Sail from England into any of Normandy’s four cross-Channel ports and you won’t have to venture far into town to stock up on a wealth of French festive fare for your home celebrations. The main Christmas meal in France is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve – le Réveillon de Noël – often starting with foie gras or shellfish before a main course of goose, duck or turkey. Next comes the cheeseboard, accompanied by a fresh green salad before the grand finale of a scrumptious chocolate Yule log.
Shop windows are full of gourmet temptations for the festive season and many non-perishable products are easy to bring home – jars of fish soup for instance; Christmas biscuits and sweets in wonderful packaging; and drinks from fruit juices to liqueurs. But you’ll need to remember the cool bag and ice packs to bring back fresh produce.
Can’t get to Normandy before Christmas? You can serve similar fare for your New Year dinner party – le Diner de la Saint-Sylvestre or le Réveillon du Jour de l’An– either as a sit-down meal or a less formal buffet. But the menu works any time you just want to treat your friends to a gourmet French meal, perhaps a family birthday or anniversary.
You could do all your food shopping near the ferry terminals, but there are also specialties you could buy direct from producers in the vicinity. Here’s where to look…
Classified amongst Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, Barfleur on the eastern tip of the Cotentin peninsula near Cherbourg is famous for its mussels. Then hop down the coast to Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue for fresh oysters.
Close to the departmental border with Calvados, Isigny-sur-Mer is home to Caramels d’Isigny where you can buy rich butter caramels in pretty boxes, the perfect present for anyone with a sweet tooth. There’s salted caramel spread and coulis too, caramel jam and soft nougat, plus a fascinating visitor centre to explore.
Crisp butter biscuits are another Normandy favourite, so on your way back to Cherbourg, stop off at Sortosville-en-Beaumont between Barneville-Carteret and Bricquebec, where La Maison du Biscuit is open seven days a week from 0830 to 1900. And not just for biscuits, but a wealth of Norman produce too – lovely for gifts but also for your own culinary creations. There’s even a tempting tearoom.
The local speciality of tripe cooked in cider may not be high on your Yuletide menu plan, but the area’s signature dessert of cinnamon rice pudding – teurgoule – is a firm favourite with many British visitors. Ask at any local deli. And the Christmas market stalls in Place Saint-Sauveur are laden with edible goodies from foie gras to festive desserts, pain d’épices to winter drinks.
Caen is the gateway to the Route du Cidre that winds around the Pays d’Auge area of Calvado linking apple farmers and producers of cider, Pommeau apple aperitif and, of course, Calvados apple brandy. And for junior drinkers and those at the wheel, you’ll find farm-fresh apple and pear juice.
Three of Normandy’s signature cheeses also hail from Calvados, named after their town or village of origin. The white rind of Camembert is caused by a white fungus and is meant to be eaten, the flavour maturing as the cheese ages. Livarot has a washed golden rind, a creamy texture and nutty taste, whilst Pont-l’Évêque is square with a white rind and full flavour.
Overlooking the mouth of the Seine, Le Havre is a big coffee port, so there’s no better place to stock up than at the city’s indoor market. And to enhance your Normandy cheeseboard, take a pleasant drive across the Seine-Maritime département to Neufchâtel-en-Bray, where you can buy the classic heart-shaped cheese of the same name direct from dairy farmers like Marie Lévêque at Bailleul Neuville.
Dieppe has centuries of tradition as a major fishing port and on top of the wonderful fresh fish and seafood that’s landed daily, the town also offers products such as rich seafood soup and vacuum-packed smoked fish. Browse the Saturday morning market, voted by the French as the best in the country, to meet the producers between 7am and 1:30pm.
About our guest writer: Gillian Thornton is widely known in the travel journalism industry as a France specialist. Particular interests include gastronomy, history, heritage, walking, nature and wildlife. Regular commissions include the People’s Friend, France Today and Silver Travel Advisor. To read more of Gillian’s work, visit her website.
For information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourism website.
Cover photo © D. Parry | Text: G. Thornton