Seafood of Normandy
What makes Normandy such a catch?
Normandy is synonymous with many things: 1066 and all that. The D Day Landing Beaches. Calvados and orchards. But its seafood is a stand out feature of this slow paced, bucolic region.
The bounty of the sea is one thing, but when elevated by the judicious addition of Normandy’s other culinary masterpieces, namely cream, cheese, cider, apples, the result is dishes of sublime flavour and quality.
The most effective seafood dishes are the simplest, from the super-basic, elemental fruits de mer, eaten with a dash of lemon and a whiff of ozone, to more complex but still essentially rustic fish soups and stews.
With its 600 km coastline packed with picturesque fishing villages and larger ports landing catches of some of France’s finest seafood, Normandy is seafood central. Some might say it’s a piscatorial paradise.
Several iconic shellfish are associated with the region. Oysters, mussels and scallops (or coquilles Saint Jacques) are cultivated and lauded throughout France, and beyond.
Uniquely regional dishes are classics, utilising Normandy’s other famous produce like rich dairy products, cheeses like Neufchâtel, Pont L’Evêque and Livarot, and apples. A simple sauce a la crème, or one based on Camembert perhaps, can elevate a dish to greatness, and adding a splash of Calvados can be transformative.
There are countless gastronomic enclaves, some famous, many more almost unknown, where the best of Normandy seafood is to be found. Here’s a selection of just a few.
Colourful harbourside restaurants, some elegantly crumbling, offer an array of enticing seafood dishes, all classics of their type in a relaxed, everyday kind of way.
Expect fish soups of various kinds (with or without croutons and rouille, some thickened and hearty, others clearer and smoother without chunks of fishiness lurking at the bottom). And expect scallops with a fondue of leeks, and perhaps velouté of prawns.
In the Calvados département, Isigny is famed for its oysters, farmed in the Baie des Veys. The town has other gastronomic credentials, being famed for its AOC butter, cream and Camembert cheese.
With a deep harbour and tall cliffs, Dieppe is not an A list destination for most tourists. Perhaps too many of them associate it with cross-Channel ferries in times past. It is however renowned for the classic marmite dieppoise, a steaming vat of Normandy fish stew. Purists will insist on four kinds of white fish, with a supporting cast of white wine, mussels, shrimp and mushrooms, finished off with cream.
Long renowned as an important fishing port, the famous fish market dates from 1840 and is, in fact, a National Monument. Recently restored and covered, it offers a huge array of seafood. There are banks of crushed ice on which recline huge shrimp, delicate pink langoustines, skate, sea bass and turbot, not to mention endless trays of winkles, whelks, crabs, clams and oysters.
Peak time for the best mackerel is high summer (there’s even a well organised festival so you can’ t forget), and why not treat yourself to half a dozen oysters and glass of Muscadet at one of the waterside eateries?
On the Cotentin west coast facing Jersey, this is a traditional family resort with a sandy beach and a pleasant coastal footpath – and a small fleet of fishing boats that bring home fish like flounder but mainly crabs, lobster and spider crab.
Once a medieval port, but today more of a conventional fishing village complete with harbour and specialising in landing mussels. One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, Barfleur is well worth a visit for its charming picture postcard appeal, with granite houses and attractive 17th century church.
St Vaast, nestled at the foot of the Cotentin peninsula, is a well known fishing and sailing port, pleasant for seaside holidays. It is one of several oyster hotspots in Normandy - in fact Normandy produces 25% of all French oysters. You can even take a tour of an oyster farm to see for yourself the process involved and enjoy a tasting too.
The Vieux Port is achingly picturesque with its charming harbour, surrounded by the tall, pastel hued townhouses, and the subject of a million artist’s depictions (not least Monet’s). There are any number of seafood restaurants with moules a speciality and sole meunière which is likely to be the best you’ve ever experienced.
Stick around until late September and you’ll catch the best tasting shrimps, the ‘petites grises’ – small but meaty and really tasty.
Overlooking the Mont St Michel bay this has long been a popular resort for Parisians and English alike. Famously, Christian Dior lived here as a child, part of the important industrial Dior family.
A former cod fishing port, it is now France’s premier port for shellfish, particularly clams, scallops and crabs. Browsing the menus of local restaurants you might come across Granvillaise galette with scallops and cream, sea bream baked in a salt crust and served with a shellfish sauce.
What’s in a plateau de fruits de mer?
Served cold, and usually with some theatricality involving multi-tiered platters and crushed ice, finger bowls and sometimes seaweed, this is an eye-catching feature on many a table during the season. Various implements are deployed to crush, prise and tweeze that would not be out of place in the hands of a medieval dentist.
Any of the following are commonly found in the dish: oysters, shrimp, lobster, crab, langoustines, mussels, scallops and clams, winkles and whelks. It’s certainly a dish to linger over and take your time with.