Things to see and do - Normandy
Normandy today takes pride in its agricultural and fishing traditions as one of the most rural regions of France, while adapting to the wider European economy as a major centre for maritime trade; technology-based industries are also coming to the fore. Today, Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy) markets its milk, cider and Camembert cheese around the world. Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) has continued development as a centre for modern industry, although parts remain quite rural.
Although Lower Normandy (population 1.457 million) remains rural in terms of economy, some 65% of the population lives in and around the urban centres of Alençon, Caen and Cherbourg; in the countryside, demographic decline is a worry, as young people leave. Seaside resorts, on the other hand, have attracted new inhabitants. Upper Normandy (population 1.811 million), with its industrial and service employment and proximity to Paris, has a more evenly distributed population. Normandy has a fairly young population, with about 25% under the age of 20. Life expectancy for men is 75 years, and for women 82 years.
Normandy immediately conjures images of a leisured life along broad beaches, or among verdant pastures and dew-drenched orchards. Curiously, the fact that most inhabitants live in urban areas has left the countryside bucolic. In addition, quite a few of those pretty half-timbered houses and quaint seaside villas, as well as the many flats in buildings along the coast, belong to Parisians who drive up only on holidays, so roads are rarely crowded during the week. But the people who live on the coast or in the countryside, as opposed to visitors on holiday, are famously hard-working.
Normandy‘s rich heritage of churches and abbeys dates, with very few exceptions, to older times. Today, religion plays a far smaller part in daily life. Some 75% of Normandy residents profess Roman Catholicism, with a light dusting (1–2%) of Protestants and Muslims (1–3%), the latter living in urban areas of Upper Normandy. A quarter of inhabitants profess no religion, about the French average. Churches fill up for traditional festivals, but not for Sunday mass. Yet the buildings, which belong to the French state, are carefully maintained. The ties of the Catholic tradition remain strong.
According to Norman tradition one should eat duck in Rouen, tripe in Caen and La Ferté-Macé, leg of lamb from the salt meadows of Mont-St-Michel Bay and an omelette in Mont-St-Michel; one should also taste Dieppe sole, Duclair duckling, Auge Valley chicken garnished with tiny onions, Vire chitterlings (andouillette), black pudding from Mortagne-au-Perche and white pudding from Avranches. Among the tasty meat dishes, try the côtes de veau vallée d’Auge, which are veal cutlets fried in butter and flambéed in Calvados then braised in cider and fresh cream.
As for seafood, there are shrimps and cockles from Honfleur, mussels from Villerville and Isigny, lobsters from La Hague and Barfleur and oysters, Atlantic crabs, spider crabs, winkles and whelks from Courseulles and St-Vaast. Seafood may be accompanied by rye bread, salted butter and a glass of dry cider.
Fish – sole, turbot and mackerel to mention only a few – is often served with a delicious sauce.
Local pastries, all made with butter, include apple turnovers (chaussons aux pommes), flat cakes baked in the oven (falues or fouaces), biscuits (galettes), shortbread (sablés) and buns (brioches). Douillons are pears hollowed out and filled with butter, wrapped in pastry and baked.
Cream and Normandy sauce
Cream, the mainstay of the Normandy kitchen, is at its best in the so-called Normandy Sauce (sauce normande), which elsewhere is just a plain white sauce, but here both looks and tastes quite different.
If cream is the queen of Normandy cooking, cheese is the king of all fare. Pont-l’Évêque has reigned since the 13C; Livarot is quoted in texts of the same period; the world-renowned Camembert probably dates to the 17C, at least.
The Normandy cheeseboard also includes fresh cheese from the Pays de Bray – the bondons, demi-sel or double cream. Before sweeping France, the petit-suisse was a much appreciated farmhouse cheese. Neufchâtel cheese can be eaten within 12 days of being made, although a mature Neufchâtel takes up to three months.
Apple cider has been made locally since the Middle Ages, and it is still possible to find a farmhouse brew distilled in the traditional way.
The apples are gathered in huge baskets then stored for a short while before being emptied into a circular granite trough, where they are crushed by a round wooden millstone pulled by a horse. The crushed apples (marc) are transferred to the press, where they are laid between layers of rye straw and then pressed. The rye straw is then extracted and the apple pulp is put to soak in a vat before being pressed a second time to produce a weaker brew which is kept for use on the farm.
Whether it is brut (dry, strongly flavoured with apple with an alcohol content of 4–5%), demi-sec or doux (made artificially sweet by stalling the fermentation process when the alcohol content reaches 2.5–3%), cider is the perfect accompaniment for pancakes or apple desserts. It should always be served chilled.
Calvados, or calva as it is better known, is a cider brandy made from a mash of apples fermented with yeast; it is distilled twice and matured in oak for six to ten years. The tradition of the trou normand (Norman hole ) is still observed; during a heavy meal a small glass of Calvados is swallowed at one go to help the digestion. Restaurants often serve an apple and Calvados sorbet instead. Calvados is usually drunk after coffee; for just a taste, eat a sugar lump dipped in Calvados. A great many distilleries and storehouses are open to the public.
Perry (poiré) is similar to cider but is made from pears and usually comes from the areas around Mortain and Domfront.
This alcoholic beverage is made by mixing two-thirds of apple juice with one-third of Calvados and features an alcohol content of 16–18%. The ageing process is carried out in oak casks for a period of 18 months. It can be drunk chilled as an apéritif (without ice) or be drunk at room temperature to accompany oysters, foie gras, melon or apple pie. It is also appreciated in cooking.
The two areas of Normandy present very different economic profiles. Upper Normandy, which stretches along the Seine river estuary, possesses a large industrial sector, with Renault auto plants at Elbeuf and Le Havre, oil refineries, petrochemical plants, a big construction industry and many light industries. The principal import is crude oil; principal exports are refined petroleum and petrochemical products, and autos and auto parts. The ports of Le Havre and Rouen are among France‘s biggest.
In Lower Normandy, three-quarters of the land is agricultural, by far the highest proportion in all France, much of it devoted to dairy cows. Industry occupies only 20% of the workforce, and milk processing is the biggest industry. Many people are employed in small businesses and tourism. Norman farms also produce grain (wheat, maize, barley), oils (linseed, rape), several sorts of fruit, animal feed, sugar beet and potatoes.
Calvados and Manche produce 12% of the French fish catch, much of it shellfish, and nearly all of it sold dockside to wholesellers.
Lower Normandy‘s agricultural sector sheltered its economy during the 2008–09 recession. Upper Normandy was hit harder, although the combination of low fuel prices and good grain harvests kept ports humming. French holidaymakers, choosing to stay at home, supported the Norman tourist industry.
The area covered by this book corresponds to the former province of Normandy, divided in 1789 into five départements, with remaining bits absorbed by the départements of Eure-et-Loire and Mayenne. Eure and Seine-Maritime make up the region of Upper Normandy, while Calvados, Manche and Orne make up Lower Normandy.
There are 26 regions in France (22 within French borders, four overseas), governed by elected councils. The regions are composed of départements (100 in all of France), each of which is divided into communes, governed by municipal councils and mayors. Cantons exist only to elect members to the departmental council.
A large commune, such as Le Havre, will include several cantons. In a rural area, there may be several communes in a canton. In recent years, the regions have gained more authority over the départements. You can tell where people are from by reading the licence plates on their cars: each département has its own number.