Decades ago, back when I worried nobody in Paris liked me (I was an American and a food critic), the wife of a French three-Michelin-star chef tried to help. “Please tell people in America that Parisians are not unpleasant only to them. They are unpleasant to everyone.” The thought was comforting, but also disturbing. Like more than a few Americans (and Brits), I am wary of the French, believing that no matter what we do for them — drink their wines, praise their sauces — they don’t like us one bit. So I was intrigued when a French chef working in California, Bruno Herve-Commereuc, said to me, “To meet the best people in the world, go to Normandy.”
Most Americans know this region along the English Channel in north-west France as the site of the momentous D-Day landings during WWII. It made some sense that, out of all France’s regions, the one where we sacrificed so much in that war might be inclined to act kindly toward us.
I’d never been to Normandy but always longed to go. Everything elemental about French cuisine is there, no more than half a day’s drive from Paris. Cream. Butter. Cider. Calvados. Oysters. Smelly cheeses, ranging from Camembert to Pont-l’Évêque. It’s a region of old-school artisanal producers, people whose way of life has always been about craftsmanship, not the nouveau rural types who move to the countryside and buy a herd of goats. The restaurants are traditional and unfussy, for the most part untouched by Michelin stars, which tend to reward expense and extravagance.
I meet my first challenge just a few hours off the plane, when I speak to a French stranger while looking for a public phone (telephone cabines have all but disappeared in rural France). Dominique Laguerriere, who works at a highway information booth, graciously lets me use the phone there. All is going well.
The big cheese
I appear to be the only person around when I arrive in Camembert at six in the evening, although plenty of cows, the signature livestock of Normandy, are grazing nearby hillsides. Small billboards lining the town square promote its famous cheese but in the late afternoon, when a weary traveller might welcome refreshment — say, a bit of Camembert — the place seems shut down. Even the Maison du Camembert museum is closed. My problem is that I haven’t asked anybody where to go here. I’d just set out for the town on my own, which is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. Serves me right.
I have better luck at the next cheese stop on my itinerary, Pont-l’Évêque. Another town producing another pungent, washed-rind, cow’s milk cheese — the staple of Normandy — it lies some 30 miles to the north. Chef Herve-Commereuc had said a visitor could buy the namesake cheese from festive stalls lining the streets. That isn’t so when I arrive, but Pont-l’Évêque is among the liveliest towns I’ll come across. In its centre I stumble upon L’Épi d’Or, one of the best pâtisseries anyone could hope to find. It’s so good that I book into a hotel nearby to ensure I’m close enough to buy more of its pastries in the morning.
I awake early to wait my turn in the long queue — always promising where pâtisseries are concerned — thus beginning what would become a mild obsession with this shop. The croissants prove profound — maybe the lightest and most delicate of the dozens I’ve sampled in my years of travel — while the brioches taste downright soulful. And the chouquettes — little puffs of choux pastry studded with kernels of sugar — are the perfect breakfast food.
On my drive from Camembert to Pont-l’Évêque I’d wandered some back roads and passed a farmhouse inn, or gîte, called Le Lieu Chéri (The Cherished Place), sitting alongside a large apple orchard. The name, winsome in its simplicity, stays with me; I just have to spend a night there. Driving up its fenced lane, outside the town of Ouilly-le-Vicomte, I spot signs to a cider museum on the grounds. What good luck: I’m at a working farm that’s been churning out cider and apple-based Calvados brandies since the 1500s. By the look of the slanting, half-timbered, hangar-sized structure ahead of me, I expect a rustic sort of B&B (Barn & Breakfast). Instead I find an extremely comfortable gîte with a cow wandering intermittently by the front door. The beamed ceilings are freshly painted, my bathroom has all the modern touches, and details include pillowcases embroidered with the inn’s name. Owner Jocelyne Desfrieches welcomes me in French — she speaks no English — and when asked eagerly shares the name of her favourite local restaurant, L’Auberge du Pêcheur, bringing out an English-language guidebook to ensure I find it.
I do, near the end of a nondescript street in the nearby town of Lisieux. Approaching its cheery white facade, trimmed with blue awnings, is like coming upon The Three Bears’ cottage in an industrial park. My first taste here is of the Atlantic Ocean — a cold appetizer of crab, shrimp, clams, and more whelks than most foreigners really want to eat — followed by a pitch-perfect taste of the countryside: steak au poivre, prepared with a fillet of Normandy beef. Being in apple country, I had an idea what dessert would be: a tarte tatin, rich with milk, sugar, and caramelised butter. The ensemble proves a perfect example of the more than reasonable fixed-price meals I’d find throughout the region. Owners Lina and Olivier Martel remain entirely good-natured when I point out the incongruity of finding such a gentle, congenial restaurant in such a lacklustre section of town. Then, mindful of my determination to depend on the recommendations of strangers rather than guidebooks, I ask them to identify another worthy local restaurant. “Les Mouettes, in Trouville-sur-Mer,” they say, without hesitation. Happy news, for that seaside resort town and its higher-profile neighbours Honfleur and Deauville, all just to the north-east, are my next stops.
A fishing town since the Middle Ages, the local fleet still unloads its catch almost daily in Honfleur. It reveals a parade of Norman architectural styles as I drive in. On this sunny September day, locals and visitors sit around the boat-filled harbour, tucking into mussels and fries. Nearby, a parade of steep-roofed timber-frame buildings line Place Sainte-Catherine, a square presided over by the largest wooden church in France, the medieval Église Sainte-Catherine, celebrated in paint by both Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet. I find it breathtaking in its simplicity and primacy.
I grab a bite — chicken with a mushroom stuffing — at the tidy, redbrick Auberge du Vieux Clocher, then bid adieu to quaintness for the grandeur of the belle époque, which awaits me just 10 miles south-west, in Deauville. The smartest of the three coastal resorts, founded in the late 1800s by a half-brother of Napoleon III, Deauville is renowned for its seaside promenade, horse races, and long-running Deauville American Film Festival. With its mix of astounding architecture — here, vintage belle époque; there, half-timbering more distinctive and ornamental than in Alsace — and designer garb, it’s where Normandy meets Burberry.
Alas, I’m not wearing my double-breasted trench coat, so I cast my lot with the least celebrated of the three resort towns, Trouville-sur-Mer. Here, just minutes north of Deauville, I finally feel at home. I splurge on a junior suite at the 1930s-style Hotel Le Flaubert, overlooking a beach that’s filled, even in September, with French people soaking up the sun. Settled in, I make my way to town to find Les Mouettes, the brasserie Lina and Olivier Martel had recommended. I order the homemade pâté en terrine, which arrives in such a massive portion that I have to assure my waiter I enjoyed it, despite leaving nearly half the dish. “The poule au pot you ordered is bigger,” he warns. And so it is, arriving, as the name suggests, in a big black pot, filled with broth, dark-meat chicken, potatoes, carrots, leeks, and particularly wonderful cabbage, fresh and crunchy. This main course, enough for two or three, costs less
than €15 (£12) and is impossible to finish.
“Eat your vegetables,” urges the waiter, solicitous to the end.
I’m now ready to head inland again, to my next Normandy experience: the Route du Cidre, a 25-mile drive through cider and Calvados brandy country, along which I intend to drink my fair share, and maybe more. I make a beeline south to a region called Pays d’Auge, and my entry point, the little town of Saint-Ouen-le-Pin. It, alas, offers no cider. I continue along the route, rolling under trees that form a cathedral ceiling. Devoid of other travellers, it’s everything a country drive should be. But where oh where is the cider? It’s waiting at Domaine Familial Louis Dupont, outside the wee village of Victot-Pontfol. This estate, best known for its Calvados and complete with manor house, apple press, still, and gift shop, has been in the Dupont family for four generations. Upon arriving, I’m invited, as are all visitors, to taste an impressive range of Calvados. The oldest dates to 1969. I particularly admire those aged about 20 years: the perfume of apples remains profound. Very old Calvados, while sublime, tends to taste the same as brandies made from grapes. I also sample the 2009 cidre bouché — fizzy cider — which is the best I’ve had in Normandy; exquisitely complex, earthy, and deep, with a hint of goût de terroir, like that found in a fine red Burgundy.
I motor south-west from the Route de Cidre to the village of Caligny, home of renowned Calvados producer Huard and find a town of total silence. I park in front of a house to figure out what to do next and notice an elderly woman peeking through her window at me. Finally, she comes out and proceeds to ask in perfect English, with exquisite politeness, if she can be of assistance. Yes, please. She carefully gives me directions to Huard, down a country lane about a half-a-mile away, but the absence of signs still stymies me. When a tiny old Citroën stops, I appeal to the driver. “Huard?” he replies, pointing to himself. “I am Huard.” It’s Michel Huard, 83, the name on the label, Calvados maker and grandfather of the man now in charge of production. I follow him to the estate, where I find grandson Jean-François Guillouet-Huard, 38, distilling spirits in a 50-year-old, wood-fired still. I receive an informative, non-verbal tour of the property, since neither of us speaks the other’s language. But what I see is enough: Calvados ageing barrels that are 100 years old, a cask with a shrapnel-inflicted gouge, a corner of a stone storage room that was hit by an English bomb during WWII. After tasting a number of vintages from barrels, I depart with many mercis and one piece of advice: If you can buy the 1984 or the 1992, do so.
Croissants and crustaceans
My next stop is in Isigny-sur-Mer, a town of 3,000, where I seek out some stomach-lining bread and butter — albeit the sort of superlative spread the dairy has been churning out here for 500 years. Thanks to a confluence of factors, including a mild, humid climate and moist soils rich with minerals, the cow’s milk here features high butterfat levels and a distinctive flavour. Driving down the main street of this prosperous town, I count four pâtisseries — a promising turn of events. All make croissants, so it’s decided: I eat a couple at each to determine which makes the best use of the rich Isigny-sur-Mer butter.
The winner for most buttery: the croissant au beurre d’Isigny at Boulangerie Bissonnet. The shops showcase another butter-infused treat I hadn’t heard of: Isigny caramels, known for their special, salted-butter flavour and awarded an entry in France’s food bible, the Larousse Gastronomique.
Tarts, brioches, croissants, éclairs — I’m beginning to overdose on butter and sweets. High time for my antidote: huîtres, or oysters. The local ‘special oysters of Isigny’ claim a devoted following among seafood lovers, but I’m headed to what many consider the oyster capital of the region, the port town of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, 30 miles to the north on the Cotentin Peninsula. Eager for local advice, particularly about dining, I drive to the tourism office and approach the woman on duty. She informs me she’s forbidden from offering opinions. A friend with whom she’s been chatting seems amused by my frustration, so I ask for her counsel. The woman, stout and earthy, giggles at my request and agrees to help, but warns, “I do not eat out much.” Her first name is Cécile, and her job is driving a tractor that transports oysters from their beds. I’m in the right hands.
She leads me outside and points to a restaurant, Le Chasse-Marée. Sitting by the harbour, trimmed in nautical (and French) reds, whites, and blues, this neighbourhood spot serves up some of the best food I experience on my trip, at preposterously inexpensive prices, considering most of it centres around fresh fish. I start with — what else? — a dozen of the local oysters. They taste like the briny Atlantic waves that splashed me when I swam off the New Jersey shore as a kid. I proceed to the three-course prix-fixe special, a must-order at less than €25 (£20). I go for the fish soup, which arrives accompanied by croutons, grated cheese, and a garlicky rouille sauce; and a bowl of marmite, not the divisive spread for toast but an assemblage of vegetables and fresh fish (cod, monkfish, salmon, pollock, and a sprinkling of mussels) — sort of an all-seafood pot-au-feu. When I praise the marmite, the restaurant’s owner, Lucas Gilbert replies simply, “My father was a fisherman. I know the fish well.”
Leaving town, I pass a fabulous emporium, Maison Gosselin, which sells everything from wind-up toys to lavender soaps and homemade soups. The shop, which says it stocks 15,000 items, has been owned by the Gosselin family since its founding in 1889 — which explains why its coffee beans are roasted in a machine from the 1930s. Complimentary tasters of Calvados are offered, served in tiny coffee cups to honour a maritime tradition, explains Bernard Besselievre, who is called Monsieur Gosselin locally because he is married to the store’s owner. “Local fishermen chased their morning coffee with a sterilising shot of Calvados,” he says.
I spend my final day in the city of Rouen, my departure point, known for its great gothic cathedral, immortalised in paintings by Claude Monet, and, to me, for canard à la rouennaise, a dish featuring Normandy duck, a crossbreed of wild and domesticated fowl. I parked the car and headed to a local restaurant to try a version but came away disappointed by the unyielding chewiness of the meat. Perhaps it was that dismay that caused me to become lost on the way back to the car to catch my afternoon flight. Once again needing help, I walked up to a group of youths slouching outside the cathedral and showed a boy the address of my car park. To my surprise, he practically escorted me there. It’s what I’d always thought: when it comes to courtesy and friendliness, you can’t beat the French.
Normandy is easily accessible by train from London, changing in Paris. www.eurostar.com www.raileurope.co.uk www.sncf.com
From the Channel Tunnel exit, Rouen is about 90 minutes by road. The average rail or road/rail journey time from London is six hours. www.eurotunnel.com
Ferries depart from Poole, Southampton or Portsmouth with either Brittany Ferries or LD Lines travelling to ports including Caen, Cherbourg, Le Havre and St Malo, often with overnight crossings and cabin accommodation. www.brittany-ferries.co.uk www.ldlines.co.uk
The closest airports to Normandy are Paris Charles de Gaulle/Beauvais — around 90/60 minutes away respectively; and Dinard in Brittany. Airlines include: www.airfrance.com www.ba.com www.cityjet.com www.easyjet.com www.flybe.com www.jet2.com
Average flight time: 1h.
All major towns in Normandy are well connected by rail, with far less frequent bus services to smaller towns and villages. Rural Normandy, including many of the restaurants visited here, are best accessed by car… or bike if you want to burn off some calories.
When to go
Summer (June-August) in Normandy can become packed with tourists and accommodation gets booked up well in advance for the week around June’s D-Day anniversary. Autumn, mild and often sunny, is less crowded and marks the start of the scallop fishing season. As in the UK, winters can be cold, wet and windy.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€) £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 33 2.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Insight Guides: Northern France. RRP: £14.99.
The Rough Guide to Brittany & Normandy. RRP: £13.99.
How to do it
French Cycling Holidays offers a two-wheel tour of Normandy combining gastronomy and history from £1,575 per person, all-inclusive except forinternational travel. www.frenchcyclingholidays.com
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)