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May 14, 2007

Pedalling through Normandy and Brittany


Must... work... off... lunch...: Paying for meals bathed in butter along Normandy's country roads

While the rest of the world has turned its back on clarified butter, Normandy has not, and for this it is deserving of high praise. This means, however, that if you're going to travel along the coast of Normandy, you may wish to consider a high-cardio form of locomotion, especially if you're going to be doing things like eating a sole that took its final swim in sea of clarified butter.

Cross-country skiing would be your best choice, but Normandy has what the French call le climat oceanique, which is just a sophisticated way of saying "British weather." It's prone to cloud cover and rain, and by cloud cover I mean a thick, gooey blanket of light-sucking grey, and by rain I mean an interminable drizzle. There is no snow, but there are roads, and so the logical choice is also a fun one: the bicycle.

The rain, you might think, presents obvious challenges to the cyclist. But the rain is what makes the grass grow as richly as it does, and the grass is what nourishes the cows, which produce the cream, which is churned into butter. So really, the rain is what makes the cycling necessary, and rather than complain about it, the cyclist should just look forward to the next meal.

That said, if youre going to go to the trouble of renting a bike, you may as well rent a guide and a van while youre at it, because the guide will know where to find the prettiest roads with the fewest cars, and the van is where you will want to park yourself and your bike if it really starts coming down (which happened to me more than once).

The most startling of Normandy traits is that grassy pasture. It is the densest on the planet. It seems to have to choose a direction in which to grow, like the fur on a Labrador's back. Wind can barely budge it and the Normandy cows -- white with black polka dots -- just sort of give up. You see them sitting down on half-grazed ground, one hoof folded underneath, chewing cud, their digestive tracts unable to keep up with the grass's torrid rate of increase. While cycling past these fields, I had a peculiar and recurring thought: I wanted to take a gigantic hairbrush and coif the grass.

William the Conqueror lived here in Normandy before his infamous invasion of Britain in 1066. To the French he is known as Guillaume le Conquerant, though prior to 1066 he was just Guillaume. It's not hard to see why he decided to invade that isle to the north. Normandy looks compellingly like England, only with better food and no soccer hooligans. The roads are narrow, fabulously windy, and walled in with hedge growth. The hills are rolling, gardening is the pastime of choice, and there's a foreboding sense, even on the sunniest day, that only and idiot would leave the house without an umbrella.


Juno Beach

For the visitor to Normandy, it's a place of surprising intensity. You can eat a meal of fish or the best tripe in the world and come away with a perfect level of gustatory satiation. I did this at La Marine, a beachside restaurant in the town of Arromanches, right next to Juno Beach, where on D-Day, June 6, 1944, 1,200 Canadians soldiers were killed in action. (By the end of that day, the Canadians had penetrated farther into enemy territory than any other Allied force, and Canadians ever since have felt compelled to keep reminding the world of this fact.) The reminders of war are constant and grim. A German pillbox sits intact on a hill, and there is a 50-mm anti-tank gun right on the beach, an ever-present counter-theme to the sand, breeze, and lapping tide.

Omaha Beach is further down the road and above it sits the American war memorial and its fields of fallen. To walk down the rows of monuments over the trim lawn is to read names and think how strange it is that William McCart from Tennessee or Domingo Martinez from California or Abraham Hirsch from New York or Francis Frazier from Rhode Island would, along with 9,383 others, perish on a beach in Northern France.


World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Continuing along towards Mont-Saint-Michel, the seaside homes seem at first like flagrant and disrespectful acts of weekend holidaymakers. But pushing a bicycle is hard, rhythmic work, a circular routine that drives progress, and it makes a rational argument for getting on with life. Arriving at Mont-Saint-Michel, the church and abbey that crown the tidal island is magnificent to the point of mystical, but they can make no sense of all the sadness just up the road.



Eventually, you come to Brittany, and the boundary between it and its neighbor seems to be primarily geological: In Normandy, the homes are made of smooth gray limestone, but in Brittany they change abruptly to mottled granite.

After a detour past death and religion, the road turned once again to the subject of food once, which in France is both unavoidable and welcome destination. My guide and van driver took me to a famous restaurant called Le Coquillage, run by master French chef Olivier Roellinger, whose pioneering work in spice mixtures is talked about in France the way we might talk about A-Rod's batting stance. His work has earned him three Michelin stars, though not for Le Coquillage, which is merely and unbelievably a bistro. I rode up the gravel driveway, placed the bike in the van and inside we announced that we had a reservation.

We ordered a tasting menu and it came in two acts: the first cold, the second hot. Next to us, a German couple was tackling an enormous platter of shellfish while we took pieces of crusty bread and layered a carapace of golden Normandy butter on top. The dishes arrived all at once on a grand tray, set between us, covered with little saucers.


Tasting menu at Le Coquillage

The waiter delivered instructions as to what order the dishes should be consumed and with what sauce. We began. We would set into each dish, take a bite, then pause to declare how good it was. By the third dish this generated to barely coherent swearing. Our courses finished, a young man sidled up to the table, pushing a three-tired wooden cart laden with many delicious sweets. Two cold, silver canisters, sweating with condensation, stored the sorbet, and my favorite memory of the meal is the warm clink the ice cream scoop made as our server spooned the dessert out in frosty lumps.

Posted at N 48 38.580 and W001 52.297


Given a choice I would much rather spend my time with British food and the soccer hooligans ..

great post. any update on the cool gadgets you brought? are you missing anything? any comments from people on your watch? thx.

It's taken me the better part of two days since I discovered this blog to go back to the beginning and read it through ~~ and it was such a wonderful experience, I almost missed my own Mother's Day party! Thanks Mark for your terrific writing. More Please, Sir, and Soon!

I'm sure I wasn't the only one hungry by the time I finished this entry.

Yes indeed, I was hungry too. Might just order some delivery and keep reading!

Yes indeed, I was hungry too. Might just order some delivery and keep reading!

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