Autumn in Normandy means food festivals galore. As one of France’s biggest apple-growing regions, there are apple festivals across the region almost every weekend in September and October! Last September, I accompanied a journalist on a trip to research the traditions behind Normandy’s ubiquitous apple. Our travel plans happily coincided with the popular Fête de la Pomme, du Cidre et du Fromage [Apple, Cider and Cheese Festival] in the pretty town of Conches-en-Ouches, so we decided to stop by.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon and as we arrived in Conches, we realised that the word was out – cars were parked on every spare bit of pavement. After circling the main town square several times, we found a parking place and then followed the crowd. After descending a winding flight of stairs to the bottom of the valley, we arrived at the festival. The event takes place in a huge park that was bathed in sunshine. Hundreds of people had gathered and there was a sense of festivity in the air and, of course, apples everywhere.
We grabbed a cup of delicious apple juice and wandered on, before coming across a stage where traditional dances were being performed in traditional Norman costume. Between the dances, a presenter was talking the spectators through the different outfits, much to everyone’s amusement.
We moved on to the market stalls to browse the fabulous fare from producers who had come to Conches from all across the region. I spotted a couple of people whom I had already met, including Patricia of Les Saveurs Retrouvées, who had by now sold the vast majority of her macaroons, and the Cidre de Glace stall was doing a roaring trade. I also recognised the familiar faces, or fabulous costumes rather, of the Confrèrie des Goustes, aka the apple pastry brotherhood.
As we left the park, queues were beginning to form next to the food stalls and the vast seating area, bathed in autumnal sunshine, was packed. There was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, as families chattered over a cider and some cheese and foodies caught up on the latest culinary innovations from the region. All in all, it was the perfect food festival and we wished we didn’t have to leave so soon, but we knew that as we were in Normandy, another appley adventure was sure to be waiting for us just around the corner!
Normandy is a food lover’s paradise, particularly in autumn, so why not hop across the Channel and visit some of the foodie festivals taking place across the region? From cheese and seafood to the iconic apple, here is our pick of 5 Norman festivals not to be missed this year:
1) 17-18 September: Fête du Fromage (Neufchâtel-en-Bray)
Neufchâtel is the oldest of Normandy’s four cheeses and is easy to identify – it’s the heart-shaped one! Legend has it that during the Hundred Years War between France and England, Norman girls would give English soldiers Neufchâtel as a token of their affection. To celebrate their rich, creamy cheese, the town of Neufchâtel-en-Bray, 45 minutes inland from the port of Dieppe, created its very own cheese festival. The event makes for a fun day out where the family can pick up Neufchâtel recipes, go for a tasting or two, buy local products at the market and enjoy entertainment galore. There will also be a Neufchâtel‑themed evening meal followed by music and dancing.
2) 20-22 October: Festival Mange Ta Soupe! (Carentan)
The French truly have a festival for most types of food, and Mange ta soupe! [Eat your soup!] festival is surely proof of that. Situated in Carentan, an hour’s drive from the port of Cherbourg, this festival has got soup enjoyment down to a fine art. Boasting a soup bar, cooking lessons, local producers’ market, car boot sale, book fair, live music, fireworks display and the all‑important soup contest, this festival will give you a warm feeling inside.
3) 28-29 October: Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques et des Fruits de Mer (Villers‑sur‑Mer)
Seafood fans won’t want to miss Viller-sur-Mer’s annual Scallop and Seafood Festival, which takes place a mere 20-minute drive along the coast east of Ouistreham. Enjoy a day at the seaside with a difference, tasting and learning about seafood, in particular the town’s renowned coquilles Saint-Jacques [scallops] from the region’s leading chefs. Stroll through market stalls run by local fishermen selling their wares, listen to live music and entertainment for all the family, and pick up tasty local products to take home.
An hour’s drive inland from the port of Le Havre, Lieurey welcomes 10,000 visitors each year to its popular herring fair. This tradition dates back to the 15th century when merchants delivering herrings to soldiers stopped in the village during a snowstorm, and decided to sell the fish to the villagers so it wouldn’t go to waste. Every year, horse‑drawn carriages bring kilos of herring to Lieurey to commemorate what happened centuries ago. Activities include a herring contest, stalls selling herring‑themed treats, cooking demonstrations, family rides in a horse-drawn carriage and pony rides for the children.
5) 11-12 November: Fête du cidre à l’ancienne (Le Sap)
An hour south of Ouistreham, the village of Le Sap’s annual cider festival celebrates the ancient art of cider making and the traditional practice of using a working horse to power the apple press, demonstrations of which take place at regular times over the two days. There’s a great atmosphere, with music, dancing, pony rides for the children, and market stalls selling local products. In addition to your freshly pressed cider, you can also enjoy a baguette with your favourite Norman cheese or an apple tart.
Did you know that until the beginning of the 19th century, Calvados was just a drink that was produced on farms to be enjoyed with the family rather than sold? I was keen to learn all about this most Norman of tipples, and decided to pay a visit to the Busnel Distillery, the first major Calvados distillery in France, found in 1820 by Ernest Busnel in Pont-l’Evêque.
Ernest started out his career by distilling apple eau de vie in his cellars, producing what would eventually become the apple brandy we know today as Calvados. Some time later, his son Georges took over the business and gave his name to the distillery and brand. Somewhat of a perfectionist, Georges was keen to select the very best apples for his Calvados. ‘No good Calvados without good apples,’ he would say. Every day he would oversee the complex distilling process and scour Normandy countryside for new spirits. It is said that Georges went as far as to mix twelve spirits together, all of different vintages, on his quest to find the perfect blend.
George’s son Pierre was also to fall under the spell of Calvados. At an early age, he developed a passion for distilling, and in 1927 he started running the family business with his father. By this point, Calvados Busnel was being distributed throughout France. In 1938, the Busnel distillery became the sole supplier of Calvados to the famous transatlantic liner the Queen Mary. Already a national brand in France, bottles of Calvados Busnel started crossing the Atlantic to be enjoyed by American consumers. By 1960, Busnell was the premiere Calvados supplier in France.
At the end of the 1970s, the Busnel Distillery expanded and took over a cider factory in the village of Cormeilles. Here it has remained ever since, the result of four generations of skilled Calvados producers which has evolved into a successful tourist attraction offering a unique insight into the family business through a guided tour of the distillery.
We started our tour with a short film telling the story of the Busnel family. Next, we were shown the cider apples as they were gathered in the yard, waiting to be washed and pressed into apple juice.
We were then taken to the fermentation and distillation room. After pressing, the juice is poured into the tanks in this room, where it remains for 3 to 6 months. Thanks to the natural yeast found in the apple skins, the apple juice ferments (i.e. the sugar gradually turns into alcohol) to become cider. Fermentation depends mainly on the climate. The milder the winter, the faster the fermentation is, and vice versa. Although the cider produced during this process is not intended to be sold, it is important that it is of a high quality, otherwise it will not produce good Calvados.
Distillation begins once the apple juice has turned into cider (which contains around 6% alcohol) Between January and June, the smell of hot apples lingers in the air, as the cider is heated and then condensed in order to filter out all of the alcohol and aromatic flavours. The longer you distill the cider in the still, the more complex its flavour will be and the more you can sell it for. Single continuous distillation takes place in what is know as a column still, whereas double distillation takes place in a traditional alembic pot. More prestigious vintages such as the AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge are distilled twice to produce more complex flavours, whereas other types of Calvados are only distilled once, and retain a fresh, clean apple flavour as a result.
The liquid that emerges from the still is known as eau de vie, and contains about 70% alcohol. It can only be bottled two years after distillation (or even later than that, as mentioned above) so during this period, it ages in oak casks and becomes more aromatic, thus turning into Calvados. As time passes, floral and fruity notes mix with almond, vanilla, dried fruit flavours and hues of liquorice. Unlike many types of Calvados, the Calvados produced at the Busnel distillery does not have a very woody taste, as this was thought to mask other flavours. Once bottled, the Calvados does not develop any more in taste and can be stored for more years without going off. We took a wander around the barrel room, which stores both AOC Calvados and AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge varieties.
Once we reached the end of our tour, we were treated to a tasting session, during which we tried the AOC Calvados, AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge, Pommeau de Normandie and the Busnel Distillery’s very own appley take on Bailey, Liqueur Crème au Calvados – I was so good I bought bttles of everything to take home!
The Distillerie Busnel is open from 10am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-7pm every day from March to mid-November, and on weekends from November to the end of December. The guided tour can be in French, English or German and lasts about 90 minutes with a tasting session included, and costs €2 per person.
This is the time of year when the living is easy in Normandy…
Last June, my husband and I decided to set off for a short break in search of scenery, good food and some relaxation before the school summer hols began. We headed down the River Seine and followed the Normandy Fruit Trail from Notre-Dame-de-Bicquetuit to Duclair. We went at a leisurely pace and spent the day driving the 40 miles within the Boucles de la Seine Normande Regional Nature Park, taking in the fruit orchards, chalk cliffs and thatched cottages.
There are cascades of fruit blossom in the spring and these translate into juicy cherries from June onwards and plums a little later on in the summer. Strawberries, redcurrants and raspberries then come into season and can be bought directly from the local growers along the trail. The trail is dotted with ready-made stalls at the entrance to farms with freshly picked fare for sale straight to the hungry visitor. In autumn, the colours change as does the fruit when pears and apples come into their own.
Another highlight for us was the weekly market at Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville, where we stocked up on cheese, baguette and Mara des Bois strawberries for the last course of our al fresco picnic.
This stretch of the Seine has its own micro-climate and, thanks to its fertile soil, has proven a perfect location for fruit growing, a practice dating right back to monasteries in the Middle Ages, when apple and pear tree orchards were established. The fruit trail also coincides with the Abbey Route, so history buffs can delight in a visit to the amazing Saint-Georges-de-Boscherville Abbey, with its formal rose gardens and architectural simplicity. Next stop is the must-see Jumièges Abbey, christened ‘the most beautiful ruins in France’ by local boy made good, Victor Hugo. We decided to treat ourselves to an overnight stay in Jumièges at the four star Le Clos des Fontaines, which boasts an outdoor pool, and headed into the village for a gastronomic dinner at Auberge des Ruines.
There is a handy online fruit trail booklet to guide you on your travels through this fruit fest. So whether you prefer the fun of hopping on and off the free ferry which crosses the Seine as you go from bank to bank, or you are of a more sporty persuasion and prefer to walk or cycle along the trail whilst tasting the fruit, the Normandy fruit trail is a great way of soaking up the local flavours and ambiance (and then burning off some calories)!
I love a good restaurant recommendation, especially when it comes from a local. I was planning a trip deep into rural Normandy in search of a new Norman foodie trend – red flesh apples – and needed a stop for lunch. My local partner Capucine suggested the restaurant Etape Louis XIII in the village of Beaumesnil, approximately halfway between Lisieux and Bernay. Chef Sébastien is part of a chef’s association, the Toques Normandes, who are passionate about working with Norman produce and exist to promote Norman cuisine.
No sooner do I arrive in the village when I round a corner and am suddenly awe-struck by the magnificent Château de Beaumesnil. It may be lunchtime but I have to stop for a photo.
I see a sign for a potager (kitchen garden to you and me) just down a path from the entrance to the chateau so I go to have a look. I learn later that they grow over 500 varieties of vegetables here, including some that are near extinction, and they host a vegetable festival every September.
Back in the car and in no time at all, I pass through the main hub of the village, and arrive at my destination. I park up and walk through a beautifully kept garden to reach a very pretty traditional Norman building with half-timbered façades and geraniums spilling out of the window boxes. The building dates from 1612 and was originally intended as a rectory – I then realise that the name alludes to this building dating to the reign of Louis XIII!
I step through the front door into a dimly lit wood-paneled entrance hall and am greeted by the lovely Aurélie, who ushers me into the dining room. A huge fire place dominates the room and acts as a divider between what must once have been two smaller rooms. The fire is lit and the room is cosy and intimate with a touch of sophistication.
There’s a very calm atmosphere as classical music plays gently in the background and the restaurant’s diners have hushed conversations across tables. The service is equally discreet and attentive.
There’s a good selection on the menu and the starters and deserts feature quite a few French and Norman classics with a bit of a twist. For starters there are warm oysters with Camembert, Saint-Jacques scallops or Andouille tart with apples and creamy Pommeau sauce, home-made foie gras on toast with a cinnamon biscuit.
I go straight in for the main and choose the plat du jour: salmon with a carrot purée and seasonal vegetables. It is deliciously tender and I detect cumin, a squeeze of orange and a garnish of fennel that liven the accompanying vegetables. It’s rich, flavoursome and just the right amount.
I would have been more than satisfied to stop there but when I declined a desert, the gentleman on the table next to me intervened and said that I couldn’t leave the restaurant without trying the calvados soufflé – he always orders two! My arm is sufficiently twisted…
Wow! I’ve tried calvados is a few culinary forms but this by far tops them all. It’s light, fluffy, melts in your mouth and emits a heavenly aroma. When I meet Chef Sébastien after my meal he tells me that when he took over the restaurant a few years ago, he learnt this recipe from his predecessor as it was a firm favourite with previous clients.
So there you have it, the Etape Louis XIII is well worth the journey, if only for the calvados soufflé! I expect you’ll be won over with the rest of the menu too. Two courses are priced at €25 and three are €33. Given the quality of my meal, this strikes me as excellent value. L’Etape Louis XIII is open for lunch and dinner every day except for Tuesday and Monday evenings. And while you’re there, why not pop by the Château de Beaumesnil? It’s known locally as the little Versailles and with its beautiful gardens, it’s well worth a visit.
Cidre de Glace is the new aperitif that’s been taking the Normandy foodie world by storm. Originating in Quebec, this new apple tipple is stronger than traditional Norman cider, is lightly syrupy in texture and has a delicious aromatic flavour.
In the Eure and Seine-Maritime regions of Normandy, an association of cider farmers has been working together to develop and promote a Norman Cidre de Glace. I visited two of these producers – Gérard Lenormand at his farm, Le Clos des Citots in Heurteauville across the Seine River from Jumièges Abbey and Marie Bourut at le Manoir du Val farm near Beaumesnil – to find out more about the new drink that everyone’s talking about.
The association produced its first line of Cidre de Glace in 2013. Marie explained that part of their motivation for developing this new drink was that cidre fermier is always popular in Normandy but is considered a rustic, country drink and sales remain static. With Cidre de Glace, the association wanted to create a high-end product that would spark a new interest in apple-based drinks.
Cidre de Glace was first discovered in Quebec in the 1990s when, instead of picking apples in the autumn before the frosts came, the apples were left on the tree to endure temperatures that could fall as low as -40°C. In January, the apples were picked in still freezing conditions, by which time the fruit was completely dehydrated. When the frozen apples were pressed and the juice slowly fermented, the result was a more concentrated, alcoholic cider.
With Norman winters much milder than in Quebec, the association worked on an alternative way to create a similar product. In late autumn, the apples are picked and pressed. Their juice is then frozen to -22°C and left for three weeks to form a giant ice cube where the water settles in the centre and the apple concentrate forms an outer layer. When this is slowly defrosted, the apple concentrate is collected and then slowly fermented cold to produce an alcohol at 11.4%.
When seven of the association’s cider farmers worked together to launch Upper Normandy’s Cidre de Glace in 2013, they produced 3,000 bottles. Two months later, they were sold out. Gérard told me that the success was in part, thanks to the French media taking great interest in their product. When people tried it for themselves, they loved it.
In 2014, another three farmers from the association joined the Cidre de Glace campaign and this time round, they collectively produced 10,000 bottles to sell in farm shops, restaurants and shops throughout the region.
All farmers in the association use the same packaging and work collaboratively on the promotion of the drink, but their farm is clearly identified on the label. From one farm to another, the flavour of the drink can vary greatly. Gérard told me that in his second year of production, he experimented by producing the concentrated alcohol of three separate types of apple – sweet, bitter and sharp – and finally mixed them together to create a balanced and harmonious flavour.
Finally, it was time to try some Cidre de Glace and see for myself what made it so special. Light, delicious, rich and yet not too sweet, I could imagine drinking this very chilled, yet Gérard assured me that it is best served between 8°C and 10°C and is particularly good paired with foie gras, cheese or an appley dessert. I brought back several bottles and friends have been thrilled with this new discovery. I just hope stocks last for my next visit to Normandy!
A picturesque medieval walled town overlooking the Varenne river, Domfront grew up around the strategically situated stronghold Domfront Castle in the sixth century. It was here that the dispossessed Henry Beauclerc, youngest son of William the Conqueror, rallied support among local lords and was eventually crowned Henry I of England in 1100 and Duke of Normandy in 1106.
At the crossroads where the regions of Normandy, Brittany and the Pays de la Loire meet, the Pays de Domfront is Normandy’s cider country and is known for its pear orchards, which are unique in Europe. Poiré (pear cider) produced in the Pays de Domfront is classified as AOP. It is the perfect accompaniment to every course from aperitif through to dessert and is particularly popular as an alternative to champagne/crémant during the festive period! I decided to visit one of the 20 producers of Poiré Domfront, Frédéric Pacory, who runs the Ferme des Grimaux cider farm with his wife Cathérine, to see what all the fuss was about.
These days, the surname ‘Pacory’ is inextricably linked to the Ferme des Grimaux, which lies deep in the heart of the Pays de Domfront. Boasting an abundance of apple and pear trees, this 49-acre plot of land was bought by Calvados connoisseur Marcel Pacory , Frédéric’s great-great grandfather, in 1939. So self-sufficent and impassioned by cider production was Marcel Pacory that he actually built his own tractor from scratch!
Marcel’s three sons, Paul, Claude and Marcel, were brought up running the family business alongside their father, and in 1953, Claude and Paul took over the farm. The Ferme des Grimaux was originally famed for the production of Calvados Domfrontais, which is very different from the Pays d’Auge Calvados that you might see on supermarket shelves in the UK, on account of the high percentage of poiré pears used along with cider apples, the soil (granite ad schist) and the single-pass distillation process. Domfront Calvados also differs from other Calvados appellations, thanks to its floral, fruity, mineral character. In 1971, the Fermes des Grimaux won the coveted first prize for Calvados production across all of Normandy. Six delicious Calvados samples, ranging from 1 to 12 years in age were judged by an expert panel, and the grand prize was presented by the President of the French Republic himself!
In 1960, Claude’s son Frédéric was born. By this point, farmers across France were beginning to hope that their offspring would embark on careers that didn’t involve farming, and Claude was no different. Frédéric studied a Baccaauréat in Science; however, his love for his heritage and and the family business led him back to agriculture, and he went on to study at Le Robillard Agricultural College near Caen. It was here that he met fellow cider enthusiast and future wife Catherine, who was also from the Pays de Domfront! Frédéric bought his uncle Paul’s share of the farm and in 1986 he took over the Ferme des Grimaux with Cathérine. The Ferme des Grimaux has since received several awards, in particular for its Calvados Domfrontais and its Poiré Domfront.
It is the Poiré Domfront that I have come to try today. Arriving late one afternoon in September, Frédéric greets me with a big smile and takes me on a tour of the orchards. ‘We must always remember that these pear trees are not ours but those of the generations who came before us,’ he tells me. ‘We are moving into modernity, but we must always respect and appreciate this rich heritage that came before us. Sometimes, when I am kneeling down, collecting and sorting pears, I think to myself how those who came before me did exactly the same over a century ago!’
It certainly would seem that the Ferme des Grimaux has moved with the times while retaining those all-important links to its past. Today, the farm has 800 pear trees and 600 apple trees, spread across 247 acres of land. This includes the original 49-acre plot where the oldest trees can be found, some of which are approaching 300 years old! As Frédéric tells me, the proverb goes: ‘100 years to mature, 100 years to bear fruit, 100 years to die’.
Poiré Domfront is a traditional drink which is the result of fermenting pear juice. There are 90 varieties of poiré pears, but the variety that surpasses them all is the plant de blanc. Juicy and acidic, Frédéric tells me that the Ferme des Grimaux uses mostly this variety, which gives Poiré Domfront its distinct flavour: fruity, aromatic, slightly acidic and naturally sparkling.
After my tour of the orchards, Frédéric treats me to a tasting session. I try out four types of Poiré Domfront produced at the Ferme des Grimaux, ranging in taste, quality and price, from the Poiré Fermier, tasty, fruity and not unlike good old scrumpy, to the more refined Poiré Domfront, which can only be described as refreshing, fruity and sparkling, not unlike a glass of bubbly!
‘Your favourite?’ asks Frédéric. ‘It has to be the most expensive one!’ I reply. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted. I had always imagined Normandy pear cider to be like the pear cider you’d find in a pub in the UK: synthetic-tasting, overly sweet and not very pear-like. This was the complete opposite. It dawned on me that there was a whole world of poiré-related fun out there – poiré as an aperatif, poiré with fish or chicken, poiré with dessert, poiré for special occasions…! The possibilities stretched out before me. I promptly bought a bottle of each type of poiré for good measure.
So there you have it, Poiré Domfront in a nutshell, the drink I never knew about that I now can’t get enough of! I simply can’t wait for my glass of poiré on Christmas Day now…
The Ferme des Grimaux cider farm is open all year round. Simply email Frédéric and Catherine in advance to arrange your visit – email@example.com – and stock up on poiré, cider, aperitifs, juices and Calvados galore!
Rouen is a firm favourite with tourists to Normandy. There’s just something about those multi-coloured, half-timbered houses, and gothic churches on every street corner. As French cities go, the ‘city of 100 bell towers’ (as Rouen was once called by French writer Victor Hugo) is up there with the prettiest of them.
For that reason, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Rouen pulls out all the stops when it comes to Noël. The festive fun, known as ‘Rouen Givré’ [Frosty Rouen] takes place over one week on 24‑31 December, and is well worth the ferry crossing/train journey. We’re talking masses of magical street lights here, all over the medieval city centre. In fact, more than eighty streets and squares are lit up for Christmas in Rouen. That’s a lot of light bulbs!
Best of all is the traditional Christmas market which takes place in front of Rouen Cathedral. This is Rouen at its finest – around 70 chalets selling local produce (cheese, cider, caramels…) as well as traditional arts and crafts, jewellery, nativity figurines and Christmas tree decorations galore. Have you ever wanted to hang a miniature Camembert on your Christmas tree? Well, now you can.
And mulled wine? Forget mulled wine.* At a Normandy Christmas market, there’s mulled cider in abundance, made with delicious apple juice and just the right amount of cinnamon. Those feeling brave could even go for hot Calvados and honey, a somewhat Norman take on a hot Toddy.
Having exhausted the foodie options at the market, I then headed over to the Place du Vieux Marché. Dominated by the huge modern church of Saint Joan of Arc, this square is where the doomed Maid of Orléans met her fiery fate. Between 24 November and 8 January, it is also home to a big wheel, from which you can enjoy a breath-taking panorama over Rouen’s higgledy-piggledy rooftops, the Gros Horloge (Rouen’s ornate astronomical clock) and the gothic towers of Rouen Cathedral.
The big wheel also has the added bonus of being on the same square as the oldest inn in Rouen, in fact, the oldest inn in France, La Couronne, which dates all the way back to 1345! Hiding behind a traditional half-timbered façade is a medieval world of wooden beamed ceilings, lead framed windows, worn upholstered chairs and heavy red curtains. It was like stepping back in time. Picking up the menu, I realised why the place had been such a hit with Sartre, Dalí, John Wayne and Princess Grace of Monaco, and why it’s so popular to this day! Lobster, langoustine, lamb… my mouth was watering just looking at the options.
I decided to go with the menu recommended to me by Rouen Tourism Office, the ‘Saveurs Impressionnistes’ [Impressionist flavours] taster menu. Dishes included Normandy beef, some more of that famous Camembert, oysters caught in the Manche, Rouen-style duck marinated in the popular Normandy aperitif Pommeau, and they just kept on coming.
I left the restaurant, and Rouen Givré, feeling fulfilled, full and slightly thankful that I didn’t live in foodie Rouen all year round… I would certainly be considerably larger if I did!
For a full list of activities going on during Rouen Givré, visit: www.rouen.fr/rg2016 (website in French only)