My husband and I spent a few days in Normandy, France primarily to visit World War II memorials and D-Day sites. Little did we know that we were selling ourselves short by not allowing more time to explore all the unique and delightful French food and beverage options there.
We merely scratched the surface of this culinary paradise. To save you the heartache of missing out, here’s the scoop on what we learned about the 4 C’s of the Normandy region’s truly farm-to-table French cuisine.
Let’s begin at the beginning. It all starts with the lush rolling countryside, temperate climate, and nearly 400 miles of coastline, which create the perfect mix for a virtual cornucopia of culinary treats from land and sea.
Look for Designation Stamps
Because of their unique significance, many of the most celebrated treats carry an exclusive label that confirms that the product originated in the Normandy region and has followed strict quality standards in its production. Look for either an AOC or AOP designation (from the French government) to signify its regional distinction. As an example, Camembert Cheese can be produced anywhere in France, and even elsewhere in the world, but “Camembert de Normandie AOC” which is of superior quality, can only come from milk that is primarily from the Normande breed of cows and produced in Normandy under strict production guidelines. Watch for these symbols.
So, let’s look at the four most famous French foods in this region. Cider, Calvados, Cream, and Camembert. These are the “Four C’s of Normandy Cuisine” but they’re just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We’ll talk about more in another post.
Cider, Calvados and other Apple Products
Two of the four “C’s” of Normandy cuisine, Cider (Cidre) and Calvados are produced from some of the 800 varieties of apples that are plentiful in the region.
While researching these drinks, I was fascinated to learn that during World War II many apple orchards were destroyed by the constant shelling in the region during the battles. To protect their favorite drink, local farmers buried barrels of calvados to shield them from damage. After the battle was over, they dug up the barrels and shared the drink with the Allied troops that liberated them. This was the soldiers’ first taste of Normandy’s abundant bounty. [story source: France Today website]
The best way for you to taste and learn about these alcoholic beverages is to travel the Normandy Cidre Route. (There’s a link at the end to more detailed info about the route.) The trail includes 16 “official” cideries, but there are many others along the country roads as well — Signs for the Cider Route feature an apple symbol and clearly display “La Route du Cidre”. Each of these 16 producers offers cider, calvados, and pommeau.
Hard cider is seeing a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. but has been served in Normandy some say, since before the birth of Christ. In France, varieties of this light refreshing drink can be categorized as sweet (Cidre Doux), semi-sweet (Demi-Sec) and dry (Cidre Brut), often carbonated and ranging in alcohol content from about 3 to 5%.
We first had the chance to try French cider in a cozy restaurant called Auberge Saint-Pierre on the island of Mont Saint Michel. That tasty Cidre (Bolee D’Armorique — Loic Raison) came from the Brittany region. Then when we arrived in the seaside town of Port-en-Bessin, our Airbnb host gifted us with a bottle of cider from the heart of Normandy, three kilometers from Omaha Beach. Cidre Fermier was sourced from La Ferme du Lavoir (The Farm of the Laundry). In July and August, they offer free tours of the farm and tastings on select days. We didn’t have a chance to follow the official Cidre Route due to our aforementioned lack of planning but loved trying several varieties of cider at restaurants while we were in the area.
Calvados is a type of apple brandy produced only in Normandy, with AOC designation since 1942. This double-distilled after-dinner drink is made using a similar method to cognac, creating an alcohol content of at least 40%. Yowza! According to its AOC requirements, authentic Calvados must be aged for at least 2 years but can be aged in oak barrels as long as 50 years.
This beverage falls somewhere between the two versions above. Combine 2 parts unfermented apple juice with 1 part Calvados (typically aged about a year), age the mixture in oak barrels for another 1 to 4 years and the result is Pommeau. This aperitif (served before a meal to stimulate the appetite) weighs in at 16 to 18% alcohol content.
In addition to the Cidre Trail, where you can try all three of the products mentioned, you can also find many Cider Festivals in the region, usually in October, during apple harvesting time.
Products from the Normande Breed of Cow
Cream and Camembert cheese are the other two of the Four C’s of Normandy cuisine and a hallmark of French recipes. They both are produced from the famous Normande breed of cow. Milk and cream from this breed are high in fat and popular for making high-quality butter and cheese, but also for its meat, which is marbled and good-flavored. This special breed of cow provides the ingredients for many other Normandy region products as well.
So let’s talk about the cream. Normally you’d think that all cream is the same, but since cream from Normande cows is higher in fat, that makes it richer and “creamier”. When you consider traditional French cuisine, is there a more common ingredient than cream? Imagine timeless recipes like Quiche Lorraine, Béchamel Sauce, Crème Brule, or Cream Puffs. The cream is what makes them stand out, so the better the cream, the better the recipe, right? I’ll share about other products created from cream in my next post, so be sure to sign up for my mailing list to get all the updates.
Camembert is similar to Brie, another popular cheese that originates from a region of France just east of Paris. Camembert’s taste is deeper and slightly more intense. It’s often described as earthier than Brie. Texturally, it’s denser, while Brie is a little bit softer. Experts say that Camembert has a “slightly salty taste and a typically barnyard, warm milk aroma”. (I’m not quite sure what barnyard warm milk aroma is, but let’s focus on the “warm milk” and not the “barnyard”.) The taste of the cheese is milky and chalky when young, becoming stronger and more full-bodied as it ages. Nearly all recipes that call for Brie can be converted to Camembert, making it an excellent choice for parties and small gatherings.
AOC designated Camembert de Normandie is one of Normandy’s four types of cheese that carry the AOC label. Livarot, Pont-l’évêque and Neufchâtel do as well. We had a chance to try the Camembert at the restaurant, L’Écailler in Port-en-Bessin on our first night in town. As promised, it was fresh, creamy and delicious.
Another interesting historical tidbit. A portion of Camembert was included in the military ration during WWI, which helped to contribute to its popularity.
Food Trails, Celebrations and Festivals
Yes, of course, there’s a Normandy Cheese Trail!
You can find many Cheese Festivals in Normandy, France, as well. These foodie celebrations generally run between May and September each year.
If you’re looking for a great way to learn about the region and sample a variety of foods, make plans to visit the “Apple, Cider AND Cheese Festival” which is held each year on the last Sunday in October. Hosted by the city of Conches En Ouche (about a 90-minute train ride from Paris).
Here’s the scoop on Normandy’s Official Cidre Route
You’ll find links to other food and beverage related activities in Normandy below.
I hope you’ve had as much fun as I did learning about the 4 C’s of Normandy Cuisine. Watch for my next post about all the other unique offerings along the West Coast of France, like “pre-salted lamb”.
Do you have other tips or questions about traveling in Normandy? I’d love to hear them.
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Originally published at https://travelingwithpurpose.com on September 3, 2019.