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The savoury beauty of Normandy’s Pays d’Auge

The savoury beauty of Normandy’s Pays d’Auge

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-11-04

Normandy’s Pays d’Auge has beautiful landscapes and many fine local products to recommend it. Amongst the region’s producers of unfiltered cider, raw-milk cheese, Calvados, butter and cream, here is a select list of remarkable artisans who are particularly respectful of the environment and local culture. This is a gourmet’s journey into the heart of tradition.

The Pays d’Auge, the bosom of Normandy
With the city of Lisieux as its centre, the Pays d’Auge region straddles two départements: Orne and Calvados. It resembles a five-sided polygon which reaches west to La Côte Fleurie, a well-known tourist destination featuring such towns as Cabourg, Deauville and Honfleur. But one need only head inland a few minutes from the great sand beaches of Blonville to discover a beautifully preserved landscape distinguished by half-timbered cottages and ancient hedgerows. Between Blangy-le-Château, Dives-sur-Mer and Lisieux, the Pays d’Auge features some exceptional establishments which I invite you to discover, for this rich, verdant land is as famous for its local products as for its lovely landscapes.
Genuine apple cider from the Pays d’Auge
I would like to begin this article by presenting one of the most singular and extraordinary fellows in all of Normandy: François David. Trying to meet this deep-voiced giant is risky business: the door might be bolted shut, or a gaggle of noisy geese may harass you until you run for the car and speed away. David, who lives in Blangy-Le-Château, is the crown king of authentic, unfiltered apple cider. Nowadays, 99.9 % of all ciders from Normandy are filtered, but the filtering process robs apple juice of all of its natural vitality and yeasts. If filtered apple juice is to become sparkling cider, commercial yeast, a bit of gas and a touch of sulphur for freshness (whence that unsavoury scent of egg) must be added. In short, while most cider is simply apple juice which has been tampered with, Monsieur David makes ciders that fizz naturally and are free of any additives. His apples are ancient cultivars grown on full-sized trees of ancient cultivars which were planted around the farm beginning in 1870. The hand-picked apples are stored in a loft where they dry for several weeks, giving them more concentrated aromas and a higher sugar content. David then gently extracts the juice using an apple press made in the 1930s. Every step of the process is artisanal, from pressing, expelling and wringing (which separates the juice from the pulp, or pomace) all the way to bottling and labelling.
Uncommonly aromatic and flavourful, his sweet ciders have the lovely warm hue of old gold. Topped with fine white foam, they are sipped with great pleasure and leave the palate feeling fresh and clean. What’s more, this precious ambrosia ages beautifully - I’ve tasted a splendid vintage 1993. If you can’t make it to the farm, you might order a glass at Vapeurs, the famous brasserie in Trouville, but this exceptional bubbly merits the effort of travelling to the source.
In Brèvedent near Blangy-Le-Château, François David’s nephew, Régis Lecoge, also makes a superb unfiltered cider which may be even sweeter than David’s. Here too, the cider is a 100% artisanal micro-brew - Lecoge only produces around 2,000 bottles a year. While he learnt cider-making principles from his uncle, his ciders have plenty of local character and are the perfect match for a bit of good Livarot cheese.
Cyril Zangs in Glos, near Lisieux, also produces genuine Pays d’Auge cider. His sparkling cider is brut, or dry, and disgorged like Champagne.
Raw-milk Pont l’Évêque cheese from the farm
Every year in Pont l’Évêque, there is a competition for the best Pont l’Évêque cheeses - those oldest and most venerable of cheeses from Normandy. And every year, four dairies (always the same) share the top honours. This is only to be expected, since these are the four local cheese-makers that still produce Pont l’Évêque fermiers au lait cru: raw-milk cheese made on the farm, not to be confused with ‘commonplace’ cheeses from industrial dairies. The fab four are: Martin in Dozulé, Spruytte in Saint-Philibert-des-Champs, Lallier in Fervaques and Saint-Hippolyte in Saint-Martin de la Lieue.
I personally have a penchant for the Pont l’Évêque made by Martin, which won first prize in the 2010 competition. This is the smallest of the four farms, with only sixty dairy cows of the Norman breed. Here, the cheese is made from fresh morning milk only - not from milk collected the previous evening and refrigerated. It is moulded by hand before maturing in cellars for 35 days (versus 20 days for ordinary dairies). The cheese is then washed and brushed during the affinage, or maturing, process; the local climate is noted for particularly mild temperatures which favour ripening. Cloaked in a fine cream-coloured rind with a hint of orange or red, Martin’s Pont l’Évêque is perfectly ripe when the white centre just begins to run. It is at its very best in autumn.
To try an exceptional Livarot cheese, I would suggest heading for the Domaine de Saint-Hippolyte (mentioned above for its Pont l’Évêque) in Saint-Martin de la Lieue. I might also mention the Livarot from chez Thébault in Boissey, a favourite of aficionados of Normandy cheeses. But the Domaine de Saint-Hippolyte, which offers cheese of a comparable quality, is also a wonderful place to visit with your children at weekends. Set in a valley at the crossroads of the routes leading to Caen and Lisieux, the Domaine boasts a restored 16C manor house listed on the Historic Monuments register, a dovecote, stables, gardens, a bread oven, a farm where the cheeses are manufactured and even France’s best river for fly-fishing: La Touques. It is a magical spot entirely devoted to products from the Pays d’Auge. As for their Livarot, this semi-soft, pungent cheese is five centimetres thick and twelve centimetres round. It sports a thin orange-brown rind which is girded by five traditional rings of bulrush. Unlike many Livarots, Saint-Hippolyte’s cheese does not aggress the palate and has great deal of finesse. Like its cousin, the Pont l’Évêque, it is at its best in autumn, when milk is at peak quality.
Butter and cream from raw milk
Not far from Saint-Hippolyte, Madame Houvenaghel makes absolutely delicious non-pasteurised sweet and salted butter. Spread her butter on a slice of good sourdough bread for a match made in heaven. Originally from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, in 1996 this charming lady moved to Saint-Germain-de-Livet where she tends to a thirty-hectare farm and a herd of Norman cows. She sells her butter, cream, eggs and chickens at the markets of Lisieux (Saturday morning) and Saint-Martin de la Lieue (Wednesday morning).
Goat cheese and the historic marketplace of Dives-sur-Mer
Normandy is known for its dairy cows, not its dairy goats, but the goat cheese from the Ferme de la Trigale at La Roque-Baignard (5 km from Cambremer), is worth the trip! La Roque-Baignard was André Gide’s village; two streams meet at the spot where his chateau is located. At La Trigale, Claire and Franz Gerl raise free-roaming goats and make excellent organic cheese from their milk. From frais to sec (fresh to aged), with garlic, herbs, pepper, naturally white or rolled in ashes, all of their varieties are made from raw, unpasteurised goat’s milk. Visitors are welcome to watch the evening milking at 6 pm. The Gerls also sell their cheese Saturday mornings at the covered market called the Halles de Dives-Sur-Mer (pronounced deev-sur-mair), one of the treasures of the Pays d’Auge. This imposing covered market built by marine carpenters in the 14th and 15th centuries stands on 66 oak pillars entirely held together with dowel pins. You will also want to visit the town’s Romanesque church built by William the Conqueror.  
Organic sourdough bread: bread like it’s supposed to taste!
Over the last forty years in France, the products on offer throughout the countryside have become more and more homogeneous, and bread is one of the main victims of this trend. It has become virtually impossible to find really good bread in the country, since nearly all of the best bakers have moved to urban areas. The only solution, alas, is to buy bread in supermarkets. The loaves of Erik Klaassen in Saint-Aubin-sur-Algot are the exceptions that prove the rule. In 1986, this Dutchman who had fallen in love with the Pays d’Auge launched the Boulangerie des Copains (Chums’ Bakery) in his own farm which happily had a bread oven. He hasn’t actually got a shop - you need to cross the garden to enter the bakery. Klaassen makes bread from organic flour and a natural sourdough which slowly ferments in wicker containers. Baked in a wood-fired oven, all of his breads are appetizing and dense like the breads of yesteryear: spelt, rye, five-grain, sandwich loaf and even baguette - but what a baguette! Even in Paris it is difficult to find such lovely bread! People drive many miles to visit his bakery, for Erik Klaassen is a poet whose creativity is expressed through his hands and oven.
Escargots from the Pays d’Auge
In Chaumont in the Orne département towards the south of the Pays d’Auge, L’Escargotière is an unusual farm where 350,000 snails are raised according to the most traditional methods. Alain Marty left behind his life in Paris as an aerospace engineer to try something completely different - from supersonic jets to super-slow snails, now there’s a real change of pace! His escargots, fed with radishes, cabbage and other plants, have handsome shells and are sold prepared like shellfish. Most delicious when sautéed in butter with garlic and a dash of calvados, Marty’s snails make an unusual and original Christmas gift.
Calvados Adrien Camut: the poetic spirit of the Pays d’Auge
If there is one establishment in this list which you simply mustn’t miss, it’s Adrien Camut in La Lande-Saint-Léger, renowned for their Calvados (apple brandy). Yes, the other products presented are also truly exceptional, but the Camut distillery is a veritable model of savoir-faire as well as a living museum which seems to embody the spirit of Normandy.
Jean-Gabriel Camut, 40, took us on a tour of the celebrated Domaine de Semainville as it was created by his grandfather Adrien.
All of the apples produced throughout these 37 hectares - some 30 varieties including  Bisquet, Marie Onfroy, St. Martin, Grey and Dieppe - are organically grown. ‘Actually, there’s no need to speak of organic farming,’ says Jean-Gabriel. ‘All of our apples are grown just like they’ve always been. And our Norman cows keep the grass short and prune the trees. There’s nothing more to say, really.’
After being hand-picked, the apples are pressed very gently to avoid crushing the pips. The juice ferments in barrels for one year, just like the finest ciders, before the double distillation which is the tradition in the Pays d’Auge. During the distilling process, which lasts for six weeks beginning in September, great attention is required because a wood fire must be maintained 24 hours a day at a steady temperature. The liquid must be heated gently and slowly at this stage, and distillers sleep on-site near the two Charentes alembic pot stills dating from 1950, as they might do in the Cognac region.
After the double distillation, the spirit spends several years in 153-hectolitre barrels. Since the evaporation process takes place continually, the barrels must be refilled regularly to avoid oxidation. The tannins which are diffused in the eau de vie play an essential role in the maturing process, as do the ethers which promote aging as they evaporate.
With his thorough knowledge of distilling and aging, Adrien Camut was the man who gave Calvados its prestige. At a period when ordinary ‘calva’ was kept under the bar to be served mixed with coffee in the bistros of Normandy and Paris, Camut’s brandy was considered to be as fine and subtle as the best Cognacs and Armagnacs.
Chez Camut, Calvados comes in bottles of 6, 12, 18, 25, 40, 60  and 70 years of age. Today, the oldest Calvados in their cellar dates from 1880. Every bottle has a unique finesse, elegance and complexity.
Where to have lunch
Without hesitation, I encourage you to book a table at Les Gourmandises in Cormeilles, 20 kilometres from Deauville.
After shining in Calvi (Hôtel la Signoria), Les Baux de Provence (La Cabro d’Or) and Val d’Isère (Hôtel des Barmes de l’Ours), Michelin-starred chef Alain Lamaison took over this establishment just one year ago. The long dining room is luminous and convivial; it ends with the kitchen which is situated under a glass roof. As soon as he arrived in Cormeilles, Lamaison attracted local customers who were delighted to (finally) have such fine dining available in their region. While his delectable international cuisine avoids regional chauvinism, it does showcase the finest ingredients from Normandy. His star dish is the foie gras sautéed with spiced apples. The turbot fillet with green pointed cabbage and shellfish broth is equally commendable. His sliced veal kidneys and sweetbreads with coriander are famous in the area. For dessert, try the ‘tourgoule’, a cinnamon-flavoured rice pudding cooked for five hours and served with fresh figs: a marvellous little bistro dessert. À la carte from € 42/£ 37 to € 54/£ 48.
The Pays d’Auge is only an hour and a half from Paris by train or car. From Britain, the high-speed ferry from Portsmouth to Caen takes less than four hours. 
Apple Cider
François David
Route de Fierville
14130 Blangy-Le-Château
Tel: (33) 02  31 64 76 66
Régis Lecoge
‘Les Batailles’
14130 Le Brèvedent
Tel: (33) 02  31 62 77 51
Cyril Zangs
8, Rue de la Gare
14100 Glos
Tel: (33) 02  31 63 81 77
Pont l’Évêque Martin
SCEA Les Bruyères
14430 Dozulé
Tel: (33) 02  31 64 83 85
Livarot Domaine de St. Hippolyte
Route de Livarot
14100 Saint-Martin de la Lieue
Tel: (33) 02  31 31 30 68
Butter and cream
Beurre et Crème de Madame Houvenaghel
La Friche Gallerand
14100 Saint-Germain de Livet
Tel: (33) 02 31 32 96 99
Goat cheese
Fromages de chèvre
La Ferme de la Trigale
14340 La Roque Baignard
Tel: (33) 02  31 63 08 90
The Art Village of William the Conqueror
Village d’Art Guillaume-le-Conquérant
14160 Dives-sur-Mer
Tel: (33) 02  31 91 24 66
La Boulangerie des Copains 
14340 Saint-Aubin sur Algot
Tel: (33) 02  31 32 22 24
Snail farm
Escargot specialities ‘l’escargotine’
Christine and Alain Marty
Tel: (33) 02  33 35 54 98
Apple brandy
Calvados Adrien Camut
27210 La Lande-Saint-Léger
Tel: (33) 02  32 57 82 01 (advance booking required)
Restaurant Les Gourmandises
29, Rue de l’Abbaye
27260 Cormeilles
Tel: (33) 02  32 42 10 96
(open from Thursday to Sunday evening)

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