It may be the food and drink that draws so many visitors to Normandy, but so often it is the passionate, skilled people behind the restaurant menus, cheese counters, bread ovens and apple distilleries that leave a lasting impression.

A culinary-themed trip to France is always a good idea. A culinary-themed trip to Normandy is nothing short of a dream. As I dashed across the north of France on the TGV, my head was spinning with images of creamy Camembert, zingy apple cider, fresh fish, dizzying Calvados, that heart-shaped cheese I couldn’t remember the name of and tarte Tatin, my all-time favourite dessert. Similar images were rushing through my travel companions’ minds, I’m sure, as they made the pleasant ferry crossing to Dieppe from Newhaven.

The plan was to taste our way around Seine-Maritime and Calvados, with some exciting heritage site visits planned en route – and I had cheese on my mind.

Bread and butter tourism

After a leisurely lunch of moules dieppoises – mussels slathered in a shrimp and Isigny cream sauce – in the port of Dieppe, I was joined by the rest of the group who’d just disembarked from the ferry.

Our first stop was the bakery Aux Pains Populaires, which opened just three years ago but has already made waves in the seaside town of Dieppe. We were greeted by the delicious smell of freshly baked sourdough and a young man looking up from a huge slab of blue cheese he was cutting into cubes. We had walked straight into the kitchen. To the right were the shop front and counter, which opened directly onto the prep area where Mathieu was busy with all that delicious cheese.

The sad truth is that many French bakeries no longer make their pastries and baguettes from scratch, which is why Mathieu Mastin and two friends – Morgan Caignet and Yuzo Naito – decided to open their own bakery and bring traditional bread-making back to life. And Mathieu is scientific about it: he immediately embarked on an explanation of the process of making sourdough, pain au levain in French – words like ‘bacteria’ and ‘yeast starter’ never sounded so good as in his French accent. “It’s crazy what happens inside the bread!”, he said with an excited smile and eyes full of awe.

Aux Pains Populaires has no vertical hierarchy, but instead chooses an economic model based on equality, flexibility and fairness. In short “an ecosystem we’d like to see in our society,” said Mathieu. The bakery’s suppliers of flour, butter or cheese are as local as possible and organic. The bakery is also a community space, open to all free of charge, where you can read a book, listen to music or a play a game, or simply sit and have a chat. A warmth that had nothing to do with the bread ovens nearby seemed to emanate from the whole place and silence fell as we took in the uniqueness of this bakery.

“So, shall we taste the bread?” Mathieu asked, producing their best-selling pain de campagne, which we tasted on its own and with butter, followed by a small loaf made with rye, and then another. Moving to the back of the very well-equipped kitchen (“we use old techniques but modern equipment,” he winked) he opened a large cupboard to reveal rows and rows of sweet, soft brioches, which, he told us, were infused with orange blossom and tangy zest.

Mathieu and his team are hoping to win over their clientele with the flavours of their breads but also their ethos. “A bakery is such a powerful place. You see hundreds of clients and so you can really share and transmit messages to the people,” Mathieu said. Slowly but surely, it looks as though Aux Pains Populaires is winning hearts and maybe even changing minds in Dieppe, one loaf of delicious sourdough at a time.

Sitting down for dinner that night at the quaint Auberge du VieuxPuits, we met the chef, Amir van Rooijen. Originally from Amsterdam, he worked with Michel Roux and at the Langham in London before finally settling for the Channel coast. Inspired by the sea’s riches and the Norman landscape, ever-changing with the flow of seasons, Amir serves colourful dishes made with fresh, local and seasonal produce.

Tucking into my lobster starter, followed by sea bream served with exquisitely cooked vegetables, I learned with interest that it was not only Amir who was inspired by this stretch of coast. Oscar Wilde stayed in the Auberge du Vieux Puits itself and Alexandre Dumas Senior once sought refuge here, completely penniless, and died in 1870 in his son’s villa, having completed his last work, Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine.

Rouen Gourmand

Seine-Maritime’s capital, Rouen, usually speaks more to the history buffs than to the gourmets. Its impressive Gothic cathedral, Claude Monet’s serial studies of the monument, Joan of Arc’s execution… the city has witnessed thousands of years of tumultuous history ever since the Vikings arrived in the 1st century. Yet here we were, in the covered market, discussing the best ways to cut into a Neufchâtel, that heart-shaped fromage I’d hitherto forgotten the name of.

Rouen’s tourist office offers a gastronomic walking tour in English, guided by the charming Célestine. The tour takes you around the old city centre and its famous historic spots but also delves into some foodie neighbourhoods and allows for a few tasting stops. Which is how we met Daniel Bourgeois, cheesemonger and maître affineur (master refiner) at the Fromagerie Jollit in the city’s covered market.

His counter was bursting with different types of cheese, four of which were given a prominent position. These were the four AOPs – appellation d’origine protégée, the label protecting the cheeses and their production – of Normandy: Livarot, Neufchâtel, Pont-l’Évêque and Camembert. Mouths watering, we listened as Daniel joyfully told us how Neufchâtel got its shape (cheesy love tokens from the women of Normandy to their English soldier beaux during the Hundred Years’ War) and why Livarot is also known as ‘un colonel’ (the stripes of reed that surround the cheese resemble military stripes).

Finally, he expertly cut up a Neufchâtel and while I munched on a piece (or five), I asked him about how he came to be a cheesemonger. “It began with a promise,” he told me with a smile. As a 16-year-old Daniel had come to ask Monsieur Jollit for an internship, which he enjoyed so much he jokingly vowed to take over from him when he retired. Monsieur Jollit made Daniel swear to do so, saying he wouldn’t want anyone else running the business – Daniel promised and the pair shook hands. After completing business school, Daniel returned to work alongside Monsieur Jollit, who became his mentor. For 30 years Daniel learned everything there is to know about cheese and then, 12 years ago when Monsieur Jollit retired, Daniel did indeed buy the shop. “People thought we were father and son,” he said. “So I kept the name for the shop.”

A little dazed by the unexpected emotions conjured by a lump of Neufchâtel, I crossed the street with my group to a bakery that overlooks the market hall. Here lies the kingdom of Christophe Cressent, a successful baker rewarded by one of France’s highest recognitions for craftsmen, the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Christophe is the great grandson of a baker. “Bread is in my DNA,” he said, folding his arms across his broad chest. He owns two bakeries in Rouen, which are extremely popular for the traditional bread and beautiful pastries they sell. The house speciality are mirlitons, a traditional biscuit that normally resembles the Portuguese egg custard tarts, pastéis de nata. Christophe revisited the recipe without the flaky pastry and the result is delicious.

The daughters of Eve

Exploring the Pays d’Auge is like driving through a postcard of inland Normandy. Orchards line the winding roads, beautiful brick farmsteads appear around the corners and stunning villages such as Beuvron-en-Auge leave you breathless with their half-timbered houses and flower-festooned streets.

We were on the scenic Route des Fruits in Calvados and after a walk around the impossibly picturesque Jumièges Abbey it was lunch time.

Our destination? The restaurant Au P’tit Normand in Cambremer. Both the terrace and the small dining room were packed, and the unmistakable scent of home cooking wafted through the air. This family-owned establishment is an institution in the area, serving traditional Normandy specialities.

I opted for the oeuf cocotte starter, a soft-boiled egg swathed in melted Camembert, Pont-l’Évêque and Livarot and served in an individual little cast iron pot. I was in heaven. And then I let my eyes take over from my stomach and went for the entrecôte steak served with a Camembert sauce. I gave dessert a miss.

I was interested to see that the entire staff was female, with the waitresses shouting out “Mamie!” as they pushed open the kitchen door. We asked if we could meet ‘Grandma’, who shyly stepped out at the end of the service.

Huguette Besnard, 69, runs the business with her daughter and granddaughter. With bright eyes she told me how she took over the restaurant after her eldest daughter died tragically “to ensure she lives on, with us”. She also proudly told me how the restaurant attracts many celebrities, pointing to the portraits of film stars, singers and politicians hanging in the room. “Oh yes, we’ve had some famous people along the years, like Simone Veil,” Huguette said in a passing comment. Seeing my gawping face she said, amused: “This was her regular haunt, her cantine, for 16 years, you know.”

If the apple is synonymous with original sin, the people of Normandy certainly learned to make a drink fit for the gods out of it. The Domaine Dupont, set in a traditional Norman farm, specialised in distilling Calvados and brewing cider in the 1980s when Etienne Dupont took over the farm from his father, Louis. Etienne was part of the group of producers who created the appellation Calvados Pays d’Auge. Like Huguette at Au P’tit Normand, Etienne is no stranger to tragedy, having lost his son, and again the family rallied together, including Marie Marois, who showed us around the estate.

The estate has 35 hectares of orchards with 15 different varieties of apple trees. Marie’s passion for her job was clearly visible and we marvelled at the trees and the cellars while she told us the story of the estate. A  er an extensive tasting, one last surprise ended the day with perfection: Huguette had packed slices of apple tarte Tatin. We sat under a tree with a glass of sparkling cider and enjoyed our tarts in silence, Normandy’s sunshine bathing us in warmth.

Foodie experiences to try in Seine-Maritime and Normandy

  • Apple-picking and cider brewing at the Domaine Dupont. Domaine Dupont, 14430 Victot-Pontfol,
  • Calvados Experience: an immersive visit using augmented reality and film to tell the story of the drink. Route de Trouville, 14130, Pont-l’Évêque France,
  • Rouen Gourmand walking tour: enquire at the Rouen Tourist Office, 25 p­ace de ­a Cathédrale 76008 Rouen,
  • Jumièges au naturel‘, a guided walk, lunch at L’Auberge des Ruines followed by a visit to the abbey and a forage in its herb and vegetable garden. Enquire at the Rouen Tourist Office, 25 place de la Cathédrale 76008 Rouen,

First published on Taste of France Issue Four.

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