My father used to eat sardines, bones and all and packed in oil, out of a can, which appalled me as a little girl. When I was older, I saw perfectly civilized people eating whitebait, or English sardines, in pubs near the water, and consuming enticing plates of tiny fried fish prepared in excellent Italian kitchens around Rome.
Still, I thought sardines lowly and avoided them until one sunny spring day in Douarnenez, France.
Even without the sardine epiphany I will remember the breezy, colorful town because of its enchanting name, pronounced doo-are-nay-nay. It's on a steep little peninsula on the Atlantic coast of France, and it looks over the Douarnenez Bay and the islet of Tristan, a setting for the medieval romance "Tristan and Iseult," according to Breton legend.
Less romantically, the town's first sardine canning factory opened in 1868, an enterprise that employed mostly women who were paid a pittance, resulting in strikes and strong local support for the French Communist Party.
I spent the night before my visit to Douarnenez at the Hôtel de la Plage just north of town, an old-fashioned French country inn on its own slice of beach and dunes right out of Brittany seascapes by Eugène Boudin. The next morning I wandered into Douarnenez, toured the excellent Port Museum, dedicated to boats — my favorite was Notre Dame de Rocamadour, a barnacled lobster vessel built in 1959 — and bought some beautifully decorated sardine tins, with keys, at a souvenir shop.
When church bells rang at noon, I took a seat at Chez Fanch, near the harbor. Its menu seemed to offer every variety of French seafood I'd ever encountered. The lunch special was a dish of grilled sardines that — almost inevitably — I had to order. I was surprised when they came, big and plump with no grease veneer. Their taste was intensely fishy but delectable, and the meat flaked off the backbones, which I left on my plate. I wished my father had been with me to taste those Douarnenez sardines.
Douarnenez Tourist Office, 1 Rue du Docteur Mével, 011-33-2-98-92-13-35, http://www.douarnenez-tourisme.com/
Hotel de la Plage, 29550 Sainte Anne de la Palud, 011-33-2-98-92-50-12, http://www.plage.com. Doubles from $255.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun