17 July 2009
The Sweet Escape
I’ve been coming to La Baule for 7 years now. It’s a beautiful seaside resort on the West Coast of France, also known as the Cote d’Amour or Love Coast. I first visited the summer that my husband’s grandfather died. He had lived long enough to learn of our pregnancy but sadly not to meet his great grandson who carries his name, Jacques, as a middle name. It was a bittersweet trip as it was Jacques who originally came to La Baule in the ’60’s and made it into a summertime tradition for the family.
It was early July and my husband and I should have been toiling away in our respective cubicles caught up in the rat race that was our lives in New York. Instead, in the days following Jacques’ funeral, we found ourselves spending leisurely afternoons strolling the beach, daydreaming about the summers to come and the child we would soon be bringing into this world. When we travel, my husband and I tend to spend a lot of time posing various “what if?”questions that have been the jumping-off point for many life-altering decisions.
It was on one of those lazy days of summer that we first discussed the idea of moving to France; after 10 years in the US, my husband was itching for a change of pace. Shortly after we returned to NY from this trip, we (on a lark) ran a “for sale” ad about our apartment in the Sunday NY Times and the rest is history. But I digress.
Guerande is one of the neighboring towns to La Baule. It is world-famous for its salt mines, and many local specialties, savory and sweet, are made with “fleur de sel” including the caramel au beurre salé which flavors a multitude of desserts like crepes, gauffres (Belgian waffles), bonbons and ice cream. The most well-known pastry of this region is the Brittany Kouign Aman which means literally “butter cake. “ There is no way to describe a Kouign Aman and do it justice; you simply must try one for yourself. It’s a mixture of hard and chewy pastry; salty, sweet and caramel glazed, buttery goodness. It’s one of the main reasons that we come back to La Baule every summer…seriously!
So, where to get the best Kouign Aman and other luscious caramel treats in La Baule? Lucky for you I have done my research. It’s been a tough job but I am happy to share the fruits of my labor. Without further ado, I present to you: The Best of La Baule-Escoublac – an itinerary in caramel…..
I’ve shopped around and can honestly say the best Kouign Aman I’ve eaten is at the Boulangerie Clérault on the Place du Marché. It’s buttery without being overly greasy, and they have the perfect ratio of caramel to pastry – I hate when bakeries skimp on the caramel! The Maison Larnicol on Avenue de Gaulle is a new contender this summer for Kouign Aman. We’ve only tried a few of their varieties, but were pleasantly surprised by their kouignettes (mini kouign amans) that come in such exotic flavors as pistachio, apricot, raspberry and nature.
Bar none, the baguettes Retro at Le Grenier a Pain on avenue Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny are the best in town (they also do a fantastic olive fougasse). When there, I always pick up a sachet of their mini beignets – small, sugar-dusted donuts filled with either raspberry jelly, melted chocolate or caramel au beurre sale (obviously my personal favorite!).
Belgian waffles, called gauffres, are a dessert that the French have appropriated at many of their seaside resorts and La Baule is no exception. For a mind-blowing caramel experience, stop in for a gauffre au caramel at L’Igloo on de Gaulle (they also boast over 110+ flavors of ice cream including Whiskey and Coke, Tomato, Rhubarb and Smurf). Don’t like caramel (what’s wrong with you???)? Never fear, you can also ask for your gauffre with white, milk or dark chocolate chips, Nutella, crème Chantilly, lemon curd, strawberry jam and a variety of other tasty toppings. Be sure to check out their gauffre iron – a rotating waffle maker that cooks 12 gauffres at a time (pictured above)!
Of course a trip to the beach would not be complete without a stop for ice cream. La Baule got its first gelateria, Gelateria Verdi on Blvd. Hennecart a few summers back. Bypass their Crème Caramel gelato and go straight for the Caramel au Beurre Sale instead. I literally need to cross the street away from this place when I walk by to avoid going in…it’s that good! A special mention goes to La Fraisiere on de Gaulle which serves traditional ice cream and soft serve. Their swirled Caramel au Beurre Salé/Fraise-Framboise soft serve is tart, milky, soul-satisfying and delicious!
Brittany is known for its crepes – the savory variety is really called a galette and the sweet is a crepe; we usually don’t differentiate between the two in the US. Ar Poul Gwen (which refers to the neighboring town Le Pouligen, in Brittanese) on de Gaulle is IMHO the best creperie in town. Their open kitchen affords customers a view of the art of crepe-making in action and it really is a beautiful sight. Their crepe au caramel is a warm, drippy, gooey affair that will leave you licking your fingers and looking for more.
Macarons are a French dessert staple. You’ll find several exotic varieties at Phillipe Rousell, a chocolatier on Allee des Camelias, or at Chatellier or Maison Larnicol on de Gaulle. Caramel au beurre salé macarons are an obligatory standard here in La Baule.
Finally, one of the oldest candy-makers on the beach, Manuel on Blvd. Hennecart offers a large assortment of hand-made candies and desserts; it’s a one-stop shopping temple for anything sweet. Our favorite there is a taffy lollipop called a niniche. It’s a wonder to see them make it with special machines used to stretch, drag, loop and cut the taffy. They offer about 18 varieties daily including the CaraManuel which is…you guessed it…made with caramel au beurre salé. A word of caution to those with expensive dental work – you may want to skip these and go directly to their ice cream bar!
I always come back from La Baule with caramel treats for friends and family. You can buy jars of spreadable caramel au beurre salé or chewy caramel candies at many of the local supermarkets and gift stores like Marché Plus and la Trinitaine in La Baule, Carrefour Market in Guerande, and the Biscuiterie des Marais in Guerande, Pornichet and Pornic.
La Baule-Escoublac is approximately 5 hours from Paris by car and 3 hours on the TGV.