If you can’t spot a truffle for all the tourists, blame Peter Mayle and Keith Floyd for making Provence a culinary cliché. If you’re looking for gastronomic heaven without the crowds, look no further than Normandy. Wickedfood cooking school sent a team building expedition over to France on a culinary mission carried out as meticulously as the D-Day landings, to find insperation for our French cooking classes and teambuilding cooking classes. After a gruelling seven days spent motoring between country kitchens, cheesemakers and Calvados estates, our intrepid troops lived to tell the tale of how to get lost in France – with a dollop of humour as rich as Normandy’s famous cheese, cream and butter.
Drinking Calvados and driving on the wrong side of the road is a sure way of getting lost in France. The locals don’t think so though. But then it’s their country and they drive on the other side all the time. They contend that the pure cider spirit of Normandy clears the head as well as the palate. Not if you’re a foreigner navigating road signs in a foreign language though- more gruiling then the severist team building challange. Mon ami, who can tell where you are on the map whether you’re on the left or on the right on these narrow country lanes and endless roundabouts?
Navigating unfamiliar territory, shouting conflicting directions after an epic gourmet lunch of pâté, escargots, foie gras, langoustine, turbot, pigeon, cheese and crème brûlée at Le Petit Coq, a country auberge in Normandy worth searching the world over to find, we were all confused.
“Left, to the D-Day beaches,”
“No, right to a monastery,”
“Straight ahead, a Calvados estate!”
“Pull over, there’s the (take your pick) auberge, bistro, cheesemaker, sausagemaker, potmaker, Calvados maker we’re looking for!” We were running late for lunch, trying to get directions from a confused chef, fast running out of my poor French on the cellphone,
You could blame it all on French road signs. They clutter every traffic circle with the names of every town in the region except the one you’re looking for. Driving around and around those roundabouts, you eventually spot your destination on an obscure sign mounted on a wall on the second-floor of the old town-hall. The advantage of touring curb-style is that you see landmarks and landscapes at close range.
Day-trippers in the Duchy of Normandy, watching a pageant of cathedrals, châteaux and monasteries pass by. Driving through the feudal stronghold of William the Conqueror, a rich history embroidered scene-by-scene in the tapestry of Bayeux which draws the sightseers to a part of France once governed by the King of England.
The cathedral town of Bayeux was one of the first French towns to be liberated from German occupation in June 1944. We weren’t going there, though. We were vainly looking for the road to Villedieu-les-Poêles, the village renowned for its coppersmiths who make some of the best pots and pans in the world. Heading north by mistake, we passed the landmarks of the allied invasion on Utah and Omaha Beach where the yanks came ashore, and villages like St Mère-Eglise where a life-like replica of a paratrooper still dangles from the church spire where he hung perilously by his ’chute fifty-five years ago while the battle raged below. But no, we weren’t going there either. (We were on a culinary mission not a history lesson.)
By the time we found the Auberge du Mesnil-Rogues in the heart of Normandy, the driver’s nerves were dangling by a thread like that paratrooper. A long gourmet lunch would restore our spirits and save the day. The restaurant, specialises in what the French call cuisine du terroir – and the rest of the world simply calls regional specialities. The rotund shape of a master chef who obviously enjoys his own food enormously sat us down in an intimate dining room in front of a glowing hearth containing a large haunch of pork rotating to a crisp on a spit.
We were treated to a feast never to be forgotten. Hanging from the old stone walls were rows of culinary diplomas and awards conferring select membership of culinary brotherhoods such as the Confrèrie Gastronomique des Vikings du Normand and the Concours National des Cuisines Régionales. All rather impressive. The chef’s cuisine lived up to every accolade. He teased our tastebuds with a succession of classic local dishes prepared in rich Normandy sauces made with butter, cider, cream and Camembert – hollow oysters from nearby Blainville baked in cider, lobster and foie gras (a marriage of earth and sea) simmered in pommeau (cider and Calvados), chitterling sausage in cider vinegar, apple sorbet with Calvados, rare duck breast in the richest Camembert sauce imaginable – and to top it all, a selection of local cheeses like Camembert, Liverot and Pont L’Évêque taken before dessert as is the French fashion.
Now there’s only one way to consume a banquet of such gastronomic proportions. When in Normandy, do like the Normans do. Practise the ancient art of le trou Normand – roughly translated as the Norman hole or simply “down the hatch!” You see, what Cognac is to the grape, Calvados is to the apple. The Normans have been making their version of apple brandy and “bon bere” (cider) for centuries. They are not only versatile partners for the rich food of Normandy, the gastronomic home of “poissons et crustacés” (fish and shellfish) prepared in “sauce Normande” – Calvados is also a neat culinary trick.
“Du you know about ze Norman hole?” One of the chefs we met did a good nasal impression of Inspector Clousseau. I thought he was about to tell us an obscene joke. But no, it seems the Normans have developed a special gastronomic technique to digest these high cholesterol feasts of cream, cheese and crustaceans.
“When we take déjeuner, we halt from the eating and take a deep breath.” Peter Sellers gulped for air in a practical demonstration. “Then, vite, vite (quickly), we take a small glass of Calvados just before the main course. Eat, drink, eat, drink,” he smiled indulgently, “Zis way we make more space for all ze food.”
When you take your food as seriously as do the French, I suppose one could forget to breathe and eat at the same time. A case of suffocation through surfeit. Well, we were able to practise the gourmet art of “le trou Normand” at lunch and dinner over the next few days as we tottered along the coast on our gastronomic route from seafood platter to salt marsh lamb platter.
At a waterfront brasserie in the stylish casino town of Deauville, we showed off our new skill somewhere between shelling a steaming pot of fresh mussels from the Channel, picking on a vast plate of grey prawns (a local speciality) and tucking into the main course – a giant platter of oysters, crab, langoustines, periwinkles, prawns and sea-snails.
Going way beyond the call of duty, we struggled through a mound of shellfish on our brave mission, adding to the gluttony by dipping several baguettes into the rich sauce of cream, Calvados and parsley in which those mussels swam. Although we drank cider by the jug I’m not sure whether we plumbed the depths of that legendary Norman hole. But I do believe that we were replete to the depth of our souls and stomachs by the time we completed our grand culinary tour of Normandy. Mission accomplished. Over and out.
See the following articles on French food:
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