The Wordsmith

By the Thunder of Brest!

Many French towns have become renowned for a culinary specialty or a typical product, while others owe their fame to a particular event. Here is a mini tour of France from Vire to Aix-en-Provence.
© Sylvie Serprix

Tonnerre de Brest ! (“By the thunder of Brest!”) First popularized by Captain Haddock, one of the lead characters in the Adventures of Tintin comic-book series, this expression certainly helped cement the reputation of the port city in the Finistère département. Yet the illustrator, Hergé, did not make it up. It seems that this saying dates back to an exceptionally large storm that occurred in Brittany in 1718. Another famous French expression with ties to a city is coup de Jarnac, or “a Jarnac blow,” inspired by the eponymous town in Charente and the birthplace of former president François Mitterrand. In common parlance, it is used to describe betrayal or treachery. However, it was first used to refer to a skillful, efficient blow delivered with a sword by a local aristocrat during a trial by combat.

Ça va faire du bruit dans Landerneau ! (“That’ll cause a stir in Landerneau!”) is an expression that describes an event that is likely to get people talking. It is taken from a play by late-18th-century Breton playwright Alexandre Duval, in which a widow from this Finistère town remarries a little too quickly for the other inhabitants’ liking. In the 19th century, Epinal, the main town in the Vosges département, was known for its printworks and brightly colored images glorifying France’s past. As these pictures portrayed an embellished – or even distorted – reality, the expression image d’Epinal has become a synonym for naivety.

However, it must be said that culinary specialties are the foundations upon which French towns and cities have built their reputations. Many of these are confectionaries, such as calissons d’Aix-en-Provence (in the Bouches-du-Rhône département), bêtises de Cambrai (Nord), grisettes de Montpellier (Hérault), Toulouse violets (Haute-Garonne), madeleines from Commercy and sugared almonds from Verdun (Meuse), aniseed candies from Flavigny (Côte-d’Or), Montélimar nougat (Drôme), bergamotes de Nancy (Meurthe-et-Moselle), pastilles de Vichy (Allier), galettes de Pont-Aven (Finistère), and biscuits roses de Reims (Marne).

From north to south and from east to west, a multitude of places champion their local desserts. Others have developed a reputation for exceptional charcuterie, such as Bayonne (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) and Paris ham, Le Mans rillettes (Sarthe), Vire andouille sausage (Calvados), Troyes andouillette sausage (Aube), pike quenelles and rosette saucisson from Lyon (Rhône), Toulouse sausage (Haute-Garonne), and other versions from Montbéliard and Morteau (both in the Doubs département).

This menu also features fruit, including Agen prunes (Lot-et-Garonne), Cavaillon melon (Vaucluse), and Grenoble walnuts (Isère), as well as spices and condiments, such as Guérande salt (Loire-Atlantique), Dijon mustard (Côte-d’Or), Cayenne pepper (French Guiana), and Espelette pepper (Pyrénées-Atlantiques). Meanwhile, many culinary preparations are named after regions or towns: Alsatian choucroute, Burgundy and Savoyard fondue, Marseille bouillabaisse, quiche Lorraine, gratin dauphinois, beef bourguignon, salade niçoise, cassoulets from Carcassonne, Castelnaudary, and Toulouse, and tripes à la mode from Caen.

But surely France is the land of wine and cheese? Believe it or not, these products are often named after towns or traditional terroirs. Think Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Alsace, Beaujolais, and Champagne (among others) for vineyard tipples, which are joined by spirits such as Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados. As for cheeses, look no further than Comté, Cantal, Roquefort, Livarot, Pont-l’Evêque, Morbier, Maroilles, and a varied collection of Brie (from Meaux, Melun, and beyond). All these names are an example of metonymy, a figure of speech and stylistic device which uses something closely related to describe a concept – here, a place of origin to refer to a product.

When looking at an economic map of France, certain cities also stand out thanks to the production of specific objects. Knives are made in Thiers (Puy-de-Dôme) and Laguiole (Aveyron); Saint-Claude and Morez (Jura) manufacture pipes and eyeglasses respectively; Limoges (Haute-Vienne) is famed for porcelain and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) for earthenware; Romans-sur-Isère (Drôme) is known for its shoes; handkerchiefs are produced in Cholet (Maine-et-Loire); and Aubusson (Creuse) is the place for tapestries. And we can’t forget Cherbourg (Manche) and its umbrellas, which shot to popularity thanks to Jacques Demy’s movie. Other towns have developed a particular know-how: Lyon is famous for being the capital of silk, while Besançon (Doubs) is specialized in watchmaking and Grasse (Alpes-Maritimes) is the nerve center of the French perfume industry.

Festivals are a more recent phenomenon that have put towns in the spotlight: Avignon (Vaucluse) for theater, Angoulême (Charente) for comic books and graphic novels, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) for photography, and Belfort (Territoire de Belfort), Bourges (Cher), Carhaix (Finistère), Clisson (Loire-Atlantique), and La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime) for music. Cannes (Alpes-Maritimes) has become the setting for an international film festival, while Deauville (Calvados) champions American cinema. Blois (Loir-et-Cher) has specialized in history, and Saint-Dié-des-Vosges hosts a global geography event.

Everyone remembers the famous quote from Charles de Gaulle: “How can anyone govern a nation with 258 different kinds of cheese?” The first president of the Fifth French Republic could have easily completed this question with wines, sausages, candies, and festivals!

Article published in the March 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.