Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real. – Jules Verne
He placed his index finger on the map spread out on the table in front of me and traced a careful line from the northern coast just below where land meets Channel south to La Rochelle. He wanted to be closer to the ocean in a greener, quieter place than mad Paris and her lonely, dark suburbs. Closer to the ocean so this city boy born and bred could spend weekend mornings with his toes buried in the sand watching the waves crash up onto the beach, something that soothes and calms him. He wanted to bring us to a friendlier place, grounded and comfortable, better for the boys yet somewhere modern and innovative where we, too, could have a productive life. We were starting over, leaving it all behind, job, home, friends, schoolmates and heading west. A new start, a new life.
We did our research. It had to be right. We looked high and low, studying each and every city along the coast, listening for the one that was calling our name, for we, untethered by family or history, had only ourselves to please. And then we stumbled upon Nantes. Oh, husband had been there many times, but had never thought of it in terms of a place to rest his head and raise his family. But it had everything we desired: a city small enough to be friendly and green yet large enough, resourceful enough, innovative enough to be our hope for the future.
The year was 2003, and we needed a change from bad jobs and worse schools, isolation and boredom. People often wonder at how we have transitioned from one old life to another, why and how we made these decisions, and wonder as well at our resilience and courage (or chutzpah). Ours began with a distinct feeling of discontent and a map spread across the dining room table and, with just a handful of information and a list of criteria we took the leap, a leap of faith. Nantes was a splendid city bathed in sunshine and a temperate climate, the Loire River coursing through her center, an artery, a source of life. Nantes still buzzed with the ancient passions of Brittany while humming with a vibrant modernity. One single visit and we fell in love. The choice was as simple as that.
12 years of our lives were spent in this bright, calm, warm city. Seemingly discreet, tranquil and placid, little by little we scratched away her delicate veneer to discover a fascinating and energetic city.
Nantes is a city of history, a city that reflected my husband and I to a tee, a city reveling in – and embracing – her tumultuous past, her history, while carving her own future out of earth, limestone, exotic wood, water, and daring. Her marketplace and monuments breathe France and her traditions, yet innovation has always been a sure sign of her personality. Henri IV selected Nantes to be the signature city of his famous Edict in 1598, an order of tolerance and religious freedom; former capital of Brittany, Nantes was the home of Anne de Bretagne, Duchess of Brittany, married to two Kings of France yet a woman who managed to keep power and control of her duchy firmly in her own hands and then her daughter’s while assuring its future unification with France. Nantes was the birthplace of such forward-thinking, socially innovative yet traditional industries as LU, the world famous cookie factory and was the city of the first public transport system in the world with the creation of public omnibuses and the first city in France to have a public tramway system.
Like all French cities, the light and dark clash, a never-ending struggle in the history books; her valiant resistance during the French Revolution or the World Wars stands elbow to elbow with her turbulent role in the Commerce Triangulaire, the Slave Trade. Once one of Europe’s richest, most important port cities, she built her fame and fortune on this trade of men for goods, vanilla and spices, tobacco and rum, sugar and orange flower water, and her shipping magnates and their city both became very wealthy indeed.
Only the shadow of those former dark times whisper to us from her streets, the heartbeats and tears of how many men and women held captive pulsing up through the sidewalks where wealthy merchants sauntered, ghostly water lapping up against the sides of ships where captains once shouted orders, and goods were unloaded onto the bustling, crowded quays. The streets we walked over were once this river, now sand and asphalt and tar, filled in and paved over in an effort to forget. The sidewalks still groan under the weight of the majestic white apartment buildings, elegant swirls of dark ironwork against the pure, snowy white stone, homes now buckling under the weight of time, the same once built for those proud merchants in the Glory Years of the 19th Century, apartments still paneled in wood, ceilings graced by rosaces and French windows overlooking what was once their river, luxurious buildings from which, day after day, they would step out of right into the river from which their wealth flowed.
These old buildings, still elegant and proud, reminders of her turbulent past, stand side by side new, gorgeous, contemporary buildings, signs of her future, all iron, wood, glass and cement, astonishing in their colors, silver, blue, orange, black & white, buildings that twist and turn and bend at odd angles, buildings that curve gracefully, buildings that incorporate the old and the new, buildings sprinkled higgledy-piggledy all over this modern town that we grew to love so well. Gardens bloom throughout the city, Japanese gardens on the Ile de Versailles, exotic gardens built under the graceful metal vaults of former smelting works on the Ile de Nantes or sprouting from iron, cement and steel of what was once the city’s shipyard, reborn. Streets bustle with activity, restaurants and cafés spill out into the streets, tables packed with locals chattering, laughing, dining or sipping drinks. Strange giants stroll the city, reminiscent of Jules Verne’s futuristic novels, uncanny and unexpected works of art stop you in your tracks and inspire conversation. Art, film, and music festivals are interspersed with political and social demonstrations, offering a never-ending display of the versatility of France and of Nantes.
We ourselves lived 12 turbulent years in Nantes defined by sickness and death and aging parents, a son’s stormy adolescence, agitated working situations, yet we also found a calm and an enlightenment during that time. The tranquility and beauty of Nantes and the surrounding vineyards, ocean, landscape soothed, the joy of the city nurtured and helped us turn towards and define our own future. We went in looking for a bright, new adventure and came out the other end well on our road to a new destination.
The food of Nantes also captured our attention and the spirit of this place. As for all of the rest, the locally grown, bred, and fished products are a stunning blend of tradition and modernity and have been inspiring cooks for centuries. The delicate products of her terroir, river fish, oysters, asparagus, strawberries, carrots, and lamb’s lettuce, turnips and tomatoes, all call for delicate preparation, the perfect pairing for the local white Muscadet wines. And the 3 local delicacies, gâteau nantais, Nantes’ cake, fried bottereaux donuts for carnival, and the fouace nantaise, the name for both a brioche-style bread and a more traditional loaf, are infused with 2 ingredients now linked indelibly with this ancient port city, rum and orange flower water.
My own version of la Fouace Nantaise, the Nantes’ fougasse, is a brioche-type bread, gently sweetened, redolent of rum with a faint hint of orange, and shaped like a macaron or a 6-armed star. This butter and egg rich treat was created in the 19th century in the neighboring town of La Haye-Fouassière (“fouassière” comes from the word “fouasse” or “fouace”: “fougasse”), a town nestled in Muscadet country amid the vines and wine producers. The fouace was traditionally dunked in the local wine and now takes pride of place at the annual fête des vendanges, the yearly grape harvest festival where it is accompanied, of course, by a glass of Muscadet.
In researching this very old recipe, I gathered about 5 different versions of it, including a sketchy one from my Larousse Gastronomique and a few from sites listing the gastronomic specialties of Nantes. Each one was just too different from the next in either ingredient quantities or procedure that, relying on my intuitive nature and using my bread baking skills finely honed over many years of trial and error, I came up with this recipe and it worked like magic! My fouace nantaise is light yet tender and slightly dense and chewy like the perfect brioche. It is incredibly delicate, barely sweet, so feel free to increase the sugar by 1/4 a cup and add the zest of an orange or 2 for a more pronounced orange scent. As for any brioche, the fouace is best eaten fresh the day it is baked, but it will remain moist and delicious for 2 or 3 days. Use any leftover fouace for wonderful pain perdu (French toast, of course) or a decadent bread pudding. Enjoy!
I had originally planned on this wonderful old recipe to be included in my Oranges cookbook, but decided at the last minute not. And so Elizabeth Morris, an enthusiastic recipe tester for the book, asked if she could use my recipe for January Bread Baking Babes’ challenge and I said “yes!” Visit Elizabeth’s Blog from OUR Kitchen to discover not only her version of the recipe but the rules for how you can be a Bread Baking Buddy by making and blogging about the Fouace Nantaise before the end of January.
And visit all of the Bread Baking Babes and check out their versions of this month’s recipe:
Blog from OUR Kitchen – Elizabeth
A Messy Kitchen – Kelly
Bake My Day – Karen
Bread Experience – Cathy
Feeding My Enthusiasms – Elle
Judy’s Gross Eats – Judy
Karen’s Kitchen Stories – Karen
My Kitchen in Half Cups – Tanna
Notitie Van Lien – Lien
Thyme for Cooking – Katie
- 1 pound (500 grams) flour, divided, plus more for kneading
- 2¼ teaspoons (8 grams) active dry yeast
- ½ cup (115 ml) milk, warmed to body temperature
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup (50 grams) sugar
- 7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 1 small juice or wine glass of rum, about 3 ounces (90 ml)
- 1 tablespoon fleur d’oranger (orange flower or orange blossom water)
- 4 eggs, preferably at room temperature, lightly beaten
- 1 additional egg for egg wash, lightly beaten
- Place 1 cup (130 grams) of the flour in a small-to-medium-sized mixing bowl with the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Add the warm milk and stir briefly just to wet all of the dry ingredients. Allow to proof for 30 – 40 minutes or until almost doubled in size, puffy and bubbly.
- While the yeast mixture is proofing, place the rest of the flour into a large mixing bowl with the salt, the remaining sugar, the softened butter, the glass of rum, the orange flower water, and the 4 lightly beaten eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon until all of the dry ingredients have been moistened and the mixture is well blended.
- Add the proofed yeast mixture and stir the together until well blended. It will be very sticky.
- Scrape the dough onto a very well floured work surface. Knead the dough vigorously for about 6 minutes, adding more flour as needed, until the butter and the yeast mixture are well incorporated and the dough is no longer sticky; you should have a soft, smooth, elastic, and homogenous dough.
- Divide the dough into 7 equal portions (I use a scale); form each portion into a smooth ball.
- Place one in the center of a large, parchment-lined baking sheet/cookie tray. Place the other balls of dough around the outside of the center ball to form a "star" shape making sure that the outer ring of dough balls touch the center ball.
- Cover the fouace lightly with a piece of plastic wrap then a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
- Brush the dough with the beaten egg and bake for 30 - 40 minutes until risen and a lovely, deep golden brown. The “branches” of the star may have just started to pull away from the center ball of brioche.