This heart-shaped cheese is Normandy's oldest and was ostensibly invented as a heartfelt gift from Norman maidens to their English occupier lovers.
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
Apple and pear orchards, usually with a cow or two grazing under the trees, are the ubiquitous image of the Norman countryside, and a visit to Normandy wouldn’t be complete without sampling the local refreshments – cider, pommeau, poiré and calvados. Here’s everything you need to know about the region’s quartet of fruity libations.
What to Taste
Cidre de Normandie: Cidre, or cider, is a sparkling, alcoholic beverage made from crushed apples that is fermented for 2-3 months before being bottled. It is produced on farms and in homes all over the region, comes in numerous versions, degrees of sweetness and alcohol contents. About 750 varieties of apples can be used to make Normandy cider, but only 50 of those are allowed in the production of AOC cider from the Pays d’Auge.
The recipe for these buttery sugar cookies, called sablés, has been a closely guarded secret since 1904, when Charles Bansard opened this tiny biscuiterie just a few blocks from the beach in Asnelles-sur-Mer. The current owners, Antoine et Marie Laure Cormier, took over in 1983 and have preserved M Bansard’s original recipe of only four ingredients; AOC Beurre d’Isigny, flour, sugar and eggs. In 1997 the couple introduced the “salé fin,” a sablé made with Normandy salt butter and in 2009 a chocolate sablé was invented, the “choco fin.”
The large terrace overlooking the fishing port and the hearty servings of delicious, seasonal moules de Barfleur prepared “à la Normande” or “marinières,” are the highlights of this bar and brasserie. The menu also offers oysters (in season) and other seafood dishes, and typical café food such as omelets, salads and sandwiches. The service can be a bit uneven, so it is best to go when you are not in a rush. This is also a great place to stop and enjoy a coffee or an apéritif after visiting the Sunday morning market that takes place along the port.
This rural French auberge, located in the beautiful Norman countryside near Pont l’Évêque, offers fresh, classical French cuisine prepared by chef/owner, Nicolas Vincent. The rustic half-timbered dining room is cosy and lit with a big fire in the winter, and bright and airy in the summer, when the doors are thrown open on to the terrace on sunny days. Dishes include regional specialties, seasonal seafood, homemade pork terrine served with sweet and sour confit d’oignons, and a light, fruit studded mousse au fromage blanc for dessert.
Peggy and Jérémy Thomas are no strangers to the cheese business. Jérémy, an artisan fromager, spent several years learning the ins and outs of the business at his uncle’s cheese shop in Paris (the now closed Fromagerie Pascal Trotté) as well as at Rungis. His wife, Peggy, is a third generation fromagère in her family, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, her uncle and her father. The shop offers cheese from all over France as well as the famous cheeses of Normandy and local farm produced fromage. They also sell locally made yogurt and crème crue, as well as cider and wine.
The museum is still mainly staffed by volunteers, so it is closed in the winter and has rather limited hours in the summer, open only between 2-5:30pm. At the height of the tourist season, a wedge of camembert served with a glass of local cider is offered to visitors.
Address: 10 avenue du Général de Gaulle, 61120 (in Vimoutiers)
Closed: Closed November 1 to March 31. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday in the summer
Reservations: No reservations. Visits between 2-5:30pm
Telephone: +33 02 33 39 30 29
Address: 100 rue de la 2ème Division US, 14710 (in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer)
Closed: Closed November to March
Reservations: Book in advance
Average Price of Lunch: 10-19€
Average Price for Dinner: 10-19€
Telephone: +33 02 31 92 71 72
Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, la Place Saint Patrice, which serves as a parking lot during the rest of the week, transforms into a bustling weekly market. The entire perimeter of the square is taken up by food – local cheese producers and large trucks selling fromage from all over France; Normandy cider and Calvados producers offer samples of their products; local fruit and vegetable growers and organic farmers set up long tables. You will find fresh seafood trucks offering an array of Normandy seafood and others with just one item such as local mussels or petit gris, and at one end of the market there are live poultry and rabbits for sale. There are vendors selling wine, bread, charcuterie, cut flowers, herbs and plants for the garden, prepared food such as pizza, paella, choucroute de la mer, sweet and savory crêpes, even spicy samosas and curry made by a woman who comes from the Reunion Islands. In the center of the square you will find new and used books for sale, seasonal clothing, shoes and slippers for men, women and children, jewelry and scarves, pottery, handbags and market baskets.