Ever seen a red-fleshed apple? Me neither, until I visited the Clos Cérisey farm in the Normandy département of Eure!
Cider production in Eure dates back to the 16th century. According to historical records, by 1868 there were already 13,600 cider trees in the area, a figure that has increased significantly thanks to local producers keeping the tradition alive to this day.
Situated in the village of Gauciel, the Clos Cérisey farm has been run by the Van Tornhout family since 1929. Originally a mixed farm, the first apple trees were grown in 1985 by Étienne Van Tornhout, and now total around 28,000. Keen to grow apples that set his farm apart from the others, Étienne and his son Stéphane discovered an apple with red skin and flesh, known as the Canadian blood apple, while on a farming internship in Quebec in 1990.
Intrigued by how this type of apple might be farmed back in France, they imported the Canadian blood apple to the farm in Normandy, where Stéphane and his wife Martine developed methods for transforming its unique tangy taste into delicious sparkling apple juice, aperitifs and cidre rosé [pink cider].
In addition to lending itself well to the production of beverages, the Canadian blood apple’s acidic taste is also particularly suitable for the production of confectionery, macaroons, chutneys and other homemade products, which Stéphane and Martine sell to visitors in the farm shop.
The Clos Cérisey is open all year round (10am-12pm and 2pm-6pm, by appointment), so why not pay a visit and find out out how all these products are made, and buy some tasty treats to take home with you?
The best thing my husband and I did 16 years ago, was to move from the South of France to Évreux in Normandy. We’ve met such lovely people since then and our quality of life is second to none. Ideally located just 65 miles from Paris, Évreux is a small town, not too busy, with lots of wonderful countryside, villages and hidden treasures to explore. A particular highlight for us is every Saturday morning, when we always go to the local market in the town centre. We wouldn’t miss it for the world!
When you come to Évreux for the first time, you understand why Normandy is such a culinary destination of choice. All the local delicacies are available: all kinds of fruit and vegetables, meat and charcuterie, fish and shellfish, poultry and of course the dairy products for which Normandy is so famous.
You will also find, of course, the famous four Norman cheeses: Camembert de Normandie, Pont-l’Évêque, Neufchatel and Livarot (cows are everywhere and very productive in Normandy 😊), as well as all sorts of goat cheeses.
You have to try the typically French fromage blanc, which can be eaten sweet or savoury, which is nothing like cottage cheese in UK, farmer’s cheese in the USA or Quark in Germany. Here in Normandy, fromage blanc is all of that rolled into one! For this reason, Évreux market is a very interesting place if you’re a fromage blanc fan like me – it’s my favourite food!
How well do you know cow’s cheese, do you think? Have you ever tasted a cup of goat’s milk or a piece of goat’s cheese on a slice of toasted bread (French bread of course)? If not, be sure to visit Blandine’s market stall, where she sells sourdough bread. BLandine runs the Saint-Mamert Farm near Évreux, and her bread is delicious and organic. Next, head to the bikette caugéenne stall, where Alexandra will help you choose the best goat’s cheese for you! She is a passionate goat farmer the nearby village of Caugé.
Fancy taking home a dessert or two? Here comes la crème de la crème! You probably know macaroons, but have you ever been in front of a stall with hundreds of macaroons? As if you were front of a jewellery shop window? Patricia of Aux Saveurs Retrouvées, whose kitchen and coffee shop are in the village of Buis-sur-Damville, six miles away from Évreux, is a real specialist and a truly lovely person. She experiments with new macaroons every single day with such passion! Look out for her pink food truck on the market, which tends to be there from early in the morning, but be careful – her macaroons are so popular that from 10am onwards there is no guarantee that there will be any left! For more on Patricia’s macaroons, why not read our previous blog post about Aux Saveurs Retrouvées?
After your wander through the market, be sure to walk around Évreux, and do some shopping as well in all of its little shops, such as the Brûlerie Moderne coffee maker’s, which sells a large selection of coffee beans, tea and chocolate. Then, at the end of your visit to Évreux, you can go on a diet (but not before)!
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!
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.
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!
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.
It’s true, macaroons are très a la mode not only in France – they’ve made their way across the Channel too. Vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, coffee and lemon are all delicious flavours but I doubt you’ve tried or even heard of escargot, marshmallow or even salted caramel and calvados flavour. Until now of course…
Meet Patricia. Once a clown and children’s entertainer – she can sculpt a balloon into 40 different animal shapes – now a macaroon maker extraordinaire. Driven by her sizzling curiosity and tireless creativity, she’s mastered over 90 flavours and keeps inventing more. She’s entirely self-taught and happened upon her business venture, Aux Saveurs Retrouvées almost by accident.
Seeking adventure, Patricia left her native Paris almost ten years ago to move to Spain with her husband and young family. A keen baker, Patricia ran a coffee shop where she explored French cooking and baking, to the delight of her Spanish customers. Always looking for a challenge, when she heard that macaroons were particularly tricky to make, Patricia decided that this was next for her to master.
Returning to France just over two years ago, Patricia and her family decided to switch city life for the Normandy countryside. They made their home in Buis sur Damville, a hamlet surrounded by miles of farmland. Patricia had dreamt of being able to raise chickens to supply the eggs for her business and she now has a brood of 70 in her back garden.
Setting up a state of the art kitchen next door to the family house, Patricia works around the clock baking macaroons and inventing new flavours. It’s a labour intensive process – not only because she makes all the fillings herself but also because she only makes 80 at a time – more than that she says, and the quality is lost. With five children, Patricia’s grown accustomed to operating on little sleep and it’s not crying babies that keep her up at night now but having a head full of new flavours to create.
Wanting to venture into savoury macaroons Patricia has developed escargot, mustard, cheese and caramelised onion flavour. She admits to having a sweet tooth and goes to town decorating the sweet macaroons and trying all variety of flavours: praline, rum and raison and my favourite, chocolate orange. She experiments with shape, colours, decoration… it’s clear she has great fun doing what she does.
In the two years since she moved her, Patricia’s macaroon business has grown from strength to strength. She started by selling at local markets and festivals and as soon people taste these little rounds of delight, word spreads. The week before I met her, she’d had a stall at the autumn apple festival, Fête de la Pomme in the nearby town of Conde-en-Auge. After a couple of days working long hours to get everything ready, all 1,500 macaroons were all gone in just three hours.
Patricia now supplies macaroons for weddings, businesses and several gourmet tea rooms throughout Normandy. In spite of being in deep rural countryside, Patricia’s always had a steady stream of visitors who make the journey to try her macaroons for themselves. She also recently opened her own on-site tea room and will be launching a new English menu this November.
For those wanting to try their hand at making their own macaroons, Patricia runs workshops every Friday evening (she can currently run these in French and Spanish, she’s working on the English so watch this space)! Participants make two flavours of macaroons – and each participant take home a box of their creations.
So what’s next for this restless macaroon chef? Well a lady from La Durée visited her shop a few months ago so who knows, perhaps we’ll soon be seeing escargot, mustard and calvados salted caramel macaroons in Paris’ most mouth-watering windows.
Visit the Aux Saveurs Retrouvées Facebook page by clicking here.
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.