Travel: An all-consuming time in Normandy

Who would become `le plus gros mangeur de Livarot'? In the land of cheese and cider, Hugh O'Shaughnessy joins an eating contest

Have you put your name down for the eating competition, monsieur?" said the kindly looking girl at Encoignard's charcuterie as I bought my slice of pate de foie. Did I really, I thought to myself, look like a fat old man who could enter an eating competition with any chance of success? Horrified, I realised that perhaps I did.

I needn't have worried at the implications of the charcutiere's inquiry. Two days later, Philippe won what turned out to be a test of speed of eating rather than capacity. He is a svelte man in his thirties with a thin face and the figure of a winner of the Tour de France.

"You get the little cheese down first, then take a swig of cider. A good fat belch then sets you up for getting the big one down." Flushed with the applause of an appreciative crowd in the Place Pasteur, Philippe gave tips to potential challengers as he clutched his trophy. It was one of those anonymous garish things that you can buy in sports shops for a few francs but that day it was rescued from anonymity by a little typed note glued to the base which read: "Le plus gros mangeur de Livarot, 1998".

In a little under four minutes, seated on a platform with six others, each looking like a figure out of one of the more troubling pictures of Vincent Van Gogh, Philippe had just downed 750 grammes of Livarot cheese and a litre of cider and had claimed the prize in the carrier bag - some more cheese and a couple of bottles of cider.

Also triumphant, and with a trophy and carrier bag was Madame Buchet - Annie to her friends - a tall stylish woman d'un certain age wearing an attractive T-shirt featuring small pink pigs having sexual congress in various positions more common to the human than to the animal world. She had a walkover since she alone of the Livarotaises had presented herself on the platform. But she was applauded none the less. "You know," said Madame Renee in the tourist office shyly, "ladies don't like to run the risk of putting on weight."

Under the indulgent gaze of two gendarmes, Monsieur Baumy, the town policeman, armed with a whistle and an enormous pot belly, then led los mariachis from a neighbouring town into the square where they serenaded the public tunelessly but with great verve. Wearing Mexican hats, they produced something of a tropical rhythm in the little Norman town that cloudy summer afternoon.

Behind the platform the children squealed with delight on the spaceships and helicopters of the little merry-go-round while people lined up to give 10 franc pieces to happy, foxy-looking stallholders for the privilege of attempting impossible tasks with skittles and plastic ducks.

The day before had been the kids' day on the platform. The under-12s had been split into teams of two. The first, protected with a black plastic rubbish sack, sat at table in front of six pots of yoghurt, with instructions to look straight in front. The second stood behind, blindfold and charged with putting the yoghurt in, or at least near, the partner's mouth. The resultant mess was monumental, the fun enormous and another generation was prepared for a gastronomic future.

At half past five the following afternoon, the traders in cheese and wine and sausages, black pudding, cider and gateaux basques at the scores of stalls throughout the town were beginning to count their earnings. Perhaps even the used car salesman who cheekily put some of his stock on the pavement at the top of the town made a sale or two. In the tent the waiters began final preparations for the communal feast which would follow and close Livarot's eleventh annual cheese festival.

Livarot lives on cheese and cider. The town, tucked into a green valley, is within walking distance of the tiny village of Camembert where two centuries ago Marie Harel rose to fame on the basis of a recipe supposedly confided to her during the French Revolution by a priest.

There is a big factory in Livarot turning out all sorts of soft cheeses, while at the other end of town, the Ecusson plant produces wine by the lakeful. The eleventh annual cheese fair in the small town was a canticle of thanks to the gods of food and drink.

This description is not written simply to attract readers to Livarot. The little town, three-quarters of an hour's drive south-east of Caen, is not a wonderfully beautiful or charming place. But it is characteristic of scores of towns in Normandy and thousands in France as a whole. The fairs and celebrations they stage reveal something of French people's deep love and enjoyment of food. It is a sentiment that is not to be found in Britain, not even in today's New Labour, sun-dried tomato country. There's nothing quite like eating in Livarot.

Fact File

AUTUMN OFFERS to northern France: Check out the deals available from P&O Stena Line (0990 980980) from Newhaven to Dieppe, P&O European (same number) from Portsmouth to Cherbourg and Le Havre, and Britanny Ferries (0990 360360) for the Poole-Cherbourg, Portsmouth-St Malo, Portsmouth- Caen and Plymouth-Roscoff sailings.

In search of food and drink: in the green valleys of the Pays d'Auge, the local tourist authorities have devised a Route du Cidre and a Route du Fromage. For more details of the all-consuming trails contact the tourist office at Lisieux (11 rue d'Alencon, tel 00 33 2 31 62 08 41).

More information: French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number) or www.franceguide.com

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