The perfect trip: Brittany and Normandy
Dressed in protective boots and a fabric snood, she demonstrates some of the key stages of production: the shaping room, where the freshly separated curds are set in plastic rounds and turned by hand; the drying rooms, where a natural mould (Penicillium camemberti) forms a white rind on the cheese; and finally the boxing room, where the finished cheeses are packaged in wooden cartons produced to the same design for the last 122 years.
Later, we drive through the dairy meadows. Green fields and gentle hills unfurl, broken up by thickets, oak copses and timbered farmhouses. In the distance, the spire of Camembert’s village church pokes above the hedgerows, and a herd of black-and-white Norman cows munch steadily through the daisies and dandelions.
Where to eat
The choice is limited around Camembert, so it’s worth taking a trip into Falaise, 17 miles to the west, to dine at La Fine Fourchette. It’s a thoroughly Gallic affair, right down to the razor-sharp tablecloths and rich French dishes (closed 15 Feb-2 Mar; menus from £15).
Where to stay
Lost in wooded countryside to the southeast of Falaise, the Pavillon de Gouffern was originally a hunting lodge, but it’s since been converted into a smart country hotel. The best rooms are in the main manor and overlook the rolling grounds. Others are in a converted stable block nearby (closed Nov & Dec; from £120).
Route du Cidre: Best for cider and calvados
Apples are everywhere in Normandy. Orchards carpet the roadsides and fields. Pollarded trees fill every back garden. Rosy fruits gleam on market stalls. Yet most of the crop isn’t destined for the fruit bowl: it’ll be smashed, sliced, mashed, pulped and squeezed to make Normandy’s most celebrated alcoholic exports – cider and calvados, the region’s fiery apple brandy.
Normandy’s cool temperatures and clay soils are tailor-made for apple trees. The region has been known for its orchards since Roman times, but Benedictine monks were the first to experiment with fermenting the fruit to produce an alcoholic brew, kickstarting an industry that now employs thousands of people and has earned the region numerous AOCs (appellations d’origine contrôlée).
Few names command more respect than that of Pierre Huet, one of the most prestigious producers on the Route du Cidre, a signposted trail that meanders for 25 miles through the rural Pays d’Auge, passing between swaying cornfields, sleepy meadows and poppy fields.
At their half-timbered manor house in Cambremer, the Huets have been producing cider and calvados for five generations. “For me, it’s not a passion, it’s an obsession,” says Cyril Marchand- Huet, ducking into one of the manor’s dimly lit cellars. “Every year is different: the climate, the crop, the soil and the sunshine all affect the apples’ taste. That’s where the art of the cider maker comes in.”
He strides off into the depths of the cellar, past rows of oak casks that disappear into the murky darkness. Pipettes on the outsides of the barrels show how the colour of calvados changes over time, from honey-yellow to a rich, chocolatey brown. Vintages are mixed together once a year to create the perfect blend, before being boiled down to a crystal-clear liquid in one of the manor’s antique copper stills. Some of the calvados is mixed with apple juice to create pommeau, a popular aperitif, while the rest of the apple crop is used for making cider.