QUIMPER, France — In this town, cradled in a comely valley where the Steir and Odet rivers converge in southwestern Brittany, the French obsession with food is subordinate to what that food is served upon.
That's not to say that the food is bad in this city of 60,000. It's not. During two weeks of touring Brittany we found it almost impossible to get a bad meal. But Quimper has no exceptional restaurants, as far as we were able to determine, and what we ate here was not memorable compared to some of the dining we enjoyed in such charming towns as Perros-Guirec, Quiberon and Dinan.
But the dinnerware, Quimperware, is why tourists visit this Breton city.
And therein lies our story.
Close to Lost Art
The production of Quimperware came perilously close to becoming a lost art, even disappeared for a time, until a debonair, Dutch-born Connecticut Yankee and his Massachusetts-born wife charged to the rescue.
A tad of history is required here. In the late 17th Century, Jean-Baptiste Bousquet, who had been a master pottery maker in southern France, arrived. He began turning out faience, a hand-painted and glazed product that would become Quimper's claim to international celebrity during the next 300 years.
In time, two rivals appeared, and the Quimper suburb of Locmaria became known as "the Potters' Suburb."
All three factories would claim to have originated the peasant figures--a man and woman in Breton dress, he in wide trousers and she in high headdress--that appear on dishes and as statuettes that had much to do with the huge popularity of Quimperware.
After the French Revolution a long period of stagnation afflicted all three competitors, but by 1860 Parisians, weary of industrially produced pottery, rediscovered the allure of the glazed earthenware.
But poor business management, by 1983, had brought the original firm to its knees. Just as it was about to collapse and the building turned into condominiums, Paul and Sarah Janssens rode to the rescue.
For a quarter of a century he had been a buyer for an American importer of Quimperware, and in 1980 he and his wife established a retail outlet in Stonington, Conn., where they lived.
'Simple as That'
Janssens told us about how "that night my wife and I said, 'Why don't we buy it?' It was as simple as that.
"Finally, the French government awarded me the contract to buy it. All I needed was to find the money, a million dollars.
"So I went back to America and contacted about 35 devoted Quimper collectors. I got a list from a woman who is a big collector. Many wealthy people in America spend a lot of money on Quimper and have big collections.
"I asked them if they wanted to buy 49% of a new corporation. And that raised the capital."
The factory reopened in March a year ago, and, said Janssens, "Here it is a year and a half later and we're actually up to 85 employees, and we're totally oversold."
When the news got out that the factory was reopening, Janssens added, orders began pouring in, even before the new owners were able to produce a single product.
A tour of the Janssens' treasure house is a must, not just for the faience fancier but for any visitor to Quimper. The plant can be reached by car, public transportation or taxi. The plant is open and tours given Monday through Friday.
Visitors watch cups, bowls, plates and pitchers being shaped and fired but, most fascinating of all, being painted. The guides speak French and English and agreeably answer questions in both languages. Tour hours are 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 4:30 p.m. The cost: 10 francs.
The artists paint free-hand with brushes that are changed every three weeks and spend an average of half an hour on each piece of earthenware, which they initial on the back. The designs are stored in their memory, but because each piece is done by hand, none ever is exactly the same.
Some of the 40 artists began work as young as 18. So they won't become bored, they change the patterns they work on every other day.
After the tour, which lasts about 45 minutes, one may visit the factory museum. The contents of the museum depict the history of pottery making in Quimper and exhibits include far more than the dinnerware most persons associate with Quimperware. Included are life-size figures, huge and elaborately decorated vases and a ceramic model of a French village.
The models for the pottery pieces are stored in a musty attic of the factory that is off-limits to visitors. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, including models for earthenware clocks, sculpted so their hollow interiors will accept the metal works. Some are more than 100 years old and are the handiwork of artisans employed by all three of the potteries that once operated here.
The factory does not sell retail, but three shops in the center of town carry an inviting and substantial inventory at about half the price one would pay in the United States.