Seaweed beer, seaweed in your dinner, seaweed on your skin. Renata Rubnikowicz visits Finistere, where no part of the prized harvest goes to waste
Today's fast-multiplying air, sea and train connections make it feasible to nip over to France for a couple of great meals. Finist re in north-west Brittany, with its excellent restaurants and hotels, many of which seem to dip their toes in the sea, is also somewhat perversely offering visitors a chance to discover its E numbers. Fortunately, Es 401-407 are not the cardinal nasties that pep up fast food (Bretons have never been known to compromise their excellent cooking), but natural Es from the sea.
Derived from the seaweed that has been gathered along the coast of Finist re for centuries and once used only as fertiliser and to make iodine, these Es are now used to thicken yoghurt and ice cream and as an ingredient in cosmetics. Visitors who take a short flight to Brest or who veer off the traditional British family route of ferry to Roscoff and on to Brittany's southern beaches, will find that a detour along the seaweed trail through Finist re opens up a fascinating and historic landscape.
France's far west has a wild, rocky coast, riven with abers or fjords, and guarded by red and white striped lighthouses that look out over a sea that stretches clear across to Newfoundland. Inland, fields of purple artichokes stand ready under a big sky to be dashed to market via Brittany Ferries (the company was created to speed vegetables to faraway plates; passengers are a sideline), while stone churches with knobbly spires seem to carry echoes of a pagan past.
Non-drivers should find it easy to get around on buses or bikes, while walkers following the coastal footpath through Meneham will discover behind the dunes an atmospheric stone village, once home to seaweed harvesters. By next year this will have been converted into a craft centre and BB.
Historic fishing ports such as Le Conquet offer sandy beaches and shops, while Oceanopolis in Brest is the ideal retreat if the weather gets too wet or windy; as well as sharks and other denizens of the deep, it is home to a posse of penguins ready to march.
In Roscoff, where the sea crashes up the narrow stone alleys between buildings, France's oldest thalassotherapy spa, the Rockroum Institute founded in 1899, is the real deal. Here, after your cellulite has been sternly smacked by a salt water cannon, you may be prescribed seaweed baths that smell like a barnacled boat's bottom, but leave your skin as soft as a mermaid's.
There are more beautifying agents at Algoplus, a seaweed factory on the other side of town, which sells toiletries and foodstuffs; everything from bath salts to jars of haricots verts marins is a product of the sea.
Further west, a museum in the small community of Plougerneau dedicated to the history of the goemoniers, as the seaweed collectors are called, is a testament to the hardy character of the people of Finist re. Every summer, the older inhabitants of the town recreate an old-style seaweed harvest. Each traditional boat that rows or sails up to five kilometres offshore in the Mer d'Iroise collects up to one and a half tonnes of wet seaweed, which is unloaded with the help of broad-beamed Breton postier horses. I met Madame Valentine Le Pors on a hill overlooking the sea, where she was demonstrating the old-fashioned method of drying then burning the seaweed in trenches for a day and a night until it forms a heavy black cake of ash. As a child she had to tend the fire carefully "so the wind would not take the iodine". She still remembers how stiff the gluey wet seaweed made her clothes.
Today, the village of Lanildut, not far away on the Aber Ildut, has revived the trade originally regulated by Louis XIV and once plied from Genoa to St Petersburg; it is now Europe's premier seaweed port. Former rear-admiral, now town councillor, Jean-Yves Nerzic is one of the driving forces promoting the sea harvest, which his neighbours collect using modern "scoubidous", or giant corkscrew gadgets. If you bump into him he'll urge you to try locally produced monkfish livers, the "foie gras of the sea", or perhaps the traditional delicacy of seaweed boiled in milk.
Even the brewers of Finist re have risen to the seaweed challenge. In the real-ale bar of the Brasserie des Abers, in L'Aber Wrac'h, the landlord will happily sell you a selection of bottles for a comparative tasting. Local chefs are so impressed they are using beer flavoured with seaweed in their recipes. It tastes much, much better than you might imagine.
More information: www.finisteretourism.com.Flybe (www.flybe.com) flies direct to Brest from Birmingham all year round, and from Exeter and Southampton to Brest from April. Next week: 32 pages on school travel, including the Languedoc, in Going Places, free with The TES
A HOME FOR MIFFY
Miffy, a little white rabbit, first took shape under the hand of the Dutch artist Dick Bruna more than 50 years ago. She grew into a worldwide picture book phenomenon and a heroine for two to six-year-olds everywhere. Since 1955, Bruna's books have appeared in more than 40 languages and have sold more than 85 million copies, and at the age of 78, he is still living and working in Utrecht.
Now miffy and her companions will have a permanent home outside the covers of Bruna's books. On February 18, a new museum showcasing Bruna's work opens in Utrecht, half an hour from Amsterdam. Fashionably lower case, dick bruna huis, a home for miffy, forms part of the Centraal Museum, the oldest municipal museum in the Netherlands. The city is worth more than a day trip, with a whole museum quarter to visit, a 6th-century Dom tower and canalside cafes, restaurants and hotels.
Dick bruna huis, Agnietenstraat 2, opposite Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 00 31 30 2362 361, (from February 18, 00 31 30 2362 392), www.dickbrunahuis.nl (under construction), www.centraalmuseum.nl