Not far from the D-Day Landing beaches in the heart of Normandy’s scenic Cotentin Peninsula lies the Maison du Biscuit in Sortosville-en-Beaumont. Every year, some 500,000 visitors make a stop here; not for the charms of the quaint village, but in search of the perfect biscuit.
Like something out of a dolls house or film set, the Maison du Biscuit occupies a row of buildings whose façade takes you back to a typical shopping street at the turn of the 19th century. I visited on a grey afternoon in autumn and the warm twinkling light from inside seemed very inviting.
Stepping into the shop, I was greeted with mouth-watering aromas of chocolate and almonds. Inside, the oldie-worldie theme continued. There was a bustle of activity as shoppers explored the nooks and crannies all filled with mouth-watering treats and staff danced around helping customers with their requests.
The family-run Maison du Biscuit has been refining its recipes since 1903, when Paul Burnof first opened his boulangerie in nearby village La Haye du Puits. Over five generations, recipes and techniques have been tried, tested and refined and passed on from father to son. Each generation developed a specialty, from bread, brioche and patisserie to biscuits and chocolate. The business has expanded to today’s huge success but this has not been without its challenges.
Chefs and bakers in Normandy are hugely fortunate to have an abundance of quality produce available from the region. Even in post-war Normandy, when third generation Maxime ran the boulangerie-patisserie, eggs, butter and flour were available and by mixing in a bit of sugar, he started the family’s first line of biscuits. The locals were delighted and the business flourished, becoming the Biscuiterie du Cotentin.
When son Marc then took over the business, he was approached by a supermarket chain who wanted to stock these biscuits. Soon after the contract was signed, Marc and his wife Carol were faced with a dilemma. The supermarket put pressure on them to add preservatives to their products in order for them to last on supermarket shelves. Unwillingly they obliged but soon felt that this compromised the integrity of their craft and decided to abandon the business that their family had worked so hard to grow.
After a two-year break and plenty of reflection, Marc and Carol were ready to start again. The hallmark of their new business would be quality local ingredients with no additives or preservatives to produce exceptional artisan products made with that family savoir-faire. This all began in their tiny 10m2 garage. With no shop of their own, they travelled around the region selling their cakes and biscuits at farmers’ markets. The all-essential second-hand van in this early operation was even paid for in biscuits! Three years later, Marc and Carol found an old ruined dairy and decided to transform it into their shop.
The tiny shop opened in 1995 and as word spread, demand grew and they slowly expanded their premises. During renovation works, Marc and Carol happened upon archive photos of the row of village shops in the early 20th century and they decided to renovate the building facades to take it back to how it looked once upon a time. The colourful façade, beautiful interior and quirky details such as an old cash register and piano used as furniture to showcase products, make shopping here a pleasurable experience.
Cover photo © M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board | Writer: Maggie McNulty