The best way to discover Calvados is by sampling its cuisine, says Catriona Burns, as she takes a foodie tour through the department
Discover the fine cheeses, cider and charcuterie in this land of plenty
There’s no doubt that food is at the very heart of life in Normandy’s Calvados in the north-west of France. From the department’s charming coastline to its rolling green hills, its centuries-old market towns and world-famous apple orchards, the area’s fresh, home-grown produce and hearty cuisine dominates the area’s rich and varied landscape and lies at the heart of its culture. And what’s more, situated just across the Channel and accessible by a short trip via train, ferry or flight, the department and all of its foodie delights are just a short trip away. But while food may be one of the first things to tempt you in Calvados, you’ll soon discover that there’s plenty more to the department that you won’t be able to resist…
French cuisine is famous for its varied selection of cheese, and the region of Normandy is home to three of the country’s favourites, including Camembert, Livarot and Calvados’s Pontl’Évêque. For hundreds of years the soft cheese was known as ‘ angelot’ meaning cherub, but it now takes its name from the village from which it originates, situated 42km from departmental capital Caen in the heart of the Pays d’Auge.
A traditional, timeless little French village cocooned by rolling green forests and hills, Pont-l’Évêque exudes a quaint, friendly feel that has staved off the changes of time; its simple way of life sweetly standing still. Its most famous export, the small, square-shaped cheese made from cow’s milk can be bought straight from local producers at the Monday market – where you can also pick up other in-season essentials – or in many of the local shops throughout the area. In addition to the market, the Église St-Michel – still standing after wartime bombing – also serves as a symbol of traditional town life. Inside the 15th-century church, also known as ‘Cathedral of the Pastures’, visitors can marvel at impressive vaulted ceilings, beautiful stained-glass windows and a shield embellished with two cattle and three fleurs de lys, the emblem of the town. For those seeking to burn off all that calorific cheese, the Lac de Pont L’Évêque, located just three minutes from the town, offers swimming, sailing, yachting, jetskiing and fishing.
AN APPLE A DAY…
Normandy is often referred to as ‘the Devon of northern France’, but when it comes to its choice of drink, it is perhaps more similar to Somerset and the West Country, as they share a taste for tipples made from apples. In Normandy, that includes cider, pommeau, and Calvados, the local apple brandy that takes its name from the department. Sailors from the Basque Country are said to have introduced cider to Norman mariners as early as the 6th century; by the 12th century Spaniards had exported cider making to Normandy and by the 1600s it had replaced ancient barley beer as the region’s top tipple. Today, it is still a firm favourite, particularly along the famed Route du Cidre; a 40-km circular route through the heart of the Pays d’Auge.
The trail takes you through small Normandy villages including Cambremer, Druval and Rumesnil and past halftimbered cottages hosting local artist exhibitions and cute guest house accommodation. Opportunities to stop off at working apple farms are plentiful. Here, producers are normally more than happy to give you a sample of their produce and a unique insight into the centuries-old tradition, or you can even take part in apple or honey harvesting. Stop off at a village crêperie to sip cider from traditional teacups or, even more befitting of the enchanting experience, slip off into one of the sun-dappled orchards and picnic with a bottle of freshly pressed apple-based drink of your choosing. All that walking, as you’ll find, makes for thirsty work.
WHAT A CATCH!
Calvados’s 75km stretch of coastline is full of life, and seafood is a speciality in the area, with everything from lobster to mussels, and scallops to whelks featuring in a traditional seafood dish. A first port of call for many seafood lovers is the seaside town of Honfleur that sits opposite Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine.
Brought to life by famous Impressionist painters, Honfleur’s picture-perfect port is recognisable to many, even if they have never actually visited. Its higgedlypiggedly row of historic houses, squeezed for space along the dockside, looking out
to an ancient harbour brimming with a colourful collection of bobbing boats paints the quintessential French harbour scene. If you get to the harbour before high tide and before the fishing vessels return home, you might be lucky enough to buy the first catch of the day as fishermen offload their seafood treasures by the dockside. But, if you prefer a lie-in, you can also buy fresh fish at the Marché aux Poissons. Situated just two hours from Paris, Honfleur is a popular spot with those wanting to escape the city and enjoy a weekend for a breath of fresh sea air.
Another town that ebbs and flows with fishing boats is Port-en-Bessin; a charming harbour village sitting in a sandy enclave near the D-Day beaches that invites people to celebrate its maritime culture with the annual Goût du Large festival in November. During the two days of festivities, visitors and locals alike come together to enjoy scallop-based dishes along the seafront, watch fishermen repair their nets along the shore and enjoy the music and dancing at the accompanying show, Musique Sous Les Embruns, and celebrate life at sea.
If you want your food to follow a ‘from field to fork’ approach, then there really is nowhere more fitting than Normandy where everything on the table (bar the wine) can be sourced locally. In Normandy, where hearty cuisine is favoured, it is unsurprising that the menu often includes meat. A charcuterie local to Calvados is Bayeux pork, one of France’s six remaining local breeds that are traditionally bred on whey, cereals and nettles. Bayeux pork often makes its way into traditional suppers as winter-warming stews and casseroles. But there’s more to Bayeux besides bacon. A popular base for visiting the D-Day beaches, Bayeux is a hot spot for those with an interest in history, largely drawn to the town to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Housed in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeaux, the 70m-long embroidered artwork that recounts the story of the Norman invasion and the events that led up to it provides a special insight into this fascinating period of history, and continues to attract and beguile crowds of visitors from all over the world.
A visit to the Conservatoire de la Dentelle, a museum dedicated to the preservation of Norman lacemaking, is also a worthwhile way to explore Normandy’s ancient past. As well as seeing some of France’s most revered lace makers in action, visitors can take part in lacemaking classes and stock up on all the materials needed to get started with the craft themselves at the museum shop.
CRÈME DE LA CRÈME
There is never any shortage of butter in French cooking, and here, in the dairyfarming heartland of France, you will find the very best of it. Extending from one end of the Cotentin Peninsula to the Bessin area, the commune of Isigny-surMer is world-renowned for its butter and milk, the basis for Normandy’s famed rich cuisine. A combination of the nearby sea and the Cotentin and Bessin marshlands provides the perfect terroir for producing such high-quality products, and its worldwide reputation is represented in the prestigious appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) label that both the butter and cream carry. The dairy industry is evident all around this rural landscape of lush green fields dotted with tractors and cattle; an idyllic setting that makes for perfect countryside living. It was the
farming conditions that first attracted British-born Kate le Moigne and her French husband Stéphane to the department 12 years ago when they were looking to establish a dairy farm, along with a holiday accommodation business. “We had various criteria to meet for both the agricultural and tourism elements of the businesses,” Kate explains. “We needed productive land for growing crops to feed our herd and a location not too far from a UK ferry port link. Calvados was the area we were most interested in, and 12 years on we’re still enjoying this enchanting part of France.” In the 12 years since they arrived, the Anglo-French couple who now have three children have settled into Calvados life, having successfully set up La Vieille Abbaye in Barbery, a luxury
“It’s a fantastic place to live with so much to offer families”
farmhouse accommodation that also comprises a working dairy farm. Guests are served their dairy products at the breakfast table, and the family-run farm also supplies local supermarkets with its range of cream, milk and yoghurts.
“We are proud to contribute to the superb reputation that Calvados has for its food,” says Kate, who says that while Calvados is ideal for hopping back and forth to the UK to see family, it also offers the perfect way of life.
“We really do have everything here in Calvados; beautiful countryside, fantastic coastline, historical sites and plenty of interesting towns and cities all within easy reach,” she says. “It’s a fantastic place to live with lots to offer families. What more could we ask for?”
Top right: Honfleur’s bustling harbour
Above: The colourful streets of Honfleur
Below: Cider is the drink of choice in Calvados
Right: Calvados is dotted with apple orchards
Top: Coquilles St-Jacques are a Normandy speciality
Above: Traditional thatched cottages in the pleasant green countryside