On her many travels through Normandy, guest writer Carolyn Boyd has discovered how to enjoy the region’s apple produce in each of the four seasons…
As frost crunches underfoot in the orchards and a new year begins, so too does Normandy’s calendar of festivities and activities celebrating all things apple. While autumn may be the time most people think of celebrating the region’s most famous fruit, there are ways to sip, gulp and indulge in them all year round.
A few years ago, en route to Monet’s garden at Giverny, I stopped off for lunch in the warm and cosy dining room of Beaumesnil’s Étape Louis XIII restaurant. As an open fire crackled in the hearth, I tucked into chef Sebastien Boullay’s signature dessert – a calvados soufflé – the most decadent and soothing dessert. Though I’m sure the rest of the meal was just as heavenly, that pillow of sweetness followed by a kick of calvados was sublime. However you come to taste calvados – sipped at the end of a meal or even between each course as the daredevils do as a trou normand – the apple brandy is the ideal way to warm the cockles when temperatures fall and the rolling hills of rural Normandy are brightened by a glistening frost.
This season is also when many orchards are making ice cider; the idea behind this sweet cider was adopted by many farms from Québec, where the apples are left to freeze on the trees before being harvested which results in a higher sugar content. The result is a sweet nectar, bursting with apple flavour – sip it as an aperitif or try alongside the cheese course as it marries well with the local Neufchâtel cheese. It can be hard to find, but look out for it in delicatessens and épiceries fines if you want to take it home.
As the countryside begins to wake up to spring, the orchards become a blaze of white blossom. On a family trip to a farm-stay at Un Lit au Pré in the Orne département a few years ago, I didn’t expect to see such beauty. As we explored the countryside around the farm – pottering down narrow lanes, directions marked with ancient blue road-signs – the orchards were a jaw-dropping display of white and pale pink. In farm shops, we shopped for sweet and refreshing apple juice and the aperitif pommeau (a mix of calvados and apple juice) to sip on the deck of our safari tent; in cafés we scoffed apple tarts and the kids devoured crêpes topped with stewed apple.
In May and June, the blossom gives way to the greenest of leaves and fruit comes into bud. It’s also the perfect time to sip local cider on café terraces and to take bottles of apple juice to the beach for picnics. If you call in at the many calvados distilleries, the cellars will bring cool relief on a hot day: on a visit to Château de Breuil near Caen, I inhaled the heady scent of calvados in the cool air of their ancient cellars, staring up at the roof beams, created like the upturned hull of a boat by local craftsmen, before stepping out, blinking into the blazing sunlight.
As late summer turns to autumn, and those green leaves become a riot of colour, the apple harvest springs into action. One of my favourite ever festivals to visit was the Apple, Cider and Cheese Festival in Conches-en-Ouches, a tiny little town not far from Évreux. As the low sun glimpsed through the avenue of trees in the town centre, we crunched through fallen leaves and down a steep path to the festival site – a huge field that was alive with all manner of apple-related celebrations. We strolled along the rows upon rows of stalls where from local producers sold their cider, pommeau and calvados from under striped awnings. Mighty Percheron horses pulled carts around the site, giving rides to children, and dancers in traditional Normandy costume – bonnets included – spun around each other on stage. I sipped a warm apple cider, breathing in the celebratory atmosphere, and fell just a little deeper in love with Normandy and its own love of apples.
Carolyn Boyd is a writer and editor specialising in France. Visit her website at www.carolynboyd.net for further articles and recommendations.
For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourism website.
All photos and text © C. Boyd / Normandy Tourism