Exploring this part of northwest France, whether by car, bicycle or – best of all – leisurely river and canal cruise, you’re struck by its rich, rustic traditions, from medieval towns straight out of the history books to an undulating landscape that appears at times undisturbed by anything more sophisticated than a ploughshare.
Ask anyone French about Normandy and its cuisine and they’ll answer: cream, cheese and apples.
Ask anyone French about Normandy and its cuisine and they’ll answer: cream, cheese and apples. Cream is a staple and the locals pair it with every possible ingredient: fish, shellfish, red meat, white meat, poultry, desserts, even with cheese. And as for cheeses, well, there are dozens and, for a nation renowned for its fromages, this is perhaps the greatest cheese-producing – and consuming – region of them all. The best-loved are probably the soft, round and strong Livarot, the rich, creamy Pont-l’Evêque, and the king of them all, Camembert. Remember that a real Camembert is always made with unpasteurised milk. Any other way is sacrilege.
Typical of Normandy’s strength of tradition combined with today’s imagination is the Domaine de Gauville country house hotel near Brionne. The owner, Myriam – who bought the place as a retreat from her hectic Parisian life – soon discovered that it used to be a saffron farm. Not only did she have no idea the precious crocus could grow there, but she was also unaware that France, along with England, had been the main producer of saffron up until the 18th century. As harvesting is labour-intensive, its cultivation died out. But now Myriam has put French saffron production back on the map. I experienced it first-hand at the restaurant at the nearby Logis de Brionne, where I enjoyed a mouthwatering fillet of hake with a saffron-infused cream dressing (left).
Normandy is also home to some of the most famous orchards in France, and at Ferme de l’Yonnière, our host introduced us to the art of poiré (pear cider) and cidre (cider) making. French regulations being extremely strict, makers are not allowed to use anything other than fruit. The result is a completely different product from similar drinks produced in the rest of the world, including the UK, where the percentage of fruit can be as low as 35%.
We had dinner at La Maison de la Ferrière in Francheville, where a succulent escalope of tender veal cooked in a cider and cream sauce was the perfect ending to the day.
The next morning, we made our way to the Manoir du Lys in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, a Michelin- starred inn where we joined a mushroom-picking day in the Andaines forest. We collected cèpes de Bordeaux, bolets and chanterelles for dinner under the supervision of our guide, Michel – a mycologist. And what a dinner! It was a mushroom celebration: pan-fried with shellfish, as a cream with fish, and pickled with venison.
Beuvron-en-Auge is the most perfect picture-postcard village. After a stroll round the market, where we chose cheeses, saucisson and a few bottles to bring home, we had lunch at Le Pavé d’Auge on the main square, another Michelin restaurant. There we enjoyed more local delicacies, such as pan-fried scallops served with pickled cockles, and an apple and calvados soufflé. At our final dinner at the Manoir d’Hastings (1066 is never far away), where I had a risotto of Andouille de Vire (a type of black pudding) with a cream of Camembert, followed by fondant pig’s cheeks cooked in cider. My taste buds still haven’t got over it!
For great French holidays, go to saga.co.uk/impressions-seine
More info at the Normandy tourist board, en.normandie-tourisme.fr
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