We all have our postcard vision of Normandy: the black and white cows grazing under the apple trees in bloom, the half-timbered houses and their thatch roofs, the chalky cliffs at Etretat or the owe-inspiring tide at Mont St Michel. Norman food themes are also vivid in our minds: we associate the region with seafood, poultry, cream, cheese and apples. While these ingredients are used throughout, we are not always aware of the diversity within this patch of France that borders the English Channel. First of all, Normandy is a collection of "pays". It is made up of 5 départements but more than the administrative division of the region, it is the notion of pays that is relevant to the locals, the geographical and geological parcel of land where they were born. One can number more than a dozen different pays in Normandy, each with their own specialties and local preferences. This strong sense of pays can probably be explained by the fact that the Normans, unlike other French populations such as the Basques or the Savoyards, rarely felt the need to emigrate and improve their lot: the booming fishing and agricultural province (sometimes referred to as Paris 21st arrondissement because of its proximity to the capital) always found eager customers and a steady flow of tourists.
Upper Normandy. The Seine lazily carves its way through the high chalk and limestone plateau of Eastern (or Upper) Normandy. For art lovers, a visit of Giverny is nothing short of a pilgrimage: our minds are so imprinted with Monet's paintings of his house, his garden, and the lily pond with the Japanese bridge that it feels like déjà vu. Further downstream, the imposing ruins of Chateau-Gaillard dominate Les Andelys and remind the travelers that, some centuries ago, Normandy was an English possession (Richard the Lion Hearted had the castle built in 1196 to bar the French from Rouen). Rouen has been the capital of Upper Normandy since the Roman times and the old part of town, with more than 700 timber-framed houses, is a showcase of fine medieval building techniques. From the standpoint of gastronomy, the city is famous for its canard à la rouennaise, a duck dish with a rich sauce; its mirlitons, almond puff pastry tartlets; and the sucre de pomme, a sugar confection flavored with apple. At the edge of the Pays de Caux lies the Alabaster coast, home of Etretat, and the fishing ports of Fécamp and Dieppe. Norman fishermen bring back sole, herring, skate, turbot, cod, shrimp and some of the largest scallops found in France. Dieppe has given its name to several dishes such as the marmite dieppoise, a fish stew, and the sole dieppoise which features a sauce thickened with flour and enriched with cream and butter. Fécamp is the city where the Bénédictine herbal liqueur is elaborated. In the Pays de Brays, the local cheese is not camembert but fromage blanc and Neufchâtel, a soft salty cow cheese with a downy rind. The oldest Norman cheese, it is available in different sizes and shapes such as logs, squares and hearts. Although a lot of apple trees grow in Upper Normandy pastures, a large portion of land is also devoted to the culture of wheat, hay and beets. Wild rabbits are plentiful in the local forests and the charcutiers of Gisors are famous for their rabbit rillettes, while those in Bernay, a town surrounded by streams, boast about their cold trout pâté.
Lower Normandy. Calvados, Manche and Orne are the three départements that compose Lower Normandy, a sandstone and granite mass that slouches toward Brittany to the West. The coastline extends from Honfleur, a town cherished by artists, around the Cotentin peninsula, down to Le Mont St Michel. Fashionable Deauville provides as week-end escape to harried Parisians, Bayeux houses the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde, an irreplaceable source of information on the way of life in the 11th century, Omaha Beach commemorates a fateful June 6 and Le Mont St Michel offers a splendid abbey in an extraordinary site. The coast is sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky but always generous with its culinary treasures: flounder, red mullet, sardines, oysters, mussels, palourdes clams, lobster, large bouquet shrimp and tiny crevettes grises grace seafood platters in every restaurant. The sea also contributes to the excellent reputation of two products normally associated with land: carrots and lamb! The carrots of Créances are unique: because they grow in seaweed-nourished sand, they are rich in iodine, have no woody core and exhibit a deep-orange color. The agneaux de pré-salé feed in the salt meadows around the Mont St Michel bay: the tides cover the marshland and flavor their food; the meat is lean and has a fine, butter-like texture. Inland, in the Pays d'Auge, the cows rule: Pont l'Evèque, Livarot and Camembert are the names of three small towns, and three world-class cheeses. The best ones are made with raw milk. The town of Isigny was granted an Appellation d'Origine Controlée for its celebrated butter and crème fraîche (it is famous for its caramels, too). Cream of course is an integral component of any recipe "à la normande". You can make a respectable substitute to crème fraîche by combining 2 cups heavy cream and 3 Tbsp buttermilk in a glass jar; close the lid and shake to mix well; let stand overnight in a warm spot, such as the top of your refrigerator; then refrigerate for several hours until the cream thickens some more; it will keep for a week. The Pays d'Auge also has the best soil to grow apple trees. More than 100 different varieties of apples are found in Normandy, some for fruit, others for cider. Most ciders are blends from different apples but some producers also offer "varietals". When cider is distilled in copper stills, eau-de-vie is obtained and transferred to new oak casks for a few months and then to older casks for further aging: et voilà! Calvados! The endearing custom of drinking a shot of Calvados between courses to facilitate the digestive process (called "trou normand") is so effective that most other French regions have adopted it, showcasing their own brandy of course... Pommeau is a Norman apéritif made by blending freshly pressed apple juice with Calvados. Pear trees are also very present, especially around Domfront. Some varieties of pears are used to make poiré, a delicate pear cider. Apples and pears are also widely used in pastries: bourdelots are cored apples filled with fruit jelly or butter and sugar, which are then wrapped in pastry and baked. When a pear is used, it is called a douillon. And sometimes, douillons are made with apples Expect lively discussions.
We could not leave the Norman province without exploring its charcuterie. Mortagne-au Perche claims the title of "capitale du boudin noir" and, indeed, many agree that this blood sausage is exceptional. Avranches specializes in boudin blanc made with fish. Caen has long been associated with tripe: tripe à la mode de Caen requires four kinds of beef tripe that are simmered in cider and aromatic vegetables for 24 hours. The andouille de Vire is sometimes mistakenly called a tripe sausage but in fact it is a smoked sausage of pig stomach and intestines, usually served cold. Andouillette d'Alençon is not a small andouille: it is made with veal tripe, covered with a layer of waxy fat and grilled over a fire. Many towns hold yearly tastings, contests and festivals to award ribbons and medals to the best renditions of these regional specialties. The judges undoubtedly sacrifice to the "trou normand" tradition to get through the tastings...
Our recipes from Normandy:
Fillet of Sole Dieppoise-Sole Dieppoise
Chicken with Apples-Poulet Vallée d'Auge
Guinea Fowl with Cider-Pintade au Cidre
Morels in Cream Sauce-Morilles à la Crême
Apple Douillon-Douillon Normand à la Pomme