Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Closing time...

If Mike and I were to sit down and design what would be the perfect vacation destination for us, it would have certain factors:

First, it would have to be walkable. We like to meander.

Second, it would have to be beautiful, vistas along with small things for me to photograph, and if it had an interesting history, so much the better.

Third, it would be populated by pleasant, friendly people, perhaps a bit laid back. A place where you could sit on a bench and read a book.

Everywhere in Normandy there are signs and flags that say "welcome to our liberators"

Lastly, and this is important, it would have to have amazing regional cuisine and really wonderful coffee. Fabulous breakfasts wouldn't hurt either, but that's just me.

Oh, my friends, let me tell you: Bayeaux was all that.

I mentioned Mike and I were on a quest for someplace better than McDonalds to eat. This was not, repeat not a problem. I don't think there was a fast food place within 50 miles -when later we drove past the only McDonalds we saw in all of Normandy and Brittany, the guide pointed out the golden arches and proclaimed "the American Embassy."

Oh, those Frenchies and their sense of humor. Ha. Ha ha.

What we found out was that the French come to Normandy for great food. The first thing we discovered, food-wise, was the best ham I've ever eaten. I ordered a Caesar salad at a casual dining spot with moderate prices and service, but when the food arrived it was buried beneath a pile of succulent chunks of roughly chopped smoky pink goodness.

There were the most beautiful breads, and cheeses...

these at a Farmer's Market, and there also was seafood spread out like crown jewels, fish with bright eyes, crabs, and shellfish, all so fresh that a British woman walking towards us actually plucked at my arm, her eyes round, to marvel, even if only with a stranger, "there's absolutely no odour, only the smell of the sea!"

(Asnelles is the name of the village where these mussels were harvested, mussels are called moule)

So when it came time for dinner, we went for, as I'm sure the French would approve of my saying, the gusto and threw price caution to the wind, looking only to indulge our senses.

The worrisome bit of all this was that I was expected to be the one to translate the menus in the all-French restaurants, and my french, well, yeah, I don't claim to speak it. At all. But since I had more than Mike, it worked out that it was my duty, with the result of his eating some very lovely but quite raw (if beautifully prepared) beef thanks to my ignorance.

That evening we were being brave, dining in a restaurant where absolutely not a word of English was available for lame tourists like ourselves. We figured the wine took care of any naughty bacteria. Did I mention the wines? I could rave for another whole post about French wines, but you know, it's been done before.

Also in Bayeux, we discovered Calvados. This is an entertaining sort of golden spirit, an apple brandy that is the specialty of, and only made in, lower Normandy. The French take it quite seriously, as they do with all things aesthetic, and it was my good fortune to be directed by a nice fellow tending bar to try the sample platter and learn about the different grades. The youngest is still aged in oak barrels for two years, up to what must be a fantastically mellow and smooth (not to mention pricey) 20 year old. I can only assume that last bit, they don't offer such in the tasting platter, but the grades I tried went up steeply in quality as they aged.

Quite the thing, I am sure, to take the nip out of a frosty wintry day. Alongside some sort of lovely tripe stew. I hear that's also quite good, but I held back. The translation of the dish stew of “ tripes à la mode de Caen” stomach, guts and foot, made me feel less adventurous, especially after having endured a sort of self-imposed gastronomic tribute above and beyond my personal preferences and cruelty-free general guidelines. I ate, slowly but determinedly, an enormous slab of foie gras.

It was too plentiful, overwhelmingly rich and guilt-inspiring for me to enjoy, but I can see the appeal. Maybe just a little...not a whole duck-worth...on a cracker, perhaps? The French must go through it like gangbusters; there are entire shops that sell nothing else.

Literally everything we ingested in Bayeux was superior, so it was probably our loss when we decided not to try a gésiers salade (salad with chicken gizzards...non, merci) or risk finding out what whelk and periwinkles taste like. (lâches -cowards)

shutter latch, Bayeux

There was one thing, though, that was beyond amazing. An apple pie at a restaurant named Le Pommier. Apple pie may be all-American, but when it is Croustillant aux pommes confites, caramel de cidre et crème glacée (Chef’s special apple pie with cider’s caramel, and spiced ice cream) dessert is an experience above the usual plane of existence. After we practically arm wrestled a new acquaintance of ours into trying it, he took a bite, stopped, and moaned. "My God. This may sound stupid, but this tastes like...Christmas."

Quite a perfect description, actually.

During our time in Bayeux we ate the most amazing meals you can imagine. The Normans are genius with meats and cream sauces, and I seriously considered writing a sonnet to the butter.

Should you ever have the good fortune to visit Bayeux, here's a list of where I would dine should I die and go to heaven:

Le Pommier -warm, elegant service and the most delicious apple pie in the universe. The second time we ate there, there were no inside places but, undeterred and desperate for one more taste of that pie we took a table outside and shoved our table next to the wall, just out of the pouring rain, fending off the cold with potent cups of coffee.

La Rapiere -have reservations or they will regretfully turn you away. Family owned restaurant, absolutely delightful service of several generations of Norman women.

Le P'tit Resto -innovative cuisine and only French spoken here. Be brave, you will be rewarded. In the shadow of the cathedral. We ended our meal listening to medieval chants being sung nearby by a woman with a poignant contralto.

Le Bout en Train -this one needs a bit extra for its write up. We had walked past it several times and given it the eye. First of all, it was very sleek and modern looking, not at all in line with the classic, old world feel of the rest of the village. Then...the logo and much of the decor was pink. Hot pink and rose pink. And...no one ever seemed to be eating there. We gave it pity and kept walking.

That is, until one of our guides (the same one who pointed out the American Embassy) told us that his good friend is the chef. I had blurted something along the lines of "oh, yeah, that's the pink place that has no customers..." when he initially described the place, which made his face fall. Karmically we owed it a try.

The meal was up to the standards of the town, the tender duck, creamy turbot and succulent herbed pork all fantastic, with Moelleux au chocolat (chocolate cake) that was out of this world, but what really stood out to us, was that although we lingered until nearly 2 am on a weekday over wine, talking, relaxing and laughing, the restaurant had actually closed at 11.

Being French, the staff had never even hinted that we should leave, and stayed, smoking and tidying up discretely.

Graciously allowing guests to enjoy their evening far beyond closing time, well, it was very French. One may be rude, snobbish even, but paramount is the enjoyment of good food, wine, and conversation.

What a lovely country.


*Paula* said...

OOh it all sounds so fabulous but I *must* have some of that apple pie! It sounds divine!

Mumsey said...

Sigh. so lovely. Hard to read this on a rainy, chilly and dark northwest afternoon or is it? One must make ones' escape where one can, n'est pas?

AKBrady said...

Nice. Very nice. I showed this to my husband, who minored in French and lived in Belgium as a young adult. He would be quite happy to return to Europe and visit Normandy. Ah, Oui!

Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

I'm always excited to see There's sand in my latte when it appears on my google reader list!!!

This sounds heavenly! What a great place to visit and eat!

Nathalie said...

What a pleasant surprise to see you writing about France! ;) Have an extra slice of foie gras for me!
A bientôt, mon amie!

Joanna said...

Yum, yum, yum! What a nice escape before returning to studying!

Anonymous said...

Sounds fabulous! Very cool!

Wessam said...

Hello Natalie,

My name is Wessam, and I used to live in Dubai. I realise you've moved on, but I would like to say thank you for your posts. I moved to Toronto from Dubai in 2005, and have been stuck in a perpetual state of homesickness for 5 years.
As odd as this sounds I started reading your blog (starting with 2008) about an hour ago, and you have no idea how wonderful and bittersweet it is to see and read about the little things, like the Choueithram pricetags and Meadows, etc etc. I should be studying now, but I can't seem to tear myself away from that scorching world you so amazingly recreated and helped me relive. Thank you, once again, and all the best in your travels!


Natalie said...

Thank you to you all for your comments, they are always a real pleasure for me to read, and often I read them out loud to Mike as well.

Here we go.

Paula and Jo, if I find it(and I am looking, trust me!) I'll be passing along the recipe for that pie and (drool) sauce.

Mumsey, looking up the current weather in Normandy, it's rainy and 50 degrees F, just like in Seattle, so except for the food... oh, never mind.

Erin, if you can go, go. It was amazing. Mike says he'd definitely go again.

Gerry, your're a love. Thank you for making my day, as always.

Nathalie, if only you'd been there, I would have traded you translation help for ALL my pate.

Anonymous, thanks much

and Wessam, no one could leave me a more touching comment than yours. Your words mean a lot to me. I miss Dubai too, the smell of sand and that fantastic heat that I would never have believed I would learn to love, and did. Wishing you the best in all your travels as well, keep in touch.