It isn’t difficult to see why Emma Bovary envisaged for herself such a life of bucolic bliss after growing up in Normandy. The undulating countryside, idyllic villages, and dramatic coastline vibrate with a romanticism and purity that is largely unsullied by modernity. Gloss over the happenings of 1944 and their aftermath and there is little to distinguish the landscape from how it might have looked 150 years ago. Close your eyes and all you smell is the sea, all you hear is the swell of the ocean, and the (incessant) squawk of gulls. No trains chuntering past; traffic sporadic at best; sirens? You kidding? It is utterly peaceful.
But let me tell you, some bad shit went down round here. Nazi officers occupied the very house that we ate dinner in on our first night. Elsewhere in the village, the grandmother of my dear friend Danielle returned home to find it had been used as a field hospital for the German army. Out of spite the recently vanished soldiers had blocked sinks and drains and turned the taps on, leaving the house 6 inches deep in water and rising. Going down into the basement she found a lone Nazi soldier, too poorly to have left with his division and close to death. The collaboration was in full flow, and to be discovered housing one of the enemy was to, at best, be ostracized for life; at worse, well….She fed the invalid supper and ordered him to leave. He died before reaching the end of the garden.
Down on the beach, lazily gazing along the cliff tops yields further reminders of this terrible moment in history. The chalky battlements are punctuated by concrete pill boxes, sinister evidence of a time that everyone would rather forget. Further west from the sleepy village of Yport the cliffs spill down onto Le Havre, where allied bombardment of the German stronghold spared but the churches, leaving a wasteland little improved by the post-war industrialisation. Yet further on you come to Colleville-sur-Mer, also known as Omaha Beach, where thousands of American troops were killed on D-Day. In short, there must be a lot of lost souls in Normandy.
And yet there is an air of positivity. Those still around today will happily talk about their experiences, their lives strangely enriched by having lived through such an extraordinary time. Or perhaps it is just because they eat so well. Because my word did we eat well. Lunch was, in a funny way, always the highlight. Cold cuts, salads, tarts and pates. Chunks of creamy coulommiers were slapped onto roughly hewn hooves of baguette and washed down with cider. Heart-stoppingly rich pork rillettes were similarly gobbled uncomplainingly. Indeed, bread became a vehicle for pretty much everything. A starter of mushrooms on toast was a particular highlight:
Champignons a la Normande
2 tablespoons oil
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
225ml double cream
500g button mushrooms, quartered
8 slices of pain de mie or a rustic loaf
A handful of parsley or chives
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a large saucepan with the oil. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, cover and sweat over a low heat for 30-60 minutes (the longer the better), stirring every few minutes. Your onions should be rich, soft and lightly caramelised. The kitchen should smell heavenly and you should want to bury your face in the onions. You might choose to add a little crushed garlic here. I don’t think it’s necessary, but by all means do.
Increase the heat and add the cider. Bring it to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes until the alcohol has cooked off. Add the cream and bring to a simmer before adding the mushrooms. Cover and simmer until the mushrooms are cooked – 15-20 minutes – stirring occasionally. Add the juice of the lemon and keep warm. Toast the bread and roughly chop your herbs. Serve the mushrooms on the toast scattered with a generous handful of herbs and another squeeze of lemon juice.
A simple tarte a l’oignons made for another elegant lunch, though slightly marred by some careless shopping on my part. Ideally buy anchovy fillets (not whole anchovies, as in the picture) and arrange them in a lattice over the top of the tart.
Shortcrust pastry – I couldn’t be arsed to make my own, though it’s always better to
6 large onions, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons finely chopped thyme leaves
100ml double cream
100g grated comte or emmental (optional)
a tin of anchovy fillets
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the onions. Season with salt and pepper and gently cook until you’ve reached the stage explained above.
Meanwhile, roll out your pastry and lay it into a tart tin, pricking it a few times with a fork. Chill in the fridge for half an hour (the tart, that is).
Preheat the oven to 170C. Line the tart tin with baking parchment and pour in some baking beans, or some old pasta. (What you’re doing is holding the tart shell in place so that it holds its shape as it cooks.) Put in the oven and ‘blind bake’ for 25-30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and pour away the beans (saving for the next time you make a tart). Whisk the eggs and, with a pastry brush (though kitchen towel does the job) lightly brush the pastry case with egg wash (you won’t need much). Return to the oven for 5 more minutes.
Meanwhile, stir the thyme into the onions and remove from the heat. Cool for a couple of minutes before stirring in the cream, the cheese, and finally the rest of your whisked egg. Mix together thoroughly and season with salt and pepper. Pour into your waiting pastry case and arrange the anchovy fillets artfully on top. Slide into the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes until set.
Cool for a good hour before serving with a green salad.
Lot of cream in these recipes, I know. That’s Normandy. That’s also me, sure. But mainly it’s Normandy. A la Normande pretty much just means ‘add cream and cider’. I didn’t complain, though by the end of our daily prandial plethora of cream and butter there was little room for anything but a piece of fruit and a nap.
At dinner I tried to ease off on the cream, though that didn’t mean we couldn’t eat handsomely and indulgently. One ingredient that seemed to be everywhere, and that intrigued me (having never come across it before) was foie de lotte – monkfish liver. If you’ve ever seen a monkfish you will know how terrifying they look. If you’ve ever eaten monkfish you will know how delicious they taste. Their livers do little to buck this trend. They are vast. I didn’t want to imagine how big the owner of the particular one that I bought must have been, its liver being, no exaggeration, 2 foot long and as thick as a beef fillet. I was tickled by the idea of farming foie de lotte like foie gras, imagining the intrepid farmer trying to force feed a fish that could devour his dog like an old twix.
The flavour of the liver was extraordinary – rich and fishy, in its incarnation below the dressing was essential as a foil to the intensity of the flesh. I’d like to track down some of this stuff in London to experiment with – it’s terribly cheap – so if anyone knows where I might find some do point me in the right direction.
Salade de foie de lotte
A piece of monkfish liver, about 6 inches long
A little oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 slices of pain de mie
Frisee salad leaves
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a frying pan with a little oil and warm over a medium heat. Season the liver with pepper and a pinch of salt and add to the pan. There should be a gentle sizzle, not the sort of hiss you’d look for when cooking a steak. Leave the liver for 5 minutes while you make the dressing.
Whisk together the vinegar and mustard, then whisk in the olive oil before seasoning with salt and pepper. Carefully turn the liver and cook for a further 5 minutes on the other side, basting with the butter continually. It should be lightly caramelised and rich, without having to thick a crust.
Remove the pan from the heat and rest the monkfish while you toast the bread. Cut the toast into rounds and arrange the salad on plates. Put the toast on the salad, slice the monkfish and put a slice of liver on each piece of toast, before drizzling generously with the dressing. Serve immediately.
There are many other recipes I’d love to divulge, though I fear this post has already drifted into the realms of self-indulgence (as did the holiday). After all, it’s the month of holidays, and you have better things to do than read my ramblings – like telling me about your own favourite holiday recipes. Bring them on.