Mireille Guiliano famously wrote a book some years ago entitled ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’. I’ve read the book and think that she may have forgotten to mention the magical willpower of the average French woman. I am not big on willpower and I was well on the way getting very tubby following two weeks eating in France. It is the only explanation I can think of!
Our French adventure was in the Calvados region of France in beautiful Normandy. B was ecstatic as to him it was all about trundling round WW2 museums and seeing lots of tanks and gunning placements, whereas for me it was all about mucking around on stunning beaches and eating lots and lots of food.
France has often been hailed as one of the great food centres of Europe, however until now I have been seriously underwhelmed. In Paris we sat through several bad meals and indeed my only fond food memory from the French capital was a rather fine Croque Monsieur served without fuss in a simple café. In Carcassonne the food was no doubt wonderful, but as I’m not a fan of cassoulet I was rather out on a foodie limb in that particular region.
Normandy was a game changer as far as my ratings of French cuisine goes. All along the spectacular coast there are a string of beautiful seaside towns, unsullied by arcades and the‘taps aff’ brigade. The beaches are stunning and all about wholesome seaside fun – think sandcastles, kite flying, swimming, candy floss and boules. The pretty resorts most importantly are also littered with great places to eat …. and eat we did.
Here are a few of the highlights for your digestion…
THE NOT SO HUMBLE CREPE
As we were just along the coast from the Brittany, home of crepes, we did expect them to be rather on the good side and we were not disappointed.
Some notes about this very French speciality – first off a crepe has a sweet filling, those with savoury fillings are called galettes. I ate both in abundance. Second interesting fact is that most of the galettes in Normandy are made with buckwheat flour, which is gluten free. This allowed me to ignore the cream and cheese involved in some of the fillings and focus on the fact that it sounded healthy – it ought to be noted that most of my crepes included cream and indeed cheese in some form or fashion.
There were many, many fillings to choose from but my BFF crepe was filled with crème fraiche, potatoes, lardons, onions and mushrooms, and I am betting a hefty daud of garlic too. I ate this particular offering all over Normandy – from the delightful Le Crabbe Vert in St Aubin sur Mer all the way to the best example in a café in Bayeux.
The wee grumbling tum is notoriously hideous at eating on holiday, normally zoning in on one food stuff she will deign to eat for the entire trip. This holiday we lucked out with her decision to eat two types of food, once of which was Crepe with Nutella. She ate this daily and as she has a little tiny tummy, mummy often had to help out – shucks!
The best crepe I sampled was in the lovely Crab Vert restaurant in St Aubin Sur Mer. topped with beautiful freshly stewed apples and calvados. We are not talking a hint of calvados in this after dinner treat – it was full on blow your head off calvados – and it was rather splendid.
When in Normandy! With around 600 cidre producers in this region and hand painted road signs directing you to where you can buy and taste every few miles, there is little doubt that this is Normandy’s national drink. This is a part of the Norman culture that I embraced with open mouth! I like cidre anyway but the Normandy version seemed so much better than the brands available in Scotland. Not overly fizzy yet not flat like scrumpy – somewhere pleasingly in-between. Or maybe it was just the sunshine!
Coming in three varieties – dry, sweet and corked (twice fermented with more sparkle) – cidre is not traditionally served in a glass but in a bowl. A cidre bowl is rather like a large round coffee mug or a small soup bowl. I am not sure if this enhances the taste but it sure is fun. As with most local drinks when travelling, cidre is pretty cheap to buy and we were well stocked up for the whole trip ……. and beyond.
We were however a little over-enthusiastic on our return and have run dry, so if you are planning a trip to Normandy …… could you?
THE MOULES AND FRITES
Normandy is a haven for lovers of Moules et Frites. I have never in my life eaten as many mussels. I pretty much stuck to the same version of this classic every time I ordered– Moules Normandie. This is a variation of the classic mussels and white wine, instead the mussels are served with cream, onions and cidre. Everywhere I tasted this the mussels were beautifully plump, amazingly fresh and the sauce was to die for. Perfectly crispy frites were reserved for dipping in the creamy sauce, it really is the best of all foods.
There is a garlic version of this dish which I attempted one evening and trust me when the French feel the need to include the word garlic in the description of a meal it is Def Con One on the garlic breath alert. I spent the rest of the night trying hard NOT to speak to anybody and there was definitely no snogging for me.
If you like mussels (and I do) then you will never ever be disappointed in a Normandy restaurant.
The discovery of a particular pink patisserie in the heart of the beautiful city of Bayeaux was when it all went wrong for me. It was the beginning of the end of any pretence that I was trying to be healthy. This particular patisserie was a sight to behold – beautifully decorated in bright fuchsia candy stripes, pink regency style chairs, elaborate plump feather cushions and the largest patisserie counter I have ever seen. We were dumbfounded and incapable of any decision making. The poor waitress had the patience of a saint as we asked a 6 year old to choose from about 100 sweet treats (eidgets!). It all became rather stressful at one point.
Eventually I settled on an almond cake which was divine. Sweet perfection. The game was now a bogey as far as a cakeless trip was concerned and this was the first on many sweet downfalls …….. the first is always the best!
The official cheese of Normandy – Camembert. If you are going to have an official cheese then what a variety to have. Camembert is served up in so many different ways in Normandy – from crepe fillings and moules camembert to salads, whole baked cheeses and pizza toppings!
My all time favourite Camembert creation was in a restaurant in the beautiful town of Honfleur. We sat by the harbour in the baking sun drinking ice cold cidre and eating a gorgeous crisp fresh salad topped with pieces of Camembert lovingly wrapped in filo pastry and deep fried until the filo was warm and crisp and the cheese was molten. The salad was topped with salty warm bacon. The best use of Camembert ever!
It is impossible to ‘whizz’ around a French supermarket or ‘pop in quickly’. French supermarkets are there to be savoured and one must take ones time drinking in all the delicious food there is on offer. We were relatively near a Hyper U and spent more time than is normal wandering around the ailes. The cheeses, the array of cold cuts, the riot of colour in fresh produce, the wine, the cidre. In an ideal world I would have dumped the husband and the kid for an hour or two, and spend a few hours procuring items to take home with me in a spare suitcase sized cooler. A girl can dream can’t she.
BEST OF THE REST
Never underestimate the beauty of the simple croque monsieur. I have had several and they never disappoint. Okay I do admit that this is really a glorified cheese and ham toastie but glorified it is none the less. The cheese is a fabulous gruyere, the ham is generally of superb quality, the bread is sweet and fluffy and it is fried up with a bubbling bechemal on the top. I find it hard to knock the humble croque monsieur.
In Arromanches I had the most wonderful Tarte Tatin I have ever tasted (not that I have tasted that many). The pastry was so light and airy and the apples were ludicrously fresh and sweet. All of that plus caramel and a dusting of icing sugar – divine.
In Falais, home to William the Conqueror I ate the most divine cheese cake of my life . The key was in the base which seemed to be made from a buttery salted caramel biscuit. It was simultaneously crunchy, moist, sweet and salty. This was a show stopper.
I could of course go on …… but I am sure you have read enough so I will leave things there. Suffice say that the food in Normandy possibly surpassed Italy and that is saying something. We are returning to France next year – this time to Brittany – watch this space….