Kouign amann. Say it with me: KWEEN yah-mon. The words mean “butter cake”, but they don’t sound very French, do they? That’s because they aren’t French, they’re Breton. And just who are the Bretons? you might well ask. In fact they are an ethnic group native to Brittany (Bretagne) in northeastern France. This group speaks a language that’s descended from the old Celtic languages of Britain, which include Welsh, Cumbric and Cornish, Breton’s closest linguistic cousin.
So how did those people get there? is of course the next logical question. The answer is that they emigrated there, from across the English Channel a very long time ago, somewhere around 500 AD. (That’s Cornwall straight across the Channel there, east of Plymouth where Penzance is). Fifteen hundred years later, there are still somewhere on the order of 350,000 people in Brittany that speak Breton. Pretty darned impressive.
So they’ve been making butter cake in Brittany for 1500 years? Um, no, not exactly. The earliest reference to kouign amann dates to 1505 and Anne of Brittany, who was reputed to have enjoyed a butter cake at a manor house while visiting the region (thanks to Jim C.).
But did Anne of Brittany really eat kouign amann, the same sort of butter cake we know today? I think that’s unlikely. Probably the butter cake she ate was a butter-enriched bread along the lines of brioche, a specialty of that region of France, especially Normandy which is right next door. An important thing to remember is that “cake” was a very different thing in those days, much less a sweet thing than a fluffy bread, often with some fat added. Then, only the wealthiest of the wealthy would have been able to afford refined sugar, a key component of kouign amann. But more on that when I put up the recipe.