Aside from the Michelin stars and legendary classic cuisine, there’s another style of gastronomy the French do very well: the picnic, or rather, le pique-nique. The very word derives from the French words for ‘pick’ and ‘nique’ meaning small thing, so little wonder the French are good at lunch or indeed dinner out in the fresh air, ideally with a view for the eyes to feast on.
In Normandy, much of the region’s local produce is ideal for packing up for a day out. Morning markets are the place to stock up, so after a stop at the boulangerie for a fresh baguette, we buy blocks of creamy beurre d’Isigny to slather on top. Next on the list is one or two of the region’s rich fromages, from heart-shaped neufchâtel to creamy camembert, which we slice in chunks and swallow down with grapes.
Markets are also a good place to pick up terrines or rillettes, a kind of pâté made with shredded pork, duck, often made with a hint of pommeau or calvados. When it comes to apples, most patisseries offer a delicious tarte aux pommes for dessert – drizzle a slice with crème d’Isigny – or we devour strawberries with more of that decadent cream. And to drink? The best Normandy cider of course (or apple juice for the kids)!
Once you’ve gathered the contents of the picnic, the next question is where to eat it. I’m always delighted to find so many picnic tables all over France, whether its an ‘aire’ on the motorway, a village park, or the picnic area of a major tourist attraction (often under cover to protect picnickers from rain). The French notion of ‘égalité’ means that everyone has a place to eat – whereas in Britain, we’re inevitably funnelled into a café where signs read ‘picnicking prohibited’. The other advantage to picnicking is that you can eat anywhere and at any time, and while restaurants tend to stick to strict service times – 12-2pm for lunch, and from 7pm for dinner – if you’re hungry at 11am, tuck in.
Normandy’s beaches are, of course, the perfect picnic venue, and we found some astonishingly empty beaches last summer on the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. The vast fine sand beaches at Montmartin-sur-Mer and Gouville-sur-Mer are beautiful, but also so quiet there isn’t so much as an ice cream kiosk – making a picnic the only choice. Another day, we went into the town of Granville and, as the tide was low, we followed the steps down the beach below the Haute Ville – the historic district which teeters on a promontory looking out towards Jersey – and picnicked before pottering about in the rock pools.
On another trip, we rolled off the ferry at Cherbourg at dawn and found ourselves tucking into a hastily assembled breakfast picnic from the boulangerie and just-opening-up cheese van at Barfleur, munching it in the car (there was a cold wind!) as we stared out over its dramatic harbour.
Further east, the beaches beneath the chalky cliffs at Étretat, which so inspired the Impressionist painters, also made for a perfect picnic spot – and with the beach being pebbly, we didn’t find sand in our sandwiches.
Inland, we’ve found idyllic picnic spots on looking over sleepy village greens in the Perche Regional Natural Park.
At the Château de Carrouges, near Alençon, we picnicked in the orchard, overlooked by the moated chateau’s grand turreted gatehouse.
And in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, we sat on a bench overlooking the town’s stately lake, eating our sandwiches, followed by macarons, caramels and chocolates bought from the many foodie boutiques in the town. And if ever there was a good excuse to buy a few more extra treats in the local patisserie, confiserie or chocolaterie, then surely a picnic is it?
About our guest writer: Carolyn Boyd is a travel and food writer who contributes to national newspapers and magazines. Sign up for her regular France Traveller newsletter and visit carolynboyd.net/go-to-France for articles organised by region and subject.
For information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourism website.
Cover photo © S. Lorkin / Anibas Photography