Travel: A diet of cream and calvados: The chief ingredients of Norman cuisine might give a cardiologist a heart attack, but Tony Kelly and the locals do not seem to suffer from any adverse effects

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Ihad been in France for three hours, and was standing on the quay at St Vaast watching the arrival of the mussel catch, when a stranger came striding up to me.

'Ex-cu-say-moi, m'sieur,' he began. In bad French he asked the way to rue General de Gaulle. 'Je ne sais pas,' I replied; then, asking the obvious: 'Are you English?' 'Oh, sorry,' he said. 'You looked particularly French.' All around me were fishermen in blue smocks and caps; I was a tourist with a camera over my shoulder.

It was a good start to my attempt to go native for a weekend. Going native in Normandy means becoming obsessed with food, and my love affair with Norman cuisine had begun on a visit a year earlier. To consummate the relationship, I had booked a cookery course at the Manoir de l'Acherie, a 17th-century manor house turned country hotel at Villedieu-les-Poetes, 70 miles (115km) from Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula.

I arrived on Thursday evening in time for dinner. Monsieur Cahu, the patron and my teacher for the weekend, was grilling home-made andouillettes (sausages made from intestines) over a log fire in the dining room. I tucked into my meal and, listening to the English voices around me, imagined that everyone was there for the same reason. When Mr Cahu introduced himself over coffee I was surprised to discover that my sole companion on the course was the lady who had been dining alone at the next table.

The course - Mr Cahu's first - ran for two afternoons, so on Friday morning I explored the countryside on foot. High-hedged meadows full of brown-and-white cows alternated with orchards bulging with ripe apples - an early sign of the sources of Norman cuisine. There is scarcely a Norman dish that does not contain the product of either orchard or meadow, and usually both. After lunch we rolled up our sleeves and entered the kitchen. Our first sight was a pot of boiling stock, brimming with carrots, leeks, garlic and a bouquet of herbs. 'Just hot enough to kill a lobster,' observed Mr Cahu and, sure enough, two squirming lobsters were removed from the store and plunged into the pan. Next he prepared jugged hare, using three bottles of wine to two hares and thickening the sauce with the hares' blood. French cookery courses are not for the squeamish.

We spent that first afternoon watching as Mr Cahu and his assistant, Stephane, demonstrated pastry-making, made an apple tart, and cooked ham, veal and steak, each fried in butter and served in a cream sauce. Of course, we also had to taste each dish when it was cooked. The tuition was given in a mixture of French and body language, with Stephane helping out with English translation.

On Saturday we visited the market at Granville, a former British fortress town 20 miles from Villedieu on the west coast. Buckets of creme frache competed for attention with mounds of unsalted butter, whole guinea fowls, giant pumpkins and strings of fat garlic. Outside, stalls sold chitterling sausages wrapped in buckwheat pancakes - a very adequate lunch.

There was also time for a quick visit to Villedieu, known as 'God's town of the frying pans' because of its history first as a centre for the Knights of St John and later as France's leading producer of copper pans. They are still made there, and Mr Cahu uses nothing else.

On Saturday afternoon, after watching Stephane create a perfect mayonnaise, and after slicing the potatoes for a gratin dauphinois (which, inevitably, included cream, milk, eggs and cheese), it was time to don our chef's hats and create our own meal. The kitchen staff stopped work and stood entranced as the English pair cooked, first, a truite normande (trout in cream sauce) and then a steak, flambeed in calvados with yet more cream.

There were appreciative murmurs in the dining room as our creations were served - to us, as we now switched roles and become diners again. Between courses Mrs Cahu brought us a trou normand, an apple sorbet swimming in calvados which is supposed to neutralise the fat and aid the digestion, creating a 'hole' for the next dish. We needed it, for the apple tart came flambeed in calva, too, followed by meringues. 'Do the Normans have a terrible heart problem?' I had asked Mr Cahu as we ladled cream into the pan. 'Not at all,' he replied. 'We have fresh air, the sea, exercise . . .' 'And calva?' I suggested. 'Perhaps . . .'

As a semi-vegetarian I found the emphasis on meat difficult at times, but then the recipes are infinitely adaptable. It sounds awful, and I'm sure that Mr Cahu would disapprove, but you can always try your hand at a tofu normand, complete with calvados and cream. I've done it, and it is delicious.

The whole Cahu family came to see us off on Sunday morning. 'Did you gain much from the course?' asked Mrs Cahu. I resisted the obvious reply - half a stone - and said yes, thank you, I thought I had learnt a lot, but that the proof of the pudding was in the eating. At least, that's what I wanted to say. But my French wasn't up to it.

Tony Kelly booked his course through Inntravel (0439 71111). The basic cost was pounds 194, including ferry crossing with car, cookery tuition and three nights' accommodation with four-course dinner and breakfast.

PORT PROFILE

Getting there: Brittany Ferries (0705 827701) has one or two sailings a day, from Poole to Cherbourg; three-day return for a car and all passengers costs from pounds 75. P&O European Ferries (0705 772244) has two per day from Portsmouth to Cherbourg; three-day return for a car and up to five passengers costs from pounds 83.

Hotels: The Hotel Mercure, Gare Maritime ((010 33) 33 44 01 11) - across the water from the ferry terminal - is a Etypical Lego-kit French chain hotel but is set in a glorious spoTHER write errort. At the weekend double rooms cost from around pounds 30 per night. Probably the best hotel on the Cotentin peninsula is the Hotel de France (33 54 42 26) in St-Vaast-la-Hougue: rooms with baths cost from pounds 24 per double per night.

Restaurants: Two highly rated places are Grandgousier, 21 rue de l'Abbaye (33 53 19 43), with set menus from pounds 14, and L'Ancre Doree, 3 rue Abbaye (33 93 98 38), with menus from pounds 11.

An hour to spare: There is a pretty good war museum in the Fort du Roule, high above the town: if you aren't interested in the Second World War, you can enjoy the breathtaking view.

Market: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in Place General de Gaulle.

Hypermarket: The Continent hypermarket (the second road to the right after leaving the ferry terminal) deserves an award as the least prepossessing structure in France.

Tourist office: Office de Tourisme de Cherbourg et du Nord Cotentin, 2 Quai Alexandre III, Cherbourg (33 93 52 02).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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