote, never mind standing for election, and her political post was declared invalid.

There is even a genre of tales - les histories des Douarnenistes - that illustrates the town’s strong personality, such as the duality of strong Catholic faith and radical politics. These may need to be savoured, like the sardine, with a large pinch of salt, but nevertheless offer an insight into the essential character of Douarnenez. There’s the man who wanted to name his boat A bas la calotte, an anti-clerical slogan – ‘Down with the skull-cap’ (worn by priests) - frequently chanted during political demonstrations. His devout wife says she will leave him and go back to her mother’s house if he does such a thing. He asks if he may name the boat after their children instead. His wife is delighted. So the boat is named the Louise Michel – which just happens to be the name of a 19th century French feminist anarchist and militant. Imagine the bishop’s reaction at the annual blessing of boats … It was naming a street in the town after her which got Sébastien Velly deprived of his position.

Today Douarnenez comprises three ports: the fishing harbour of Rosmeur, Port Rhu where an important boat museum is located, and Tréboul, once a quiet coastal, village, now the mecca for pleasure craft. Just off-shore at the mouth of the estuary which leads past the museum to the medieval harbour Pouldavid, the Ile Tristan may in fact have been the site of the original settlement, as the name of the town means ‘land of the island.’ Associations with the Tristan of Arthurian cycle fame are unlikely, as earlier versions of the name like Tutual seem to be derived from St-Tugdual, one of the founding saints of Brittany, and the little island was once farmed by monks from the monastery at Marmoutier. In fact it has seen many changes of experience over the centuries, being fortified at various times, the site of a fish-processing factory in the 19th century, and given a light-house in 1845.

In 1595 the island was the stronghold of the notorious young noble brigand Guy Eder de la Fontenelle. With his ruthless band of about 400 men, he was the scourge of many areas of western Brittany during the Wars of the League, taking advantage of the unsettled times for personal mayhem, renowned for his swift, savage raids – such as at Penmarc’h (see page xx) and Pont-Croix - pillaging and burning whole settlements as he went. A contemporary Chanoine Jean Moreau described him as ‘Christian in name and infidel in effect … a perjurer and traitor.’  A large force of peasants tried to dislodge him from Ile Tristan but a thousand are said to have lost their lives in the showdown at Kerlaz.

In many ways La Fontenelle personified the bold and violent times, cutting a colourful figure in oral tradition in later years, especially courtesy of what passes for the ‘romantic’ side of his life. La Villemarqué and Luzel both record songs relating to the snatching of a young noble-woman aged 12 (some say 7) to be his bride. Married at 14, Marie de Chévoir was apparently devoted to her wild husband and a son was born before La Fontenelle was finally captured, accused of conspiring with the Spanish (who had supported the Catholic cause in the wars of religion). Marie went to Paris to plead to the king for La Fontenelle’s freedom but he had already been broken on the wheel as a traitor. According to popular tradition, she died of a broken-heart within the year.

The coastal scenery and activity around Douarnenez inspired many artists. Eugène Boudin described the landscape as ‘the object of my dreams’ and wished he had discovered the area earlier. Max Jacob (see page xxx) and his friend the young British painter Kit Wood spent two summers here just before the latter’s death back in England in 1930. Wood had entered the Parisian scene and the world of opium through a meeting with Jean Cocteau, which led to other influential figures like Jacob and Picasso. In his works inspired by those Breton visits he manages to get beyond the romanticised cliché to a natural appreciation of the slow, rhythmic scenes of life on the littoral, even if the heaviness of portrayal hints at a certain sadness behind the observation. In Douarnenez his subjects reflect those self-contained maritime routines: a fisherman with his nets, the church at Tréboul, the building of a boat – with a hint of coffin about it - yet with odd twists: a woman in traditional dress and coiffe carrying timber or naked sunbathers beside some artfully arranged lobster baskets. Wood returned to England as his problems with drugs increased. Accidentally or by intention, he fell under a train on Salisbury station in August 1930.

Douarnenez was also a place of less direct inspiration for the surrealist painter, the mad-haired Yves Tanguy (1900-1955). Born in Paris to Breton parents, he spent much time during his childhood around the Bay of Douarnenez, his mother having a house in Locronan. Through acquaintance with André Breton, doyen of Parisian surrealists, Tanguy began a commitment to life as an artist. He frequently spent his vacations in this area in the 1920s with his first wife Jeanne Ducrocq and friends like Pierre Matisse, son of Henri, and influence of the landscape may be discerned even in this most elusive of painters. André Cariou, former curator of Quimper’s Musée des Beaux Arts, described his work as ‘le reflet d’une Bretage interiorise.’

Tanguy never explained or offered an analysis of his own work and even asked friends to come up with titles for his paintings, a strange obfuscation. It is clear, however, that the tidal shore inspired many canvases, that expandable boundary between land and sea. Shadowy beaches peopled by bizarre objects recede into the murky horizon. One or two scenes also seem to suggest tidal waves and a sense of lingering menace on these fantasised shores, relevant to the local mythology of Douarnenez, but to look for coherence or ‘meaning’ is perhaps a futile game.

Tanguy’s second marriage was to the American artist Kay Sage, and he took dual American nationality in 1948. He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1955, and after organising and cataloguing the collection of her husband’s work, his wife shot herself. In 1964 lifelong friend Pierre Matisse scattered their ashes – according to their wishes – in the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez.

Douarnenez is not all sardines and surrealism. The Breton butter-cake kouign amann, is said to have been invented by a local baker named Yves-René Scordia in about 1860. The method involves extensive folding of dough with sugar and butter slathered between the layers each time to produce a flaky cake crusty on the outside and softly succulent within. The number of calories may be obscene, but sometimes one must be prepared to suffer for authentic local experience.

Here’s a recipe:

400gr flour  10g yeast

400gr butter  25cl warm water

350gr sugar

Develop yeast in the water for 10 minutes. Then mix into flour to form dough. Rest it for 30mins.

Roll out into rectangle. Spread with softened butter almost up to edges and cover with sugar.

Fold over four times, then rest it for 20mins.

Turn I/4 and fold three times. Rest 20 mins.

Repeat. Rest 20mins.

Bake in buttered cake tin for 40 mins at 200°.

© Wendy Mewes  -  all text and photos on this website are protected by copyright