While maybe not the most famous gourmand region in France, Normandy actually has a delicious basket of regional foods and beverages. Anyone traveling to the North of France for its history will be pleasantly surprised to find unique treats supported by a new and very authentic agritourism industry. And until the word gets out about Normandy, you will likely have the entire farm or factory to yourself.
One of the more unique climates in France, Normandy’s environment has shaped its cuisine. The long coastline supplies fish and shellfish, and hardy peasant life has produced simple dishes like tripe stew and fatty sausages. The cooler temperatures are best suited for apple orchards and grazing dairy cows, which have given rise to Normandy’s signature agricultural items.
Over the centuries, Normandy has figured out how to ferment, distill, and age apple juice to create fantastic hard ciders and liquors. The abundance of high quality milk has produced four of the most delicious soft cheeses in France: Camembert, Pont-l’Évêque, Livarot, and Neufchatel. Once you know about these artisan food items, it is easy to find proud local producers who are more than happy to show you the traditional process.
Happy Cows Make Fantastic Cheese
If there is one thing I learned in Normandy, it is that their cows are happy and healthy, and therefore produce the best milk for making cheese. Having tasted their four local specialties, I am inclined to believe it!
Neufchatel is a very mild, soft cheese which is traditionally made in a heart shape so that a maiden can give one to her beloved. A staple of any international cheese plate, famous Camembert is mild but flavorful with a delicious, chewy rind. Pont-l’Évêque is a more pungent soft rind cheese and is always produced in a square shape.
Lastly, with a very noticeable “farm” smell, Livarot is a Norman specialty that is still wrapped by hand with a local grass. Brushed with different enzymes to create its rind, Livarot is yellow in color, has a slight crunch to its edges, and has a salty, mineral flavor.
A traditional Norman meal includes a cheese plate before dessert, so it is easy to try all four of these famous cheeses! Personally, I love the Pont-l’Évêque.
Hard Cider Like You’ve Never Tasted Before
Sandwiched between the incredible beers of Belgium and the fine wines of the Loire Valley, Norman hard cider stands up for itself pretty well.
This fermented apple juice is not some sweet party drink; the cider is dry with an earthy flavor. This drink is delicately carbonated and a little cloudy. Since the apple flavor is subtle, the cider is a smooth and surprisingly good match for rich Norman dishes (and, of course, cheeses).
Calvados: Apple Brandy
When the Allied troops landed in Normandy on D-Day, they were treated to a celebratory glass of calvados from the locals. A type of apple brandy, calvados begins as fermented apple cider which is distilled and aged in oak barrels. It can be drunk as an aperitif or even during the middle of the meal to encourage more eating.
The most popular deserts in Normandy feature calvados, whether a local apple tart drizzled with it or a scoop of apple ice cream in a little brandy bath. I also really enjoyed Pommeau, which is a mixture of calvados and apple cider. While lower in alcohol content, it has a very bright, luscious apple flavor.
Normandy Factory Tours
Normandy is filled with small, family-run orchards and factories. Since their cider and cheeses are made in the traditional way, most of these facilities have earned organic and AOC certification, which attests to the authenticity. Surprisingly, many of these places are just opening their doors to travelers, which makes for a casual, pleasant visit.
Just outside Bayeux, I was allowed to wander an orchard and calvados cellar on my own followed by tastings of every blend of cider and strength of apple brandy. At one frommagerie, the tasting room was essentially the factory store where locals popped in to buy cheese for the weekend. Even so, the sales clerks were more than happy to open up cheese packages for me to taste.
In planning a trip to Normandy, be sure to looks for Farm Tour signs and Organic Designation plaques which indicate smaller and more welcoming agritourist farms. You’ll want to check out these site or resources to build your own apple or cheese trail:
Domaine de La Flaguerie, Les Vergers de Ducy — Cider farm in Ducy Sainte Marguerite, southeast of Bayeux.
The Apple Beverage Producers (IDAC) — This society has information about local cider and calvados producers.
Le Village Fromager, E. Graindorge — A cheese factory with a great self-guided tour just outside the village of Liverot.
Fromagerie Durand — Excellent cheese maker in Camembert, France.
“Welcome to the Farm” — Regional agricultural information.
Normandy is a region that can be easily navigated and is very amenable to wandering day-trips. You’ll want to make either Bayeux, Honfleur, or Lisieux your home base for exploring.
All photos are courtesy of the author.