By Samantha Mangino
There is a breathtaking moment around the first apple of fall. The apple pulled down from an orchard, somewhere in New England. A strong bite is needed despite the soft flesh because the fruit is held firm by its fresh juice. These are the apples we know to be true in our New England neighborhoods, but swing over to Normandy on the Northwest coast of France, and you’ll meet a new kind of apple. Small, hard and just like the ones you found in your grandmother’s backyard that were sour, mealy, and gave you a crippling stomach ache. Those apples are different – wild – and the pride of Normandy.
Sitting along the English Channel, Normandy fills with guests visiting the shoreline in the summer. Visitors come to pay respect to fallen war heroes, or to see the monastery on Mont-Saint-Michel. All along the coast are bustling beach towns with resorts featuring casinos and racetracks. However, the traditions of Normandy flourish in the colder months when rustic cuisine comforts food-loving souls through Autumn.
The key to Norman cuisine lives in their apples and chicken. Harvested and produced in the area, the people of Normandy don’t need to travel far for their ingredients. There’s a reason that as Julia Child introduces Americans to French cuisine in Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, the dish representing the region is Poulet Rôti à la Normande. Child’s Roasted Chicken of Normandy is filled with stuffing and topped with a rich creamy sauce – a perfect dish to be made on a brisk evening in Autumn.
In fact, the most influential meal that sparked Julia Child’s senses and awaken her passion for French cuisine happened in Normandy. After first settling in France, Julia and her husband Paul traveled to Rouen to dine at the restaurant La Couronne. Their waiter detailed where the chicken they would dine on was raised and who raised it. Immediately, Child found the personal nature of the cuisine. Knowing where your food comes from, the farm to table trend we’ve seen in contemporary food culture, was just a natural part of French cuisine and especially in Normandy when the chicken being served came from the town over.
The people of Normandy are not the hunter-gatherer type but rather have cultivated a harvest that is naturally local with a gentle heartiness. In the low valleys of the region, the open pastoral land is perfect for raising livestock such as poultry and gamey meats like rabbit and lamb. The traditions are old and show resistance to the industrialization, allowing longevity and authenticity to remain in place.
When thinking of good food, a plate of rainbow colored produce comes to mind,but don’t be hesitant or wary of what Normandy has to offer. That’s because those colors live in the landscape of hills, overlooking oceans one way and acres of orchards in the other. The food itself, chicken, cider, and cheese are vibrant in texture. Look instead to the incredible silky interior of a Camembert, a native cheese to the region, or a moist, roast chicken draped in a creamy, stock reduction.
Giving life to Normandy and specifically Calvados, are the apple orchards at the center of the Norman cider-making tradition. Calvados is the namesake region to the apple and pear brandy liqueur still being made there. The cider of France (or sydre if you will in Old French) doesn’t pull as much attention as wine is typically the country’s beverage of choice. Cider in Normandy is carefully crafted through generations of producers who still use methods à la ancienne, putting to shame the mass-produced alcoholic cider we’re familiar with in the United States.
While beer and cider will often get paired on American beverage menus, don’t be confused – the cider making process is parallel to wine production. Just like grapes, apples are pressed and crushed to yield juice that will then go through the fermentation process. The apples used to produce cider will be those small, dense fruits you wouldn’t want to eat. Since no one wants to bite into their astringent flesh, the fruit can follow its path to become outstanding ciders with tannic, complex, and unique flavors. The best part of the cider process is taking the final product and pairing it with a meal or even incorporating it into the preparation.
Some cider gets moved along to Calvados-distilling process. Taking the dry cider, distilling it down and allowing the product to age for at least two years in oak barrels creates a smooth final product to be enjoyed anytime of day. Calvados will be poured as an aperitif in the afternoon alongside light snacks or in-between courses of a long meal to arouse the appetite. There are no strict rules besides enjoying the Calvados as you please. In Normandy, it is most important to simply enjoy the product, which has been crafted so carefully and with respect to tradition.
In so many ways, Normandy feels delightfully stuck in time.. With landmarks of battles, and architecture of a quaint village from the Middle Ages, it’s hard to believe that time has passed there. The respect to old traditions is found through the cuisine itself. Normandy has the fortune of being by the sea while having the land to grow fresh fruits and raise livestock that will be served locally. The Norman can see what they have in front of them and how to use that to produce the best of their cuisine. At the first bite of a fall apple, they know it would never be the best apple for a snack, but it will indeed be the best ingredient for their cider.
We hope you enjoyed this story from Of Juliet staff writer Samantha Mangino. Samantha is also one of the earliest employees of Juliet, the restaurant.
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