Oysters in St-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 Peninsula 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, 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.
Normandy produces four of France’s most popular cheeses – Camembert, Livarot, Neufchâtel and Pont-l'Évêque – and a tour and tasting at a Norman farm is a must for any dairy lover. Few people are unfamiliar with Camembert, one of the best cheeses for oven-baking before decadently dipping pieces of bread into its molten centre. It’s typically sold whole in thin, poplar-wood containers, which were originally invented in 1890 to preserve the cheese on long journeys across to America. The specific ‘Camembert de Normandie’ variety was granted a protected designation of origin in 1992 after the original AOC in 1983, and can only be made from raw, unpasteurised milk from vaches Normandes (Normandy’s own cows).
The delightful heart-shaped Neufchâtel is soft, slightly crumbly and mould-ripened, and one of France’s oldest varieties, dating back as far as 1035. 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 as a sign of their affection. Neufchâtel’s taste and texture is reminiscent of its more famous cousin Camembert but with added flavours of nuts and mushrooms, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a glass of cider or red wine. Livarot is a monastic French cheese easily distinguished by its washed rind and pungent aroma, nicknamed ‘The Colonel’ because the five strips of raffia tied around it echo the detail on a French army colonel's uniform. And last but not least, Pont-l’Évêque is the oldest Norman cheese still in production, soft and rich with a creamy, full-bodied flavour. Take your pick!
According to legend, this classic Normandy fish stew was first made in the 1960s in a mariners’ and sailors’ tavern of the same name on the quays of Dieppe. The tavern’s owner, Madame Maurice, was renowned in the region for her delicious fish dishes à la Dieppoise (Dieppe-style). The stew is prepared using a mixture of local fish and shellfish– sole, red mullet, turbot, prawns and mussels – to which celery, leeks and onionsare added, as well as paprika and cayenne pepper. It’s rich and hearty and could certainly give its Provençal counterpart bouillabaisse a run for its money!
Boudin noir (black pudding)
Mortagne in Normandy’s Parc Naturel Régional du Perche could be the world’s capital of black pudding. This divisive delicacy is said to be the oldest refined meat product in Europe, supposedly first made by ancient Celts from 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’s an integral part of any Norman menu. It even has a dedicated fraternity with their very own robes: the Brotherhood of Black Pudding Knights.
Normandy is France's leading region for scallop fishing and the quality of its scallops is officially acknowledged with a ‘Red Label’. They were the first non-processed seafood to be granted this label. Taste some of the very best scallops in the fishing village of Port-en-Bessin,which celebrates its catch with a dedicated festival, Le Goût du Large, every November. The season begins in October and runs until May – but the optimum period in which to taste top-quality scallops is from December to March. Scallops should be sold alive but totally closed. There are a number of other scallop fairs and festivals in Normandy to keep you going through the winter: in Villers-sur Mer in October; in Ouistreham in November and in Grandcamp-Maisy in December. All offer an excellent opportunity to buy (and taste!) top-quality scallops direct from local fishermen.