1. The Toute la Mer sur un Plateau [All the Sea on a Plate] festival takes place on the port of Granville, meaning that you can pretty much eat fresh fish and seafood straight off the fishing boats…
2. Granville is France’s number 1 shellfish port, so if anyone can put on a cracking shellfish-themed festival, it’s certainly this town!
3. Last year, no fewer than 50,000 people flooded into Granville for this popular festival – we reckon that’s an endorsement if any.
4. Several tons of oysters, scallops, mussels, shrimps, whelks and lobsters are caught and brought into Granville for the festival, where visitors can then enjoy them with a refreshing glass of kir.
5. All the Sea on a Plate attracts not just Frenchies, but people hailing from all over the place (including my three journalists and me!) so the event has a real cosmopolitan feel to it.
6. Live music will be played all weekend right on the quais, so why not enjoy a jog to a sea shanty or two?
7. Also on the agenda are cooking workshops, a food market, tastings, activities for children, film screenings and an exhibition that looks into the life of a fisherman.
8. Around the harbour is an assortiment of restaurants and food stalls, so visitors can dine al fresco and look out over the picturesque port, whether from a terrasse or one of the many benches set up especially for the festival.
9. In addition to all the fab food on offer, you can also peruse the many wine, clothes and arts and crafts stalls, and take back home some souvenirs of Granville.
10. You could even make the most of your stay by visiting the Christian Dior Museum, which is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to the famous designer’s childhood in Granville and his 22 post-war collections.
The prize: the Cèpe d’or, or rather, the Golden Porcini mushroom in English, though that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it… No, this particular mushroom is not edible, but you can win it at the Mycologiades Internationals, the International Wild Mushroom Festival, which takes place at the end of September in the village of Bellême, the home of all things mushroom in Normandy.
Often in autumn, I’m stuck for ideas on what to do – winter’s on its way, and the bad weather with it. Of course, it is apple season in Normandy but I’m looking for other fresh foodie ideas. Why not mushrooms? I can already picture the colours of the forest and hear the crunch of leaves under my feet!
Since 1953, the International Wild Mushroom Festival in the Perche Regional Natural Park has been welcoming visitors on a mushroom foraging quest led by a mycologist (that’s a mushroom expert to you and me). So it was that my friend and I took a basket one Sunday last autumn and played Little Red Riding Hood for the weekend. After the mushroom foraging, all of our foodie treasures were laid out and we were given a presentation on all of the different mushrooms that we had found. Alas, our efforts were not quite enough to win us the coveted Golden Porcini, but we were proud of ourselves, and now felt far more confident about telling the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms!
I could well have enjoyed eating some tasty mushrooms at the festival but there was a nearby mushroom hot-spot that I wanted to try whilst I was in the Perche: La Tête Noire restaurant in the nearby village of Saint-Germain-de-la-Coudre. Only 15 minutes from the International Wild Mushroom Festival, La Tête Noire offers an intimate, buzzy atmosphere and serves fresh food sourced from local artisan producers. In keeping with the theme of the day, I opted for the restaurant’s speciality: soft-boiled eggs with fried wild mushrooms. Yum yum, it tasted like grandma’s homemade cooking and gave a real taste of Perche terroir.
At the end of our dinner, the waitress passed our table with some mouth-watering dauphinois potatoes with mushrooms and Normandy cream – it smelt irresistible! When I saw the couple who had ordered it enjoying their meal, I knew I should not miss out on this experience – that’s what I’ll be ordering next time! One strawberry baba dessert later, I left the restaurant, pleasantly full and satisfied with my lot, readier than ever to face the coming week.
This year, the International Wild Mushroom Festival takes place from 28 September to 1 October, and offers all sorts of fun mushroomy activities like exhibitions, seminars, and of course the Cèpe d’or competition! If you are interested in taking part in this foraging extravaganza, visit the website to sign up: www.mycologiades.com (website in French only).
When you think of foodie destinations in France, Le Havre is not exactly what springs to mind. Yet this buzzing coastal city in Normandy is fast finding its feet as a popular weekend destination for foodies, families and francophiles. Not only is it super simple to travel over to Le Havre from the UK – a mere 6-hour ferry from Portsmouth, to be precise – but the city is also celebrating its 500th anniversary this year, so there’s all sorts of fun to be had there.
Le Havre’s concrete facades lend a modern feel to the city centre, 90% of which was destroyed during the Second World War and completely rebuilt in the years that followed. Designed by Auguste Perret, a leading architect of the time, pristine low-rise blocks give us a remarkable sense of space here not often found in cities – the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville is one of the largest squares in Europe, and the Avenue Foch, which leads down to the beach, is wider even than the Champs Elysées. So impressive is Perret’s post-war reconstruction that in 2005, UNESCO classified Le Havre’s city centre a World Heritage Site.
But back to the food! As you might expect, being by the sea, Le Havre boasts a whole host of places to eat fish and seafood. It is also a great place to savour all the Norman classics, and showcases local specialties such as marmite dieppoise (fish stew) alongside meat dishes, topped off (of course) with an apple tart. From the rue Racine and the Saint-François quarter in the city centre to the bars and restaurants lining the beach, there is certainly something to suit everyone’s tastes.
So whether you fancy fish or could murder some meat, the following recommendations have got you covered!
Opposite Le Volcan [The Volcano] in Le Havre’s bustling bar and restaurant district, Le Grignot is one of the most famous brasseries in Le Havre. Specialising in seafood platters, delicious traditional recipes and organic food, its dishes are seasonal and cooked fresh. Grab a table on the terrace and enjoy views of the Volcano, which lights up blue at night!
Situated right on the promenade overlooking the beach, Saison 2‘s unfussy menu features classics such as burger and chips, meat and two veg, and the must-have dish when at the beach in France: moules-frites. Enjoy with a glass of chilled white wine while watching the sun set over the sea – what better way to spend an evening?
Le Grand Large
A little way out of town in the stylish neighbouring town of Sainte-Adresse, Le Grand Large, which means the open sea, boasts a maritime menu of epic proportions against a a panoramic view of the Channel. Be sure to try the prawns with citrus fruit followed by this restaurant’s pièce de résistance, the mighty marmite dieppoise.
Le Bouchon Normand
The word bouchon may make you think of Lyon, but fear not, this restaurant is all Norman! With all ingredients sourced in the region, a particular favourite of ours is the feuilleté de pommes tatin Pont l’Evêque (that’s apple and cheese puff pastry to you and me). For those especially partial to a bit of pomme, there’s also apple tart on the menu…
La Taverne Paillette
Founded in 1596, the Taverne Paillette is almost as old as the city of Le Havre, and is therefore a local landmark in itself. Serving food throughout the day, seven days a week, this lively restaurant is renowned for three things, its delicious seafood (to which we can attest), its sumptious sauerkraut and its refreshing home-brewed beer. Santé !
Le Bistrot des Halles
Right on the market square, Le Bistrot des Halles is somewhat of an institution in Le Havre. With its parquet floor, wooden bar and wall plaques, it is the very epitome of what we Brits think of as classic French décor and with its vast selection of tasty salads, main courses (we opted for sea bream) and desserts, its food doesn’t disappoint either!
If you’ve got a taste of Le Havre and now fancy a foodie break there, click here for more inspiration! The city’s 500th anniversary celebrations are going on until 5th November this year so don’t miss out on all the fun!
The Manche département of Normandy is home to a great many artisan food and drink producers who each make and sell delicious specialties à la Manchoise. Here are 10 treats to try when visiting this picturesque part of Normandy!
1) Biscuits from Sainte-Mère-Eglise
Inspired by the wartime history of the town, well-known shop Le Biscuit de Saint-Mère-Église produces a wide range of biscuits with names like little paratroopers, goblin delights, Sainte-Mère biscuits and Normandy shortcakes. For those with a super sweet tooth, they also make their own chocolates. Pop in and watch the biscuitiers at work in the kitchen!
2)Jam from Bréhal
Jam and biscuit shop Les Délices de Camille, the brainchild of Nadia Legendre, is a range of mouth-watering sweet treats available in a number of unlikely but delicious flavour combinations, such as confiture de bisous [kiss-flavoured jam] – a fusion of strawberry, apple and rose – perfect on a croissant in the morning!
In the village of Le Vast in the pretty Saire Valley, the La Brioche du Vast bakery has a café where you can enjoy the delicious smell of fresh bread waft from the kitchen before savouring one of the bakery’s famous brioches, washed down with a refreshing bowl of local cider.
4) Camembert from Lessay
The Val d’Ay cheese factory was originally founded by Théodore Réaux back in 1931, and alongside staple products like butter, and cream, it has been producing legendary Réo Camembert AOP, ever since. Made with unpasteurised milk and moulded by ladle in the traditional way, this rich, creamy cheese has won many awards, and you simply can’t visit the Manche without trying it!
In 2009, dairy farmers Sylvie and Andre launched their organic caramel business, Cara-Meuh, not far from the famous UNESCO-listed Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel. Hovering halfway between fudge and toffee, Norman caramel is twice as nice, as it is made using milk rather than sugar as the main ingredient. There’s a flavour for everyone, from plain, salted, chocolate and nut to apple and even calvados!
6) Goat’s cheese from Liesville-sur-Douve
Hervé and Véronique Lefort of the Huberdière goat farm pamper their 150 goats to produce the best milk for the very best goat’s cheese. Whether it’s plain or flavoured with pepper, herbs, garlic, poppyseeds or fig (yum), there’s bound to be a cheese you’ll love. Find out about how goat’s cheese is made, taste a few cheese varieties, and if you happen to be around at 5:30pm, you may even get to help with the milking.
7) Onion sausages from Belval-Gare
For over 20 years, Gilles Villain et Madame Dulin have run their traditional butchers shop and produced the signature onion sausages for which it is now famous. A delicacy enjoyed throughout the Manche département and beyond, be sure to stop off here and stock up on some award-winning sausages!
8) Normandy caramel sauce from Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte
Known in Normandy as confiture de lait, this thick caramel sauce is a regional favourite and is typically used as a condiment or spread for bread or pastries. Those with a sweet tooth will love visiting the Lait Douceur de Normandie shop and try their delicious range of confiture de lait, jams and chutneys made with seasonal fruit and veg, boiled sweets and chocolate, the list goes on… Not just a shop, Lait Douceur de Normandie also offers guided tours, tastings and sweet-making classes for the whole family.
9) Ciderfrom Sotteville
The family-run Théo Capelle distillery on the Cotentin peninsula produces a wide range of aperitifs (including Pommeau de Normandie), ciders, calvados, fruit juices and jams. Enjoy a family visit to the distillery, complete with video screening, tour of the cellars and product tasting, make the most of the farm’s extensive grounds with a picnic under the apple trees, and meet the farm’s resident donkeys, Jasmine and Ficelle.
10) Ham from Marigny
Founded 20 years ago by Marcel Helaine and named after Normandy’s distinctive hedgerow landscape, the Norman ham known as Jambons de Bocage is made the traditional way, namely smoked on a wood fire. Today, Marcel’s son Nicolas produces other traditional products such as handmade Vire tripe sausage, Norman cervelas, smoked garlic sausage and black pudding – take your pick!
L’Hermière restaurant, deep in the countryside between Étretat and Le Havre, is a real find. I went recently with my local partner Ivan from the Seine-Maritime Tourist Board, and as I was the only non-French person there, it definitely felt like the type of place only locals would know about.
Husband and wife team Jean-Charles and Noémie run the restaurant, with Noémie in charge of the kitchen and Jean-Charles managing the front of house.
What’s most special about L’Hermière is that it is a traditional 16th century half-timbered building that is part of a clos masure, a traditional farmstead found only in the Pays de Caux area of Normandy, which stretches east along the coast from Le Havre to Dieppe and inland to the town of Yvetot. Surrounding the farmstead are rows of enormous beech trees that act as a windbreak, protecting the crops and farm buildings. Given the unique heritage and dying tradition of the clos masure – the département of Seine-Maritime has made a bid to UNESCO to protect these farmsteads with heritage status.
Jean-Charles’ family has lived at L’Hermière for generations. His grandfather was born in the farmhouse where his parents still live; the restaurant is housed in what was once a cowshed and a third barn is used for storing the farm’s fruit and vegetables.
When Jean-Charles’ parents felt the clos masure was too big a property for them to manage on their own, the young couple suggested opening a restaurant as a way to continue the farmstead tradition. L’Hermière has been fully operating as a restaurant since 2013 and it remains, first and foremost, a family business.
Jean-Charles’ father manages the enormous kitchen garden, next door to the restaurant and this supplies almost all of their fruit and vegetables for the most part of the year. They grow leeks, squash, potatoes, carrots, courgettes, beetroot, quince, apples, berries, pears and much more besides. What they don’t grow themselves, they source from local producers who are proudly listed on a chalkboard at the entrance to the restaurant.
We came for lunch on an autumn day and the menu featured plenty of seasonal squash and wild mushrooms. There were two different menus with two or three choices for each course. I started with an onion, bacon and cheese tart followed by a tagine style sautéed lamb served with buckwheat. This was absolutely delicious – a break from traditional French cuisine with lots of seasonal vegetables and stewed prunes, it was packed with flavour. For dessert, since I would be paying a visit to the Palais Bénédictine that afternoon, I decided to warm up with a crème brulée à la Bénédictine and pieces of crystallised orange. I don’t think you can ever go too far wrong with a good crème brulée and here the zesty alcoholic spike worked brilliantly.
After our meal, when the lunch rush had calmed down, Jean-Charles spoke to us about his restaurant venture. When L’Hermière first set out in 2011, they only hosted private lunches for large groups on weekends. Jean-Charles explained how a clos masure is ideally designed for families since the natural barrier of the beech trees mean it’s very safe for children to play outside while their parents enjoy lunch. At L’Hermière, there are two plots for pétanques (think bowls, French style) and a patio that’s ideal for an aperitif on sunny days. The private lunches were such a success that Jean-Charles and Noémie then decided to open their restaurant to the public, and ever since, L’Hermière has gone from strength to strength. These days, it is now open for lunch from Tuesday to Saturday and for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings.
For a truly memorable dining experience at a traditional clos masure farmstead, I’d highly recommend booking a table at L’Hermière – be sure to visit the restaurant website and check out all of the seasonal dishes on offer!
A thousand years of history, faith, and talent have shaped the Mont-Saint-Michel, the ‘Wonder of the West’. Legend has it that in 708, the Archangel Saint-Michel appeared before Bishop Aubert and commanded that a sanctuary be built on Mount Tombe, an island in the middle of the bay that saw some of the highest tides in the world.
Thus the Abbey of the Mont-Saint-Michel was built, and over the coming centuries a village grew up around it. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay has since become a site of spiritual and cultural pilgrimage for Christians and non-believers from all over the world, so much so that in 1972, UNESCO classified them both as a world heritage site.
Today, the famous La Mère Poulard restaurant and inn on the Mont-Saint-Michel is an important part of this world heritage. In 1888, local lass Annette Poulard, previously a chamber maid at the abbey who had married the local baker, opened an inn in the medieval village on the mount. Annette became renowned for her culinary talents, and over her lengthy career at the inn she rustled up some 700 different dishes, from savoury delights (more on that shortly) to her famous biscuits. Her efforts earnt her the title of ‘Mère’, reserved for exceptional cooks. Lo and behold, ‘La Mère Poulard’ was born!
One thing in particular for which La Mère Poulard is renowned is her famous omelette, which is somewhat of an institution. But did you know that it was never intended to be anything more than a starter? In the nineteenth century, guests at the inn (for the most part, pilgrims) were only able to reach the mount at low tide, so would arrive at the inn at all hours of the day and night. When they arrived, Annette would quickly prepare her special omelette as an appetiser before cooking her guests a more substantial meal.
That same fluffy, souffléd omelette is served at the restaurant to this day, and anyone can watch the omelettes being made over the open fire. Firstly, eggs are beaten for at least five minutes until they’re light and fluffy. The mixture is poured into a copper skillet and cooked over the open fire until the bottom is browned, but the inside is still slightly frothy. The omelettes are served either plain or with a choice of bacon, potatoes, Camembert (naturally), ratatouille, foie gras, shrimps or lobster.
Combining tradition and simplicity, La Mère Poulard’s omelette was surprisingly contemporary for its time, and is still seen as one of the most original French dishes. For this very reason, the restaurant remains one of the most best known in France and across the world. As many as 4 million French and foreign tourists and gourmets come to the Mont-Saint-Michel each year, and most visit either the restaurant to sample La Mère Poulard’s delicious omelette or the biscuit shop across the road to buy her tasty biscuits.
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.
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!
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!
Tuna tartar served with cold cucumber soup and creamy burrata cheese:
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):
The ‘pre-dessert’ – praline pastry, chocolate cherry lollipop and pistachio macaroon:
And to finish, the first Gariguette strawberries of the season served with caramelised rhubard, rose, basil and strawberry and rhubarb sorbet:
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.
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.
Not far from the D-Day Landing beaches in the heart of Normandy’s scenic Cotentin Peninsula lies the Maison du Biscuit in Sortosville-en-Beaumont. Every year, some 500,000 visitors make a stop here; not for the charms of the quaint village, but in search of the perfect biscuit.
Like something out of a dolls house or film set, the Maison du Biscuit occupies a row of buildings whose façade takes you back to a typical shopping street at the turn of the 19th century. I visited on a grey afternoon in autumn and the warm twinkling light from inside seemed very inviting.
Stepping into the shop, I was greeted with mouth-watering aromas of chocolate and almonds. Inside, the oldie-worldie theme continued. There was a bustle of activity as shoppers explored the nooks and crannies all filled with mouth-watering treats and staff danced around helping customers with their requests.
The family-run Maison du Biscuit has been refining its recipes since 1903, when Paul Burnof first opened his boulangerie in nearby village La Haye du Puits. Over five generations, recipes and techniques have been tried, tested and refined and passed on from father to son. Each generation developed a specialty, from bread, brioche and patisserie to biscuits and chocolate. The business has expanded to today’s huge success but this has not been without its challenges.
Chefs and bakers in Normandy are hugely fortunate to have an abundance of quality produce available from the region. Even in post-war Normandy, when third generation Maxime ran the boulangerie-patisserie, eggs, butter and flour were available and by mixing in a bit of sugar, he started the family’s first line of biscuits. The locals were delighted and the business flourished, becoming the Biscuiterie du Cotentin.
When son Marc then took over the business, he was approached by a supermarket chain who wanted to stock these biscuits. Soon after the contract was signed, Marc and his wife Carol were faced with a dilemma. The supermarket put pressure on them to add preservatives to their products in order for them to last on supermarket shelves. Unwillingly they obliged but soon felt that this compromised the integrity of their craft and decided to abandon the business that their family had worked so hard to grow.
After a two-year break and plenty of reflection, Marc and Carol were ready to start again. The hallmark of their new business would be quality local ingredients with no additives or preservatives to produce exceptional artisan products made with that family savoir-faire. This all began in their tiny 10m2 garage. With no shop of their own, they travelled around the region selling their cakes and biscuits at farmers’ markets. The all-essential second-hand van in this early operation was even paid for in biscuits! Three years later, Marc and Carol found an old ruined dairy and decided to transform it into their shop.
The tiny shop opened in 1995 and as word spread, demand grew and they slowly expanded their premises. During renovation works, Marc and Carol happened upon archive photos of the row of village shops in the early 20th century and they decided to renovate the building facades to take it back to how it looked once upon a time. The colourful façade, beautiful interior and quirky details such as an old cash register and piano used as furniture to showcase products, make shopping here a pleasurable experience.
For as long as she can remember, Belgian-born entrepreneur Julie Decayeux has always loved horses. Her parents both loved horses and she learnt to ride at a young age. She realised that she had a particular affinity with large-set horses when she was given a Welsh cob as a teenager – they instantly had a connection.
While working in a museum dedicated to educating people about animals close to extinction, she learned about the plight of draught horses, a breed used less and less in agriculture, and ever since, has felt her life’s calling was to find a way to protect these endangered species. Wanting to combine this passion with her entrepreneurial flair, she left Belgium for Normandy some fifteen years ago with an idea and a hell of a lot of ambition to see it through. A region famous for its horses and synonymous with dairy production, it was the ideal place for to set up a farm on which to produce horse’s milk, or mare’s milk, to give it its official name!
With her new husband, Julie carried out some market research to see if milking horses would work as a business. She researched how to best preserve and treat the milk and developed a business plan over 18 months. Once she had decided what she wanted and where she was going to look, it took a mere three weeks to find a farm! It was love at first sight. While its hilly ground made it difficult to grow anything, the farm was perfect for keeping horses.
That was nine years ago now, and Julie and her husband have risen to the both the professional and personal challenges of running a farm. Since 2014, Julie has been producing chevalait (which translates literally to horse’s milk), and the main products she makes from it are cheese (soft, hard and cream), ice cream (green tea and vanilla flavours) and even a range of mare’s-milk-based cosmetics! In 2015, Julie ran a stall selling ice cream and other products at the World Equestrian Games at the Le Pin National Stud, which was a huge success. She also runs stalls at Orne Terroir, an event celebrating local products, and other foodie events.
So why horse milk? Julie was always allergic to cow’s milk, so mare’s milk seemed a good alternative for her. She grew up on mare’s milk and milked horses from a young age. She never gave her sons cow’s milk for fear that they had her same level of intolerance. As a result, both of her sons were both brought up on horse milk – for them it’s normal.
In Spain, mare’s milk has been used for medical purposes, and has been available in small quantities in hospitals ever since a Spanish doctor with diabetes discovered mare’s milk and claims that it saved his life. Told that his time was up at the age of 40, his liver and blood count were in a terrible state and he was obese. Having read good things about mare’s milk, he drank 500ml/day for three months without changing his diet or lifestyle. He lost 30kg over this time and was regularly monitored with blood tests.
Horse milk has also been shown to help against chromes disease and diabetes, and drinking 20ml everyday can combat depression because of its high levels of serotonin. “If 10% of all milk given to babies was mare’s milk it would combat so many 21st century diseases,” says Julie. “It holds incredible potential in the medical field!”
Julie insists that she would never say anything against cow’s milk but she’s concerned about the way it is over-produced, how the cows suffer and the type of feed given – the corn is not good enough quality and it’s not what they should be eating. It is clear to see that the horses she rears are like her children, and she cares for them as if they were. To avoid the horses getting ill, her and her husband take great care of them – massaging them, giving them homeopathy, aromatherapy and herbs should they need it. In 90% of cases, this approach either avoids or solves any medical problems the horses encounter. It also ensures that the mare’s milk stays organic; should they need to give medication to the horses, they wouldn’t be able to milk them for one month afterwards. “The animals must be well looked after, strong and healthy to produce milk of high quality,” says Julie.
Admittedly, there wasn’t a great demand at the start of Julie’s venture, but with 115 mares and 8 litres of milk produced a day, they’re now the biggest producer of mare’s milk in Normandy, and the only farm to produce fresh mare’s milk throughout the year! So what does mare’s milk taste like? Julie prepares me a sweet crêpe, made with mare’s milk. “It can be used in cooking, just like normal milk,” she says, as she serves me the crêpe, accompanied by a glass of mare’s milk. “For me, it’s now the only milk I use!”
Biting into the crêpe, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference. Taking a sip of milk, I am struck by how much lighter in consistency mare’s milk is than cow’s milk, altogether more refreshing and less heavy. There was also a flowery, almost herbal taste about it. I concluded to Julie that I could definitely take this over normal milk any day; after all, I’d be supporting a local business, humane treatment of animals, organic production and an endangered species of horse… reasons enough if any!
Julie’s chevalait is sold in 300 organic shops across Europe, including France, Belgium and Spain. To find out more about mare’s milk and Julie’s farm, visit the Chevelait website.