Thursday, April 8, 2021

Intro to Normandy; Honfleur

Trip date: December 2019

After a lovely holiday at Forest and Thibault's country house in the Le Perche area, the three of us loaded up their car and headed almost due north to the town of Rouen, about a 1 ½ hour drive. Just in time for lunch!

Le 6è Sens, or The Sixth Sense, is a modern restaurant located in the 100+ year old vaulted area of an unfinished hall. It's a very interesting ambiance! The menu is "gastronomique" and the dishes are absolutely gorgeous. We were served a selection of amuse bouche, then a starter, main, and a wonderful cheese plate. Normandy is known for Camembert, Livarot, and Pont l'Evêque so it was great to have all three on my plate!

After this lovely lunch we set off to explore the town for a bit. Rouen is the capital of Normandy and there certainly is a lot of history here. There are also a lot of churches, the city's nickname is "city of a hundred steeples", and we were on our way to visit the famous cathedral which has one of the tallest steeples in the world!

To be honest I was so taken with the incredible detail on the outside that I really didn't focus on the steeple, but it is over 400 feet tall! The intricate sculptures that adorn the facade were overwhelming. The inside of this grand cathedral was no slouch either!

I was so happy that we started our tour of Normandy here! This church has been here since 1880 and has survived multiple wars. It was pretty awe inspiring standing inside.

Outside, Rouen's Christmas market was still going on so we took a quick glance at the various stalls before making our way back to the car. The car park was right next to the Church of Joan of Arc. Next to the church is a small garden called Le Bouchet which is the exact spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. That was a pretty big thing to just happen upon next to the car park!
From here we drove 1 hour west to our first Calvados distillery- Christian Drouin. There are over 200 varieties of apples grown to create cider and Calvados in Normandy and distillation of the fruit has been going on in this northern region since the 1600s! I'm a huge brandy fan so I was very excited to be in the AOC of Calvados!

We had called ahead to let them know we would be arriving as we were cutting it pretty close to their closing time. This family estate has been making Calvados since 1960 and is a very well regarded and recognized small producer. Not to mention how cute the half timbered farm houses are! 
We had a tour of the barn where the cider apples are pressed and distilled, and then the barrel house where the spirits were aged. Lots of information on the process, agriculture of the area, styles of Calvados, etc. 

And our course there was a tasting back in the office! It was really fun for me to taste from the Blanche (very young, 2 years of age), through the Pays d'Auge (this is the AOC in the eastern part of Normandy) Reserve, VSOP, XO, and Hors d'Age (aged for 15+ years). Christian Drouin also makes a gin that we tasted which was interesting.

I bought myself a lovely XO (6+ year), as well as a VSOP for Forest and I to drink over the next couple of weeks. We also picked up a bottle of Pomme du Normandie which is very popular aperitif in the region (an aged blend of cider and calvados)  and a lovely 2015 sparkling brut cider. 

You can listen to Forest's podcast interview with a representative from the Christian Drouin distillery here, there's a lot of great information!

20 minutes north is Honfleur, our final destination for the day. We were excited to unpack and settle in for our 3-night stay in our lovely 2-floor apartment

Honfleur is such an charming and picturesque city, with most of the old town hugging the small harbor, it was a perfect first stop in Normandy. On our first night out we immersed ourselves completely, starting with a very fun dinner at Le Bistro du Port. The large terrace was enclosed to protect against the winter chill and it was filled with diners happily eating and drinking. 

I ordered an awesome seafood tower that was filled with crab, langoustines, bulots (whelks), bigorneaux (sea snails), crevettes roses & grises (red & grey shrimp), amandes (cockles) and huîtres creuses du Cotentin (local oysters).  And after all that delicious food I had the ultimate dessert, my first Trou normand; apple sorbet floating in a coupe of Calvados. YUM!

After dinner we walked around the picture perfect harbor and stopped in at a random bar for a nightcap Calvados.

The entire next day was spent enjoying Honfleur. It was just a short, and very pretty walk, from our apartment to Saint-Catherine's Church. This massive wooden structure was built in the mid 1400's, its architecture unlike anything I've seen before.
As with most churches during the holidays, this one had a pretty large and interesting nativity scene filled with figurines of people and animals. Some clever person also put a funny ceramic cat in it which made me laugh!

We could not have asked for a nicer winter day. The sun was shining and the temperature was mild. Honfleur Christmas market was still going on with kiosks set up around the harbor. I grabbed a cup of hot Normandy cider and wandered the stalls.

This market had an amazing selection of food vendors! Oysters, scallops, mussels, and lobster were brought in from the fishing boats just on the other side of the pier and shucked, grilled, or sauted to your liking. There was an organic farmer selling incredibly delicious squash soups and another vender selling traditional galettes. I was obviously in heaven!

We grabbed a table in the sun and had a wonderful lunch of Coquilles St Jacque, mussels steamed in wine and garlic, fish soup, and inexpensive white wine. Pure vacation bliss right there!

We continued our exploration of Honfleur, walking through the cobbled streets and quaint neighborhoods, checking out the houses, some half timbered and others with slate-covered facades, all so pretty in the ever changing light. It's no wonder that the Impressionist artists like Boudin, Monet, and Sisley spent so much time painting here. 

We made our way to Chez DD wine bar and settled in with a lovely bottle of Burgundy and a great charcuterie plate. I'm not sure where we heard about this place but it was a great find and I'd happily stop here again.

That night we had reservations at Michelin 2-star SaQuaNa. It's quite a sensory change to walk in from the medieval feel if the old town and into the stark modernism of the restaurant. The menu here focuses on taking traditional and local dishes and giving them an international and modern twist. 
The plating of everything was exceptionally beautiful, like this scallop with cabbage, fried chickpeas, and guacamole. And the service was very good. I don't know what it was for sure but I just thought it was all good, but not great. We did end the night with a lovely 1994 Calvados from Christian Drouhin, it was certainly great! 

The next night we had dinner at La Cidrerie which serves traditional galettes (savory crepes made with buckwheat flour) and cider that you drink from bowls. I would absolutely recommend this casual stop!

Honfleur's market sets up on Wednesday and Saturday mornings right in the shadow of the church. It was also set up the day we left as it was New Years Eve. Besides the gorgeous frisee, leeks, and potatoes there was a vender selling fresh oysters, a mobile fish market, and a wine merchant. 
I just loved, loved, loved Honfleur! If you are thinking of a trip to Normandy I would absolutely stay here for a day or three. Not only is it charming and beautiful but it's also a great home base for daytripping to Trouville, Deauville, and Le Havre. More on that to come.

All photos of Honfleur and surrounding here

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

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