Operation: Normandy Cheese Plate
During our recent visit to M. Cheesemonger’s hometown in Normandy, we were able to escape from his father’s Grande Fête preparations (more on that later) to visit some of the local cheese makers and farmers that make this region the dairy capital of France. Since I had been charged with organizing the Grande Fête cheese platter, our plan was to find some excellent local cheeses. The sun shone warmly and puffy clouds drifted overhead as we wound our way through the verdant countryside.
Our first stop was the farmstead Ferme de la Moissonnière in the village of Fervaques, just south of Lisieux. There, Olivier and Carole Françoise live and work, surrounded by their 80-100 Norman and Holstein cows. Their small creamery produces AOC Pont l’Evêque, Pavé d’Auge, and their own special recipes. They don’t give creamery tours, but Carole was kind enough to let us step inside the cheese storage room and visit the cows in the fields up the hill, behind their home. They have always been involved in agriculture, but this is the first time they have been involved in such large-scale cheesemaking. It’s been two years since they bought the business, and they find it rewarding, despite the long, hard hours involved! After our chat, Carole returned to the creamery, and motioned toward the barn. There, one little youngster watched us curiously, then approached us to give my outstretched hand an exploratory lick. It was goopy and rough like sandpaper. We walked away with two squares of cheese—one Pont l’Evêque and one Pavé d’Auge. Two cheeses found!
The next stop on our cheese tour was the Domaine St. Hippolyte, a sophisticated farmstead cheese operation specializing in Livarot, nicknamed “Le Colonel” for the military-style bands of sedge wrapped around its sides. As we approached the creamery, I saw a dark shape loping toward us from across the adjacent field. As it approached, I could see it was a bear-like black dog, roly-poly and happy (maybe thanks to a lifetime supply of Livarot?). It passed joyfully amongst all visitors, and rolled over onto its back to let me rub its wet belly.
The creamery at St. Hippolyte sits at the back of the large, grassy property. Large plate glass windows in each room allow visitors to watch every step of the cheese making. We watched a well-muscled cheesemaker cut large containers of curd while her colleague prepared hoops to form individual cheeses later on. We caught a glimpse of aging cheeses in another room further on. Continuing the tour, we visited a barn with feeding areas, milking room, and some lounging cows. There was even an exhibition area where we could learn about Norman cows, and the history of cheesemaking in Normandy. The black dog trotted past us, surveying the activity.
After seeing the cheese part of the property, we roamed around the rest of the grounds. A 16th century manor crowns the domaine, and not far from its entrance we found a cider-making building, still in use. M. Cheesemonger particularly liked the antique alembics on display there. The roughly 150 cows (all Norman, judging from the characteristic dark rings around their eyes) are free to roam much of the 175-acre property. We didn’t buy any cheese there, but we did get some cider and local pâtés. It was lunchtime by now, so we scurried off to the nearby town of Lisieux.
Lunch was a very Norman affair at the Lisieux hotel/restaurant La Coupe d’Or. What a blissful discovery! We were thoroughly impressed from the beginning, when the “tomato trio” was placed on the table, consisting of a gaspacho, tomato and fresh mozzarella salad, and tomato/honey/basil sorbet. Each refreshing bite played perfectly on the sweetness of the tomato. Our main courses were even more refreshing. I ordered the rognons de veau (veal kidney) in a cream, mushroom, and butter sauce. M. Cheesemonger ordered a beef entrecôte with Camembert sauce. Both of our dishes were accompanied with a gratin dauphinois, green beans, and an egg and pea cake. Everything was finely executed. My rognons were slightly pink on the inside and melted in my mouth. M. Cheesemonger’s beef was tender and rare. The accompaniments complemented our main courses perfectly. Dessert consisted of a café gourmand, or coffee served with a dark chocolate macaron, crème brûlée, riz au lait (rice pudding), and a fondant au chocolat. The meal was simple, definitely local, and we were not disappointed. We left sated and ready to continue the cheese tour.
Our third cheesemaker stop was in the town of Livarot—Graindorge, the largest cheese maker on this circuit. They have been making AOC Livarot, Pont l’Evêque, and other non-AOC cheeses for over 100 years. We were able to visit the creamery and observe the cheesemaking and aging through upstairs walkways and plate glass windows. Seeing thousands of wheels of cheese in the aging rooms was definitely the highlight of this visit! We bought a heart of local Neufchâtel and Livarot here for the Grande Fête.
Our last stop on the cheese circuit was the town of Camembert, a surprisingly small town (population 200), given the renown of its cheese. There, we visited the Maison du Camembert and learned about Camembert’s history, its many makers, the creation of those now ubiquitous round, wooden cheese boxes, Camembert label collections, and more. We tasted several different Camemberts, and ended up with two—one excellent, runny round from maker Lanquetot, and one farmstead Camembert from the Fromagerie Durand. Because the Durand was still young, we kept that for post Grande Fête dégustation.
With that, even I was cheesed out. We headed for home, our cooler full of cheeses for the Grande Fête, local apple cider, and other souvenirs from Normandy. I think my favorite non-cheese purchase of the day was a magnet that jokingly explained how to make a sablé normand, or “sandy” butter cookies, with sand and butter. But I digress! With this outing, our cheese-seeking mission was nearly complete!