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 £158 (brittany-ferries.co.uk). More information: normandy-tourism.org
With ancient Cathar castles, the lofty Pyrenees and a coastline strung with fishing villages turned gastro hotspots, the Languedoc’s revitalised wine industry is the icing on the region’s cake. We stayed at the stylish Château Les Carrasses, a 19th-century castle turned wine resort where a collection of chic apartments and villas are surrounded by acres of carefully tended vines. At the chateau’s brasserie we tried the Château’s own wines, including a fresh but rich chardonnay with hints of pineapple and citrus.
A tour of another winery, Château Capitoul with specialist local operator Vin en Vacances included a guided tasting on a balcony overlooking beautiful La Clape, a terroir so unique it has its own sub-appellation; the Rocaille is an outstanding, full-bodied red with notes of pepper and strawberry.
All Les Carasses’ suites come with kitchens so it’s well worth exploring the local markets. Narbonne’s Les Halles is a must-visit: pick up some fat lucques olives at Le Royaume de l’Olive and a bottle of the region’s zesty, bone-dry picpoul. When you’re shopped out, order a bavette steak (fresh from the neighbouring butchers) with chips and salad at the market’s characterful in-house restaurant Chez Bebelle.
Suites at Chateau Les Carrasses start from €125 per night (lescarrasses.com). Flights from Luton or Gatwick to Montpellier from £85 return (easyJet.com), and from Bournemouth, East Midlands, Prestwick, Liverpool or Stansted to Carcassonne from £53 return (Ryanair.com). More info: sunfrance.com
Often when travelling the reality doesn’t match the fantasy. But, driving back from the south of France last summer we stumbled across the quintessential French pitstop.
The long journey north, to the ferry at Caens, would have been tedious if we’d done it in one go. Instead our little contingent decided to stay overnight somewhere around Poitiers. In our heads we imagined a little auberge with gingham tablecloths, a simple local menu and flaky, patisserie-fresh croissants for breakfast, but half expected to end up in an Ibis hotel alongside a motorway. Instead we took what looked on the map to be a shortcut between Limoges and Tours and ended up in the pretty stone village of Lussac-les-Chateaux.
Right on the road here was the hotel Les Orangeries. If the local tourist board had designed it they couldn’t have done a better job. Set in a honey-stone building with green-painted shutters, our bedroom came with huge windows and a well-trodden wooden floor (book a room overlooking the garden if you want absolute peace). At the back of the building was a glorious terrace opening out onto a large garden complete with chic swimming pool and orange trees (though the name is actually a nod to the owner’s grandfather whose Algerian orange groves once supplied some of France’s finest groceries).
Most memorable of all, however, was dinner. Instead of grabbing a chilled service station sandwich, we found ourselves eating out on that candlelit terrace, on a table laid with starched white linen and polished glassware, surrounded by tables of multi-generation French families enjoying the buzz of a balmy summer’s evening and generous amounts of local chenin blanc.
Recently named International Sustainable Hotel Restaurant of the Year by the SRA Les Orangeries tries to source the majority of its produce from within a 30km radius – much of it from two large gardens in the village – and uses them with great care. Our mains of duck breast with a chickpea and pistachio mousseline sauce and John Dory with crushed new potatoes, pak choi and buttered asparagus sauce were highlights of a week’s eating across the Channel. And all the more delicious thanks to the fantastic setting.
If we detected a subtle ripple of unexpected flavours in the cooking, it was because the hotel’s chef, David Royer, has recently been experimenting with flower waters. With the help of Nicole Seiler at the sweetly named Les Jardins Possibles in nearby Persac, who grows edible flowers and herbs for culinary use, he has recently been adding flower waters, a by-product of distilled oils, to his recipes.
‘It adds a subtle twist,’ explained the hotel’s owner, Olivia Gautier, taking us on a tour of Nicole’s garden. ‘You can add different colours and flavours just by using the herbs and flowers in their standard form but the waters are something different. We put the sage water in apple compote, the rose geranium in marshmallows, panna cotta and cakes, the lavender with yoghurt, the basil with tomato or chocolate dishes. They’re much less concentrated than essential oils and easier to use in the kitchen because you can’t overdo it.’
We were soon biting into buttery madeleines and freshly picked plums dotted with sage water, rosemary water and citrusy sorrel water; trying them on something edible rather than ‘naked’ is a great experiment in flavor combining we discovered. ‘As soon as you start getting that mix of flavours and tastes it becomes much more interesting than trying them on their own,’ added Olivia. It also made dinner at Les Orangeries restaurant more interesting that evening, as we tried to detect hints of Nicole’s herbs and flowers in the cooking.
Les Orangeries is under four hours’ drive from Caen, for ferry crossings to/from Portsmouth (brittany-ferries.co.uk). Double rooms cost from €88, room only. lesorangeries.fr
English food in Paris
It may sound unlikely but British food, so long disdained, is big news in Paris’s coolest quarters. Some venues were launched by Brits, like the pioneering Rose Bakery, an organic café in the 9th arrondissement celebrated for its carrot cake, €5.50 (46 Rue des Martyrs). Others are French-owned, such as Beef Club in the 2nd, where there’s a Bordeaux-heavy wine list to do justice to a burger with red Leicester and ogleshield (€23), or entrecôte (€36) raised in Yorkshire by Tim Wilson from Yorkshire’s Ginger Pig.
Frenchie To Go is a humble takeaway opposite the high-end neo-bistro Frenchie. It attracts a largely Parisian clientèle who visit for the scones (served with kumquat jam, €6). The Sunken Chip, appropriately located at 39 Rue des Vinaigriers, is clad in white tiles and formica and is uncannily faithful to the classic fish-and-chip shop, right down to Sarson’s vinegar, mushy peas and Kate-and-Wills mugs for your English breakfast tea (fish and chips, €14).
At Le Bal Café, a fashionable spot near the Place de Clichy, are Anna Trattles (formerly at London’s St John restaurant), and half-English Alice Quillet, who share a love of pies, offal and pickled walnuts. ‘We wanted to bring something new to Paris,’ says Anna, who puts on occasional weekend pop-ups with visiting English chefs, including Lee Tiernan, formally of St John Bread and Wine, and Pitt Cue’s Tommy Adams. You’ll find excellent kedgeree (€13), and bacon and eggs (€12), alongside Luscombe Farm ginger beer, and proper tea from a Brown Betty teapot. Crucially, though, all the produce is French (that would be a sacrilege too far), and the sourdough bread is from Poujauran, one of the most revered bakeries in Paris.
Return London-Paris fares with Eurostar cost from £69. Double rooms at chic guesthouse Eliel cost from €170, B&B.
‘Never drink water with raclette,’ says local mountain guide, Jean-Marie, in the kind of warning tone he might normally attach to, say, climbing Mont Blanc in fog. To prevent the molten cheese congealing in our stomachs we’re better sticking to wine, he advises. Not that encouragement is needed.
Having rented one of Collineige’s self-catering chalets in Chamonix for the week, as a treat we’ve booked their in-house chef, Fraser McCarthy, to cook dinner for us and Jean-Marie one evening. Alongside velvety mushroom and chestnut soup and a raclette served with nutty potatoes, speck and a crisp salad, a bottle of Chignin Vieilles Vignes is disappearing as fast as our sunset view of the Bossons Glacier, and the Mont Blanc massif. Smart but homely rather than overly styled, with cosy, wraparound pine and a large open fire, Chalet Sciere is in the pretty hamlet of Les Tines, five minutes from Chamonix on the free local train that runs up and down the spectacular, forested river valley behind the house.
Like most of Collineige’s properties, the chalet can be booked catered but, with its large, sociably open-plan kitchen, it’s ideal for self-catering, leaving more scope to explore the area’s restaurants. Collineige’s owner and wife of Jean-Marie, Colleen, has lived in Chamonix for 30 years and her local knowledge is a big draw for guests. On her recommendation, we spend several happy days eating our way around the mountains.
For breakfast, Colleen directs us to an outpost of Boulangerie Saint Hubert, where you can buy fabulous baguettes and pastries for a few euros each from a little log cabin at the side of the road between Les Tines and Chamonix. For après-ski beers and surprisingly good burgers we stumble into the MBC (Micro Brasserie de Chamonix) brewpub. Two-Michelin starred Hameau Albert 1er is just down the road but, for decadent dining on a more rustic budget, we head instead to Le Cap Horn and a bargain two-course lunch of smoked salmon salad and roast lamb, €19.
The highlight of what has quickly turned into a gourmet week, though, is higher up the valley, in the village of Vallorcine. Here, just behind the train station, is Le Café Comptoir. If Maria Von Trapp had trained as a contemporary interior designer, this is what she would have created, a model of Alpine chic, with its roughed-up timbers, polished antlers and sheepskin rugs. The food puts an equally modern spin on local traditions – my oven-baked Savoyarde croûte montagne arrives not only with tomme, potatoes, garlic and white wine but also with girolles and sliced apples, and sides of speck and pickled gherkins. And a glass of local Roussette de Savoie to aid the digestion, of course.
Chalet Sciere sleeps eight and costs from £2800 per week, plus €150 for a post-stay clean (collineige.com). Ferries from Portsmouth to Le Havre cost from £158 return for a car and two passengers (brittanyferries.com). More information: chamonix.com
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