Sarah Baxter samples the food scene of Caen là Mer gion, joining Parisians stocking up on fresh fish and learning about Normandy's love of all things apples and pears
Fingers crossed, I descended the creaking stairs of the guesthouse to see if he’d been... It was 6.30am. Was it too early? When I reached the hallway, I found the bread hatch – in the back of the big front door, just below the letterbox – full of fresh baguettes and patisserie. “The baker has a key,” the owner of had told me the night before. Surely the best thing since sliced bread. I took the delicious delivery back up to my garret and tucked in. It was going to be a good day.
Early mornings in Normandy’s Caen La Mer region were proving very rewarding for the foodie traveller. The previous day I’d arrived in Ouistreham, the port of Caen, on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to find fishing boats unloading their catch. The town, at the mouth of the River Orne, has a year-round daily fish market, and traders were already setting out their wares: shiny muscles and sea snails; silvery mackerel, slabs of sole, crimson gurnard; crabs still flexing their pincers. A couple stood by their car, boot open, coolbox waiting.
“People come from Paris for the weekend and stock up before they go home,” guide Florence told me as we walked past, inhaling the fish-n-sea-salt air.
I’d been glad to see Ouistreham’s market; I was also pleased Florence introduced me to C Simard’s, the port’s best glacier et confiseur– “they’ve even made Camembert ice cream,” she told me. But the fresh bread and flaky croissant, eaten in my stylish Caen loft apartment, was an even better start. And, I hoped, it would set me up for my next, more unusual, food foray.
David arrived at the door with my chariot: a Segway Personal Transporter. And, after a 90-second course on driving this strange but thankfully straightforward electric contraption, I was let loose on the cobbles of Caen. I followed David into Place St-Sauveur, navigating around the medieval centre’s pavement tables and plant pots, past the old St-Sauveur church and the people browsing the many bookshops. Then we veered off-road, up onto the ramparts of Caen Castle. Founded by William the Conqueror in 1060, it’s one of the largest medieval fortresses in Europe and provides sweeping views across the city.
We whizzed around, then took the old peasants’ path: after paying their tithes, the poor would exit the castle via the Port de Champs to party in the Vaugueux (the ‘beggars’ vale’). This neighbourhood, with its tight-packed crooked houses, has retained its old character; now, bars and restaurants spill onto the cobbles. “This is the place to come for Norman specialities,” David said as I swerved to avoid a chalkboard hawking poulet et crème camembert and tripes à la mode.
We didn’t stop. We were heading back towards St-Sauveur, bound for narrow Rue Froide, one of the oldest streets in the city, and a little shop called La Boîte à Calva. Inside we found a barrel topped with tasting glasses and a man called Guillaume, waiting to pour.
“Let’s start with poire!” he enthused, handing out a dry, fruity perry and explaining Normandy’s skill and expertise with all things apples and pears. Cider, which has been drunk for millennia, was a beloved tipple of the Norman Vikings. By the 16th century Normandy’s lords and farmers alike were distilling the region’s apple-fizz to create calvados. This sweet liquor now has its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée; there are three designated production areas in the region and a huge amount of variety and innovation. “The new generation of calvados makers are really interesting,” said Guillaume as he served up a sparkling cider and an unusual cidre tranquille. “They’re all choosing to go to wine school, learning those skills first. In 20 years, calvados will be huge!”
Guilliame cracked open a jar of pork terrine – “perfect with a woody pommeau” – before handing me a taster of the fortified apple wine. Then we tried Guilliame’s current favourite calvados, a Louis Dupont XO: “It’s like an Irish whiskey, only there’s more magic in the fruit than in using a plain malt.” It was smooth and warming, with hints of peach. I took another sip, glad I was done Segwaying for the day.
To finish, Guilliame got out the tergoule – Normandy rice pudding. “The name means something like ‘twist mouth’,” Guillaume explained. Some say it’s the expression caused by the spiciness of the cinnamon, but Guillaume had another theory. “You’d go to your grandparents house and, with luck, you’d smell the tergoule already cooking,” he said. “It takes eight hours, and it would be so hot when you ate it, because you couldn’t wait for it to cool down.” He contorted his face as if he’d just eaten molten lava.
Then he opened a bottle of Baileys-like crème de Calvados and tipped some into the tergoule. Delicious. Just don’t tell grandma...
For further information on Normandy, visit www.normandy-tourism.org
For further information on Caen and Ouistreham, visit www.caenlamer-tourisme.fr
Book your accommodation in Normandy with Sawdays: www.sawdays.co.uk/france/normandy
Book your transport to Normandy with Brittany Ferries: www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
Words and photos by Sarah Baxter
Disclosure: Sarah Baxter was a guest of Normandy Tourism and Brittany Ferries. Sarah had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Caen in the late summer of 2018 for Greentraveller's Guide to Normandy.
All opinions are the author's own.