In a Norman Kitchen

In a Norman Kitchen

This is the first of Susan Herrmann Loomis’s regular monthly columns for France Today.

It’s late winter in Normandy, and life is all about leeks. Thin ones, fat ones, large bunches and small, the leek is queen of winter.

The word for leek in French, poireau, is masculine, but there is no way this vegetable, with its flared green tops and frothy ivory roots, is male. Leeks are a definite “she”. I cannot explain why, but I never think of leeks as anything but soft, feminine, gracious and graceful. Perhaps it is the way they sweeten everything from soup to quiche. Perhaps it is their generosity-even the toughest of the green leaves can go into a potage or a quiche. Perhaps it is simply their allure-tall, strong, stately, yet just slightly lacy at the edges.

The leek has a whole coterie of companion vegetables in winter. In Normandy, where I live, the Savoy cabbage is ever-present and always loved, followed by small purple-blushed turnips, fat soil-clotted carrots, dusty round beets, knobby celery root, knobbier Jerusalem artichokes, and that winter princess, the Brussels sprout.

Not one of these vegetables is specific to Normandy. They are, rather, the general citizenry of winter. They fit the Norman climate and consciousness, however, for one wakes in the morning to pitch darkness that lingers until 8:30 am, dreaming of warming foods like vegetable braises and roasts, rich stews and hot soups, sautés and simple steams. And they are easily turned into regional fare with the addition of a simple ingredient. Crème fraîche, the Norman silver bullet.

Crème fraîche makes everything edible, digestible, possible from the Norman point of view. When Normans talks about a dish being “light” they are referring to anything made with crème fraîche, as in a rabbit and root vegetable braise enriched at the last minute with a serious dollop. What makes a Norman dish “heavy”? Butter, lots of butter, another cornerstone of this region’s fare.

Crème fraîche is simply top cream. Here in this lush and abundant region, though, it is top cream with a difference. That difference is all due to the Norman cow, a sturdy creature with coquettish black rings around each eye. While the animal gives less milk than, say, a Jersey cow, the milk it gives is more golden and rich, and nearly half composed of cream. It is thanks to this cow that Normandy is famed for its dairy products.

The cows are as essential to the region as the bridges that span the Seine as it makes its way to the sea, for aside from their contribution to Norman gastronomy, their insatiable appetite for grass keeps apple orchards tidy and productive. You’ve seen the typical Norman image-spotted cow under apple tree. It’s no cliché, but rather the circle of Norman life. Cows tidy up, then they fertilize. Because of this modest work, the Norman orchard’s fruit is organic, as pure as it is delicious.

So as I do my winter marketing, strolling through the farmers’ market of a Saturday morning, I fill my basket with root vegetables from Jean-Claude and Monique Martin. I also buy mâche, or lamb’s lettuce, from them, because there isn’t better to be had. Just last week I bought the last handful-harsh winter temperatures this year have made all greens scarce-and a collective groan went up from those in line behind me.

My next stop at the market is to wait in line for endive at Baptiste Bourdon’s stand. At 27 one of the market’s youngest farmers, he is the endive king. Normandy isn’t the traditional endive region; that honor goes to the north of France and the fields around Amiens, which have heated pipes running deep beneath them to encourage the endives’ growth. But Baptiste doesn’t care. He loves endive and he grows it without heated soil, under a protective green house that keeps out all the light. His firm, ivory, torpedo-shaped endives are a siren song to every vegetable lover at the market. Carefully packed in boxes lined with light-proof blue paper, Baptiste unveils his endives a box at a time, so the tips of their leaves don’t turn green, for a green-tipped endive is considered an inferior vegetable. They fly out of his stand, so that anyone arriving there after 10 am is likely to be out of endive luck.

Because Baptiste is smart and knows that one cannot live by endive alone he tolerates turnips, sells kilos of carrots, sings the praises of his luscious potatoes to anyone who will listen and grows a variety of squash and other winter vegetables because he must.

In winter, apples are as important to Normandy as cream. Anyone who has ever been here knows this, for you cannot drive a kilometer anywhere in the region without passing a stand or orchard of gnarled trees, snowy with blossoms in spring, heavy with fruit in autumn, nakedly withstanding the winter chill.

Not far from Baptiste at the market is Vincent Prieur, who makes the most of Normandy apples, cultivating a dozen varieties with names like Calville Blanc, Cox Orange Pippin, Boscop, and Reine de Reinette. Each is more crisp and flavorful than the other, and from the way Vincent handles them you’d think they were his children. He becomes almost misty when clients compliment his fruit. “Thank you, ” he says bashfully. “You cannot know the pleasure I get from selling such good fruit.”

I love the apples I buy from Vincent. In my household we eat them out of hand; I cut them in chunks, cook them with vanilla and serve the resulting compote for breakfast; I caramelize and wrap them in pastry; I season them with salt, pepper and a dusting of cinnamon and serve them alongside roast chicken; and fold them into cake batter for dessert.

While Vincent’s apples are heaven, it is his pears that bring tears to my eye. Never have I tasted fruit so ripe, so juicy, so floral and tender as his Comice. I rarely cook them-they are simply too good as they are. For clafoutis or custard, I prefer the more slender Conférence variety, equally flavorful, slightly more firm.

While other regions spout on about their apples, it is only in Normandy where orchardists take them seriously enough to turn their juice into hard cider, then distill it into a fragrant, warming, richly savory brandy called Calvados. There is nothing quite like a small glass of barrel-aged Calvados, from either the Camut brothers or M. Huard, sipped slowly by the fire after supper. The Norman cook puts Calvados to good use too, flavoring stews, pastries, cakes and creams in much the same way Americans use vanilla extract.

In not too distant history it was typical to see men at the café of an early morning simultaneously sipping coffee and Calvados, as a morning pick-me-up. Babies were fed sugar cubes dipped in Calvados to calm them. Youngsters had Calvados mixed with milk in their bottles to put them to sleep. Those were the days when anyone with cider apple trees-gnarled old beauties producing the essential foursome of sweet, tart, bitter and bittersweet apples with names like Rambault, Noël des Champs and Bisquet-could distill their own Calvados. Alcoholism was rampant and the government stepped in to limit the production of Calvados. Now the right to distill is handed from father to son, if the son lives on the property where the apple trees grow.

As the winter winds of Normandy blow through the apple orchards and down the narrow streets lined with timbered houses, I am in my kitchen like so many other Norman cooks, transforming leeks and roots, seasoning chickens and rabbits, peeling and coring apples and pears. A dollop of cream here, a knot of golden butter there, a splash of Calvados flamed to bring its flavor forth-it’s all summed up in luscious Norman winter fare.



1 tbsp (15 g) unsalted butter 
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
6 oz (180 g) slab bacon, rind removed, cut in 1 x 3/4 x 3/4″ ( 2.5 x 2 x 2 cm) pieces 
12 oz (375 g) small white onions or shallots, peeled 
One 3 lb (1.5 kg) chicken, cut in six pieces 
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 
3 tbsp (45 ml) Calvados (apple brandy) 
3/4 cup (375 ml) apple cider 
1 lb (500 g) tart apples, peeled, cored and cut in sixths 
5 fresh bay leaves 
1 small bunch fresh thyme leaves 
2 stems fresh rosemary (plus several sprigs for decoration) 
1/2 cup (125 ml) crème fraîche or heavy, non ultra-pasteurized cream

For the apple garnish:
3 tbsp (45 g) unsalted butter 
1 lb (500 g) apples, cored, peeled and cut into sixths 
2 tsp brown sugar (optional)

1. Melt butter with oil in a large heavy skillet (with sides at least 3″ high) over medium-high heat. When hot, add bacon, stir, then add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until bacon and onions are golden on all sides, and bacon is not too crisp, about 4 min. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Drain all but 2 tbsp fat from pan and add chicken, stirring to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper and brown, turning frequently, until chicken is deep golden and partially cooked-about 15 min. Avoid crowding the pan-do two batches if necessary. Remove chicken and reserve with bacon and onions.

2. Add Calvados to pan and ignite with a long kitchen match to burn the alcohol off, standing back and averting your face. When flames have died out, add cider and stir, scraping up any caramelized juices. Return chicken, bacon and onions to pan, along with apples, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Gently stir all ingredients to coat with liquid. Add herbs, pushing them down among chicken pieces. Cover and cook until chicken is tender and cooked through, about 20 min, turning frequently.

3. While chicken cooks, make the apple garnish: Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat. Add apple slices and toss to coat. Cover and cook until nearly cooked through, about 10 min. Remove cover and continue cooking until tender, another 5 to 10 min. Sprinkle with sugar and continue cooking, shaking pan, until slightly caramelized, about 4 min. Remove from heat and reserve.

4. When chicken is cooked, transfer it, with onions, bacon and the apples that cooked with it to a warmed serving platter and keep warm. The apples may have softened and fallen apart, which is fine as they will help to thicken the sauce. Discard herbs. Stir crème fraîche into cooking juices and cook just until hot and slightly thickened, about 5 min. Adjust seasoning and pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with the caramelized apples and fresh rosemary sprigs and serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6


Journalist and author Susan Herrmann Loomis has lived in France for 20 years and currently teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. She has written nine books, including Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin (William Morrow, 2006). Susan’s website

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of France Today.

Share to:  Facebook  Twitter   LinkedIn   Email

Previous Article Shall We Kiss?
Next Article Florian Confiserie

Related Articles

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *