When it comes to food, fun and festivities, the Norman city of Caen ticks every box. Situated in the département of Calvados, famous for its apple brandy of the same name, its cider and its ripe creamy cheeses (Livarot and Pont-l’Evêque), Caen is a lively university town boasting fantastic restaurants, bars, medieval landmarks and much more.
My recent foodie press trip to Caen was organised with two key objectives -to visit the brand new gastronomy exhibition À Table! at the Musée de Normandie and to explore Caen as a foodie destination.
Running until March 2017, the À Table! exhibition focuses on the tradition of food in Normandy from the 17th century up to the 20th century, and the pleasure that the Normans derive from sitting down and enjoying a meal together. My journalists and I were guided through several different sections, which concentrated on everything from the invention of modern and regional cuisines, the relationship between the cook and gourmet eater to the joy of eating in Normandy and even the intricacies of setting the table. A particular highlight was a vast collection of artwork used in food advertising over the years – think of all of the assorted artwork found on Camembert packets and you get the idea. There’s no-one who does food advertising quite like the French!
Following the exhibition we were lucky enough to be invited on a foodie-themed Segway tour of Caen. By this point, the sun had set and the Christmas lights had come on, making it a really festive atmosphere. Anyone who has been on a Segway before will know that it takes a little while to acclimatise but once we had got the hang of it, we were ready and raring to go! We were lucky enough to be seeing the sights with Com’On Gyro, who have just started running guided tours of the city. We opted for the ‘foodie tour’ (naturally)!
Starting at Caen Castle, we headed to the Abbaye aux Hommes, the spectacular Norman abbey commissioned by William Duke of Normandy to appease the Pope, who opposed his decision to marry his cousin Matilda of Flanders. William the Conqueror’s tomb lies in the abbey, and is well worth a visit, although it is unclear as to how much of him is actually buried there as his grave, along with many others, was looted during the Religious Wars in the 17th century.
Either way, the Abbey aux Hommes, which sits proudly next to the vast and unmissable Hôtel de Ville, is a glorious example of Norman architecture at its finest, and it is testament to the skill of builders at the time that it remains in such superb condition today. December is a particularly good time to enjoy this part of town as there is a big wheel on the Espanade Jean-Marie Louvel, from which visitors can enjoy stunning views of the Abbaye aux Hommes, the Hôtel de Ville and the ruined church, Saint-Etienne-le-Vieux, a symbol of Caen and poignant reminder of the devastation suffered by the city during the Second World War.
On to the beautiful Place Saint-Sauveur, just around the corner. Until 28 December 2016, Caen will be holding a large Christmas Market on this square. As well as all of the staple must-buy Norman products, there is festive mulled cider, crêpes with Camembert and assorted French sweet treats – nougat, macaroons, nuts dipped in toffee, the list goes on…
We turned right down the Rue Froide, so-named because this is apparently the road down which William had Matilda tied to a horse by her hair and dragged kicking and screaming after he found out that she had been unfaithful. She was allegedly treated with indifference by the street’s inhabitants, leading her to comment on what a ‘cold road’ it was. Surely not, my journalists and I protested, for it was a love match between William and his queen? Our tour guide Florence from the Caen Tourist Office responds that it could just as easily be named Rue Froide because the road runs from south-east to north-west and is a bit of a wind tunnel.
Not wanting our view of the the Conqueror and first Norman King of England to be tarnished, we agreed that it must surely be the latter explanation and were led into a wine merchant’s called BiBoViNo, where local sommelier Benoît Leclerc was waiting for us with a glass of vin chaud, bread and Camembert and some yummy tergoule (Normandy rice pudding).
Our foodie encounter at BiBoViNo was followed a hop and a skip next door for a glass of cidre glacé and a snifter of Calvados at La Boîte à Calva, a shop specialising in Norman products: Calvados, cider, locally-brewed beer, regional cheese and Isigny caramels, to name but a few. Suitably fed and watered, my journalists and I got back on our Segways (on which we were now quite the experts) and headed back to Caen Castle. Quite how we would now manage the next stage of the foodie press trip, namely a three-course dinner, was beyond us. One thing we were sure of, however, was that Caen was certainly tapping into its true potential as a foodie destination!
The À Table! exhibition is running at the Musée de Normandie until 5 March 2017 (Wednesday to Sunday, entry: €3.50).
For information on travelling to Normandy, visit: http://bit.ly/howtogettonormandy
For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.