Harriet O’Brien enjoys a foodie tour of Normandy and tastes ice cider and succulent scallops, and visits some of the region's Michelin-starred restaurants
You must, must, must taste this,’ says David Goerne, beaming with pleasure as he presents me with a dish of exquisite amuse-bouches. I feel I’m destroying a work of art as I put a swirl of paper-thin beef carpaccio in my mouth. But that concern vanishes in a burst of sublime flavours. David is the chef and co-owner of Caudebec en Caux in the Vallée de Seine area of Normandy, and in February 2016 he was awarded a Michelin star for his outstanding cuisine here.
I’ve come for lunch, sampling Le Manoir’s less expensive brasserie fare (delicate handmade pasta with shaved truffles) as well as David’s fine dining cuisine (those amuse bouches and an amazing dessert of smoked beetroot and white chocolate). Over coffee, David extols the virtues of the ingredients on his doorstep. He’s particularly excited about the beef. It is remarkable, top-quality Kobe-style meat, he says, from cattle raised on a brilliantly creative farm down the road.
[Photo: David outside Le Manoir de Rétival; Le Manoir de Rétival]
Of course I want to see this for myself, so off I go to Le Boeuf Cidre just a few kilometres west. It’s a family farm, revolutionised by Francois-Xavier Craquelin, a former banker who has been enormously successful in adapting Japanese methods of rearing beef in Normandy. His herd of about 100 doe-eyed brown-and-white Normande cattle have a bucolic life, eating the finest grass, enjoying massage machines in their stalls and drinking the farm’s cider – a low-alcohol variety made for the cows. Francois’ cider production is almost as impressive as his cattle raising. He explains that his orchards are planted with about 30 different varieties of apple trees whose resulting cider is as much for human as for cow consumption.
The cider is made entirely naturally (no sulphur or yeast) and he’s particularly pleased with his recently developed ice cider, created from apples picked in winter and then cold fermented. Nibbling Norman Neufchatel cheese, we sample some of this nectar. Tart and sweet at the same time, it has an intense taste and a pleasing, honey-like aroma.
What a wonderfully green and epicurean region. Just off the ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, I had started my foodie trip around Normandy at the nearby honey-stone city of Caen. Having explored its formidable castle, I browsed the Friday morning market along Place Saint Sauveur, the oldest of the city’s 10 or so such weekly events – they say, it’s the most local, too. It offered a cornucopia of farm produce, from freshly dug carrots to huge celeriacs and tables of jellies – cider, plum and more. I savoured some of this in fantastically sophisticated form at Initial restaurant nearby. Marvelling at a striking combination of salmon and spinach, I was told that Initial is the fourth of Caen’s restaurants to win a Michelin star, another award newly made in February 2016.
I headed west to Bayeux, taking in the town’s famous tapestry and its ornate cathedral before calling in at Au Fin Gousier, a wine and cider shop in the centre of the medieval town. Here the proprietor, Michel Peron, conducts tastings on request. We sipped three AOP ciders, made from at least 25 different apple varieties, and took in the aromas of calvados – at 40 per cent proof this apple spirit was more than a tad too strong to be imbibed as an afternoon pick-me-up.
Take a 15-minute drive north of Bayeux on the quiet, rolling D6 and you reach Port en Bessin. Painted by both Seurat and Signac, this charming fishing village is the de facto scallop capitol of France. I strolled its restaurant-lined inner harbour watching colourful boats unloading their nets and then walked along its extraordinary beach where in place of pebbles and sand you find thousands of scallop shells. You need to visit between October and April for the scallop season – best of all come for the Goût du Large seafood festival in mid November.
Moving east round the coast, I stopped at the small village of Asnelles near the WWII floating harbour at Arromanches. Here is a pretty-as-a-picture bakery that has been making biscuits for some 112 years. Everything, Antoine Cormier the owner and baker explained, is very traditional, from the recipe to the ingredients used: eggs from local farms and, key to the taste, PDO (protected designation of origin) butter from Normandy’s Isigny area further west.
[Photo: Antoine Cormier in his kitchen; Les Sables d'Asnelles]
There was more traditional fare that evening. I spent the night inland at the village of Sainte Marguerite de Viette where Les Petits Matins Bleu is a complex of self-catering studios pleasingly set in an orchard. The owner, Anne Bourbeau, offers evening cookery classes in her house, so after a fortifying glass of pommeau (a mix of apple juice and calvados) we set to, making supper. Normandy-style salad was prepared with raisins, homegrown walnuts and local lettuce accompanied by a vinaigrette that was uplifted by a bit more pommeau. Mains was a chicken casserole – cooked with cider and garnished with Normandy cream.
The following afternoon, having visited the Vallée de Seine and enjoyed a tour of the innovative Boeuf Cidre farm, I made tracks back to the coast through farmland gently undulating under big skies. Before heading to catch a ferry home from Le Havre I stopped at the ancient town of Fécamp. I walked along its harbour, a vibrant venue of fishing boats, yachts and restaurants, then headed a few streets up to Palais Bénédictine. Museum, art gallery, distillery all in one, this is an extraordinary place created by the wealthy wine merchant Alexandre Le Grand in the 1860s.
A brilliant pioneer in marketing, he revived the making of an ancient elixir created by Benedictine monks, renamed it Bénédictine and constructed a glorious neo-gothic palace in which to display his distillery to the world, alongside a gallery showing his fabulous art collection. People came in droves. They still do. And most leave with a bottle of Bénédictine bought on site for they show you how to make wonderful cocktails here – and, like so much in Normandy, they are deliciously piquant.
Words and photos by Harriet O'Brien
Disclosure: Harriet O'Brien travelled to Normandy with Brittany Ferries and her trip was organised by Normandy Tourism as part of Greentraveller's Guide to Normandy. Harriet has full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Normandy in the summer of 2016. All opinions are the author’s own.