Normandy is known for so many things: apples, caramel, cheese, oysters and, of course, the battles fought during World War II. The beauty of the region is striking, especially along the coast. Beaches that were the sight of such human loss now welcome vacationers from near and far.
I’m not usually one to do the typical tourist stops, but since I was on a group trip, this was an exception – and a pleasant surprise. If you’ve never tried Calvados, the apple brandy, then this is the region to remedy that.
We stopped at Boulard in Coquainvilliers, which has operated since 1825. Years ago, distilleries would use apples from their own orchards, but the demand is too great for the amount of apples. Now, apples are sourced from a co-op of growers and picked from September to early December. In the Calvados Pays d’Auge, there are 120 different kinds of apples. At Boulard, they use all varieties to make several different types of products, from cider with small and bitter ones to the V.S.O.P that tastes more like scotch. Tasting a few varieties is the best way to see what you prefer.
To make the traditional Calvados, the juice is fermented for 6 weeks and tastes like vinegar, as the sugar turns to alcohol. Next it’s put into vats in the distillery through a piping system. It goes through double distillation, first 8 hours and then 12 hours. There are 2000 liters of “petit l’eau” to start, which ends up as only 300 liters. The liquid is heated to 30 degrees Celsius, which allows the vapors to be released. It stays in barrels for a few days to weeks because of the tannins. Next, it’s transferred to smaller barrels of about 400 liters where it ages for years, depending on the product. It’s tasted daily at 11am to ensure that it is being properly stored. The lower end product spends one year in young French oak barrels. Anything longer would result in a taste that is too oaky. Our guide at Boulard explained the importance of the barrel, as it denotes the region where the oak comes from and takes on the terroir of the oak, as well as the apples. Cold water is used to filter the liquid, where it goes from 7% alcohol to 70%, with evaporation that drops to 40%, which is the point at which it can be sold. Oxidation gives the liquid its characteristic golden color.
From November to May (except for Christmas), when the product is manufactured, Boulard has someone on site at all times to oversee the production. Boulard strives to have its Calvados taste the same from year to year, which is difficult as the flavor of the apples changes depending on the season. Hot summers mean sweeter apples, which impacts the sugar content, and thus the alcohol content. And as with wine, there are vintage years.
If you end up developing an affection for this spirit, you’ll be happy to know it’s available for purchase in the US. Since it’s tradition to have a small glass after a meal and before the cheese course, after a stop at Boulard, you’ll be set for your next adventure – cheese-tasting in Camembert.
Since I’ve devoted an entire post to cheese in the region, I won’t repeat myself here, but if you can’t make it to Durand, definitely look for another location to view this process. This is truly an experience you cannot find outside of Normandy, and one not to be missed.
For something sweet to end the day, just off the main highway, you’ll find Caramels d’Isigny. You can smell the sugar and chocolate in the air, and it’s just about impossible to resist trying it and taking some with you.
Start your next day at the D-Day museum right on Omaha Beach.
The cemetery is well-maintained and overlooks the water.
It’s one of the most informative and thoughtful museums I’ve visited. It closes promptly at 5pm with taps, so make sure you go early enough to have the time to read and listen to all the material provided, including veteran accounts of the war.
It allows you to have a glimpse into what life was like during the war for the people of France and for the soldiers fighting, including the boots worn, the guns and rifles used,and the food rations provided.
Overlooking the beach, a map shows where the troops landed in the region.
There’s so much to see and do in this area, that a weekend is hardly enough. But it will certainly gave you a sense of the region, which feels worlds apart from the buzzing streets of Paris.
Where to stay and eat:
Since this is the coast, you’ll likely choose to stay near the beach rather than the villages closer to Paris. If you’re lucky, you can stay at the spectacular Chateau de Cheneviere,
But if not, definitely dine here. It is everything that you expect to find in the French countryside, but with impeccable service. Plus, there are several menu options that are reasonably priced, which is not usually the case with what was a Michelin starred restaurant.
Duck (not on the cheaper tasting menu) was originally overcooked, but when a new dish was brought out, it was medium rare, although a little tough. Stick with the cheaper tasting menu, which is a great deal, and you still get to choose cheese or dessert.
The cheese course even allows you to select as many cheeses from the cart that you want – my idea of heaven!
Lots of little restaurants are in this village, but try Fleur de Sel – if for nothing other than the mussels, which were sweet and succulent, as if they were soaked in milk the night before. And the fresh, local oysters were excellent and reasonably priced as well.
How to get there:
Only a couple of hours north of Paris, the area is easily reached by train. Lisieux is one of the larger cities and a good starting point for visiting the region. To experience Normandy fully, however, rent a car, stop at a few villages and taste the differences among the local cheeses and Calvados makers. If exploring on your own is not an option, tours from Paris also can be arranged.