The Orne, Calvados; Wild game, stinky cheeses are among rich pickings
Not far from the madding crowds of London and Paris –only a few hours by rail — is France’s northern province of Normandy, and in its greenest of hinterlands are the departements of Orne and Calvados. Known as the kingdom of the horse, the Orne is teeming with chateaux and a vast national park. Calvados has dairy farms and, as you might guess, row upon row of apple orchards, their fruit sensibly made into cider and the namesake brandy of the region. For people who love to eat, the Orne and Calvados mean sausages and snails, Camembert cheese, homemade foie gras and superb country-style cuisine. Toss Michelin’s little red bible aside, hit the backroads on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll find families indulging in six-course feasts at out-of-the-way restaurants in bucolic surrounds.
Driving is the best way to get around. From Montparnasse Station in Paris (about a 15-euro taxi from Le Gare du Nord if you’re arriving in Paris by Eurostar) take the one-and-a-half-hour train ride west to Argentan. Here you can rent a car. Live it up and make your first stop Le Pavillon de Gouffern (61310 Silly en Gouffern; pavillondegouffern. com) on the eastern outskirts of Argentan; just follow the signs to Paris and then to the Pavillon. This resort hotel, once an 18th-century hunting lodge, sits amid 90 hectares of sprawling grounds complete with lake and forest. The cuisine is haute, in the Alain Ducasse style, and local; the village of Camembert is less than 20 km away and its cheese is prominent on the menu, along with local game and fruits de mer.
For the freshest seafood, head north through Calvados, and a leisurely two-hour drive will find you in the seaside town of Honfleur. Stroll around the old harbour and lunch at L’Hippocampe (02 31 89 98 36); try the tender, delicate sole meuniere, or the skate with capers, washed down with a bottle of Sancerre. The prix fixe, from 17 euros to 29 euros ($17 to $43), offers oysters so fresh you’ll swear they left their briny beds just that morning.
There’s a charming shop around the corner that sells Calvados from more than 50 regional producers, some more than 80 years old. Young Calvados could tear a strip of paint off a Renault, but give it about 15 years and it becomes smooth and pleasant, with an apple backdrop taste.
Bed down in Honfleur at the Ferme Saint-Simeon Hotel (fermesaintsimeon. fr); its restaurant is reputed to be one of the finest in Normandy. Opt for the langoustines in shellfish aspic or the Tourville-style lobster, both served with produce from the hotel’s kitchen garden.
On your return south to the Orne, however, many dreamy days later, stop at Livarot, for its cheese. Also not to be missed is the hilltop town of Mortagne-au-Perche, world-renowned for its sausages. Once a regional capital, it focuses now on gastronomy, especially the boudin noir. The Saturday-morning farmers’ market is the best place to find both this famous black sausage and local ciders. Boudin noir and boudin blanc are served with apples cooked in butter: makes sense.
About 10 minutes west from Argentan is the hamlet of Gace. I’ve been told that the people of Gace and surrounds have the peasant mentality; it is their nature to resist change. They are content to let the world come to them, and for travellers, that’s just fine. Here you’ll find the estate called La Tourniere (Coulmer 61230;email@example.com), complete with a detached self-catering cottage that sleeps four, run by a charming British couple. Charles and Shirley Boddy can make you a reservation for dinner nearby and direct you to the snail farm down the road.
Snaileries have been around since Roman times. In those days, they were fattened up on bran and wine. But M. Marty’s Bourgogne and Petit gris gastropods are fed a diet that includes marine algae, fresh grains and special kinds of flour. Snails have to put on weight but they can’t get too fat and bust up their mobile homes.
Tending 200,000 or so head of snails isn’t easy. They are penned into sloping wood corrals (to shade the sun) and surrounded by an electric fence (to keep out predators). Marty lays out fresh food, does a cursory check of his herd, and heads over to several sacks hanging from the rafters. Here the little fellows are purged (put on a starvation diet) before they become escargots.
After touring this establishment, we head down to the retail shop and stock up on escargots in Camembert, escargots in duck confit, and even escargot and nettle soup.
No self-respecting eatery in these parts is without its little forks and rounded pincers for gripping shells and scooping succulent snails slathered in parsley and garlic butter, mopped up with plenty of bread.
Just thinking about it reminds us it’s time for dinner. Not to be missed, the charming L’Etoile in Gace offers simply wondrous food at honest prices, served in a setting that never feels hurried. The Prix Fixe menu at E 28.50 is ample and includes a plate of appetizer olives– little black nicoises with the chef’s secret mix of herbs served with Kirs Cassis and Kir Royale aperitifs; housemade foie gras de canard on fresh made bread; and the house specialty– wild game. Tonight features toothsome and rich roasted boar loin with a risotto of delicate tender vegetables and Épeautre, (translation: German wheat), which may be Europe’s oldest grain.
The grain’s kernels are large and have several husks and are even more of a pain to prepare than fava beans, but Chef Thierry is patient and innovative. His wife, Ann-Marie, explains about his food, “It’s just simple and we cook how we like to eat and hope others like it, too.” The place is packed with locals.
Of course you must have the apple tartin with apple sorbet and Calvados cream sauce. And the cheese – the entire meal comes for the same price of a steak in a Paris brasserie. Luckily, it’s a very short ride back to the gite.
If the next day’s a Tuesday, head for L’aigle, a short drive east of Gace and the third-largest street market in France. Here is the fruit man, the butcher, the fish lady, and the greengrocer along with the out-of-place English couple selling jars of homemade jam. The fish lady’s open-sided Renault van displays the morning’s wares, an hour’s drive from the sea — mussels and oysters, plump sea snails and numerous salt-water fish with clear eyes and ocean smell.
Rural life is about shopping daily; even the smallest village has a mobile market of trucks that pass through the town square at a fixed time. Towns have weekly markets and bigger markets are a regular event.
Load up with local produce, meats and seafood, fresh cream and unpasteurized stinky cheeses at outdoor markets and stop for a bowl of steaming paella and cous-cous cooked out in the open. One open-sided truck is stuffed chock-a-bloc with enough wares to resemble a Paris creamery. Cooking almost anything á la Normande requires copious amounts of butter and glugs of fresh cream. Butter is sold by the gram from huge tubs and sure tastes like days gone by when old fashioned butter was churned on remote farms. And the colour! And then there’s the cream itself! The cheeses! Everyone samples and discusses the nuances, the location of the cheese (or the cheese-maker), and the drawbacks of pasteurized milk cheeses versus raw.
If your load isn’t too heavy, before leaving L’Aigle, drop by Le Marché du Vin – it has a terrific selection of wines and spirits.
Next up travel west to the town of Argentan (about 25 minutes from Gace), dotted with elegant shops and chocolatiers, amazing how many. And perfumiers.
Charcuterie Preud’homme, in the Rue de L’Hotel de Ville, is the home of award-winning pate en croute, foie gras de canard and a must-take-home terrine Argentanise – country pate with Calvados. (The staff will package it for you to take overseas.) A few doors to the right is Boulangerie Patisserie and herein lies a problem: do you go for the Tarte Normande, Tarte aux pommes or Gratin aux pommes? Whatever, make sure you leave room for Chocolatier Alain Gaubert, on the same short block.
Dinner has to be at Moulin de la Mariogtiere in Notre dame du Hamel, a tiny hamlet about 12 kms from L’Aigle. But if you choose to cook back at the gite instead, tag on one more day and lunch at this Passeport Gourmand (literally translated as passport to greed!)
We went for the gusto – Le Grand Menu Dégustation du Moulin — for 66 euros. It was a superb choice. I chose a luxurious duo of foie gras —parfait and sauté, followed by a sublime lobster with traditional sauce l’American followed by two cuts of beef, fillet and oxtail. Then came the cheese –over 15 varieties, unlimited choices – how novel. The service was impeccable and the wine list extensive.
As for dessert, I can’t remember anything about it. All I know is that my last four dining hours in Normandy were gargantuan and gastronomically over-the-top. I relished every bite.
From London, your best bet is the Eurostar (treat yourself to first class: food and service far surpasses most airlines) — it cuts across the English and French countryside and through the Chunnel in two hours, 35 minutes. It runs from London’s Waterloo station to Gare du Nord in Paris. Take a short taxi ride (15 euros) to Montparnasse station – it’s a lot easier than the metro. Steer to the extreme right of the concourse and you will find platform (Qaui) 23. The train to Argentan takes 90 minutes.
The website www.raileurope.ca has particularly useful info on schedules, fares and railpasses.
L’Hippocampe: Tel 02 31 89 98 36
Gribouille – Normandy Specialty Store
16, rue de l’Homme de Bois
Tel 02 31 89 29 54
FermeSt-SiméonHotelTel 02 31 81 78 00
La Tourniere, Coulmer 61230, Gace
(0033 2 33 36 07 85 outside France)
(self-catering, detached cottage)
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