A normandy invasion

Decades ago, back when I worried nobody in Paris liked me (I was an American — and a food critic), the wife of a French Michelin three-star chef tried to help. “Please tell people in America that Parisians are not unpleasant only to them. They are unpleasant to everyone.” The thought was comforting. Also disturbing. Like more than a few Americans, I am wary of the French, believing that no matter what we do for them — drink their wines, praise their sauces — they don’t like us one bit.

So I was intrigued when a French chef working in California, Bruno Herve-Commereuc, told me, “To meet the best people in the world, go to Normandy.” He’s biased; he’s from there. Still….

Most Americans know this region in northwest France along the English Channel as the site of the momentous D-Day landings during World War II. It made some sense that, of all of France’s regions, the one where we sacrificed so much in that war might be inclined to act kindly toward us.

I’d never been to Normandy but always longed to go. Everything elemental about French cuisine is there, no more than a half-day’s drive from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. Cream. Butter. Cider. Calvados. Oysters. Smelly cheeses such as Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque. It’s a region of old-school artisanal producers, people whose way of life has always been about craftsmanship, not the nouveau rural types who move to the countryside and purchase a herd of goats. The restaurants are traditional and unfussy, for the most part unsullied by Michelin stars, which tend to reward expense and extravagance.

As Herve-Commereuc uttered his comment I knew the time finally had come for me to travel there. It took me a nanosecond to figure I’d use food as my entrée (if you will) for connecting with the culture. We all eat when we travel; we have to. What we sometimes overlook is that every dining experience, be it at an upscale restaurant or a food vendor’s stall, offers a gateway into a new land. I was embarking on the journey with two challenges: I don’t speak French (though I do read French menus well), and my itinerary would be stitched together as much as possible by following the recommendations of kindly Normans.

I address challenge number one just a few hours off the plane, when I speak to my first French stranger while looking for a public phone (telephone boxes, or cabines, have all but disappeared in rural France). The woman, Dominique Laguerriere, works at a highway information booth and graciously lets me use the phone there. Only hours into my journey I’ve made my first friend. All is going well. My trip, I decide, will be recognized as the finest example of French-American collaboration since the Marquis de Lafayette came ashore at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1777.

Camembert is a mousetrap of a village. Lures you in. Lacks road signs, so you can’t get out. I appear to be the only person around when I arrive at 6 p.m., though plenty of cows, the signature livestock of Normandy, are grazing nearby hillsides. Small billboards lining the town square promote Camembert cheese, but in the late afternoon, when a weary traveler might welcome refreshment — say, a bit of Camembert — the place seems shut down. Even the Maison du Camembert is locked. My problem is that I hadn’t asked anybody where to go here. I had just set out for Camembert on my own, which is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. Serves me right.

Maybe I’ll have better luck at the next cheese stop on my itinerary, Pont-l’Évêque.