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Olivier Roellinger still works out of the house where he grew up in Cancale, a lovely harbor town near the walled port of Saint-Malo on the western edge of Brittany.
In the main square, a statue of two oysterwomen holding straw baskets shows you what this town is all about. If you look out beyond the port, you can see the submerged metal grids where Cancale’s renowned pied-de-cheval oysters, as big as your palm, soak happily in the huge tides.
Roellinger’s Maison du Voyageur is a sober stone malouinière, the kind of stolid manor house that the local shipowners built for themselves in the 18th and 19th centuries as their boats crisscrossed the world and made them rich. Like most malouinières, it’s set back from the water—for the owners, the sea was merely the office—and almost hidden behind a wrought-iron gate at a bend in the road that leads out of town.
From his house, Roellinger rules over an enchanted little empire, although, like the house itself, you wouldn’t know it unless somebody told you. Scattered around Cancale and its outskirts are a bakery, a cooking school, a restaurant, two hotels (soon to be three) and a spice shop that is a lot more than a spice shop. Taken together, they are intended to be his own sensual hymn to the sights and smells and tastes of the town that has defined him for 59 years. As an ardent youth, Roellinger marched with the Trotskyist Breton Liberation Front. He’s still a Breton believer—he’s jettisoned the Trotsky part, he told me—but the patriotic flag that he flies now is made of local stone, seaweed and spice.
I have been coming to Cancale for decades, and I understand Roellinger’s passion. An old girlfriend’s mother grew up in Saint-Malo, where she ran a restaurant. A dear friend had a house in Cancale where I spent many lazy afternoons. I first came to Roellinger’s malouinière more than 30 years ago, shortly after he had opened Maisons de Bricourt, the restaurant that made him famous. Roellinger had won his first Michelin star by then, and I remember eating one of his signature dishes, Saint-Pierre “retour des Indes”—a preparation of John Dory fish with Cancale cabbage and his own fairy dusting of spices. He created it to celebrate what Cancale is all about. Roellinger went on to win two more stars, but since the beating, his health has always suffered. Eventually the physical grind of being in the kitchen proved too taxing. He closed Maisons de Bricourt in 2008.
As Roellinger sees it, that was the beginning of another chapter in a story that has consistently turned bad fortune into good. “It was an accident that allowed me to see that I was stuck in a narrow hallway—a hallway lined with silk tapestries, but a hallway all the same,” he says. “Suddenly I was forced to exit through the side door. It gave me a new playing field.”
A short ride down the coast is Roellinger’s hotel, Château Richeux (Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes; 33-2/99-89-64-76), with his less formal restaurant, Le Coquillage, on its main floor. Le Coquillage isn’t exactly a food truck—it has a Michelin star of its own, after all—but it engages Roellinger’s sympathies in a way his three-star gilded cage never did. “To offer the same quality for 100 euros that I offered for 300 euros is a lot more complicated, but it stimulates my passion much more, too,” he says. “Here, I can welcome les gens du pays—people from around here, people like you and me. They know our history.”
These were my lunch companions on a chilly November afternoon. The dining room has a view of the rocks and the beach below where, as a child, Roellinger burned the wrecks of old boats for the Breton fête de la Saint-Jean. The flavors of Cancale suffused every part of the meal. The bread was made with seaweed, and the butter was speckled with a pepper that Roellinger brings back from Cambodia. A spectacular carpaccio of local scallops came with a multicolored array of local beets. And, of course, Saint-Pierre “retour des Indes,” Roellinger’s edible national anthem, is still on the menu. After 30 years, it holds up just fine.
Roellinger had suggested that I meet some of the people who supply the bounties of Cancale to his kitchen, since they are bound up in everything he does. I asked him where he gets his oysters, since I never leave town without sampling some pieds-de-cheval. He steered me to Annick Prod’homme. I found her at her long shed filled with plastic tanks on a dead-end road in the woods. Prod’homme is a stocky woman of indeterminate age who might have stepped out of the oysterwomen statue on Cancale’s main square. She showed me the rubber tubes where the newborn oysters, no bigger than a speck, are collected and brought from the Charente River, where they are spawned. The English Channel is too frigid for the oysters to spawn there. Why not just leave them in the Charente? Ah, said Prod’homme with a shrug—there’s something about the saltiness of the water here, the massive tides and something else, something indefinable, like the terroir that gives character to a great wine. You can’t put your finger on it, but even oysters from the next bay down don’t taste as good as Cancale oysters do.
Prod’homme threw a few strands of seaweed on a paper plate and deftly opened half a dozen pieds-de-cheval. I’m something of an oyster purist: Even the traditional vinegar-shallot mignonette sauce is too much. Just lemon, please. But even lemon is too dandified for Prod’homme, and she pouts slightly when I ask for some. She obliged me but suggested that I taste a few straight. Whoa! The hazelnut taste of these spectacular bivalves suddenly revealed itself. The hell with lemon.
I spend the night in the Château Richeux. According to local lore, it was built in the 1920s as a private villa by a certain Madame Chaki, the mistress of Léon Blum, who was to become France’s first Jewish prime minister. But that’s not what you think of when you look up at its steep gables with their looming stone chimneys. You think Tintin, perhaps. Or Daphne du Maurier. You think romance, mystery and, as the sun dips and the shadows off the chimneys lengthen, a seductive spookiness. There are few better spots to go with a lover, preferably on a gray Breton day with the seagulls shrieking and Mont-Saint-Michel visible in the distance, rising out of the misty bay like some spiky sea creature.
The hotel has a wonderful ramshackle feeling, and not by accident. Roellinger’s English wife, Jane (whom he met while convalescing), hunted the local antique flea markets to find the lovely mismatched pieces, many of them Art Deco, that make Château Richeux feel so lived in. “The idea was to give the impression that nothing had been touched,” says Roellinger. “You open the door, and you run into Léon and Chaki. All you do is flip the light switch and life as it was before begins again.”
The following morning, I take my breakfast at Roellinger’s bakery, Grain de Vanille (12 Pl. de la Victoire), around the corner from his house in town. You won’t find a better mille-feuille, which you must remember to order in advance. My weakness, however, is the simple round disks called galettes, loaded with good Breton butter.
Next up on tour du Roellinger: cooking class at Cuisine Corsaire (Place Saint-Méen; 33-2/99-89-63-86), just across the small square from the bakery. I think I’m doing rather well with my Iberian-flavored raw clams, which include fresh red pepper and Serrano ham, but then Professor Jacques-Antoine swoops in to remove two red pepper flecks from each of my clams, telling me that each one should have no more than three so as not to be overwhelmed. I recover nicely on the poached pear. This is an explosive dessert, the pear poached with curcuma (or turmeric) and then bathed in an astonishing curry cream sauce and eaten with a brown-sugar ice cream that we also make.
Back at Maison du Voyageur—with its three-star restaurant gone—the old family house is now the staging area for Roellinger’s latest adventure. I don’t need him to tell me what it is. I know as soon as I open the front door and a blast of earthy, musky smells hits me in the nose. Some of those smells I recognize. Cinnamon and maybe vanilla? Most of them I don’t.
This is where he mixes the spice blends that help him put Cancale’s soul on a fork. Roellinger shows me a work in progress on a row of spice dishes laid out like a culinary keyboard. He is currently using it to compose Trésor Oublié, a blend dedicated to…the potato. Yup. The potato. “The potato has been the wealth of this land for 150 years. They’re our bonbons that grow by the sea,” says Roellinger, building up to the grandeur of his theme. “I’ve been working on Trésor Oublié for eight months, but it’s still missing something—it’s still a bit too…angular. It needs to be more velvety. I’m almost there.”
Attached to the house is a shop that’s marked epices- roellinger. Roellinger used to keep Maisons de Bricourt’s spices here, but then people from the village and restaurant patrons started sniffing around. Before long Roellinger was giving them little sachets to take home. “It became a boutique only because people kept pushing at the door,” says Roellinger.
Now that they’ve pushed the door open all the way, Roellinger is building the shop into a much bigger business. He recently opened Les Entrepôts Epices-Roellinger in Saint-Malo (12 Rue St.-Vincent) and Paris (51 Rue Ste.-Anne), and he’s likely to open another in London (and hopes that his lawyer daughter, who lives there, will run it).
Don’t go looking for a bottle marked “nutmeg” or “thyme.” Roellinger believes that anyone who uses spices one by one is a fool: “Whatever you do, don’t call me a spice merchant. I am a composer of spices. You wouldn’t go to a perfume store, buy some ylang-ylang, musk and vetiver, bring them home, and say, ‘Now I’m going to make myself a perfume!’
“People are saying, ‘There he is in upper Brittany with his spices. What’s that all about?’
“This house was built by spice hunters, and they brought back their treasures to its granite hearth. The globalization of the spice business started right here in the late 17th century. I work to connect these treasures to the things that grow around here and the things that live here in the sea. What I am doing,” says Roellinger gravely, “is telling the story of my native soil.”