With tranquil countryside, a scenic coastline and truly sumptuous food, northern France is just a ferry ride away
The humble whelk is much-loved in Normandy. I had no idea! The chewy sea snails have been a poor man’s snack (dunked in malt vinegar) in the UK since Victorian times, but across the Channel, ‘le bulet’, are a gastronomic treat. And, fresh off the fishing boats, they are indeed delicious.
Granville, France’s No 1 shellfish port, hosts the Toute La Mer Sur Un Plateau (All The Sea On A Plate) festival every year in early autumn and it’s a bustling foodie heaven with market stalls, chefs’ cooking workshops and sea shanties performed by suave bearded mariners.
My seafood platter – oysters, crayfish, crab and, of course whelks – at quayside restaurant Mer et Saveurs (www. www.meretsaveurs.fr) is served with lemon, mayonnaise and tangy mignonette sauce.
Visitors often head to Normandy to see D-Day landing sites, the medieval abbey on Mont Saint-Michel or Monet’s garden in Giverny, but I’m here with beautiful French food top of my list and there’s plenty of that.
Granville has a picturesque marina, lively casino and elegant Old Town. From the Pointe du Roc clifftop, there are glorious views of Mont-Saint-Michel Bay and the pink-painted Christian Dior Museum is well worth a visit.
My overnight stay at the Hôtel Ibis Port de Plaisance is the perfect spot to embark on a day trip to the enchanting Chausey Islands, 11 miles off the Normandy coast, with local skipper Franck Vodie (www.voidievoile.fr).
Franck not only sails the boat, he also prepares lunch in the galley on a culinary voyage, with mussels, fish soup, camembert and caramel rice pudding. Oyster beer is an acquired taste but it suits the menu.
On the Chausey archipelago, I collect pretty seashells and cuttlebones on the deserted beaches and fall in love with one of the tiny ‘gite communaux’ holiday retreats, converted from a very petite school.
Normandy is split into five ‘département’ regions: Calvados, Orne, Manche, Eure and Seine-Maritime. After getting a Brittany ferry (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, I’m travelling by hire car so I can squeeze as much in as possible. And I mean cheese.
Rich unpasteurised milk from Normandy cows makes fabulous fromage and I learn about production in a guided tour at the Graindorge cheese dairy (www.graindorge.fr/en/), sited amidst rolling countryside – dotted with crucifix shrines and wind turbines – in Pays D-Auge.
I’m more than ready for the tasting session that follows and generous wedges of Livarot, Pont-l’Eveque, Camembert and heart-shaped Neufchâtel (my favourite!), soft, white and crumbly, go down very well with a crusty baguette.
Miraculously, I still have room for a ham and olive ‘crousti’flam’ (a kind of oblong pizza) lunch at the friendly Le Hérisson (www. restaurant-leherisson.fr/), in Vimoutiers.
It’s accompanied by non-alcoholic Pommillon, a fizzy apple juice infused with vanilla, and I’m reminded that Normandy has the ideal climate for orchards.
The huge harvests of apples and pears are also turned into stronger stuff – very quaffable dry cider and the classic brandy Calvados, distilled by enthusiastic Normandy farmers.
Gérald Périgault’s family have been growing fruit trees and distilling at La Maison Périgault (www.calvados-perigault.fr) in Silly en Gouffern for three generations and he’s a charming guide to the farm. I sample his new pink aperitif ‘Aperigo’, which is very smooth and it’s just as well I’m not the one driving.
A steamy sauna at La Renaissance hotel/restaurant (www.arnaudviel.com/) in Argentan is a relaxing treat before dinner. Chef Arnaud Viel won his first Michelin star in 2016 and each plate of food he serves up is a work of art, including a foie gras amuse bouche and cones of seaweed butter.
Next day, it’s a much more rustic affair at La Michaudière (www.chevaldetrait.com/) in Juvigny-sous-Andaine. Located in an old pear orchard, horse-lover Jean Dinard and his family now perform Ferme du Cheval de Trait – an equestrian show starring noble dray horses. It’s a lot of fun, with a cheeky donkey getting in on the act, and all the animals are treated with great respect.
There’s an optional typical Norman meal served for guests in a huge barn on trestle tables. A generous portion of sizzling roast pork, mashed potato and mouth-watering gravy – with cider, not wine, of course – is followed by a huge dish of cheese. Oh, yes.
The Normandy Tourist Board has all the info you need for a trip. Visit www.normandy-tourism.org for further info.
Great for food lovers
Visit hotel/restaurant Le Manoir du Lys (www. manoir-du-lys.com/) in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, deep in the Andaine forest, where Michelin-starred chef Franck Quinton serves exquisite local Ceps cooked in butter, tasty French black pudding and inspired Chantilly cream desserts.
Great for tranquil travellers
The Spom apple spa (www.spa-spom.com/) in Saint-Aubin de Bonneval offers organic apple back scrub treatments and massages in the beautifully restored farmhouse with ancient stone apple press still on site. The nearby timbre-clad church, part 13th Century, is a national monument.
Great for spirited adventurers
Enjoy a husky dog sled ride in Perche Regional Natural Park, heading out to the village of Saint-Martin-du-Vieux-Bellême through 100-year-old oaks. Hikes run from 7 April to 4 November. (Reservation only, www. sleddogride.fr).