Many of Normandy’s wonderful small-farm cheeses never make it out of France…
By Donna Manz
But it is also a French epicurean delight. And Rouen, its famous robust and medieval city, its heart.
Hugging the banks of the Seine as it meanders to the Channel, Rouen is a city of half-timbered houses, Gothic churches, historical richness, wonderful locally sourced food, and friendly people.
Called a museum-city by its tourism office, Rouen was bombed extensively during World War II in the Battle of Normandy. But the old town, the medieval soul of the city, remains surprisingly intact. The Place du Vieux Marché where Joan d’Arc was burned, the Gros Horloge (great clock) looking down on bustling streets, city hall, and Rouen’s magnificent cathedral lure visitors and locals alike. Rouen’s cathedral, interpreted by Impressionist Claude Monet, is as imposing and spectacular as it was in Monet’s day. It’s among the most-photographed Rouen tourist attractions and deservedly so. As for Monet, his home and gardens in Giverny (where he painted his famous water lilies), are only an hour drive away.
But Normandy is best known for its dairy and many of its wonderful small-farm cheeses never make it out of France since the production is so small and artisanal. In Normandy, food shops, confectioners / chocolatiers, and restaurants highlight locally sourced ingredients and products. Travelers here keep in-mind Normandy’s three “Cs”: cheese, cider (which in France, is always “hard”) and calvados.
You’ve got to buy local caramels while in Normandy and in many of Rouen’s small confectioners you can watch as they’re being made. Here, the shops feature Normandy’s prized locally-sourced ingredients and products … one after another of cheese shops, caramel crafters, macaron makers and meats. I spent one day simply going from small shop to small shop, browsing through the inventory of sweets and cheeses. If you love food or just love to eat, Rouen is paradise.
Another of the great pleasures of touring Normandy is passing by the thousands of acres of farmland and orchard. Charolais cattle are moving into Normandy but the region’s prized dairy still comes from Norman cows. Norman cows have “spectacle” eyes and their milk is rich (translated; high in fat content). That is why the Camembert is so rich, go creamy, so meltingly spreadable. By the way, the cows graze in open pastures, living a natural life until … until whatever their end is, I guess.
Normandy’s most famous and richest cheeses are the ultra-creamy Camembert, Neufchâtel, Pont-L’Evêque and Livarot, a cheese with a dominant aroma that is an acquired taste. When in Rouen, or Honfleur or any of the other villages dotting the Norman landscape, stop by one of the many little food shops specializing in Normandy products … the region’s cheeses, caramels, chocolates, and calvados and pick up locally-sourced food items not readily available back home. While cheese cannot be brought back to the U.S. there is no reason not to buy a slab and feast on it in the evening as a snack.
“Cream, cream and more cream” is, in fact, the motto of cooks throughout Normandy. When home cooks or restaurant chefs combine Normandy cream with calvados, as in calvados ice cream, the marriage is a sum much greater than its parts. Calvados is made from the Normandy’s flavorful apples, which abound in orchards all over the region, and it’s powerfully strong, not sweet-tasting in the least.
I toured Normandy from a Seine river-cruise ship, the Amalegro, the second time I’ve taken this itinerary. It brings me to Paris, the Normandy landing beaches, and Rouen, one of my favorite cities to visit.
Knowing of my passion for local food, our cruise manager, Eliane, directed me to a small shop just a block off the cathedral square, Maison Pinel. Maison Pinel specializes in “produits du terroir Normand,” local products. There are shelves of honey, preserves, wines, vinegars, confections … without artificial ingredients. I bought some preserves to bring home, and when you visit Rouen, you’ll be happy to bring home some, too.
I knew I had to eat any cheese I bought while I was traveling, so I did buy a small Camembert to bring back to the ship. I brought it with me to the ship’s dining room for one lunch meal and passed samples around the table and brought the remaining piece to the lounge as we sailed during the afternoon. Food makes new friends, it seems.
In Rouen along the rue du Gros Horloge are two Grand Mere Auzou confections shops within a few feet of one another. One Grand Mere Auzou specializes in macarons, those French cookies with no American counterpart. The other, my favorite, is the chocloate shop, featuring handcrafted chocolates and caramels. I bought several small bags of caramels, the sole remaining one sitting on my desk, inspiring me in a way that only sweets can. The chocolate I bought there I gave away as souvenirs … not because I did not want the dark silky chocolate but because I knew that it would be no challenge to gobble up 5,000 calories in a single sitting.
Normandy sea salt (sel), particularly the grey salt from Guerande, rises to the level of haute gourmet. Yes, I do have a bag but I bought it in a grocery store, not a gourmet shop. Confectioners, those who hand-craft caramels made from Normandy’s cream, occasionally fashion their world-renown caramels with the region’s sea salt. I believe it is the butter that is salted or unsalted, although, some caramels are sprinkled with the large grains.
Will I take another Seine river cruise? Probably …. Rouen and the Normandy countryside take me to a time and mental place few others can. And there is no more relaxing, other-worldly way to travel than by river.
If you’re in central France you’ll find that Normandy is also an easy two-day trip from Paris. And you can also find nirvana in Bruges, Belgium’s chocolate heaven, about a three-hour drive from Rouen.
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy Normandy from Paris: an Easy 2-Day Trip, Claude Monet’s House and Gardens, Giverny, France (Video) and Best Places to Visit in France
If you go:
https://www.normandie-tourisme.fr/ is the official Normandy tourism website. It includes a link, http://www.normandie-tourisme.fr/articles/rouen-217-2.html, to Rouen.
Normandy’s D-Day Allied landing beaches are a couple of hours from Rouen by tour bus or car. While charming relais abound throughout Normandy, Rouen makes a rewarding and convenient base for excursions in Normandy.