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Le Nord-Ouest de France
In Northwestern France, Brittany and Normandy have historic ties to Great Britain through the Britons and Normans. The two former regions of Normandy were combined into one region in 2016. Though Brittany was not officially divided, two cultural identities still exist here. Each region maintains smaller administrative départements, similar to counties in the US, with an appointed préfecture, or administrative main city, like a county seat.
Northern Regions > City préfecture (Département)
♦ Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy)
- Rouen, Normandie region capital (Seine-Maritime) + Le Havre
- Évreux (Eure)
♦ Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy)
- Alençon (Orne)
- Caen (Calvados)
- Saint Lô (Manche) + Mount-Saint-Michel
♦ Haute-Bretagne (Upper Brittany)
- Rennes, Bretagne regional capital (Ille et Vilaine) + Saint-Malo, Dol-de-Bretagne
- Saint Brieuc (east Côtes d’Armor) + Josselin, Malestroit (east Morbihan)
♦ Basse-Bretagne (Lower Brittany)
- Quimper (Finistère) + Brest, Saint-Pol-de-Léon
- Vannes (west Morbihan) + Tréguier (west Côtes d’Armor)
Upper and Lower Brittany coexist with a fluid division of cultural distinctions.
French Bretagne, Breton Breizh
The region of Brittany, with the regional capital of Rennes, is a peninsula in northwestern France surrounded by waters of the North Atlantic: the Bay of Biscay, Celtic Sea, and the English Channel (French La Manche). The region’s historic cultural land includes four provinces plus Loire-Atlantique in today’s Pays de la Loire.
Before the Gallo-Roman era, this area was inhabited by five Celtic tribes during the Gallic era. Its heritage as “Little Britain” is connected to Great Britain when the Bretons from Wales and western England settled here in the 5th century. Unified for a time as a single kingdom in the 9th century, Bretagne became a Duchy under the Kingdom of France in the 10th century but was divided in 1790 after the Revolution into five departments, including Loire-Atlantique in today’s Pays de la Loire region.
Diminished by the dominance of French, locals work to preserve regional subcultures and dialects: Breton language (Celtic) in the western half (roughly Basse-Bretagne including the western part of Côtes d’Armor province), Gallo language (langue d’oil, like French) in the eastern half (roughly Haute-Bretagne including Loire-Atlantique).
Two types of thin pancakes were developed in the 13th century: crêpes (sweet with wheat flour from Lower Brittany) and galettes (savory with buckwheat flour from Upper Brittany) like Galette-saucisse (galette-wrapped sausages), not to be confused with the round biscuit- or cake-like galettes from Lower Brittany. The traditional drink is Breton hard cider, made from various apple varieties from aroung the region, and served in bowls or cups; beer-brewing also has a long-standing tradition.
Kig ha farz is a stew of meat and buckwheat dumplings. Andouille de Guéméné sausage is a regional specialty product. Poulet au cidre is a chicken dish made with local produce such as Volailles de Janzé poultry, apples, onions, hard cider, butter, cream, and nutmeg. Saint-Paulin is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese.
The region’s abundant fish and seafood include Belon oysters, Moules de Bouchot mussels from Ille-et-Vilaine; Coquille Saint-Jacques is a regional scallop dish from Saint Brieuc in Côtes-d’Armor; Cotriade is a traditional stew using oily fish. Sweet Breton Kouign-Amann pastries are baked with butter and sugar and bread dough or puff pastry. Far Breton custard flan cake, is a specialty of Brittany made with milk, eggs, flour, prunes, and raisins.
Several megaliths, large stones, from ancient burial and worship sites of menhirs (standing stones) and dolmens (stone tables) are found throughout Brittany such as those in Carnac.
Today’s region of Normandy combines the former regions of Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie. The Channel Islands (mostly British Crown Dependencies) are geographically and historically part of Normandy. Rouen is the regional capital in Seine-Maritime department of Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy).
Originally inhabited by invading Celtic Gauls then Romans who became the Gallo-Romans, then Germanic Saxons and Franks, and finally the Scandinavian Norsemen (“Northmen”), Vikings. Dating back to the 10th century, Viking leader Rolo formed the Duchy of Normandy when he signed a treaty with the Frankish King Charles III (“Charles the Fat,’ great-grandson of Charlemagne), creating the Norman civilization of intermingled Norse Vikings, Germanic Franks, and Gallo-Romans.
Rolo’s descendants became Dukes of Normandy, including William the Conqueror who conquered England in 1066 to become William I, the first Norman king of England. Normand dialects are still spoken today by some mainly in Lower Normandy and in the Channel Islands.
All of Normandy is known for seafood, orchards, and dairy farms. Tarte Normande, Norman apple tart, uses Calville Blanc apples and hard cider served with crème fraiche. Kir Normande is a regional kir drink that combines crème de cassis, Calvados brandy, and Normandy cider (instead of wine).
Haute-Normande is particularly known for oysters, scallops, apples, and soft cow’s milk cheese. Mère Poulard omelets have been cooked on their open fire since 1879 on Mont-Saint-Michel. Creamy cheeses from Upper Normandy include Pont l’Evêque, Livarot, and Camembert de Normandie, the region’s most iconic cheese known for its pungent aroma and gooey interior; similar Neufchâtel-en-Bray is thought to be France’s oldest-known cheese; St. André is a triple-crème cow’s milk cheese. Seafood specialties include: Marmite Dieppoise, a fish stew; Hareng Saur, smoked herring; Moules à la Crème Normande, mussels cooked with white wine, cider, garlic and cream.
Basse-Normande produces Isigny Creme Fraiche, Poireaux de Créances leeks, and Prés-salés du Mont-Saint-Michel, which are young lamb slaughtered before 12 months of age. Lower Normandy is also known for apples, pears, and seafood, mussels in particular. Calvados is a brandy made from apples (some mixed with pears). Among the fish and seafood abundant along the English Channel, specialties include Moules à la Crème Normande are mussels (especially local Moules de Bouchot mussels) cooked with white wine, cider, garlic, and cream; Sole à la Normande is fillet of sole in a creamy mushroom-wine sauce, often with shellfish. Andouille de Vire sausage. Tripes à la Mode de Caen, an offal casserole of tripe cooked in cider and Calvados, dates back to the Middle Ages. Caramels au beurre d’Isigny are salted butter caramels.
Lower Normandy is especially well-known for Mont-Saint-Michel in Manche, an island monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site. The region’s white cliffs along its shores are like those of Dover in England. Important history lessons experienced at the D-Day beaches in Calvados and Manche, the seaborne landing operations of World War II, which initiated the liberation of France and western Allied victory. In Upper Normandy, just beyond Paris and the Île-de-France is Giverny in Eure, best known for the home and garden of master impressionist painter Claude Monet.