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John Lichfield: Pleasures of the Norman table


Oh the joy of escaping to Normandy away from the rioting, looting and collapse of the financial markets.

Here, in Normandie Profonde, in the green hills of Calvados, life remains calm and predictable. Though not, it turns out, immutable and unchanging. Our local edition of the estimable Ouest France (the highest circulation French-language newspaper in the world) glances dismissively at the "jumpiness" of the world of politics and finance. It then moves along to give news from every village in the area, including the announcement that our commune is holding its annual sausage grilling festival next Sunday.

This means that my neighbour, the "chairman of fun", assistant mayor of the commune, will put on his straw hat and smile. Usually the grimmest of men, he makes an ex-officio effort to be jolly twice a year as chairman of the commune's "feasts and festivities" committee.

Summer means that our small corner of the commune doubles its population. A hamlet of three inhabited houses and a caravan becomes a metropolis of six inhabited houses and a caravan. We are the only true outsiders. All the other summer visitors have local connections. Patricia, for instance, returns from Paris each August to the house once owned by her grandmother, where she spent every summer holiday as a child. The house remains as it was when her grandmother died 20 years ago. It has no inside toilet, no bathroom and no hot water.

We invited Patricia to dinner with her sister-in-law Nathalie and young nephew, Lucas. Patricia is a left-of-centre, high-powered executive in a company in the Paris suburbs. We did not talk of elections or politics, or financial markets, or riots. We talked about Normandy in the good old days. Patricia remembers the time when the women of the hamlet used to do their washing in the stream below her house. She remembers when the hamlet had four small farms, including her grandmother's. It now has none.

Her memories of childhood visits are, she said, dominated by family fêtes, which were food-heavy clan gatherings of 20 or 30 people. The commune-organised festivities of today have been introduced to compensate for their disappearance. "Everything was an excuse for a family feast," Patricia recalled. "A birthday, a wedding anniversary, a christening, the day of your christian name's patron saint. There would always be eight courses, two entrees, hot and cold, a trou Normand (ie a "Norman hole", or glass of calvados), a fish dish, a white meat dish, a dark meat dish, cheese and a dessert. There was never any water on the table, just cider or wine."

Such family feasts would go on for seven or eight hours, she said. They could be wonderful or a terrible penance if you were placed next to an especially boring aunt or cousin. "Family feasts scarcely exist now. Our lives have become so sedentary that we could not survive so much food and drink," Patricia said. "On the other hand, without them, the local food shops are not what they were, neither in quality or quantity."

Next weekend's communal sausage festival is a case in point. The menu will extend to sausages and chips, cider, beer and wine. Patricia was 50 this year. The golden, but bloated, rural age of which she spoke was not the 1930s or even the 1950s but the 1970s.

The serious pursuit of the trumpets of death

It has been a strange year for weather in Normandy, as elsewhere. In March, April and May, we had a Provençal summer with high temperatures and 10 weeks without rain. In July and August, we have had a belated Norman spring, or early autumn, cool and wet. My vegetable garden is as confused as the seasons. The potatoes have grown to zeppelin size. The tomatoes are small and late.

Mushrooms in the forests and fields have arrived a month early and in great abundance. My neighbours Madeleine and Michel, great food experts, have successfully scoured the region for cèpes and girolles and their favourites, les trompetttes de la mort (the trumpets of death). Despite their Tolkeinian name, these are edible and highly delicious mushrooms, which resemble the body-parts of alien species. Usually, they grow a few centimetres high. In this odd year, Madeleine and Michel have been finding giant-sized "trompettes de la mort", which they eat in omelettes or dry to keep for the winter.

They are not the only ones rushing to gather the early mushroom harvest in France this year. Accident units of French hospitals have been besieged by people who have mistaken a delicious treat for a severe belly-ache.

The great French dressing question

Every French person seems to have different way of dressing their salad. Ready-made salad dressings are poor and looked down upon in France. I have been consulting French friends, and especially Norman friends, on their particular "vinaigrette" recipes.

For dinner with Patricia and her family, I made a salad with seven ingredients from my own garden and one from the road outside: two sorts of lettuce; chopped nasturtium leaves and flowers; chives; sorrel; parsley and dandelion leaves. I consulted Madeleine, who is a walking Norman cookbook, on the most suitable kind of dressing.

Culinary opinion in France divides mostly on the mustard question. Should it be included or not? Madeleine says not. She recommended two salad dressings, French and Norman. Madeleine's French dressing is a classic: a soup spoon of cider vinegar, mixed with a little salt, and then three soup spoons of olive oil. You can then add chopped shallots, or garlic or tarragon as desired. For her Norman dressing, you simply replace the olive oil with two soup spoons of single cream. I got muddled and put olive oil and cream into mine. But not bad, all the same.