La Renaissance’s star is rising

It is not often that you get to eat in a Michelin-starred establishment. Which is why, when offered the opportunity to do just that, I jumped at it. On 1 February 2016, Arnaud Viel, chef at La Renaissance restaurant/hotel in Argentan, was awarded his first Michelin star, bringing the total number of Michelin starred restaurants in the Orne département up to three!

Fittingly, Arnaud hails from Argentan. Making his debut in Paris at the 5-star Sofitel Hotel at the Centre of New Industries and Technologies (CNIT), he went on to be a finalist in the French Dessert Championships in 1996 and the Lauréate d’Or in 1997. But he never forgot his roots, and returned to Normandy to work as a chef at Argentan’s Auberge de l’Ancienne Abbaye.

In 1998, Arnaud opened his own restaurant/hotel La Renaissance with wife Cécilia. Together, they came up with a stylish design for the hotel and devised a whole host of delicious specialties to serve at the restaurant.

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So it was that earlier this month I found myself dining with three journalists and my colleague at La Renaissance, enjoying a deliciously refreshing cocktail of Calvados and tonic with lemon and lime, accompanied by what can only described as the most intricate canapé selection of foie gras, carrot purée, feta parcel with caviar and horseradish with soured cream. One word in particular came to mind – yum!IMG_0587 - Copy.JPG

We were then led into the sumptuous dining room, which looked out onto the hotel grounds (and might I add, a rather appealing spa), sat down at our table and were presented with the menu and a delectable sorbet and popcorn amuse-bouche.

And what a menu!

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Tuna tartar served with cold cucumber soup and creamy burrata cheese:

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A choice of either line-caught loin of yellow pollock with fried red onions, artichokes, wild mushrooms, oyster croquette and creamy garlic sauce or the chef’s choice of meat fresh from the market (which was pork on this occasion):

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The ‘pre-dessert’ – praline pastry, chocolate cherry lollipop and pistachio macaroon:

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And to finish, the first Gariguette strawberries of the season served with caramelised rhubard, rose, basil and strawberry and rhubarb sorbet:

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Suffice it to say, Chef Arnaud’s cooking is the epitome of haute cuisine – visually stunning and innovative – and his gourmet menus boast the best quality Normandy produce, all sourced locally and all delicious!

La Renaissance is open seven days a week, lunchtimes and evenings. To book a table online, click here. Or why not make a weekend of it, and eat at the restaurant, stay at the hotel and enjoy the spa and swimming pool? Prices start at €95/night, to reserve a room online, click here.log_normandie_gb1

For more details on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

Eat like a king at the Étape Louis XIII

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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…

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.

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© M. McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board

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.log_normandie_gb1

For more details on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

 

How about a glass of poiré this Xmas? Normandy’s take on bubbly…

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!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

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.

Stages of production (taken from the Poiré Domfront website)

1. During October and November, the pears fall from the trees and are collected by hand or by machine.
2. After sorting and crushing, the pears are pressed to produce a pale gold juice with a distinctive floral bouquet.
3. Placed in vats, the poiré slowly ferments over a period of three to four months under the watchful eye of the producer.
4. Fermentation continues in the bottle where the pears’ natural yeasts create the bubbles.
5. To be accredited the AOP label, batches of Poiré Domfront are tested by a panel of experts.

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!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

‘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.

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

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 – f-et-c.pacory@wanadoo.fr – and stock up on poiré, cider, aperitifs, juices and Calvados galore!

log_normandie_gb1For more information on the Ferme des Grimaux, visit: http://www.pacory.eu

For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

Give a Xmas cheer, Rouen Givré’s almost here

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.

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès / J.F. Lange

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!

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès / J.F. Lange

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.

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès / J.F. Lange

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.

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès / J.F. Lange

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.

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès

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.

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès

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!

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© Rouen Normandie Tourisme & Congrès / J.F. Lange

For a full list of activities going on during Rouen Givré, visit: www.rouen.fr/rg2016 (website in French only)

log_normandie_gb1For information on travelling to Normandy, visit: http://bit.ly/howtogettonormandy

For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.

*For those with an aversion to appley goodness, there is mulled wine as well.

10 things to eat & drink on a cycling holiday in Normandy

  1. Marmite dieppoise in Dieppe

Legend has it this Normandy classic was created in the 1960s in a mariners and sailors’ tavern called La Marmite Dieppoise on the quays of Dieppe. The owner, Madame Maurice, was renowned in the region for her delicious fish dishes à la dieppoise (Dieppe-style). Named after the restaurant in which it was invented, Madame Maurice’s dish is to this day prepared using local fish and seafood: sole, red mullet, turbot, prawns and mussels, which are complemented with fresh celery, parsley, leek, onions and spices such as paprika and cayenne pepper. This rich and hearty Norman fish stew could certainly give its Provençal counterpart bouillabaisse a run for its money!

Cycling tip: Dieppe is situated on both the Avenue Verte and EuroVelo 4 cycle routes so why not stop off for a bite at La Marmite Dieppoise en route?

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

  1. Calvados in the Pays d’Auge

The Busnel Distillery is one of the oldest producers of calvados (apple brandy) in the Pays d’Auges, a ‘controlled designation of origin’ (AOC), meaning that anything produced in this area receives a quality label. The distillery arguably performs nothing short of a miracle, turning apples into cider, then distilling cider to producing eau de vie, then distilling eau de vie in oak casks for years until it becomes the golden calva that is used to make calvados. The Busnel Distillery runs guided tours in English which lets visitors see the different stages of distilling and sample a selection of the distillery’s best-selling products – but best have a break before you hop on your bike again!

Cycling tip: The Busnel Distillery is located in the town of Cormeilles, which is 12km away from Saint‑André-d’Hébertot on the EuroVelo 4 cycle route. Why not combine your tour of the distillery with a lunch break at nearby foodie hotspot and brainchild of Chef Alexis Osmont, Gourmandises?

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

  1. Chitterling sausage in Vire

Chitterling sausage (known in French as andouille) is a Norman specialty. Made from pig intestines, regarded as somewhat of a local delicacy, and seasoned with Guérande sea salt, andouille was first cooked by local butchers in the town of Vire, and its distinctive earthy taste has contributed to the popularity of this French region with foodies! A staple dish in many Norman restaurants, this tasty sausage has been perpetuating the traditions of gastronomy in the region for centuries. Enjoy it cold with farmhouse bread or warm with a salad, caramelised onions or apples. For lovers of simple, rustic French food, sampling andouille is a must!

Cycling tip: Vire is located on the Tour de Manche, EuroVelo 4 and Plages du débarquement>Mont-Saint-Michel cycle routes. Why not visit the annual andouille festival late October/early November or visit a local producer to discover the secrets of its production?

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© Calvados Tourisme

  1. Poiré in the Pays de Domfront 

Poiré (or perry) is apple cider’s more refined cousin. A pale yellow, lightly sparkling beverage, poiré may not be as popular as cider but has earned itself the nickname ‘Normandy’s answer to champagne’ thanks to its light, bubbly character. Poiré has been produced in Normandy for hundreds of years; in fact, the first records of pears growing in the region date back to the 11th century! With more than 100,000 pear trees and almost 100 varieties, the Pays de Domfront produces around 25,000 tonnes of pears that are then used to make poiré.

Cycling tip: Domfront is situated right on the crossroads of the Vélo Francette and the Véloscénie so is a great place for an overnight stop-off. Be sure to sample the local tipple at a nearby poiré farm such as the Ferme des Grimaux and explore Domfront’s beautiful medieval town centre!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

  1. Mère Poulard’s omelette on the Mont-Saint-Michel

The Restaurant de la Mère Poulard on the Mont-Saint-Michel is somewhat of an institution and its famous fluffy omelette is the stuff of legends. Founded in 1888 by Annette Poulard, the restaurant was originally an inn where pilgrims visiting the mount would stay, and among a multitude of other delicious dishes, she would make them an omelette that had been cooked over a wood fire. To this day, chefs at the restaurant still follow her secret recipe, and visitors from all over the world come to the restaurant to sample Mère Poulard’s omelette, roast lamb, fish, seafood, and other delicacies.

Cycling tip: The Mont-Saint-Michel is conveniently situated at the end of the Vélocénie and D-Day Beaches>Mont-Saint-Michel cycle routes, and is also on the EuroVelo 4 and Le Tour de Manche cycle routes, so there’s plenty of scope to incorporate a trip to the mount into your itinerary!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

  1. Neufchâtel, the heart-shaped cheese

Made from cow’s milk, this soft, slightly crumbly, mould-ripened cheese is one of France’s oldest varieties, dating back as far as 1035. Usually sold in the shape of a heart, legend has it that the young farm girls of Neufchâtel-en-Bray fell in love with English soldiers during the Hundred Years War and started making heart shaped cheeses for them to show their affection. Neufchâtel’s taste and texture is reminiscent of its more famous cousin Camembert, only with tones of nuts and mushrooms, and it is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of cider or red wine.

Cycling tip: Neufchâtel-en-Bray is situated on the Avenue Verte route, about 35km inland from Dieppe. Why not go for the full-on cheese experience and visit the annual Neufchâtel-en-Bray Cheese Festival held every autumn, or see how Neufchâtel is made at one of the local cheese factories?

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© Normandy Tourist Board / D. Dumas

  1. Saffron at the Domaine de Gauville

Saffron production became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries in France, and between then and now, several saffron farms have cropped up in Normandy. The Domaine de Gauville is one such farm. Founded by Myriam Duteuil, who in 2014 quit the hustle and bustle of Paris to embark on a more rural way of life, this organic saffron farm has gone from strength to strength, and Myriam’s delicious saffron is even served up at restaurants in the area. Take a guided tour of the farm, enjoy a saffron‑themed weekend away in Myriam’s gite, do a saffron cooking class, and take full advantage of all the tasty saffron treats on sale in the farm shop!

Cycling tip: The Domaine de Gauville is located just 8km off the local cycle track that runs from the city of Evreux (which has direct train links to Paris) up to the town of Pont‑Authou. Why not stop off at restaurant Le Logis de Brionne on your way back to the cycle route and try Chef Alain Depoix’s famous scallops, prepared with saffron from the farm?

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F.Lambert

  1. A seafood platter in Ouistreham

There’s no better place to enjoy all that the sea has to offer than on the coast, and when it comes to seafood, Le Channel in Ouistreham has it all sussed out. This restaurant, situated just five minutes from the ferry terminal, has brought together an impressive medley of mouth-watering dishes, such as oysters with shallots, mussels served in a choice of wine, cider or camembert sauce, and of course, the flagship seafood platter, all caught that day! Always happy to recommend a calvados aperitif or small glass of pommeau to go with your scallops, manager Pascale Charpentier and her team give a warm welcome and a wide selection of all the Norman classics.

Cycling tip: Ouistreham is situated on both the Vélo Francette and EuroVelo 4 cycle routes so is perfect for a post-ferry overnight stop-off or simply a bite to eat before you head off again!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / F. Lambert

  1. Black pudding in Mortagne-au-Perche

Mortagne in the Perche Regional Natural Park is surely the world’s black pudding capital. Said to be the oldest refined meat product in Europe, the story goes that boudin noir, the French’s superior version of black pudding, was first made by ancient Celts out of the blood of their enemies. When it’s done right, as it certainly is in Mortagne – boudin noir is gloriously rich, tender and flavoursome, and thanks to the Black Pudding Festival which has been held in the town every March since 1963, it is well and truly an integral part of any Norman menu. It even has a dedicated fraternity with their very own robes: the Brotherhood of Black Pudding Knights.

Cycling tips: Mortagne-au-Perche is situated just 2km off the Véloscénie cycle route where it passes Saint-Langis-lès-Mortagne. Spend the night at the beautiful former courthouse, the Hôtel du Tribunal and try Chef Freddy Pommier’s delicious take on the famous boudin noir of Mortagne!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

  1. Oysters in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue

Did you know that oyster farmers in Normandy produce roughly a quarter of all oysters produced in France? If you’re a lover of oysters, Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in the north-east corner of the Cotentin Pensinsula is a particularly good place to go. Saint-Vaast oysters are well known for their subtle nutty flavour, and are delicious eaten raw, whether with zingy lemon juice or sharp shallot vinegar. Particularly popular in the winter months, no Christmas table in Normandy is complete without them. In summer months, local oyster farms run tours of the oyster farms in the area, and visitors flock to the pretty harbour area of Saint-Vaast to enjoy oysters outside on the restaurant terraces.

Cycling tip: Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is located on the EuroVelo 4 cycling route and is the perfect place for an overnight stop-off. Sample oysters at Le Débarcadère, enjoy the views out over the harbour and taste the sea!

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© Normandy Tourist Board / M. McNulty

log_normandie_gb1For more information on food and drink in Normandy, and for a list of all of the main food festivals in the region, please visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.