Calvados, Camembert and September 11

As the events of September 11th began to unfold on a blue, clear morning in New York, it was mid-afternoon for us on a warm, golden-sunny afternoon in the countryside of France. Despite the fact that the first airplane had already hit the first tower, we were, for the moment, blissfully unaware of the news.

Specifically, and ironically, we were in Normandy, where I was working on a story about the food specialties and regional cuisine of this historic region. It was to be, we would realize later, our ‘war’ vacation. The week prior to September 11th, we had spent days visiting the historic sites and battlegrounds that were made famous during the Normandy invasion of WWII. I must admit that I learned much about that war that I don’t believe I had ever learned in school, and I gained a deep appreciation for what it is like to have such a war waged on ones home turf and for the sacrifices made by the Allied troops in another land.

Despite the number of decades that have passed since those bloody battles were fought along the coast of Normandy, the stories of those grim days feels very alive in the towns and villages where the heaviest fighting took place, and in the museums and cemeteries that are dedicated to keeping the memories of the heroism of the Allied forces alive.

the serene and dignified American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer contains the remains of 9,387 WWII servicemen and women

the serene and dignified American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer contains the remains of 9,387 WWII servicemen and women

On that afternoon, we were lazily heading to taste some Calvados ( spirited apple brandy ) at an chateau / cave in the Pays d’Auge. We had yet to find any English stations on the radio of our rental car, but that was OK with us – we love singing along to French pop songs even when we don’t quite get the lyrics.

Fortunately, as we had not called ahead, the Monsieur and Madame were home, perhaps just getting ready for an afternoon snooze when we arrived. Nevertheless, we were warmly greeted and escorted into the cave where we were given a couple of glasses of Calvados to sip. Shortly after our arrival, the Madame slipped back into the house. It seemed like not ten minutes later, she was back in the cave, asking us if we had heard the news about what happened in New York. We said no, nothing had caught our ear on the radio.

She proceeded to tell us that Radio France was reporting that two airplanes had collided mid-air over the city. Her news gave us chills, and we prayed that this not be true. Facing that akward pause that developes when two languages cannot quite find the words to connect over something important, Monsieur announced that it was time to show us his alembic still. So we all toasted the safe keeping of all who might be involved in this terrible accident and all ambled off to another building to see his pride and joy.

All in all, we stayed about one hour and left feeling very contented, very relaxed, and far removed from the history lessons of the previous week. As we exited the driveway and turned into the driving lane, we turned the radio back on. Instead of the music that had been playing when we arrived, the airwaves were filled with nearly hysterical news reporters relaying information at break neck speed and at nearly ear splitting decibels.

We could not make out what was happening, but quickly learned that every station on the radio dial sounded the same. Loud, frenetic and very agitated. We tried to pick apart the words and slowly began to make out words like ‘World Trade Tower’, ‘Pentagon’, ‘airports’, ‘bombs’, ‘terrorists’ and a few others. Right then we knew our idyllic vacation would forever be changed. Even thought Normandy is only a one hour drive from Paris, it would be two days before we found an English newspaper or saw a television to learn the complete story of what had happened in New York.

While many Americans do not think that the French are a cuddly people, I must say that for the remainder of our week plus in France after 9/11, we encountered many church services, memorial masses, candle-lit vigils and minutes of silence dedicated to America and the American families whose lives were impacted by this tragedy. The following Sunday we attended mass at Chartres Cathedral, where hundreds of worshippers lined up to light candles of hope and prayer, and the benediction was a eulogy to America and this dreadful act.

Overwhelmingly, the French people shared our grief and wept openly with America.

the American flag is respectfully flown at half-mast in Caen on September 12th

the American flag is respectfully flown at half-mast in Caen on September 12th

This is the piece that I wrote for the publication The World & I describing our trip and the seasonal fall foods of Normandy. I refrained from any mention of 9/11 because it was not appropriate to the piece, but I mention it here in this post because, for me, I can no longer think of Normandy without thinking of my ‘war’ vacation and the world-changing events of both June 6, 1944 and September, 11th 2001.

Normandy at It’s Best:  

when the air is crips with the fragrance of fresh apples,

it’s time to ramble through the French countryside in search of local specialties

by Mary Lou Heiss

For most travelers, Normandy conjures up images of World War II battles, seaside resorts, Joan of Arc and William the Conquerer, Monet’s Impressionist paintings, the Hundred Years war, the Bayeaux tapestry, soaring cathedrals and mysterious abbeys. I too think of this sweep of history, but Normandy beckons the food lover in me to come for the rustic culinary pleasures of this plentiful region. Soft and pungent cheeses are made from France’s richest milk, and Normandy’s bountiful coast supplies a shimmering array of impeccably fresh fish. In the rural heartland, Calvados, the fiery apple brandy, and refreshing chilled hard cider await the thirsty traveler. Cozy country inns and restaurants specialize in traditional dishes of succulent grilled meats and game.

a charming restaurant / butcher shop sign offering local specialty meats

a charming restaurant / butcher shop sign offering local specialty meats

Autumn is a glorious time to discover Normandy’s seasonal bounty at local farmers markets, or in restaurants where chefs cook in sync with the season. Norman enthusiasm for their agricultural blessings is infectious, and throughout the region I found the fare to be honest and hearty, and just rich enough to maintain tradition.

Early Norman inhabitants relied on basic hunting, farming and fishing skills. Successive waves of settlers and invaders each added something new to the expanding repertoire of Norman cooking. Simple grains and crude, roasted meats were introduced by early forest- dwelling Celtic settlers. During the reign of Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers introduced the Normans to sauces, exotic spices, crude cheeses and salted meats. Additionally, they taught the Normans aquaculture skills and perfected the methods of oyster cultivation started earlier by the Celts. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Frankish invaders, already converted to Christianity, built the monastic abbeys near Rouen. Here, monks planted elaborate herb and vegetable gardens, and established orchards. They experimented with the production of simple cheeses, from which Norman Pont L’Eveque and Livarot cheeses are believed to be descended.

a display of Camembert cheese labels from the past

a display of Camembert cheese labels from the past

Lastly, Viking invaders taught the Normans animal husbandry skills which increased the production of milk for cheese-making. They also brought with them crude beer-making and fermenting skills, which the Normans adapted much later for the production of hard cider and Calvados.

My husband and I began our trip in Paris. We chose to leave the City of Lights by train to avoid the driving headaches of the congested highways. For service to Normandy and Brittany, we headed for the Gare St Lazare, once frequented by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet on his forays to and from his beloved home, Giverney. Just one hour west lies the city of Rouen, the gateway to historic Normandy.

The old part of the city of Rouen is a delight to explore. Clusters of narrow streets twist their way past roughly 700 half-timbered buildings that represent various building styles from the Middle Ages up through the end of the 17C. Elaborate wooden carvings adorn many of the building facades, and today it is easy to forget that Rouen has been largely rebuilt from the devastating damage it suffered in WWII. Three Gothic masterpieces of religious architecture – Cathédrale Notre Dame, Église St-Maclou, and Église St-Ouen – along with numerous small, specialized museums provide several days pastime.

After checking into our hotel, we dashed to the farmers’ market at the Place de Vieux Marche, which sets up twice weekly near the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Amid the jostling of determined shoppers, we eyed jewel-like displays of seafood terrines in aspic, dry sausages and salamis, taut-skinned red currants on the vine, fuzzy green walnuts, whole rabbits hanging reposefully by their feet, aromatic cheeses in all shapes, wide-eyed fish and a tapestry of colorful vegetables. Our basket quickly filled with a splendid country lunch – scarlet raspberries, a dry pork salami made with Calvados and walnuts, a bottle of chilled, sparkling hard apple cider, a soft and unctious square of Pavé du Pleiss cheese and some crusty bread.

Rouen is a sugar mavens dream. Alluring bakeries, patisseries and candy shops abound. Look for local specialties such as buttery caramels, fruit filled hard candies, Calvados filled chocolates, pear and apple tartlets and little cakes called Mirlitons.

Fall is the time to indulge in Rouen’s namesake dish, Canard à la Rouennaise, so named for a unique breed of half-wild and half-domestic duck raised nowhere else in France. For this indulgence we were directed to the Restaurant Beffroy, which is neatly cossetted down a narrow side street. Preceeding our duck, Restaurant Beffroy captivated us with sauteed foie gras finished with a light, fresh fig sauce, and a langoustine, channel shrimp and endive salad. Our duck, served on the bone in hearty pieces, was pleasantly gamey yet moist and tender. In this dish, the fresh duck liver is used in the sauce, giving it a grainy texture and a nearly black color. We finished every drop, and at our hosts suggestion, followed Norman custom by having a
‘ Trou Normand’( a small glass of Calvados) before continuing on to the cheese and dessert courses.

Leaving Rouen in our rented car, we drove west toward Honfleur. Here, driving alongside the curving banks of the river Seine, several interesting Abbeys are worth exploring. Look for the 12C Abbey of Saint-Georges de Boscherville, the ruins of the once great 7C Abbey of Jumièges, and the 17C monastery at Le Bec-Hellouin and the Abbey of St. Wandrille, both of which still house Benedictine monks.

Approaching the English Channel, we crossed over the soaring Pont de Normandie bridge. Here, along the coast from Dieppe to Cherbourg, the emphasis is on sparkling fresh seafood and shellfish. Ambling about the town of Honfleur, we entertained ourselves by reading the dinner selections posted outside of the local restaurants. We discovered many classic Norman preparations, such as fillets of sole Normandie, fish stew ‘Dieppe style’, scallops poached in cream, onion and mushroom sauce, demoiselles ( mini-lobsters ) de Cherbourg, gratin de langoustines ( prawns ) in a Calvados / sherry sauce, mussels a la marniere, and oysters on the half-shell. Additionally, a new generation of young chefs are putting their spin on tradition by introducing a palate of contemporary flavors, such as spiced fruit sauces, vinegar/oil emulsions, raw tomatoes, fresh wild mushrooms, fresh herbs and assorted citrus.

a classic Norman half-timbered building adds to the distinctive architecture of this lovely region

a classic Norman half-timbered building adds to the distinctive architecture of this lovely region

The sophisticated menu at Restaurant L’Absinthe piqued our interest for dinner. After some advice from our waiter, we decided to start with a dual presentation of foie gras with kumquats and clove, and foie gras with mango and ginger sauce. Following this, two divine seafood dishes arrived. One, a selection of local fish poached in a delicate tomato herb broth and the second, a sauteed turbot with candied onions in a cider vinegar sauce. Each was dramatically presented with matchless French flair on chic, over-sized plates.

The following day before breakfast, we zipped down to the boisterous Deauville farmers’ market. A jumble of sweet and fresh salty smells filled the air as stand upon stand was set up with mounds of crevettes ( shrimp ), mussels, langoustines, lotte ( monkfish ), rouget ( red mullet ), turbot, cabillaud (cod), bar
( sea bass ) and sweet-fleshed sole, all bedded down in blankets of crushed ice. Amid the animated chattering of fishmongers and customers, we became intrigued watching two chefs selecting sea creatures for their daily seafood platters. These oversized, showy entree-sized platters feature whatever local creatures of the sea are available fresh at the market that day. For that evening, their platters would include crabs, periwinkles, langoustines, brûlots, clams, oysters, lobster, large shrimp, and tiny sweet           ‘crevettes gris ’ shrimp.

Making our way through the rest of the market, we began looking for our first taste of local, farmhouse cheese. We trolled past the tables of tacky clothing, knock-off Chanel hand bags and out-of-fashion shoes. Across the aisle we spied a table laden with rectangular, deep-chestnut- brown sourdough bread. This slightly charred, crusty loaf from a local wood-fired bakery was moist and chewy inside; the perfect foil for soft and runny cheeses. Clutching our newly acquired loaf, we visited with the Algerian olive vendor, the dry sausage maker ( paprika was his “ secret” ingredient, ) and the 4-melons-for-7- euros shukster.

Normandy cheeses ripening at Domaine de St. Hippolyte

Normandy cheeses ripening at Domaine de St. Hippolyte

Then, around the corner, we saw her: La Femme des Fromages. Stacks of cheese were at a near avalanche pitch behind her, but right in front she had what we wanted: local, artisan made raw milk Camembert, Pont L’Eveque and Livarot cheese. To our dismay, the full pieces were huge – close to a pound and a half each, and she was not disposed to cutting them. As we debated, several other shoppers gathered, each hoping for something smaller. Resolute, she did not budge. She stood, we stood, and no one moved. Shifting from foot to foot, we knew we had won when she finally exclaimed ‘ALORS.’ Grabbing her knife she quickly cut several pieces on the diagonal, and we scooped up our cheese. With all parties smiling victoriously, we continued on.

The next day, we drove south into the Pays D’Auge. This earthy, ambling countryside is filled with picture-perfect villages. Hedgerows line the country lanes, intersecting fields and orchards, creating the ancient system of delineation known as “ bocage.” Brown and white cob and timber cottages, adorned with undulating thatched roofs, peek through hedgerows. Here among the dairy farms are the famous Norman apple orchards, which provide the fruit for Calvados, hard cider, and buttery, golden brown apple tarts.

Normandy’s apple orchards thrive under the spell of the cool breezes and light rains that sweep in from the English Channel, whereas serious attempts to cultivate grapes has failed. Today, France ranks in the top six countries for apple production, with specific varieties grown for eating, baking, or making Calvados and hard cider. Calvados is produced throughout Normandy, but in the Pays d’Auge locals take pride in reminding the world that theirs is the best.

Pays d’Auge Calvados is twice-distilled, and aged in wood casks for a minimum of 2 years. These young spirits are used for cooking while venerable, decades-old Calvados is cherished for sipping. The production methods for Calva – as the locals call it – are highly regulated, placing Calvados alongside Cognac and Armagnac as the elite trinity of distinguished French brandies.

swan-neck copper still for producing world-famous Calvados

swan-neck copper still for producing world-famous Calvados

Hard cider is the beverage of choice with meals in Normandy, and it fits perfectly with the food. Served slightly chilled, these delicious barrel- fermented ciders are enticingly refreshing, and come semi-dry or slightly effervescent and contain a mere 4.5 % alcohol.

The spotlight here also shines on cheese, butter and cream. White and liver-spotted Normandy cows meander about the apple orchards, grazing under heavily laden tree limbs that have been pruned short. Known for their abundant, high fat milk, these cows provide the milk for Normandy’s soft, full-flavored Camembert; strong-smelling Livarot; and sweet, creamy Pont L’Eveque cheeses.

a Normandy bull lords over his meadow

This cheese industry was once dominated by farmers and small dairies, but today consists mainly of a handful of large cheese producers. Our best efforts to locate authentic, farmhouse cheeses along back roads failed, but we did un -cover more of these earthy treasures at other local farmers’ markets. These cheeses are soft and runny and very creamy – excellent with apples, pears and walnuts – and the perfect foil for a cup of hard cider or a glass of Calvados.

From the Pays D’Auge, we headed west for the coast along the border with neighboring Brittany. But first we made a much anticipated stop in the copper and pewter making town of Villedieu-les- Poêles. This town was settled by the Knights of Jerusalem in the 11C, who brought their metal-working skills with them.
Plan on idling away an entire day here. Dozens of shops vie for attention with gleaming copper pans, pots, vases, and wine coolers nearly spilling out the doorways.

Villedieu is home to Mauviel, France’s largest copper cookware manufacturer, and supplier of these culinary objects of desire to serious kitchen shops such as Dehillerin and A. Simon in Paris. To watch actual copper production, visit the workshop Atelier de Cuivre. Here, one is welcome to walk amidst the workers as they bend, twist, and hammer copper into beautiful objects.

a worker at the Atelier du Cuivre attaches handles onto a miniature copper pan destined for a 3-star Parisian restaurant

a worker at the Atelier du Cuivre attaches handles onto a miniature copper pan destined for a 3-star Parisian restaurant

Villedieu also has a small Lace Museum, one of seven museums in the seven city historic Route de Lace. Here, amid the lovingly displayed antique lace shawls and dresses, we could hear the muffled sounds of a lace making class in session. Judging by the crowds, the most popular place to visit is the Cornille-Harvard Bell Foundry. In this loud, clanging place, craftsmen cast ornate masterpieces for churches and city halls around the world.Here, close to the bay, oysters and mussels re-appear on the menu, along with local game and grilled pork and lamb. Outside of Villedieu, we spent the night at the Manoir de Lacherie, a peaceful and elegant family run inn, where Papa is in charge of the grill.

The friendly and comfortable dining room welcomed us to settle in and relax. At the suggestion of the Madame, we shared several starters – terrine of rabbit, souffle of langoustines and a home-made white sausage called boudin blanc. From the well considered menu, we selected grilled medallions of roe buck, which came accompanied by a little copper pan containing a velvety foie gras sauce. Contrasting with this was a grilled tenderloin of pork served with a fragrant Calvados, wild mushroom and cream reduction. This classic Norman dish is particularly tasty, as Norman farmers sweeten the meat by feeding their hungry porkers leftover apple mash from cider making.

The next morning we headed towards a wondrous architectural marvel, the benedictine abbey-fortress of Mont St Michel. The abbey and the tidal bay that surrounds it have been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. As we drove across the causeway that led to Mont St Michel, the splendor of the setting and the magnificence of the abbey was enhanced even more by the sight of flocks of sheep grazing on the windswept salt marsh meadows of the tidal bay.

traffic stops for sheep crossing the tidal bay

traffic stops for sheep crossing the tidal bay

Further along, we had to stop our car as a shepherd and 25 or so of his sheep scrambled up the embankement and crossed the road in front of us, following a well-trod shortcut to the sweet/salty marsh grasses growing on the other side of the bay.
Knowing the fluctuations of the tides is essential for these shepherds and their muscular animals. Sold as pré-salé lamb, this meat is so distinctive, due to the unusual diet of these sheep, that it comes with a certificate of authenticity. Local restaurants serve succulent spit-roasted brochets of this lamb, which have been cooked on a wood fired rotisserie. These rotisseries are often built into a massive stone fireplace, and deliver just the right amount of heat to seal in the sweet, salty juiciness of the meat.

Around the bay, it is now the season to pluck Creuses and Belon oysters from their pampered oyster beds. If you are lucky to find an oysterman near the docks, he might be inclined to make quick work of schucking a dozen oysters for you to slurp (no frills )on the spot. I never imagined it was possible to eat one’s fill of fresh oysters. However, by trying to keep up with the French folks lining up next to us, we had soon eaten three dozen between us.

Snappy fall air brings Normandy’s crisp apples to market. Almost overnight, apple tarts and individual pastries begin to appear in pastry shop windows, baked from favorite varieties such as Calville Blanc, Fameuse, and Boscop. But the signature apple dessert of Normandy, is the slow-cooked, apple Tarte Tatin, which holds court on the dessert wagon in every restaurant. Served warm and topped with a little aromatic, flaming Calvados, this rustic, farmhouse dessert epitomizes the elegant country charms of this enchanting French province, La Belle Normandy.

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