The Land's Bounty


Cows Normandy is lush and green. The westerly winds bring from the Atlantic Ocean waves after waves of silvery gray clouds, laden with moisture. The "crachin Normand", a cold, heavy drizzle, stubborn and persistent, can last for days at a time, slowly penetrating everything. It enriches the soil and fortifies the soul. It created the Norman landscape, and shaped the character of the people.

Most of Normandy is covered with a checkerboard pattern of small pastures divided by high earth berms, overgrown with thick bushes and ancient trees. It is hedgerow country, the Bocage. In the spring, the hedgerows are covered with the flowers of the dog rose; summer is blackberry season, and in the fall ripen the hazelnuts. Cows I remember many a warm, late summer vacation day spent climbing up and down the hedges, one berry for me, one berry to keep, coming home full of scratches and covered with purple juice, with a basket full of plump blackberries that were immediately turned into jam. Or a fall weekend, when the air turns brisk, going back up the same hedges with a long crooked pole, catching the high branches of the hazelnut trees, pulling the nuts out of their husks and cracking them between two stones. In many Norman homes, homemade blackberry jam is a staple of the breakfast table, and the bowl of hazelnuts is never far from the TV set.

Cows The origin of the Bocage is lost into the mists of time. And yet, one only has to look in the areas where the hedgerows have been destroyed, to see a reason for their existence. There, cows are fenced in a small area of the pasture by an electric fence. When the grass has been grazed short, and the soil fertilized, the fence is moved to another section of the field, and the cows start feeding there while the grass grows back. Similarly, the cattle was moved from field to field, always feeding on a fresh supply of rich grass. The earth berms also act as a reservoir of rain water, and the bushes and trees give the farmer all the wood he needs: poles for the gardens, branches for fences and gates, boards for furniture and construction, flexible twigs for baskets, and firewood. Often, the fields near the farm were planted with apple trees, mostly cider apples, but also a tree or two of eating apples that would supply the family with enough fruit for the fall and winter.

Cows Cows
The Norman cow is a large animal, a producer of very rich milk, related to the Jersey and the Guernsey, with a white coat with large brown spots, and a short narrow head. It cannot be officially registered as a Norman cow if it does not have a brown spot over the eyes. It is raised both for its milk and its meat, and spends most of its life in the fields. The farmer and his aides will come twice a day to milk them, but the chore is now done by machine, and rarely "in situ". Not that long ago, early in the morning, and again late in the afternoon, the country roads were lined with the traditional "bidons", the milk-churns that the dairy trucks would pick up on their twice-daily rounds. Nowadays, the milk is stored into huge containers, and then pumped directly into the tank-trucks. Some farms keep their own milk, and process it the old-fashioned way, to produce the best cream, butter and cheese, all major ingredients of a Norman meal.

Cows The king of Normandy cheeses is, of course, the Camembert . It is a soft cheese, with a velvety "bloomy" rind, a creamy flesh and a fairly strong odor. Tradition grants the creation of this cheese to Marie Harel, a farmer's wife in the small town of Camembert. A similar cheese was made in the area at least since the 17th century. During the revolution, a priest, Abbe Bonvoust, had been given refuge in the Harel's farm. He came from the Brie region, and gave Marie Harel a few "secrets" about the preparation of her cheese. In 1890 the French engineer Ridel created a wooden box to make this cheese more readily transportable, and suddenly, the Camembert was in demand all over France. Milk became the first agricultural production in the Pays d'Auge, rich farmers organized cooperative societies to collect milk from different farms and industrialize the production. This, of course, along with the introduction of pasteurized milk, changed the cheese, giving it a milder taste and a longer shelf life.

Cows However, to receive the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) label, a Camembert must be made according to stringent rules: Of course, the milk should come from the Normandy countryside. It is poured into large containers called "bassines normandes" (norman bowls), to make it curdle. Rennet is added to the milk, and the mixture must sit for one and a half hours before the beginning of the next step. The molding is done with a ladle, in at least four different passes, which may take more than 4 hours, depending on how many cheeses are being made at one time. To drain off the whey, the camembert is put on shelves, for four to five hours and then turned over. The next morning, the camembert, which has now its final shape, is taken out of its mold, and set on a tray in a salting room. There, it is covered on both sides with a thin layer of salt and with a precious bacteria, "penicillium camemberti", and placed on shelves for approximately 12 days. Finally it is packed in its famous wood box, and shipped to the stores.

Cows The Pont-L'eveque has been traced back to the 12th century, under the name Augelot, but it is in the 17th century that it takes the name of the village where it is made. Like the Camembert, it is a soft cheese, but with a much stronger, earthy taste, with a pronounced tang. Its rind, of a reddish orange color, is washed several times with salt water during the aging process. It is made in a square mold, each cheese requiring over three quarts of milk, and it is cured for one and a half months in humid cellars.

Cows The Livarot is first mentioned by name in 1690. In the nineteenth century, it is the most common cheese in Normandy. It is a washed-rind cheese, made with 5 quarts of milk and cured for 2 months. During its aging, it acquires a very strong smell and a spicy flavor. Traditionally, this round cheese is wrapped with bands of marsh grass, which gave it its nickname of "colonel". The authentic Livarot can be made only in the southern part of the Pays d'Auge, around the town for which it is named.

The Neufchâtel, from The Pays de Bray, is a bloomy rind cheese, cured for 3 weeks in dry cellars. It is often sold in a heart shape, unwrapped. Its rind looks downy, with some reddish pigmentation. Both its smell and taste are mild. It may be the oldest cheese made in Normandy: In 1035, Hugues 1er de Gournay gave the Abbey of Sigy the "dîme des frometons", a tax on cheesemakers. by 1700, the town of Neufchatel held three weekly markets, where the Angelots cheese, shaped like a heart, are sold.

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Apples play an important part in the history of Normandy, with apple orchards spreading throughout the region even in Roman times. In 1553, Gilles de Gouberville distilled the first cider. However the Norman apple was found to have therapeutic qualities as well, for making poultices and ointments, and has been used to make cosmetics during the Renaissance. Makeup powder, to this day, is still called "Pommade". With over two thousand varieties of apples, Normandy is naturally proud of its cider and of its Calvados.

Cows The harvest takes place in September, and the apples are stored in dry cellars, where they continue to ripen. Sweet apples, which give the cider a pleasing taste, are mixed with sour apples to insure its good preservation and increase the alcohol content. They are then passed through a special mill, to extract the fruit pulp, without breaking the seeds, which would give the juice an unpleasant taste. The pulp is stirred so that it turns brown faster, giving the apple "must". Then it is put through a press, in multiple layers separated by beds of straw or canvas sheets. The fresh cider is stored in open containers called "futailles", where fermentation and clarification ("defecation") will start. After several weeks, the containers are sealed, and the fermentation continues, turning the natural sugars into alcohol. Before this process is completed, the cider, with still some sugar remaining, is put in bottles, and it turns bubbly. Depending on the amount of remaining sugars, the cider will be sweet, dry or "brut".

Cows Cider is also the starting ingredient for the apple brandy called Calvados. It is distilled over a wood fire in small stills to obtain the "Calvados du Pays d'Auge" label ("Appellation Contrôlée"), guaranteeing both its quality and origin. The various categories of "Calvados du Pays d'Auge" can then begin their long maturation in oak casks. A young Calvados will be harsh and bitter, but, as it ages, it becomes much smoother and sweeter, reaching its peak after forty or fifty years.

Pommeau is an "aperitif". Of amber color, smooth and fruity, it is made of cider and Calvados and aged in oak barrels. On the farms, some Calvados was traditionally added to the best apple juices, fermented to give cider, to preserve their fruity flavor all year long. Until recently, it was available only in the farms, since, by law, it could not be commercialized. This obscure law was eventually canceled, and Pommeau received its official seal of approval, its AOC title, in 1991.

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The people of Normandy take their eating very seriously. Norman recipes are usually quite simple, but as they make use of local dairy produce and apples, the fresh natural flavors come through in a vast range of dishes. The sea is as bountiful as the region's orchards, and the Norman table boasts such specialties as Dieppe sole with Normandy oysters, and the Matelotes, stews made of different fish in each town, with potatoes, onions and butter, sometimes with cider added to the cooking water. From the delicate flavor of saltmarsh lamb to creamy chicken "à la Vallée d'Auge" and duck "à la Rouennaise", the excellence of Normandy meat is matched only by that of some of its specialties, such as the omelettes of the Mont Saint Michel, the Vire andouille sausages, the tripes cooked "à la mode de Caen", the "boudin" sausages of Mortagne. Rounding off a traditional meal would be local desserts, "bourdelots", apples of which the core has been removed and replaced with sugar and butter, wrapped in a pastry shell and baked, or "teurgoule", a vanilla-perfumed rice pudding baked at low temperature for several hours; and with a strong coffee with Calvados, sweets like Isigny toffees or apple sugars from Rouen.
©Copyright 1998 Claude and Vivian Corbin. All rights reserved.


The Vikings' Legacy
Images: Seascapes
Postcard: Barfleur


The Land's Bounty
Images: Landscapes
Postcard: Lessay


Norman Architecture
Images: Roots & Stones
Postcard: Jumieges


St-Lo under the Bombs
Images: Pointe du Hoc
Postcard: Utah Beach


D-Day plus 50
Images: Omaha Beach

©Copyright 1998-2008 Claude and Vivian Corbin. All rights reserved.

Normandy Excursions