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Cider, crêpes and monuments: What fuels the Normandy-Brittany rivalry?

We take a look at the tension between the two neighbouring French regions

Food and one of France’s most-visited monuments fuel the rivalry between Brittany and Normandy Pic: ivan bastien / photosimysia / makasana photo / margouillat photo / Shutterstock

It is a French rivalry that has stood the test of time.

From wars to which region is home to one of France’s most popular monuments, Brittany and Normandy have long been at each other’s throats.

Even if these days the conflict might be more jovial, it is still omnipresent.

On Monday (June 12), Normands broke the Guinness World Record for the longest human caterpillar, as Rouen, the capital of Normandy, hosted a special sailing ship festival.

Why, you might ask, did they bother? In a word, rivalry. A little over a year ago, Bretons had broken the record in Saint-Brieuc, with 1,338 participants.

So, what fuels this feud?

Mont Saint-Michel

At the epicentre of the rivalry between Brittany and Normandy is Mont Saint-Michel, one of France’s most-visited monuments.

Situated on the border between the two regions, both lay claim to it. 

So, what do the history books tell us?

A bishop from nearby Avranches - in Normandy - is credited in 709 with building an abbey on the tidal island, then called Mont-Tombe. 

In 851 it came closer to coming under the Kingdom of Brittany’s control, when the latter annexed the eastern part of Armorica, near the island.

Matters became slightly clearer in 867 when, as part of the Treaty of Compiègne, the areas of Cotentin and Avranchin - a large strip of territory to the east of Mont Saint-Michel - were given to Brittany.

That put the island under Brittany’s control, politically. But, religiously, it remained in the diocese of Avranches.

To add another layer of confusion, the abbey was run by Benedictine priests, who refused to pledge allegiance to either Brittany or Normandy, giving the island a unique independent position. 

Normandy later regained control of Mont Saint-Michel, although it is unclear exactly when. William I of Normandy had his territory expanded to take in Cotentin and Avranchin in 933, with the latter’s border later extended to take in Mont Saint-Michel.

Today the monument is in the Normandy department of Manche. But that has not stopped it from being lumped in with Brittany. 

In 2015, a school textbook put the monument in Brittany. A regional Breton tourism committee made the same mistake on a map two years later.  

In 2018, the then-mayor of Mont Saint-Michel, Yann Galton, hoisted the Breton flag next to the Norman one, causing a furore.

In 2019, the New York Times erroneously put Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany

Read more: Which is your favourite monument in France?

Cider

Mont Saint-Michel is not the only area that quenches the rivalry.

While it is disputed where cider was invented, both Brittany and Normandy claim to have the best versions.

Brittany ciders are labelled with an Indication géographique protégée (IGP), a European label certifying that the drink is made from apples grown in the region.

Meanwhile, ciders produced in French Cornouaille - an historical region on the west coast of Brittany - are protected by the Appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) label, which vouches for the geographical origins of the product and protects the name across the EU. Cidre de Cornouaille AOP unites around 30 cider producers in Brittany.

In recent years, Brittany overtook Normandy to become the biggest cider-producing region in France, with 46% of national consumption emanating from this part of the country.

Normandy ciders are also protected by both the IGP and AOP labels. The IGP label indicates bottles with Cidre de Normandie or Cidre normand. The AOP was labelled for ciders of the Pays d’Auge, an area that takes in parts of the Calvados and Orne departments.

Ciders from Normandy are often more fruity than their Breton counterparts, with varieties containing citrus fruit or pear. It is often drunk with cheese and dessert.

Crêpes

Both Brittany and Normandy have long feuded over which region has the best crêpes.

Imagine the furore then when Brittany’s annual contest to find the best crêpier was won by someone from Normandy!

Brittany is known for its crêpes, especially those made with buckwheat flour.

But not everyone in the region calls them crêpes; some refer to them as galettes. Certain parts of Brittany say a buckwheat one is a savoury crêpe and a normal wheat one a sweet crêpe. Other areas of the region call a buckwheat one a galette.

Crêpes are considered one of Brittany’s main cultural exports, with Brittany’s tourism office calling them a “star of Brittany’s cuisine”. 

Crêpes normandes have subtle differences with its bretonnes counterpart. While both are made from buckwheat, the Normandy version is often thicker and Normands people often add one to two tablespoons of Calvados, an eau-de-vie named after the department. 

It is also more common to include caramelised apples on sugary crêpes. Normands think it is better for the sake of fuelling the rivalry.

Butter

Butter is another key difference between the regions. Normands have it doux (soft and unsalted) while Bretons have it demi-sel (salted.) 

The reason behind Bretons’ love for beurre demi-sel lies in a period of France’s history when King Philip VI of France introduced the gabelle, a tax on salt, in 1343 but exempted Brittany. 

In Normandy, Isigny-sur-Mer (Calvados) and Gournay-en-Bray (Seine-Maritime) - nicknamed the butter capital - were France’s two cities exporting butter all around the world, putting Normandy on the map around the early 20th century. 

Eau-de-vie

Both regions also feud over which has the best eau-de-vie.

Normandy has Calvados, which is made from dry cider. It has been protected with AOCs as early as 1942.

It is well known across France, perhaps as a result of it being used in café-calva - Calvados dipped in coffee - and trou normand, a culinary tradition in which people sip a small glass of Calvados between cheese and dessert, which is supposed to boost hunger.

Lambig - not to be confused with the Belgian beer Lambic - is Brittany’s equivalent of Calvados and is produced by distilling cider. It has had an AOC label since 2015.

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