Follow the Normandy cheese trail and discover sleepy villages, dairy farms and rolling fields – plus taste some of the creamiest, most delectable cheeses in the world. Gillian Thornton samples and sips her way through cheese and cider country.
In 1962, former French President Charles de Gaulle famously bemoaned the challenges of governing a country ‘with 246 different kinds of cheese’. So the task must be even harder for today’s President. Sixty years on from De Gaulle’s gastronomic analogy, France now lists over 400 varieties, including more than 60 that have been awarded Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status in France and, more recently the European label, Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP).
Follow the Normandy cheese trail
French cheeses come in all shapes, sizes and strengths, lovingly produced on both artisan and industrial scale from the milk of cows, goats and even sheep. But whilst some are appreciated only in their local area, one French cheese is famous throughout the world. One of four AOC cheeses to come from the lush farmland of Normandy, Camembert is instantly recognisable with its distinctive circular shape, wooden box and colourful label.
Normandy’s magnificent coastline is famous for its top quality seafood but turn your back on the sea and the bocage landscape of cattle meadows and apple orchards combine to produce the perfect cheese course, not to mention a range of liquid accompaniments to carry you from apéro to digestif. Even better, you can always find someone willing to show you how these signature products are made and to sell you their produce direct from source – just ask at any local tourist office or go to normandie.tourisme.fr for inspiration.
Bocage doesn’t get much more beautiful than in the Pays d’Auge which lies east of Caen, ducal HQ for William of Normandy in the 11th century and the last resting place of this illegitimate son who took England’s top job in 1066 as King William I. Think small, wooded valleys and rich pastures lined with thick hedgerows, spring trees laden with apple blossom, and traditional half-timbered houses. This is inland Normandy at its most picturesque with some of the most fetching cattle you’ll see anywhere – brown and white with uniform brown eye patches.
Spread out around the town of Lisieux, the Pays d’Auge is the birthplace of traditional Camembert, invented by farmer’s wife Marie Harel. There’s a statue of her – and also one of a very fine cow – in the small town of Vimoutiers, but her famous cheese was created at the Manoir de Beaumoncel in the nearby hamlet of Camembert in 1791.
A priest fleeing from revolutionaries in his native area of Brie shared a cheese manufacturing secret with Madame Harel, who went on to create the cheese we know today. During the First World War, large quantities were sent to French troops on the Western Front to boost morale, helping to turn Camembert into a national symbol. In 1983, authentic Camembert de Normandie was given protected status.
Discover the full story at Maison du Camembert in the heart of the tiny village which includes a visit to the adjacent Clos de Beaumoncel cheese factory. Here you can look through glass to see how Normandy milk is transformed into traditional handmade Camembert – up to 6000 organic and AOP/PDO cheeses per week.
And of course the visit ends with a comparative tasting of artisan and industrially made Camembert in the on-site shop. I lingered too over the display of colourful pictorial labels commemorating various anniversaries of the D-Day Landings in 1944. Each one is a mini work of art which graphically illustrates the attraction of taking up tyrosemiophilia as a hobby. Cheese label collecting to you and me! www.maisonducamembert.com
Camembert nestles in the Orne department and a handy sign at the entrance to the village points the way to Normandy’s other AOC cheeses. Just 15km to the north in the department of Calvados is Livarot-Pays-d-Auge, home town of Livarot with its orange rind and powerful flavour. Don’t be surprised if you hear someone ask for a wedge of ‘Colonel’ – Livarot’s nickname thanks to the five ‘military’ stripes of reed or paper around the circumference.
Follow the Normandy cheese trail and head north again and 54km from Camembert, nestles between Lisieux and Deauville, still within the Pays d’Auge area of Calvados. Square or rectangular in shape, its eponymous mild cheese is covered with a rind that ranges in colour from golden yellow to orange.
For Normandy’s fourth AOP cheese, you need to cross the river Seine to Neufchâtel-en-Bray in the department of Seine-Maritime, 171 km from Camembert. Covered in a thin white edible layer, Neufchâtel is a favourite for romantic dinners thanks to its traditional heart-shape that harks back to the Middle Ages when local girls would offer their cheeses to occupying English troops during the Hundred Years War.
Cider of Normandy
Few drinks go better with Normandy’s flavourful cheeses than a glass of local dry cider or – for the drivers – farm-produced apple juice. Normandy’s apple orchards stretch over a wide area, but the self-drive Route du Cidre winds its way through the heartland of the AOC Cidre du Pays d’Auge production area, linking the villages of Cambremer and Bonnebosq with the postcard-pretty community of Beuvron-en Auge, classified amongst Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Created in 1974, the Cambremer Cider Route was the first trail in France to be launched by producers keen to promote the quality of their products and their warm hospitality. Today you will find almost 20 ‘Cru de Cambremer’ producers along the route, all open to visitors – find full details, including opening hours, on www.routeducidre.com.
Some farms only produce cider; others apple juice, cider jelly, and even cheese. Look out too for Pommeau AOC de Normandie, a delicious apple aperitif made from three-parts pressed apples – or must – to one part Calvados, the area’s famous apple spirit. And whilst Calvados improves with age – if you can resist opening it, of course – young Calvados works particularly well in cocktails.
The Pays d’Auge is a delight for walkers with its gentle countryside, timber-framed manor houses, and pretty churches, as well as small stud farms producing the top quality horses for which Normandy is famous. There are surprises too. Bonnesbosq has named its sports ground after a famous Hollywood actor who owned a mansion in the neighbourhood – none other than Yul Brynner, star of 1956 movie The King and I and, three years later, The Magnificent Seven. And close to Cambremer stands the bijou medieval castle of Crèvecoeur-en-Auge, which hosts exhibitions and ‘living history’ re-enactments during the summer months.
Then there’s Beuvron-en-Auge, less than 20 minutes’ drive from the seaside resort of Cabourg on the Côte Fleurie. Don’t miss it, but do try to visit outside of peak times, especially in summer, when its many restaurants and tempting antique shops are bustling with visitors. Expect crowds too during the cider festival in late October. But this elite Plus Beau Village is a gem with its broad square, covered market and craft workshops, all surrounded by tranquil countryside.
Small wonder that it too has attracted a celebrity resident, world-famous British artist David Hockney who moved close to the village in 2019. Inspired by the light of Norman skies and the arrival of spring in the Pays d’Auge, Hockney produced a 90-metre frieze from scenes ‘painted’ on an iPad and inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry. First displayed at Salts Mill near Bradford in his native Yorkshire, A Year in Normandie has also been exhibited in Paris and most recently at Bayeux, a glorious tribute to this tranquil corner of Norman countryside.
By Gillian Thornton, one of the UK’s leading travel writers and a regular writer for The Good Life France Magazine and website.
Craving a cheesy feast? Try this boozy baked Camembert recipe to dip, dunk and dollop chunks of bread in, crackers, or a very easy to make tarte de soleil which will give this dish a whole load of wow factor appeal!
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