What is it about the cream from Normandy that makes it so special?
First, there is la Vache Normande, the Normandy cow. Brown and white spotted Normandy cows, easily recognizable by the unique markings around their eyes, called spectacles or lunettes, produce milk that is exceptionally high in butterfat. And they produce a lot of it, around 7 gallons a day. In the spring and summer the cows graze on sweet, fresh grass and in the winter they are fed hay or sugar beets, all of which give the milk a delicious, distinctive character.
Which leads us to a second consideration – the terroir. Terroir can best be translated as, “a sense of place,” but there is a lot to bear in mind within that simple phrase, such as the importance and influence of climate, geography, soil and other natural elements. Normandy is the heartland of French dairy production – a land of lush, green pastures and apple orchards that benefits from a rainy, mild, maritime climate. It is the ideal place for dairy cows to graze.
What is crème fraîche?
In this case, we owe the the lack of refrigeration a debt of gratitude, for without it, and the dairy farmers of Normandy, crème fraîche would never have existed. Traditionally, just after milking, farmers would set the milk pails in a cool place and leave them overnight to allow the cream to separate from the milk and rise to the surface. That cream would then be skimmed off, put into earthenware containers with the cream from the previous day’s milking, and left to ripen and develop for about a week. The result was crème fraîche – a luscious, thick cream with a distinctive tangy flavor.
The name still causes some confusion – crème fraîche translates directly into English as “fresh cream,” which it is not, and calling it “sour cream,” as many do, is doing it an injustice. Crème fraîche isn’t as acidic or “sour” as sour cream, nor is it fresh, having been aged until it becomes luxurious and thick. In cooking, crème fraîche will not separate or curdle when heated, like sour cream or yogurt, and sour cream is around 20% fat and tastes, well…sour, while crème fraîche is around 30% fat and tastes tart and rich.
Today, when you see crème fraîche on a label in France, it means the cream is pasteurized but not necessarily produced in Normandy. The real deal will be marked, “Crème Fraîche de Normandie” or simply “crème de Normandie. Additionally, there are several other types of cream produced in the region.
Types of Normandy Cream
Crème Fraîche de Normandie or Crème de Normandie: Unpasteurized, ripened, thick cream to which no bacteria cultures have been added. Its color is glossy white or ivory, its texture is slightly softer than crème crue, and its flavor is delicately tangy. 30-40% fat
Crème Crue de Normandie or Crème Crue Fermière or Crème Fraîche Fèrmiere: Unpasteurized cream to which no bacteria cultures have been added and which has never been heated. Its color is ivory or very pale yellow and its appearance is slightly matte, not glossy like crème de Normandie. Because this cream has been naturally fermented, the flavor is slightly more sour than crème fraîche. You’ll see this type of cream being ladled out of large white buckets into small containers for customers at the local markets. This is crème fraîche in its most authentic form. 30-40% fat.
AOC Crème d’Isigny: Awarded AOC status in 1986 and currently the only AOC cream in France. The milk for crème d’Isigny comes from a small, clearly defined grazing area located next to the English Channel on the lower Cotentin peninsula and into part of the Calvados department. This cream is pasteurized and benefits from a slow, 16-18 hour ripening stage, allowing it to develop a soft, well balanced, mildly acidic flavor and pale yellow color. 40% fat.
Crème Fraîche Épaisse: Pasteurized, smooth, ripened cream to which bacteria cultures have been added. It is sometimes produced in Normandy and sometimes in other areas of France. 30-40% fat
Crème Fleurette or Crème Fraîche Liquide or Crème Fluide: Runny, pasteurized cream that has not been artificially fermented or ripened. 30-40% fat
Crème Légère: Mass produced, pasteurized, light cream that may or may not be produced in Normandy. Fat content between 12-30%.
chantilly – whipped cream
crue – “raw” or unpasteurized
épaisse – thick
fermière – produced on a farm
fluide – runny or liquid
fouettée – whipped
légère – light
liquide – liquid
pasturisée – pasteurized