IF a foodie holiday is your thing, then add Normandy to your list of places to go.
This French province knows good food, so it’s an ideal place to spend some time tantalising the tastebuds.
Famous for gastronomy, Normandy is celebrated for its dairy products — butter, cream, milk and cheese — as well as its apples, cider and Calvados, the apple brandy called after the French region of the same name.
If it’s more than food you’re after, Normandy has that too — the region is steeped in history, having been a battleground in wartimes; it’s a province proud of its culture and boasts a coastline of beautiful beaches.
On a recent gastronomic tour around Normandy I was treated to the best of local produce and saw first-hand the enormous pride the Normans have for their food and the way it’s produced.
Our first stop was to a food market in Neufchatel-en- Bray, a town famous for its cheese; it’s the oldest cheese to be produced in the region, and its origins date back to 1035.
Here we met Patrick Chevallier, president of the Confrérie du fromage de Neufchatel, a brotherhood dedicated to promoting Neufchatel.
The cheese is one of four AOC (controlled designation of origin) cheeses made in Normandy. Locally 1,600 tonnes are produced by about 30 producers each year.
One of those producers, Madame Malaval, has been making Neufchatel for about 10 years at her farm, just 3km outside the town.
It’s a soft cheese distinctly creamy in texture — largely thanks to milk produced by Norman cows — and it comes in different shapes; the more notable being the heart — legend has it that during the Hundred-Year War, when France was invaded by the British, French maidens would offer the cheese to English soldiers as a sign of their love.
On we went to the medieval city of Rouen, for the Fete de Ventre — an annual festival dating back to 1935.
Rouen itself is home to many Michelin-star restaurants and its annual food festival is not to be missed.
Set in the heart of the city, its 100-plus stalls sell the finest local foods — from rotisserie chickens, cheese, dried and cured meats and seafood to pates, breads, baked goods, nougat, paella, ice-cream, and beer made with chestnut.
A cooking demonstration showcased the art of preparing a traditional duck-sauce using an old method dating back to 1930.
The ‘master of the duck’ (chef) partially cooks the duck, carves its meat from the bone and places the innards and carcass in a silver-plated bronze dish.
The innards and carcass are then compressed to extract the juices which are then cooked with cream and white wine to make the sauce, which is served alongside the duck meat.
Some of Paris’ best restaurants serve the dish and it’s a particular favourite among the Japanese.
It is said that the sauce originated in 1930; a Rouen woman crossing the river to sell her ducklings, noticed they had suffocated on the journey. She believed they were of no use but a local chef took them to create a sauce. And so the tradition began.
The skill is taken very seriously, and again a similar brotherhood exists to teach people about the art involved in making such a sauce and the importance of keeping the tradition alive.
Rouen is worth visiting, it’s a beautiful city rich in heritage, great for shopping, and its architectural styles range from Romanesque to Modern and Renaissance to 19th century manor houses.
The city is where French heroine, Saint Joan of Arc, was tried and burnt at the stake in 1431.
That night we dined by candlelight at the oldest inn in France, La Couronne. The owners (a husband and wife) clearly know the value of keeping customers happy — nothing was too much trouble.
Cheese was served everywhere we went, fois gras and venison featured on many menus and, by the sea, fresh fish was a must-try.
While in Rouen we stayed at the Best Western hotel — it was clean, comfortable, with modern décor and couldn’t have been in a better location, just a stone’s-throw from all of the action.
Trouville-sur-Mer was next on our itinerary. A traditional fishing town and seaside resort on the Côte Fleurie, it’s a popular holiday destination for Parisians. It’s a famous fishing port, with 28 trawlers fishing scallops, sea bass, sole, plaice and turbot; about 1,300 tons of mackerel are caught each year.
Trouville has an excellent weekly market where fishermen’s wives sell their husbands’ catch almost as soon as it comes to shore and a permanent covered fish market — first built in 1840 — sees 10 fishmongers sell fresh fish year-round.
The most popular of these is Saiter Fishmonger’s — it’s been in business since 1887 and is now run by a sixth-generation fisherman who sells his grandmother’s award-winning Jeanette’s Fish Soup.
It’s hugely popular and is even served in top restaurants.
The town is incredibly pretty — its narrow streets are lined with tall houses and Belle Epoque architectural buildings — and it has a great sea-side vibe, making Trouville one of my favourite stop-overs.
I also loved the French countryside; we stayed in Benoitville, south-west of Cherbourg with Sinead Allart, Irish expat and owner of Wilde Kitchen — a cookery school that offers gourmet holidays, perfect for foodies.
Packages here can include outings to local markets, restaurants and cooking classes in Sinead’s beautifully-renovated 18th century country-house kitchen.
We spent a morning at the nearby Bricquebec market, where there was so much to see.
A local farmer sold live rabbits and chickens; across from him two French women sold plants, there was fresh cream as thick as ice-cream, every cheese you could dream of, baked goods and fresh vegetables — which at €3.50 a sack was far cheaper than what you’d pay at an Irish market. We stocked up on local produce for an afternoon cooking class with Sinead.
We were each assigned a dish to cook and serve — autumnal pumpkin soup; a chicken, cream and apple main meal; pumpkin and goat’s cheese lentils and apple tart. Afterwards, we sat with Sinead’s family to enjoy the fruits of our labour.
My stay here was a highlight and it’s inspired me to be more creative in the kitchen. I’d highly recommend anyone with an interest in cooking to visit Sinead’s cookery school.
From Benoitville, we went on to five-star- hotel La Chenevière, near Port en Bessin. A scallop cooking class with one of the hotel’s top chefs was followed by a delicious meal in the company of hotel manager Francoise Fauquet.
La Chenevière wasn’t far from Longues Sur-Mer, a D-Day landing beach; so on the last day of our amazing trip we visited the remains of the coastal defence battery — equipped with a firing command post and four casemates, each housing a 150mm gun — overlooking the English Channel.
The site played a strategic role during the allied landings on June 6, 1944 and is it’s one I’m glad I had the chance to see, before leaving the beautiful French province of Normandy.
For more information visit Normandy Tourist Board’s website: www.normandy-tourism.org.
For direct Ryanair flights between Dublin and Beauvais, Paris see: www.ryanair.com