Food and Drink in Normandy: Cream, Calvados and More
Tucked away in the northwest of France, Normandy attracts legions of visitors each year not only for its beauty, but also for its historical and religious significance. Like most Americans, what I knew about Normandy had to do with World War II and the Mont-Saint-Michel. However, it’s also a prime and underrated destination for epicures, as I soon discovered in my weeklong trip.
Perhaps most famous for its crème fraîche, Normandy produces four of France’s most popular cheeses: Camembert, Livarot, Neufchâtel and Pont-l'Évêque. Not surprisingly, the butter made here is among the best in France. In fact, the butter and cream produced in Isigny-sur-Mer carry the prestigious appellation d'origine contrôlée (A.O.C.) distinction. A tour and tasting at a Norman farm is a must for any dairy lover.
Due to its 600 kilometres of coastline, Normandy is home to some of France’s most important fishing ports, thus seafood is both fresh and plentiful. Shrimp, lobster, oysters, herring and clams are all pulled from the frigid Atlantic waters. Cooked in a variety of traditional ways, look for the Norman-style dishes. That’s code for cream.
There are over nine million apple trees producing more than two hundred varieties of fruit, and in Normandy, calvados is king. The strong spirit is made by pressing apples into cider, then distilled and aged in oak barrels.Drive along the 40-kilometer cider route through Pays d’Auge. Not only are there dozens of cider producers who welcome visitors, but also picturesque villages and the stunning Norman countryside, filled with humble half-thatched cottages and prestigious manors and châteaux.
Located just outside Bayeux, is Les Vergers de Ducy. This family-owned orchard produces ciders, pommeau and calvados. Guests are invited to walk in the orchard, visit the hall of the old press, see the cellar, watch a short film about the cider-making process and visit the store for a selection of jams, organic apple juice, cider and calvados. It’s certainly heaven for apple lovers, and I challenge anyone to leave empty handed.
Amateur bartenders will enjoy a cocktail making class at the Palais Bénédictine. In the art-filled palace, learn to make Benedictine cocktails from the head barman at Hotel Le Normandy, Deauville. Bénédictine is an elixir created in 1510 by Dom Bernardo Vincilli, an Italian Benedictine monk living at the Abbey of Fécamp. It wasn’t until 1863 that Alexandre Le Grand found the recipe in his art collection and managed to recreate the liqueur now known as Bénédictine.
Normandy also has plenty of specialities for those with a sweet tooth like me. Given all the apples and pears produced in the region, there are a variety of delicious jams, tarts and cakes made with these fruits. Don’t leave Normandy without trying the creamy and divine caramels d’Isigny and also stop by the Biscuiterie de l’Abbaye and taste the Sablés. The origins of this local biscuit date to the 18th century in Normandy, and soon became a popular biscuit throughout France. Individual and group visits and tastings last about an hour and require reservations.
I think one of the best ways to discover a place is to take a cooking course, and there are several opportunities throughout Normandy. Near Lisieux, Julie at Les Petits Matins Bleus, combines her cooking classes with a stay in a gîte. Located on the Cotentin peninsula is Wilde Kitchen. Here, Irish-born Sinéad teaches guests how to cook simple French dishes using local produce in a farmhouse kitchen.
From the ocean to the rolling green hills, the region creates some of the best products in France. Without a doubt, Normandy is an exceptional culinary destination that should be on every gourmand’s wish list.