The perfect trip: Brittany and Normandy
This vast plain of sandbanks and shifting channels is notorious for its fast-rising tides. The difference between high and low tides can be 15m, and the waters are said to be swifter than a galloping horse.
Centuries of landscaping have upset the bay’s geography, causing tidal silting and seasonal flooding. An enormous project is under way to restore the bay’s tidal rhythms and protect this precious marine habitat. As we cross to the rocky Île de Tombelaine, Patrick points out the coiled casts of lugworms, a grey mullet darting through a channel and a cormorant fishing off a craggy outcrop. Light glints off hidden pools, and in every direction, the flat sands glimmer like polished brass.
This is the secret side of Mont St-Michel, an island topped by an 11th-century abbey built by Benedictine monks, and linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Yet it is only when it is seen from the sands that you experience it as its builders intended. Here the island rediscovers the spiritual aspect that drew pilgrims. It appears as an otherworldly refuge cut off, geographically and metaphorically, from the concerns of the everyday world. “The builders of Mont St-Michel believed this was a holy site,” muses Patrick. “I’m not a spiritual man, but there is something magical about this place.”
Where to eat
It is worth the 35-mile trip to Cancale to sample local specialities: oysters and mussels. By the port, Le Surcouf serves enormous seafood platters (00 33 29989 6175; closed Dec & Jan; menus from £15).
Where to stay
Run by celebrity chef Olivier Roellinger, this lavish château-hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant could have fallen straight from the pages of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. Château Richeux exudes 1920s elegance, with plush rooms, glittering chandeliers and fire-lit lounges, all overlooking gardens and the bay of Mont St-Michel (closed Jan & Feb; from £190).
Camembert: Best for cheese
It’s barely 11am, but for Nadia and François Durand, the day’s work is already half-done. Cows have been milked, curds separated, moulds turned and cheeses salted. Now all that remains is to package up 600 freshlymade camemberts in their traditional garb of wax paper and wood, ready to be sent out to the nation’s top restaurants, delis and fromageries. Such is life for the last cheese-maker left in Camembert – but Nadia Durand wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People have been making cheese here for the last 300 years,” she explains as she sets to work on the mountain of cheeses stacked around her. “We’re just pleased to carry on that tradition. Most camembert is made in big cooperative factories these days. We’re the only producer left that still makes ours by hand in the old-fashioned way. That’s something to be proud about!” she giggles. Outside, the throaty call of a rooster rings out across the farmyard, and a venerable tractor grumbles noisily by.
If there were a royal court of cheese, camembert would unquestionably be queen. It dates back to the French Revolution, when a local farm-girl, Marie Harel, was supposedly given the recipe by an abbot from Brie on the run from a Revolutionary mob. It’s now by far France’s most popular cheese, with an annual output of around 15,000 tonnes, a third of which qualifies for the most prestigious label: AOC Camembert de Normandie.
“Of course, there are many rules we have to follow – the grass our cattle eat, how the milk is produced, the number of times each cheese needs to be turned,” Nadia smiles, a little ruefully. “It’s very complicated, but it’s important to protect traditions – we are in France, after all!”