In the historic capital of Normandy, Mary Novakovich finds the shops and markets teeming with produce from the region’s pastures and orchards
When American food writer Julia Child had her first encounter with a French meal in 1948, her initial response was to inhale deeply, swoon and say, simply: “Butter.”
It was the sole meunière in Rouen’s La Couronne restaurant that was behind this epiphany, leading Child to change Americans’ relationship with French food. Goodness knows what her reaction would have been had she spotted the market opposite and taken a good look at the chunks of Camembert, mounds of Isigny butter and piles of langoustines on display. More swooning, no doubt.
Fittingly, as Normandy’s historic capital, Rouen encapsulates the best of the region’s cuisine: pungent cheeses, fresh seafood, the most buttery butter, the creamiest cream; not to mention the abundant apples that flavour everything from desserts and sauces to cider and calvados brandy.
The cows that contentedly feed on the rich grass of the gently rolling hills produce some of France’s best-loved cheeses. Camembert, Pont l’Évêque, Livarot, Neufchâtel – all of these are on tempting display at Maison Jollit fromagerie in Les Halles in the Vieux Marché, the old marketplace facing
La Couronne. The proprietor, Daniel Bourgeois, has been in the cheese business for 25 years and still hasn’t got a favourite cheese. “I love them all,” he says enthusiastically, before adding almost blasphemously: “But if I have to narrow it down, I would choose one of the goat’s cheeses.”
He tells me the legend of why the soft, white moulded Neufchâtel – like a saltier, sharper Camembert – comes in the shape of a heart as well as the more traditional rectangle. “During the Hundred Years War, our dairymaids started to fall for the English soldiers who were occupying the region,” he explains. “So they would make the cheese into a heart shape to give as gifts.”
More temptation lies opposite the fromagerie at the Poissonnerie des Halles, with its selection of fresh fish and shellfish, and a delicatessen section selling prepared dishes and upmarket versions of ready meals. The stalls of Les Halles shelter under the giant sweeping roof of the modernist Église Sainte-Jeanne – for it was in Place du Vieux-Marché that Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431. In the centre is a garden where a simple sign marks the spot of her execution. Medieval half-timbered buildings cluster around the square, most of them now bars and restaurants, including La Couronne, which was founded in 1345 and describes itself as France’s oldest auberge.
From Place du Vieux-Marché’s southern side, I head east along the pedestrianised Rue du Gros-Horloge, one of Rouen’s liveliest streets. The glittering windows of Auzou Chocolat catch my eye, with signs advertising les larmes de Jeanne d’Arc. It turns out that Joan of Arc’s tears are not salty, but sweet: roasted almonds that have been caramelised and coated in cocoa. They are one of the countless sweet treats made every day by chocolatier Stéphane Pelvillain. “There’s something magical about working with chocolate,” he says, and even those without a sweet tooth would find it difficult to refuse some of Stéphane’s exquisite creations.
As I continue along the attractive cobbled street lined with half-timbered shops, I soon reach the ornate clock that gives Rue du Gros-Horloge its name. It is one of Rouen’s best-loved symbols: a giant golden clockface adorning the Renaissance arch attached to a 14th-century belfry. Once I pass under the arch I can see the towers of the Gothic cathedral, whose distinctive façade so captivated the Impressionist artist Claude Monet that he made more than 30 studies of this magnificent building.
Before reaching the cathedral, I veer to the right towards Place Jacques Lelieur where, at Maison Pinel, Xavier Perchepied flies the flag for Normandy’s food producers. Among the duck rillettes and rabbit terrines (two popular Norman dishes), the cider-flavoured jams and fish soups are the bottles of cider, calvados and pommeau (calvados and apple juice) that you would expect to see in a Normandy shop. However, the bottles of Thor Boyo whisky normand come as something of a surprise.
“A lot of people don’t really know about local Norman produce, including some alcoholic drinks,” Xavier tells me. “Whisky normand doesn’t have the smoky flavour of Scottish whisky, but it is very good as a trou normand.” As anyone who has had a multiple-course meal in Normandy will know, the trou normand is a vital part of the proceedings. After a few courses, this shot of alcohol – usually calvados – creates a ‘hole’ in the digestive system that allows more food to be eaten. As an antidote to the delicious richness of Norman cuisine, it’s certainly an easy one to swallow.
LES BONNES ADRESSES
• Vieux Marché
Place du Vieux-Marché
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 08 87 56
• Maison Jollit
Les Hallettes du
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 88 72 13
• Marché Saint-Marc
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 08 87 56
• Maison Pinel
11 Place Jacques Lelieur
Tel: (Fr) 9 50 70 43 92
• La Vie en Vrac
7 Place de la Calende
Tel: (Fr) 2 32 10 63 33
Épicerie with a large selection of olive oils, spices, biscuits and condiments as well as calvados and other Norman products.
• Boulangerie Cyrille Levouin
44 Rue Saint-Nicolas
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 71 43 60
• Auzou Chocolat
163 Rue du Gros-Horloge
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 70 59 31
LE PETIT JARDIN EN VILLE, ROUEN
About 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of Rouen, this former caretaker’s cottage in the grounds of a 19th-century maison de maître has been turned into a cosy, secluded gîte. The cottage has its own walled garden, making it private from the big family house next door, and there is free parking. Both properties are owned by Justine and Olivier Boudeville, who are full of ideas for what to see and do in Rouen.
The front door opens to the main bedroom, which has its own bathroom with a shower and a separate lavatory. The furnishings are contemporary in muted shades of taupe and white. A polished wooden staircase leads to the living area, kitchen and second bathroom with a shower, all done in the same sleek style as the ground floor.
The living area is also a second bedroom (with an extra bathroom); the big cushion-covered sofa turns into a bed, and a single bed doubles as another sofa. A small flat-screen television is mounted on the wall and there is free Wi-Fi.
The compact kitchen has a hob, combination microwave, kettle, coffee machine and toaster, and is kitted out for cooking proper meals. Tea and coffee are supplied as well. You can eat at the small kitchen table, or in the garden when the weather is warm.
Le Petit Jardin en Ville is available through HomeAway (www.homeaway.co.uk; property no. 975788a) from €90 per night.
Mary travelled to Rouen with DFDS Seaways (tel: 0871 574 7235, www.dfdsseaways.co.uk), which has ten daily crossings from Dover to Calais, from £35 each way.