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 Continue reading