Normandy is famous for its native breed of speckled brown and white cows that produce some of the richest, creamiest milk in France. Not only is this milk transformed into delicious cream and cheese but those with a sweet tooth will be pleased to hear that here you’ll also find a ridiculously good range of salted caramels.
In the bay of the world famous UNESCO-listed Mont-Saint-Michel, dairy farmers Sylvie and Andre launched their sweetie business, Cara-Meuh, in 2009 after an interesting turn of events. On a recent press trip, we popped into Cara-Meuh to hear how it all began.
Until April 2009, Sylvie and Andre were continuing generations of dairy farming tradition, raising Norman cattle that roamed free to enjoy the delicious herbs of the salt marshes in the summer and fresh grass in the winter. Then there was a national milk crisis in France – you may remember the dramatic photos of the road leading to the Mont-Saint-Michel flooded with milk. Sylvie and Andre were among those who poured their milk down the drain. Literally pouring away their livelihood was the last thing they would have chosen to do but as Sylvie told us, it was a powerful and symbolic act and one that attracted the international media that helped them fight their cause.
The crisis had erupted when supermarkets demanded more competitive prices for milk. The French mega-dairies, who package and distribute milk to the supermarkets, announced that they would drop the price paid to farmers. This would lower the price paid per litre of milk to what it had been in 1981. For small and family-run farms, this wouldn’t even be enough to cover the cost of the milk production; it was totally unsustainable. After weeks of strikes, the French government put pressure on the mega-dairies to enter into discussion with producers. A better price was agreed but it was still unattractive to the small farmer. Unwilling to abandon their herd, Sylvie and Andre looked for a way to make a profitable business from their farm. Given the excellent quality of their milk and proximity to one of France’s most visited tourist sites, they decided that there could be a market for caramels.
Cara-Meuh organic caramels are a mix between British fudge and toffees – they’re soft but chewy, creamy, and utterly delicious. Unlike most caramels, milk instead of sugar is the main ingredient in this Norman variety.
We started our visit in an exhibition space on the upper floor of a beautiful old barn conversion next door to the caramel production room. There’s a permanent exhibition of hundreds of old cheese labels and milk bottles from the Manche region of Normandy.
After watching a video that explained the caramel making process, we headed next door to production room. Through a glass wall we could see the huge copper vats where the milk and glucose syrup are cooked for several hours. Once the mixture had been poured out to cool, Sylvie fed it through a machine to flatten in before passing it through another machine that cut it into strips and then sweet-sized pieces. Finally, the 30kg of sweets produced from each batch were wrapped by hand, as demonstrated by Andre’s father.
Next it was onto the farm shop to sample the varieties of these delicious caramels. Housed on the ground floor of the rustic barn conversion, an old boat was used as a quirky way to display bags of the sweeties and caramel sauce. The caramels come in a huge range of flavours and we sampled just a few of the many varieties – calvados, nut, chocolate and apple – the calvados flavour was amazing – most definitely my favourite!
Cara-Meuh is open throughout the year, so if you’re visiting the Mont-Saint-Michel, this is the perfect spot to satisfy your craving for something sweet! For more information, visit the Cara-Meuh website.
For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.
All photos and text © Maggie McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board