It’s 11am and I’m into my third glass of Calvados. I’m at a ‘tasting’, but you know how it is. A frosty glass of Pommeau (calvados-fortified cider) had started proceedings innocently enough, served with little croutons of camembert and pork terrine (and a genial smile) by the manager of La Boite a Calva, a specialist food shop in Caen. In the heart of Calvados country, La Boite’s menu of triple-distilled vintages dating back some 50 years begs a bit more than a taste.
Calvados, cream, butter, cheese, apples, cider: like many places in France, Normandy is not easy on the arteries. It is, however, a superb place to sample AOC-status booze and food made by small, unfussy family producers, many of whom have been perfecting produce since William the Conqueror started peppering the landscape with hulking great castles. And all of this, just a short hop across the Channel.
Smart accommodation outfit, Sawday’s, has been savvy enough to see the region’s potential, recently combining its most special places to stay with new tours visiting local distilleries, cider houses, orchards and food markets. At the latter, in Caen, I discover a stall selling an ancient madeleine recipe recently revived by the Jennette ladies’ guild and some crowdsourced funding; a story as sweet as the little scallop-shaped cakes (the organisation has since launched a shop).
It’s all pretty fairytale in Normandy, where gingerbread-like half-timbered 16th century houses typically house distilleries, such as the family-run Domaine de Christian Drouin whose orchards are still grazed by cows; its sculptural cellars are home to a 1939 Calvados that survived German invasion, buried underground.
Overnighting at nearby Manoir de Fresnay, another 16th century orchard-surrounded estate, I find a crumbling old apple press and five contrastingly chic B&B rooms recently revamped by irreverent Sicilian ex-pat, Matteo Fabra. While at Les Saisons, a recently revitalised, buzzy restaurant in nearby Cambremer, another ebullient Italian, Fabbio is at the helm but the dishes, from seafood terrine, to crispy Pont l’Eveque cheese with peppered pears, are pure Normand.
Cider houses and distilleries – including the notable domaines Dupont and Grandval – act as my stepping stones through the region, with sobering side-trips to Normandy’s D-Day landing beaches and the must-see tapestry at Bayeux. At the hilltop Manoir d’Apreval, within view of the sea at Honfleur, if not its pretty painted houses, I learn not all ciders are created equal. Unlike traditional UK varieties, a dry version here feels not so distant from champagne while a sweet, as natural as a bite of earthy apples, is anything but saccharine.
Rooted in rustic traditions, Normandy has not always made as big an impression as such noble gastro-destinations as Lyon and Bordeaux. But as travellers shy away from the fancy in favour of small artisan producers, the region is regaining ground. At Chateau Canisy, one of France’s oldest B&B’s, there’s enough opulence to satisfy even an old school Francophile traveller. Built by one of William the Conqueror’s barons, the castle has been in the Kergorlay family for over 1,000 years. Salons are hung with French masters that tell bloody tales, its bedrooms overlooking neatly landscaped gardens and lakes.
A cooking class here, though, is comfortingly down to earth, headed up by chefs Nicky and Christian. We sip cider while fresh apples are chopped into a sauce to accompany a duck breast, and sliced for a caramel-based Gateau Normand. Later, at dinner in the grand music room overseen by Nicky’s husband, Patrick (the chateau’s de facto historian-cum-manager), I dine on the same menu, augmented by a starter of newly-in-season scallops, another regional specialty. Served as a simple carpaccio, this dish could not be more unpretentious or flavourful. Just like Normandy itself.
Double rooms at Chateau de Canisy costs from €210, B&B; at Le Fresnay €90, B&B. Sawday’s Tours Normands, three or six night suggested itineraries, can be found at sawdays.co.uk/discovernormandy The nearest ports are at Caen and Le Harve; return ferry crossings from Portsmouth start from rom £158 (brittany-ferries.co.uk). More information: normandy-tourism.org