France: In food heavenSave
By Pamela Wade
By Day 10, the cheese was becoming insistent. Right from the beginning, it had made its presence felt, even from inside the fridge in my suite on the Tapestry II. I hadn't expected that when I bought the camembert from the stallholder in the marketplace at Les Andelys. Blue, assertive roquefort, yes, but camembert? It was a wuss of a cheese, I'd always thought: white, creamy, mild. But then, I'd never tasted one made from unpasteurised milk before, by a passionate expert.
That is one of the many joys of an Avalon Waterways cruise through Normandy: the regional food is as distinctive a feature of the experience as the pretty thatched cottages, the colourful half-timbered buildings, the soaring bridges and sheltered harbours, and the sobering presence of the D-Day landing beaches.
"It's all about the three Cs," cruise director Helmut announced confidently at one of his afternoon briefings as we sailed along the Seine from Paris into Normandy. "Camembert, cider and cream." He paused, then added, "No, that's four Cs: Calvados too. Uh, five: we mustn't forget the crepes..."
I'd been ready for the crepes, although the Nutella element was a surprise. This hazelnut spread from Italy is consumed in vast quantities throughout Europe, and France spoons much of its share on to the soft, sweet pancakes that are one of Normandy's glories.
Our Kiwi group's insistence that he added banana too, though, was a revelation to Chef Olivier at his on-board crepe-making demonstration, and we felt pleased to have made a contribution, however small, to French cuisine.
Although crepes also come in savoury versions, for crisp, cheesy, eggy goodness, there's no surpassing the galette complete I ate outside a cafe beside Rouen's ancient cathedral. A lacy-edged buckwheat pancake, the edges folded in to make a square, fried egg in the middle, served with chips and a salad, it was a meal to linger over in the sunshine.
The only acceptable accompaniment is cider: crisp, golden, dry or sweet, traditionally served in cups, it is perfect on a sunny afternoon. For five centuries it's been made from the sour, hard apples that grow so well in Normandy. Although it's the best-known, cider isn't the only juice product.
At the family enterprise Calvados Pierre Huet, on my Taste of Normandy tour, I heard how one tonne of apples makes about 700 litres of juice. It is then transformed in huge oak barrels and by an elegant distillery, all copper piping and shiny cylinders, into sherry-like pommeau, a very drinkable aperitif, and the scarily strong liqueur called Calvados, 40 per cent proof.
Estelle, who guided this tour, was a fan. During three-hour family Sunday dinners, she told us, it served a vital purpose when appetites flagged: the "trou normande", or Normandy hole, is fixed by a snifter of Calvados, often taken with a small dish of apple sorbet. "It makes space in the stomach," she claimed.
There was none left in mine after our long lunch that day. In her private summerhouse in the gorgeously pretty village of Beuvron-en-Auge, madame Francoise served us meltingly tender home-made pork rillettes and cured sausage with crusty bread, a delicious vegetable quiche with magnificent pastry, then a gloriously glutinous Teurgoule, a rice pudding baked for six hours. It was a feast of simple flavours and just the memory is making my mouth water.
Before the dessert, in the French manner, we had the cheese course: three of them, all of Normandy origin. The camembert was a revelation. To earn the coveted AOC certification, it must be made from the raw, unpasteurised milk of local cows. It delivered a subtle bite missing from the mass-produced variety.
Contrasting with the camembert's white rind is the soft orange outside of the livarot. This one is stronger, still soft and creamy, fondly known as "the colonel" because of the stripes on its rind. But most distinctive was the Pont l'Eveque. Square, it's the strongest of the three, and its yellowish inside is firmer than the ooze of a ripe camembert. Again, I'm drooling here, just remembering. The three are sometimes combined in a fondue I think would qualify as ambrosia.
Vital to all this cheesy glory is the Normande cow we saw grazing throughout the green countryside. A white and brown-spotted breed, it's far plumper than your average Friesian. This is because it is also used for beef, providing a well-flavoured meat. It's the creaminess of its milk, though, that underpins Normandy cuisine with its emphasis on cheese, rich sauces and pastry made from the bright yellow butter.
What, in retrospect, is the greatest marvel, though, is how that fabulous camembert remained uneaten for 10 whole days.
• Avalon Waterways' new Suite Ship Avalon Tapestry II offers an eight-day river cruise on the Seine, from Paris to Normandy's landing beaches. Departures next year are available from $3075 per person twin share. Avalon Waterways' fares include all onboard meals, wine and beer at dinner, expert guides and a daily selection of activities and excursions. See travel agents for bookings.
• Cathay Pacific offers a daily connection from New Zealand to Paris via Hong Kong.
Pamela Wade was a guest of Avalon Waterways and flew to Paris with assistance from Cathay Pacific.