Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eating our way through Normandy

For our last weekend away before the long summer apart, D. had the brilliant idea that we should visit France - so close that we usually overlook it, but full of so many treasures. So with what people keep telling me is the "most romantic place in France" - the Mont Saint Michel - as our target, we set out for Normandy.

Normandy is on the northwest coast of France, and you probably know it as the site of the D-Day invasion. Call me uncultured, but this was, until now, my main association with the name. Turns out it is also the home of Camembert, as well as several other tasty, protected cheeses, Calvados (an apple liquor), apple cider, and, of course, the famous Mont Saint Michel. These things can be found in the midst of an idyllic countryside dotted with the unique Norman cows.

Our first stop was Giverny, just past Paris, a town of about 500 people and 1000 times as many tourists, as it is famously the home of Impressionist painter Claude Monet. In early May there were fairly few tourists there and all the Spring flowers that so inspired the artist were in full bloom. We toured the grounds of his home, with the famous footbridge over the lake, and wandered through his mansion. It felt like... well, it felt like walking around in a Monet painting. It was a little eerie to be in such a familiar landscape, but to be there for the first time.

From here we visited the towns of Rouen, with its famous cathedral and medieval streets lined with half-timbered buildings, and infamously the city where Joan of Arc was sentenced and burned at the stake (the sites where these occurred and the tower where she was kept prisoner are all marked now with plaques), and Caen, also known for its cathedral and its castle. The next day we stopped in the town of Camembert, which surprisingly enough is about one block long... not including the President factory (you know it from the Brie sold worldwide). We gave that one a wide berth, as I'm not particularly into mass-produced food. What you know as "camembert" most likely bears little resemblance to the original cheese. The real camembert is made only with unpasteurized cheese from Norman cows, and it has been designated the world's third smelliest cheese, far from the bland taste-vacuum we are familiar with. Only a few farms still make it the traditional way, but of course we made sure we knew where they were, and we feasted on artisan bread and a fresh round of raw-milk camembert for one of the best lunches we'd had in quite a while.

Norman cows apparently produce less milk than most other kinds of cows, but due to the high fat content, the Norman farmers won't use anything else, because these cows make the best cheese (or so they say, and we were inclined to agree). The other famous AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controllee, or protected name of origin) cheeses from the area are Pont L'Eveque (world's second smelliest cheese), Livarot, and Neufchatel, each associated with a cute little timeless town where the cheese originated. We felt obliged to taste each one, of course. We visited a few farms, and drove past miles and miles of farmland, and we were very happy to see the cows grazing happily in the grass, enjoying the sunshine. In Europe, giving hormones to cows is illegal, and to a large extent feedlots have not yet become a common phenomenon. So, assured that the cows looked well-treated and happy, we enjoyed our cheese guilt free.

Apples are the other big product of this region, resulting in many kinds of cider (which in France is mildly alcoholic), a very strong liquor called Calvados, and a much more palatable one called Pommeau, which is a mix of one part Calvados to 3 parts apple juice. Normandy is right next to Brittany, which is where crepes originated, so the two are traditionally paired throughout France, and we took advantage.

Of course, while we were in the region, we visited several of the D-Day landing beaches, a quite sobering sight, as they have been preserved with German cannons still in their original housing and large blast holes pockmarking the ground. It was strange to see a handful of sunbathers enjoying the beach, which felt slightly disrespectful, but then life goes on, I suppose. We also stopped by the beautiful town of Bayeux, home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which I've wanted to see ever since we learned about it in Middle School history class. It was quite different than I imagined - it's not so much a tapestry as an embroidered cloth, but it is indeed extremely long.

And we did see the Mont Saint Michel, which is an island off the coast that is basically a big hill with an abbey on top. During low tide, there is a vast flat plain, and you can walk all around the island, and when the tide comes in, the whole thing turns to quicksand, and you had better not be out there. The abbey was definitely remarkable, but the place was jam-packed with people going up and down the only street and had a bit of a Disneyland atmosphere, so once we saw the abbey, we got out of there as fast as possible.

On the way back, we lucked into an annual AOC fair, where we got to try (one last time) AOC foods from around the region and some from as far away as Provence, and we stopped by Honfleur, a touristy seaside town where we visited the strangest museum I've ever seen, the home of composer Erik Satie, which has been turned into a giant surrealist work.

So very sad to be leaving Normandy already, we returned to Brussels, and soon after I headed back to New York, where I'll be till August, dreaming of all the other places I want to go as soon as I get a chance...

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