The food of Normandy owes its most distinctive characteristic – its gut-bursting, heart-pounding richness – to the lush orchards and dairy herds of the region’s agricultural heartland, especially the area southeast of Caen known as the Pays d’Auge. Menus abound in meat such as veal (veau) cooked in vallée d’Auge style, which consists largely of the profligate addition of cream and butter. Many dishes also feature orchard fruit, either in its natural state or in successively more alcoholic forms – either as apple or pear cider, or perhaps further distilled to produce brandies.
Normans relish blood and guts. In addition to gamier meat and fowl such as rabbit and duck (a speciality in Rouen, where the birds are strangled to ensure that all their blood gets into the sauce), they enjoy such intestinal preparations as andouilles, the sausages known in English as chitterlings, and tripes, stewed for hours à la mode de Caen. A full blowout at a country restaurant will also traditionally entail one or two pauses between courses for the trou normand: a glass of the apple brandy Calvados to let you catch your breath before struggling on with the feast.
Normandy’s long coastline ensures that it is also renowned for its seafood. Waterfront rows of restaurants in its ports and resorts compete for attention, each with its “copieuse” assiette de fruits de mer. Honfleur is probably the most enjoyable, but Dieppe, Étretat and Cherbourg also offer endless eating opportunities. The menus tend to be much the same as those on offer in Brittany, if perhaps slightly more expensive.
The most famous products of Normandy’s meadow-munching cows are, of course, their cheeses. Cheese-making in the Pays d’Auge started in the monasteries during the Dark Ages. By the eleventh century the local products were already well defined; in 1236, the Roman de la Rose referred to Angelot cheese, identified with a small coin depicting a young angel killing a dragon. The principal modern varieties began to emerge in the seventeenth century – Pont l’Evêque, which is square with a washed crust, soft but not runny, and Livarot, which is round, thick and firm, and has a stronger flavour. Although Marie Herel is generally credited with having invented Camembert in the 1790s, a smaller and stodgier version of that cheese had already existed for some time. A priest fleeing the Revolution stayed in Madame Herel’s farmhouse at Camembert, and suggested modifications in her cheese-making in line with the techniques used to manufacture Brie de Meaux – a slower process, gentler on the curd and with more thorough drainage. The rich full cheese thus created was an instant success in the market at Vimoutiers, and the development of the railways (and the invention of the chipboard cheesebox in 1880) helped to give it a worldwide popularity.