Where to stay
A l’Ecole Buissonnière Romantic, backstreet B&B and salon de thé with superb breakfasts and friendly owner. Doubles from £80. 4 Rue de la Foulerie, Honfleur, 00 33 06 16 18 43 62, www.a-lecole-buissonniere.com Hotel du Vieux
Marché No-nonsense hotel in the heart of Rouen’s medieval quarter. Doubles from £85. 33 Rue du Vieux Palais, Rouen, 00 33 2 35 71 00 88, www.hotel-vieuxmarche.com
Le Central Situated above a busy brasserie opposite the fish market, this is a fun place to stay when the palace hotels of Deauville seem either too smart or too pricey. Doubles from £77. 5-7 Rue des Bains, Trouville-sur- Mer, 00 33 2 31 88 80 84, www.le-central-trouville.com
Le Clos Saint Martin Beautiful bourgeois residence that dates back to the 16th century and has its own private courtyard. Decorated in rich fabrics and boasting timber ceilings, it is situated close to the Place Saint-Sauveur and the Fossés Saint-Julien market. Doubles from £86. 18 bis Place Saint Martin, Caen, 00 33 781 392 367, www.eclosaintmartin.com
Les Petits Matins Bleus Gîte and on-demand cookery school near Livarot in the Pays d’Auge valley. Weekend for five people, £320. Chemin de la Bouillerie, Sainte Marguerite de Viette, 00 33 2 31 20 62 88, www.petitsmatinsbleus.com
Vent d’Ouest Airy three-star hotel opposite the love-or-loathe it Saint- Joseph Church in rebuilt Le Havre. The basement features a simple but welcoming spa with a good range of treatments. Doubles from £80. 4 Rue Caligny, Le Havre, 00 33 2 35 42 50 69, www.ventdouest.fr
Normandy is comprised of Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie, and lies on the northern French coast. Currency is the euro and time is one hour ahead of the UK. Late summer sees highs of about 20°C, while autumns are mild, with average highs of 15°C in October.
CityJet (www.cityjet.com) flies from London City airport to Deauville- Normandie airport Fridays and Sundays.
Flybe (www.flybe.com/) flies from London Southend airport to Caen Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.com) sails daily from Portsmouth to Caen, and Tuesday to Friday from Portsmouth to Le Havre. Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) runs trains daily from London St Pancras International to Calais, where domestic services will take you onwards to towns and cities across Normandy.
Normandy Tourist Board (www.normandy-tourism.org) offers up-to-date information on itineraries, accommodation, events and more. Calvados Tourist Board (www.calvados-tourisme.co.uk) helps you to discover the Normandy with useful advice about travel, history, gastronomy and more. Seine Maritime Tourist Board is a valuable source of ideas for activities in the department.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor (Penguin, £8.99) gives a vivid portrait of the allied invasion 70 years ago.
If you are conscious about your carbon footprint, then visit ClimateCare (www.climatecare.org), where you can make a donation to support environmental projects all over the world. Return flights from London produce 0.09 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of 64p.
Where to eat
A Contre Sens Bistrot-plus cooking from a young chef who was cooking for President Chirac at the Elysée Palace. £34. 8 Rue des Croisiers, Caen, 00 33 2 31 97 44 48, www.acontresenscaen.fr
Auberge des Ruines Modern regional cooking in a roadside inn from a chef who escaped the three-star environment of Marc Veyrat, but has learnt the tricks of his craft. £22. Place de la Mairie, Jumièges, 00 33 2 35 37 24 05, www.auberge-des-ruines.fr
Gibus Super-agreeable bistro that is open for lunch only (except by arrangement). Value-for-money menu with local produce including salt- marsh lamb and tripes à la mode de Caen. Two-course lunch £12. 17 Bis Rue des Tilleuls, Caen, 00 33 2 31 86 01 33, www.gibus-restaurant.com
Restaurant Origine Seriously good, accessible starred French cuisine. Imaginative but without unnecessary frills. £36. 26 Rampe Cauchoise, Rouen, 00 33 2 35 70 95 52, www.restaurant-origine.com
SaQuaNa Some of the best restaurant food in France and at times the quirkiest in this tiny modern restaurant that serves up its dishes from Thursday to Sunday. £60. 22 Place Hamelin, Honfleur, 00 33 2 31 89 40 80, www.alexandre-bourdas.com
Food and Travel Review
Soft cheeses packed in shaved poplar boxes, spritzy cider, D-Day-flat beaches, Mont Saint-Michel and speckled cows: finding Normandy’s emblematic images is child’s play. Under this mould-ripened rind is a subtle, creamy, ever-changing interior. ‘You know you are Normand when a quarter of your neighbours are English.’ It’s a long-standing joke among Normandy’s natives. It would be closer to the truth if they swapped the latter for ‘Parisian’. In the boom days, the capital’s moneyed class rushed to buy property. The manicured 17th-century half-timbered house surrounded by apple orchards will, most likely, belong to a lawyer with a flat off the Champs-Elysées. By restoring their second homes, they brought fresh gloss to a gently decaying region.
Stereotypes aside, Normandy reflects the poles of French life: tripes à la mode de Caen (four stomachs of a cow simmered for hours) with carrots grown in the sandy soil of Créances, versus line- caught cod with a lavender spelt risotto, button-sized carrot balls and ribbons. It also opens like a centrefold into two halves. At the top, Haute-Normandie is divided by the Seine river, which weaves through the capital, Rouen, on its way to Paris. Below is Basse-Normandie, which spreads west towards Brittany and is centred on Caen.
At the estuary of that river sits modern, industrial Le Havre, flattened by bombing in 1944 and later reinvented by the architect Auguste Perret. On the opposite bank is pretty Honfleur. The fissure repeats itself further south, where a bridge across the Touques river separates moneyed Deauville from the fishing port of Trouville. Their sweeping tourist beaches contrast with the empty spaces of Arromanches where Allied forces landed in 1944.
History too throws up its share of resonances. William the Conqueror was (and still is) ‘William the Bastard’ son of a goose girl at Falaise, his birthplace. We may have burnt Joan of Arc in Rouen’s Place du Vieux-Marché during the Hundred Years War, but French girls then gave cheese as love tokens to the English soldiers.
François André’s bust in a small park in front of Deauville’s Normandy Barrière hotel doesn’t match the iconic Bayeux Tapestry celebrating Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 but thousands more walk by it daily. ‘Who was he?’ A quick glance at a priceless Bugatti parked opposite, a glistening Ferrari or Louis Vuitton and Hermès boutiques hint at an answer. The palace hotels and casinos he built created the myth of a luxury resort. Wide avenues, tributes to Hollywood stars on the boardwalk where primped ladies promenade toy dogs, deco beach cabins, flat racing and polo show that the town is living the dream.
On the other side of the Touques, Trouville smells of moules marinière, of poisson et frites. It’s still a proper port. Trawlers come in on the tide with mackerel and, if lucky, a catch of Dover sole. In winter they go scalloping, scraping the bed of the Channel for coquilles St Jacques. Sustainable? Fisherman Sébastien Saiter thinks so. The seventh generation of a fishing family, he has a prime pitch in the market. His family is famous for its fish soup, on tap at a small counter from the early morning, accompanied by croutons and rouille. He’s coy about its contents. ‘All I can say is that it has shrimps and velvet crabs in it. Jeannette Saiter my great-great-great-great- grandmother invented the recipe back in 1887 and our family used to make it in quantities large enough to feed the French army.’
‘Let me tell you a secret,’ he says. ‘The more a fish soup tastes of fennel the likelier it is to contain rotten fish. Some people even put fish guts in it.’ It’s a shameless jibe against the Marseille bouillabaisse. A few miles along the coast, Honfleur has been a port since the ninth century when the Vikings settled here. They harvested the cod that was once abundant, drying the fillets into bat-hard stockfish that they traded along the coast and to the Mediterranean. Fishermen built its parish church of St Catherine’s out of wood, shaping its twin roofs like the hulls of their boats. Today it’s a chocolate box townlet of shops selling regional products. Few visitors ever try its speciality of hot, sautéed brown shrimps on buttered bread.
Instead they can dine at one of the best tables in France, SaQuaNa (shorthand for taste, quality, nature). Here you can sample one of the best Yorkshire puddings ever (even though chef Alexandre Bourdas calls it a pascade), as well as subtle, fragrant dishes like monkfish poached with lime, lovage and coriander, with a coconut and kaffir lime broth. A generation ago Normandy was about rich cream sauces spooned over or around fillets of fish and lobster. That’s changed, often for better, sometimes for worse. Chef- patron of the Michelin-starred Restaurant Origine in Rouen, Benjamin Lechevalier, argues: ‘Ninety-eight per cent of top-end chefs want to be creative, but 98 per cent of their customers want real food.’
His dishes, for instance a casserole of pigeon breast with leg confit in duck fat and a game sauce, shy from what photographer Sarah calls the ‘drip, drip smear’ style of plated cuisine. At A Contre Sens (‘against the tide’ would be a loose translation) in Caen, Anthony Caillot steers a middle path between traditional and modern with his foie gras, smoked chitterlings sausage from Vire and buckwheat cake; gently roasted rib of Charolais veal; and chocolate ganache, candied rhubarb and cider ice cream.
‘I want to reflect my time through my cooking, as well as who I am. Cream sauces? They aren’t a part of who we are anymore.’ What he is, is a diligent chef who finishes cooking at midnight and is in the Fossés Saint-Julien market buying organic lemon verbena and raspberries at 8am the next morning. His embargo on cream doesn’t apply to Teurgoule. It’s a rice pudding tasting of cinnamon that’s cooked for six hours in earthenware pots: £2.40 for the pudding and another £2.40 refunded when customers bring back the empty.
He’s interested in a new semi-hard cheese too called Vach’Mentbon (‘cowishly good’), but, he says, he wants the maker to mature it for longer. The repertoire of Normandy cheeses though is more about soft cheeses like Camembert. Shaped like a heart, Neufchâtel was offered to Edward III’s longbow-men and comes from a small area south of Dieppe. The big hitters, Camembert, Livarot and Pont l’Evêque, are from the Pays d’Auge valley.
Setting aside the wars as to what counts as a true Camembert, there’s only one maker of raw milk Camembert in the eponymous village: François Durand. According to the cheesemonger at A l’Instant Fromages, Trouville, the key word to look out for on a label is ‘de’ as in from Normandy. He also, as a tip, thinks spiking the cheese and marinating it with Calvados makes a nice change. Al’ Pont l’Evêque is a trappist cheese older than Camembert. Square, flattish and washed in cider it develops a springy texture and pleasantly smelly aroma. Livarot is often stronger. According to Anne Bourbeau, who runs a gîte and cookery school at Sainte-Marguerite- de-Viette, that cheese is nicknamed ‘Le Colonel’. ‘If you look at it closely you can see it has five striped bands fastened around a plump orange waist like the stripes denoting the officer’s rank.’ She makes a gooey cheese fondue with leftover chunks from the cheeseboard to which she adds a liberal splash of pommeau, for a sauce to accompany her chicken legs braised with raisins and cider.
What grapes are to Burgundy or Bordeaux, apples are to Normandy. Even the cows eat them, reaching into the lower branches of the orchards where they are left to graze. Anne buys her cider from a friend who purchased a farmhouse and 17th-century cider press from a farmer wanting to retire. Part of the deal was that he would go on making cider, pommeau, vinegar and Calvados for her in exchange for half of what he produced.
In anywhere but Normandy, the barn itself would be a historic monument. Walls held together by a half-timbered frame are packed with a wet-clay-straw mash similar to wattle and daub. This functional building style passed down from the Middle Ages became, in towns like Deauville, the Belle Epoque and deco equivalents of mock-Tudor. Like the architecture, the apple in all its guises has evolved. At smart B&Bs; like À l’Ecole Buissonnière in Honfleur or Le Clos Saint Martin in Caen, it can show up at breakfast as a gâteau aux pommes or a hot baked apple, steaming under a glass cloche. In a chic roadside eatery, Auberge des Ruines at Jumièges (Victor Hugo described its abbey as the most beautiful ruins in France), a trompe l’oeil apple dessert made of painted white chocolate on a Calvados sorbet cracks open to unleash a flow of herb-scented apple compote and cider cream.
Clos des Citots is on the opposite bank of the Seine, a free two- minute ferry ride away. The farm and its orchards belong to Gérard Lenormand. There’s a blend of 17 apples in his ciders. Brut, demi- sec, doux or rosé, they are bubbly, not too alcoholic and mild.
He admits to adding the fizz by carbonating the fermented juice, something purists like Agathe Letellier at Domaine d’Apreval wouldn’t consider. On the Côte de Grâce estate outside Honfleur she produces organic ciders with the care of a winemaker, waiting till the apples ripen and start falling before harvesting them, storing them to finish ripening before pressing, fermenting them in separate vats and creating vintages from mainly bitter-sweet varieties. ‘People think that cider is for drinking straight away,’ she says, ‘but I’ve tried ciders that are five, seven or ten years old and they’re still delicious.’
She also ages pommeau in oak for a minimum of two years. Little- known outside of Normandy, it’s made by adding distilled apple brandy to fresh apple juice. Chilled, it has a deep, tawny tinge and tastes of liquid fruitcake. Her Calvados (AOC) has the same richness. Actually, it should be plural because she ages and blends different assemblages. Double-distilled, the eau de vie passes from an alembic’s swan neck into barrels. What adds subtlety and character is their age and the qualities of the oak. From a ‘Calvados blanche’ – apple grappa – at two years old, it changes through various grades into a dark amber, soft, honeyed and spicy 18-year-old XO.
Outside a knick-knack shop in Honfleur, there’s a rack of funny postcards: a spoof Bayeux Tapestry picture of two cows sword- fighting, Norsemen with umbrellas, jokes about Camembert and Calvados cocktails. The company producing them is called Heula. It’s a word everyone from the region understands but nobody outside it can get right – an expression of surprise. That’s what Normandy is really about. It belongs to insiders who guard its secrets. For the rest of us it’s a place to eat, drink and be merry.
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