Normandy: Love at first Calvados
Alex James was initiated into the art of eating well in France as a boy, but now, on a gourmet Christmas cooking course in Normandy, he's seduced by fine food all over again
I love France. I really do. I went to London to do a degree in French when I was 19. I wanted to go and live in France, but the first person I saw when I arrived in town was Graham Coxon, we formed a band called Blur, and that was the end of that, really. Still, I love the Frogs. France is de luxe.
That sense of luxury kicked in last weekend as soon as we got on the ferry. It's a long while since I went to France by boat. You get a lot of luxury for your euro on the ferry these days. There is plenty of space and a sense of time passing pleasantly in the knowledge of elsewhere approaching at a leisurely pace and things about to happen. We had a cabin and we felt glamorous.
Like many people, I discovered good eating in France. Everyone eats well there. They have the lowest obesity rates in Europe, and yet they have the best cheeses and many French dishes contain vast amounts of cream.
After a nap in the cabin, I woke up feeling ravenous and popped into the brasserie for a steak-frites. It was gorgeous. It reminded me of the very moment my love affair with France began. I was on a French exchange in Cherbourg. The rest of the French family were going out for the day to watch an ice-hockey match in Brest, and the mother gave my buddy Luc and me 100 francs (about £10) each for lunch. We grinned at each other as she handed over the money. It was a preposterous amount for lunch for two 15-year-olds. There was tons of food in the house, and I figured we'd scoff some crisps and blow the readies on bangers and pinball.
"Mais, non!" said Luc. He took me to the butcher's and we bought entrecôtes, then we went to the greengrocers and bought some spuds. He wanted to make chips. I had no idea that you could actually make chips. I peeled the spuds and he cut them into skinny chip shapes and showed me how to fry them. It was slightly dangerous. He grilled the steaks. We washed it down with vin de table. It was better than getting a replay on the pinball.
But back to last weekend. We were on our way to Normandy to attend a cookery course run by Nicky and Régis Dussartre, une Anglaise and her French husband, at the school they've opened at their home, Le Manoir de l'Aufragère. They run courses throughout the year, but this one had a Christmas theme, with tips on how to make gourmet festive treats. The Manoir is really a timber-and-stone chateau, typical of Normandy, with a gate lodge and a few acres.
We crunched up the gravel drive, past Régis's black-faced ewes. A fire was crackling in the grate as we were introduced to the other guests: the elegant Cindy, Maureen, Fiona, Maggie and Ursula. They had come as a group. Most of their husbands were connected with the Navy in some way, their children of university age. I liked them all instantly. As time went on, I felt there could be no problem that might arise that they couldn't deal with. They were the sort of women that you could leave anywhere in the world and they would soon have everything organised.
I've been working flat out for the last few months, so I was looking forward to a few days loafing around a chateau, maybe attempting the odd soufflé here and there. However, Nicky had other ideas. It was straight into the kitchen for us. She had always wanted to run a cookery school. That's why they bought l'Aufragère. They were going to have a dedicated catering classroom in one of the outbuildings, but she started taking bookings before it was ready. She ran those courses in her own kitchen and found that people preferred to learn in the familiarity of a real kitchen rather than a classroom. It works.
It was a bit like being back at college. I was the only boy. For some reason, French courses and cookery courses seem to appeal predominantly to women. It's always nice being the only chap. A gratin dauphinois was speedily organised and slammed into the oven for dinner as we moved swiftly on to unfamiliar gourmet ground. If you do one thing this Christmas, soak a Camembert in booze for three days before you eat it, turning it every day. We used Calvados (apple brandy distilled from cider), but I reckon it would work well with whatever is in the cupboard that you might drink with Camembert. It's delicious and unusual.
There is no need to impress your guests these days. In the Seventies, the golden age of the dinner party, it was de rigueur to sweat all day over fantastical creations and affect nobility at dinner. This is no longer necessary. If you do want to show off, though, give 'em the Camembert Calvados.
We started to prepare gravadlax, which I thought could only be made by Swedish monks in possession of a complex, secret recipe. It's actually dead simple. One side of salmon, skin-side down, plenty of salt, bit of sugar, peppercorns and bunch of dill. Lay the other side on top, weigh it down for 48 hours, turning it morning and night and basting it with the juices that pour out. You can't really get it wrong.
The girls were sipping champagne and getting giggly. Régis offered me an apple juice. I said sure. Nicky said, "It's getting a bit fizzy, but it's all right." It sounded disgusting - apple juice that's gone off. " Thanks," I said. "Lovely, yeah, great." It wasn't apple juice. It was an epiphany. The apples were from Régis's orchard. He'd pressed them a couple of weeks earlier and the juice was starting to ferment and turn to cider. This is just what ordinary apples do. You don't have to add anything or do anything except wait. The juice is drinkable at every stage of the process. After two weeks, the fizz levels were similar to the bubble factor of an Asti spumante: approximately, semi-sparkling. Fresh apple juice is sickly sweet, but this stuff was crisply refreshing, an excellent aperitif for the designated driver, or Eric Clapton.
In the morning, I was quite excited about going to the market in the local town, Pont-Audemer. The girls were having a hoot. They were all pretty much at the stage where the last of their children had left the nest, and they were finding themselves again. There was a musical quality to them, a new-found freedom. I decided to write them a song. They'd make a good band.
Pont-Audemer is twinned with the town of Ringwood, on the edge of the New Forest. If you haven't heard of Ringwood, then you get the picture. It's just a small town. Pont-Audemer is also a small town, and yet it has at least three charcuteries. It also has a couple of fromageries and a fantastic open-air market. There is nothing to compare with it in England. Borough Market, maybe, but this stuff is mainly local, and it's cheap.
Régis is a big, strong, handsome dude. I liked that guy a lot. He knows how to fix a tractor, lambs his own sheep, and has his own Calvados laboratory. He also has a camp-as-Christmas little wicker shopping-basket that he takes to the market. So do all the guys. It's quite a spectacle, all these manly Frenchmen with their little shopping baskets. Some of them are carefully carrying cakes as well. It made me smile.
The market starts with the vegetables. There are dates and figs, and lots of stuff that I didn't recognise - salsifies and chicory-like scaroles, crazy cabbages, several types of shallot. I bought a whole tray of those. All of it looked really tasty. Towards the * * middle of the market were the specialists. There was an apple geezer, selling varieties I'd never seen before straight from his orchard. There's really no one better to buy apples from than an old geezer who has brought them to market on his tractor. We've lost all this at home. I think we're slowly starting to get it back, though. We need it. It's good.
We bought some lait cru, or unpasteurised milk, to make cheese with. I tasted it. It was delicious and I tasted it some more. There was a watercress lady, a pear stall, a wild-mushroom man. There was a man making a basket out of wicker. I'd have bought it but it didn't look like it was going to be finished for a couple of days.
Then there was the meat. Meat is different in France. The rabbit man was fryi ng some boudins blancs, or the French take on white pudding: a kind of fluffy mousse in a skin. They were good and we bought some for lunch. There was a whole tray of rabbit heads. Régis said that his granny used to like the eyes. "You can heat ze 'ole face," he said. "Is good." There was a duck man selling confits and terrines and pâtés. Régis pointed out the horse butcher. He was doing good trade in fillets, joints, salamis and sausages. I didn't really fancy it. It's lean and therefore healthy, apparently.
Less appalling and more appealing, next door was the sausage lady: preserved, dry, salami-style sausages. Nobody makes these in England. I might start doing them - posh sausages. I'm going to call them "Poshages ". There were piles of the things, flavoured with everything from dill to donkey. I was about to ask Régis if this was the best sausage lady. Everyone takes a pride in knowing who is the best purveyor. Maybe that's what makes it all so good. I stopped myself asking him when I realised that this was quite obviously the best sausage counter I'd ever seen. I bought a dozen or so.
It went on and on: scallops on the half- shell; a very satisfying mountain of butter - I've never seen butter sold "off the block" before. We paused for a coffee. I find the bar- tabac a much more inviting place than the pub. The bar-tabac tends to give on to the street more, and be a part of everything.
You have to go through at least two doors to reach a bar at home. We do our drinking hidden away from the world. Maybe that's why we drink more than they do. We sipped cafés crèmes and compared shopping, before heading past pâtisseries and chocolateries, windows brimming with exquisite confections, to the fromagerie. My wife Claire picked a piece of Maroilles, an orange football-shaped cheese, for dinner. Choosing the cheese is almost as good as eating it.
We had scallops for lunch. Mine gave an horrific convulsion as I removed it from the shell. I didn't realise it was alive. I didn't like doing that. We fried them with chestnuts. Claire learnt how to rustle up a lemon tart, while I went to investigate Régis's cider shed. He measured the density of the juice of the barrel from which I'd been drinking with a thermometer-type device. It has to be bottled when the density gets to a certain level, and that's all there is to it. A man comes around with a mobile still and turns some of it into Calvados.
Back in the house, they'd finished the lemon tarts and had moved on to preserving apricots in Amaretto. We made some jars of those as soon as we got home. They were good. The pièce de résistance, however, came the next morning when we learnt how to bone a duck. It's a grisly business, although not as bad as plucking. That's the worst, the bit where the bird goes from being a fluffy creature to a piece of meat. At least you're starting with a carcass when you're boning. Still, it's not for the faint-hearted. Everyone pulled faces. Maureen cut her finger. But soon everyone was laughing again. I'm going to bone the goose this year. It's flash.
In the afternoon, we went to the Exhibition Centre in Rouen. I'm pretty sure Blur played there once, but today it was full of foodies, another gastronomic onslaught. I still couldn't stop buying sausages. I got some very long ones as I didn't have any of those yet. I bought a huge rock-star lump of Comté artisanal, an excellent cheese, from a man in a cloth cap. Claire bought a vast quantity of champagne from a man in a lorry, while I found the smoky corner and had a coffee and looked at everybody. I think I find all French women sexy. France is an erogenous zone. A couple of old ladies were drinking a glass of beer together. You don't see that at home.
The cheese we'd been making was ready by the time we got back. It was like Boursin. All we'd done was add a few drops of rennet to the lait cru and drained off the juice. Magic. By now we'd learned how to make 18 dishes, various sauces and snacks galore. It was a lot of cooking, interspersed with a lot of eating. Dinner does take at least four hours in France. Even lunch is quite a commitment. It's best to allow three hours for a lunch. They all go home for lunch, for heaven's sake. It's very civilised. Long lunches and dinners demonstrate faith in the goodness of your fellow man.
By the time we'd been to the supermarket in the morning and stocked up with chestnuts, confits, Calvados and coffee, our estate car was completely full of food and booze, and so it was time to go home. We drove back to Caen along the coast in brilliant sunshine, pointing out the Scooby- Doo chateaux and the unusual-looking cows. It was suddenly obvious why they've got so many types of cheese. They have so many types of cow.
We share weather systems with the Normans, and ancestors, but that's about all. It's quite a long way from home, considering how close it is. It's not all amazing, though. There is still a bad dog-poo situation on the pavements, and they are still not very good at making cool music in France.
I do wonder whether I would swap great food for great music and clean shoes. Probably not. It's excellent for the weekend, though.
The writer travelled from Portsmouth to Caen with Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360; www.brittany ferries.co.uk), which has three daily crossings to Caen, with prices starting at £54 each way for two adults with a car. Alternatively, Rail Europe (08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk) offers services to Caen from London Waterloo and Ashford via Paris.
Le Manoir de L'Aufragère, La Croisée, Fourmetot, Normandy (00 33 2 32 56 91 92; www.laufragere.com ). Three-night residential cookery holidays, the theme of which reflects the seasonal produce, start at €600 (£429) per person, including all meals, drinks and accommodation.