If shellfish is your preferred nosh you’ll understand why nothing would deter PETER FROST from his determined search for palate bliss.
My wife Ann (below) and I have been visiting Normandy for more than 40 years.
We love the rich history, particularly of the D-Day beaches that turned the tide of the war to stop the nazis. Today those beaches are fun-filled playgrounds as well as monuments to fallen heroes.
Normandy also offers some of the best food and drink in France, or indeed Europe.
The cider and perry are magnificent and the pork dishes — often cooked in apple and cream — are delicious. The cheeses, so many named after Norman villages, are deservedly world-famous.
Looking out over the spectacular Mont St Michel are the salt marshes where local people raise some of the most subtly flavoured lamb available anywhere.
Best of all are the fish, and particularly the shellfish: oysters, lobsters, crabs, langoustines, prawns, shrimps and mussels.
All make their own individual contribution to the signature dish of Normandy, the legendary Fruits de Mare — the Harvest of the Sea.
My favourite crustacean, as regular readers of this column will know, is missing from that particular piscatorial cornucopia. I love whelks. The humble, and so often misjudged, sea snail is my particular favourite.
Perhaps that is why, for the past 20 years, I have been trying to organise my life so that I am in the tiny Normandy fishing port of Pirou on the Cherbourg peninsular on the last weekend of April.
For each of the last 20 years Pirou’s usually quiet market place — the Place Charles de Gaulle — comes alive that weekend when a bustling crowd of Buccinum Undatum enthusiasts arrive to celebrate all things whelk.
The Annual Foire de Bulot — the whelk fair — sees the whelk fishers of Pirou and the nearby coast displaying and selling their wares.
There are cookery demonstrations and competitions. This year the young chef prize was for the best whelk crumble.
Yes that is black pudding liberally stuffed with chopped whelks. It was unexpectedly wonderful.
The local lifeboat crew and supporters had a huge eating hall serving plates of oysters, whelks and prawns washed down with cider, wine or beer. Local fisherfolk had donated the catch so the lifeboat coffers would be full for the rest of the season. They launched the lifeboat across the beach during the festival.
Stalls offered cider, perry, wines, sausages, tripe and other cold meats, spices, exotic salads, vegetables and breads, all from local suppliers catering for the occasional gourmand who had grown temporarily tired of whelks.
Various bands, some with excruciating whelk puns in their names, entertained all day and well into the night.
What a great weekend. I fear it could only happen in France, where they give all food — even the humble whelk — the respect it deserves.
- How to get there: Peter and Ann Frost took their favourite route to France. The overnight Brittany Ferry sails from Portsmouth late in the evening. There is just time for a late supper and a nightcap before getting your head down for a good night’s sleep in a comfortable cabin.
- Wake in the morning for coffee and a croissant and it is soon time to drive ashore at Ouistreham near Caen, you will be refreshed and ready to enjoy all the delights Normandy has to offer. http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
French fishy festivals from Frosty
Ann and I have enjoyed many fisherfolk festivals in France.
We have joined the inshore fishing fleet (above) at Honfleur where the boats circled three miles offshore with a brass band playing, and they cast wreaths of flowers into the sea to remember lost comrades while the local bishop blessed the fishery.
At La Tremblade near the mouth of the Gironde we celebrated on the beach among many small fires. Each was an eclade — a beachside seafood cooking method. Piles of local mussels are stacked in an elegant cone a foot or two high. Each mussel must be carefully placed with the hinge uppermost. Then the cones are buried in a huge pile of dried pine needles from the dunes that back the beach. When the needles are lit the flames are spectacular and the pine-flavoured smoke most appetising.
The fire doesn’t last long and when it has died and the ashes are carefully brushed away the perfectly cooked and delicately pine-flavoured mussels are eaten, washed down by any of the exceptional local Bordeaux wines.
At Cancale, near St Malo, the oyster beds (below) are just off-shore. A horse-drawn cart took us out from the jetty to see the growing methods and after that we joined the oyster farmer’s festival to try the bivalves served with a tiny but very spicy sausage that made Cancale’s famous native oysters taste even better.
Wake in the morning for coffee and a croissant and it is soon time to drive ashore at Ouistreham near Caen. You will be refreshed and ready to enjoy all the delights Normandy has to offer.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 15 April 2015
The Pirou Tourist Office reports that over 18,000 people attended this year’s Whelk Festival.