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!
Trug basket in hand, Myriam Duteuil carefully scans her saffron beds, assessing which of the crocus blooms are ready for harvesting. She carefully picks flowers that pass muster, taking care not to remove leaves with them as that can damage the bulb (or corm) beneath. Each flower yields just three of the precious red stigmas that are extracted and dried to make saffron strands.
This precision method of harvesting, hard on the knees and back and unchanged from images on Minoan frescoes from 3,500BC, combined with a regular cycle of replanting each summer to ensure a steady supply of flowers, and the need to plant and weed by hand, helps to explain why the ‘spice of joy’ costs more than gold.
None of this deterred Myriam – the daughter and grand-daughter of farmers – when she decided to return to her roots and grow apples and saffron organically at the Domaine de Gauville, in St-Pierre de Salerne, south-west of Rouen.
She bought the farmstead a decade ago, while working as a TV executive in Paris. During a long broadcasting career she devised and then ran Cuisine TV, France’s main food channel, but six years ago decided to change tack. ‘Saffron has an exotic image,’ says Myriam. ‘Most of the world’s supply comes from Iran, but it really needs cool, moist conditions to grow well. The ideal temperature is about 15°C, so Normandy is a good place for it.’
Saffron was widely grown across Europe in the Middle Ages, when it was prized for its medicinal qualities. The East of England was a key centre for production and the flower gave its name to the Essex town of Saffron Walden.
Myriam planted 21,000 bulbs in 1.2 hectares of beds in 2012, gathering her first harvest in 2015, and plans to expand the area she cultivates to two hectares. The saffron crocus blooms in autumn, with the harvesting period lasting about four weeks, usually in October. ‘I pick in the early morning, before the flowers open,’ says Myriam. ‘A skilled picker can collect 1,000 flowers in an hour, which will produce 5g of saffron. I dry the flowers and then open them to extract the stigmas.’
Her harvest yields about 700g of saffron a year. A kilogram is worth about £25,000. Total annual production in France is 150kg, a figure that pales by comparison with the 30 tonnes a year produced before the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.
Myriam sells her saffron packaged as strands for both professional chefs and home cooks to use in their dishes, along with a range of saffron-flavoured preserves, biscuits, cake, mustard and vinegar under her Biâo Pur Safran de Normandie brand (Biâo is the Norman dialect word for beautiful). Another customer is a local dairy, which makes delicately-flavoured saffron ice cream.
She is keen to encourage people to make more use of saffron in their cooking: ‘It used to be used by so many people in everyday recipes, but now in France it is mostly used by chefs or in seasonal foods for Christmas, particularly in Normandy.’
Her top tip when buying saffron is to look for strands that are deep red in colour. If it looks brown or yellowy it has been over-dried or is too old to use, or may have been adulterated.
Myriam emphasises saffron’s versatility in the kitchen, for everything from a Moroccan-style morning tea infusion using a single strand, to a risotto, paella or a sweet apple cake. She recommends three strands per person in a sweet dish, six per person in a savoury dish and nine per person in a paella or with shellfish.
She adds: ‘As well as using the right amount, saffron should always be infused in a liquid before it is used in a dish – water, stock, milk or cream – and added five to 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time to add flavour. If you are making risotto, put the saffron in some stock the night before. Rehydrating dried saffron liberates the flavour and colour.’
For those keen to learn more, Myriam runs two-day cookery classes in a professional-standard kitchen at the farm, including visits from local chefs and bakers, with accommodation provided in the farmhouse, which can also be rented as a gîte. You could even help out with this year’s harvest, but book soon to avoid disappointment!
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.
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.
When property developers Sophie and François viewed a run-down farm in the Eure region of Normandy, they had no intention of leaving their life in Paris for a move to the country. They had come to view the property for commercial reasons but from the moment they arrived, the farm worked its magic on them. It was love at first sight and this chance viewing changed their lives completely.
That was in 2010. After close to two years of renovations they opened the doors to their beautiful B&B in 2012. I was lucky enough to stay and join them last year for one of François’s famously good dinners. Situated on the banks of the Eure River, La Ferme des Isles lies deep in the heart of Normandy’s Impressionist country.
When they bought the property, Sophie told me that the 19 acres of grounds were completely overrun and hadn’t been used as a farm for nearly 50 years. The three buildings – the farmhouse, an old barn and an ancient bread oven – were also in a state of disrepair. Sophie and François could see huge potential with the buildings and they dreamt of transforming the grounds back into a small holding.
Just a few years on, mission accomplished. The farmhouse has been tastefully restored and the barn has been transformed into a spectacular conversion with three guest bedrooms housed around an immense central space that boasts floor to ceiling windows overlooking the pastures and decorative kitchen garden at the front of the property.
I stayed in the spectacular Sun Suite – named after the original headboard that Sophie’s designer daughter and her friends created one weekend when they came across reclaimed wood at antique dealers. Throughout, the rooms are decorated with antique furniture and are very tastefully styled.
Sophie and François wanted to reinstate the farm, create a kitchen garden, grow fruit trees and reintroduce animals. Today they keep geese, ducks, chickens, doves, sheep, goats, donkeys, cats and dogs. François keeps a huge vegetable plot at the back of the property and a more decorative one at the front. The fruit and vegetables he grows inspire his table d’hôtes and ensure that fresh organic produce is always on the table.
When it was time for dinner, I headed over to the main farmhouse and joined Sophie and another couple who were staying at the B&B for an aperitif around the fire. Sophie and Francois are fantastic hosts and take great pleasure spending time with their guests. They create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere and over dinner we exchanged stories and laughed at François’ tales of how he transformed from city slicker to most happiest watching his animals for hours on end!
François is a talented cook and revels in all the fabulous produce at his fingertips in Normandy. What he doesn’t grow himself, he sources from his favourite local suppliers. He told me that he like to keep dishes simple and lets the ingredients do the talking. Since moving to Normandy, word of François’ culinary skills has spread and in 2014 he was invited to join the Confrérie de la Marmite d’Or – a brotherhood that exists to protect traditional cuisine and to promote the use of quality local produce.
Our meal started with a cream of pumpkin soup served with foie gras followed by stuffed squid, a Norman cheese board, and to end, a delicious caramelised apple tart. Accompanied by choice wines and to end, tea with herbs from the garden, this was a dinner of kings!
The Ferme des Isles is conveniently located on the Impressionist trail, just 50 minutes west of Paris, 25 minutes from Claude Monet’s enchanting home in Giverny where he painted his famous waterlilies, and 30 minutes from the historic city of Rouen. Why not take advantage of Sophie and François’ five-day ‘French language, culture and cuisine’ break, which combines French lessons, accommodation, cultural trips and great food? Visit www.lafermedesisles.com for more details.
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!
My most recent (foodie-themed) press trip took me to the Logis de Brionne, a restaurant and hotel situated in the town of Brionne, 50 km south-west of Rouen.
Cosy and inviting to look at, the Logis sits opposite Saint-Denis Church, within easy walking distance to the town centre. We were greeted by the hotel owner, Joëlle, and shown to our rooms where my journalists promptly settled in for a quick forty winks before dinner. Preferring to take advantage of the open fire downstairs, I curled up in a large armchair and ordered myself a glass of tasty local cider to while the time away.
Coming to sit with me, Joëlle tells me that her husband Alain is the Chef at the Logis, and that thanks to the elegance and innovation of his cooking, the restaurant is proud to feature in the Michelin Guide. All vegetables come from either the Logis’ own vegetable garden or the market garden at the nearby Ferme des Amaranthes, a certified organic food supplier. All meat and fish is sourced locally, fruit is delivered from Jumièges, and chocolate from Normandy’s very own Maison Cluizel. Alain even uses organic saffron grown at the nearby Domaine de Gauville for one of its signature dishes, coquilles Saint-Jacques au safran. And of course, he makes all his own bread from scratch.
“Cooking using ingredients from your own garden not only combines practicality with pleasure, but also stimulates your creativity – it’s all about looking after yourself and nature,” Joëlle tells me, as my journalists emerge from upstairs, looking somewhat more lively.
We are led to our table in the middle of what was surprisingly a full restaurant. It being November, I had expected us to be among the only customers in the room, but it would appear that Alain Depoix was renowned in the region!
All menus at the Logis are changed each month based on the availability of quality, seasonal products. We went for the Taster Menu (Menu Dégustation), which consisted of an amuse-bouche, starter, main, the all-important cheese course and dessert:
Mascarpone and truffle amuse-bouche
Fish terrine wrapped in artichoke, topped off with savoury shortbread and caviar accompanied by salad and green tomato chutney
Caramelised apples with guinea fowl, with Alain Depoix’s famous foie gras
Cheese platter – all the Norman classics (Camembert, Neufchâtel, Pont-l’Évêque and Livarot) plus Comté, Tomme de Savoie, Munster, Valençay and oh-so-creamy Chèvre
Panna cotta with pistachio mousse
Throughout our meal, the attentive staff at the Logis kept our glasses full (French wine, naturally) and were there to explain what everything was and how it was prepared. It was truly a pleasure to meet people who so clearly knew and loved their food!
At the end of the meal we were in for another surprise, when who should come out to meet us but Chef Alain Dupoix himself. It was the perfect opportunity for the journalists to ask him all their foodie questions and of course, take some photos. All in all, an absolutely delicious dining experience and Joëlle and Alain were the perfect hosts. We retired to our rooms, pleasantly full and definitely already looking forward to breakfast the next day!
The Logis de Brionne hotel and restaurant is open all year round. The restaurant is open for lunch from 12pm until 1pm and for dinner between 7:30pm and 9pm. A set lunch menu starts at €22 and a set dinner menu starts at €39.50. The restaurant is closed on Saturday lunchtimes, Sunday evenings, Mondays and Tuesday lunchtimes. Hotel rooms start at €88 per night (breakfast: €13).
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?
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?
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?
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!
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!
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?
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?
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!
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!
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!
For 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.
For foodies travelling to Normandy one of the best ways to sample local cuisine and learn about life in the region is by staying at a B&B and dining with your hosts at a table d’hôtes. For those who want to learn how to prepare local specialties for themselves, there are a number of B&Bs that offer cooking workshops.
On a beautiful autumnal morning, I travelled to Château de la Puisaye near the medieval town of Verneuil-sur-Avre to meet B&B owner, British-born Diane, who offers her guests the full foodie experience.
After marrying her French husband Bruno, Diane worked for many years in the French capital as a lawyer in the film industry. Diane had longed to move to the countryside to spend more time horse riding and had a dream of opening a B&B. In 2002, Diane and Bruno bought the beautiful Château de la Puisaye in Normandy and made the move.
The chateau dates back to 1760 and is set in magnificent grounds where guests can explore 27 hectares of parkland and many trails that run through a beech and oak wood. Diane keeps a huge vegetable garden that provides plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables between June and November for her table d’hôtes. When I visited last October we found plenty of ripe fruit on the trees that we picked for Diane to transform into jam.
A keen cook and expert in classic dishes from both sides of the Channel, Diane offers her guests a gourmet table d’hôtes. Wherever possible she uses fresh produce from her garden for delicious soups and salads. What she doesn’t grow herself, she buys locally – she told me that there’s an excellent foie gras farm, free-range pork farm, poultry farm and even an escargot farm in the area. She now also has her own flock of sheep so in season you might be lucky enough to enjoy roast garlic and rosemary lamb that boasts almost zero food miles!
In the autumn, wild mushrooms can be found in the acres of woodland in the grounds. For those lucky enough to be here at the right time of the year, which is completely unpredictable, Diane enjoys taking guests to the best spots to pick fresh mushrooms.
For guests who want to learn how to cook some local dishes much as I believe Diane would be more than qualified, she calls on the services of a bilingual professional chef, Philippe Legrendre. Philippe spends half-day at the chateau teaching guests how to prepare four-courses of Norman specialties that they then dine on. If the class falls on the local market day, guests can also accompany Philippe on a market visit where they will learn how to select the best produce.
So, if you’re looking for a gourmet stay with bags of character, Château de la Puisaye might just be the place for you.
For 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.