Cover story and centre spread.

Cover story and centre spread.

Scanned Document

There's a quiet little fishing village on the Normandy coast in France where I've spent a bit of time. It's got the world's best mussels, and nails anything to do with cream, cheese, apples and the sea - really just food in general. It's got fantastic beaches and is properly French: it's quiet and lovely and I'm going back as soon as I can. My article on Barfleur was the cover story and the centre spread in the Sun-Herald Travel section.

 

Beaches and cream

Armed with enthusiasm, Megan Holbeck launches her own invasion of a spectacular region of northern France, only to be overcome by its charms - and the food.

Normandy is a place infused by the sea and nowhere more so than on the Cotentin Peninsula. A thumb of land sticking into the English Channel in France's north-west, linked to the mainland by salt marshes, it is referred to locally as "le presqu'ile" or "almost an island". And the sea has seeped in - into the cuisine, the culture and the history, as well as defining the landscape itself.

As the tide recedes, the fishing boats arrive, rushing to avoid the bottoming lows. They tie up along the wall enclosing Barfleur's small port, overlooked by the brooding church and the tiny lighthouse that guards the harbour's narrow mouth. The fishermen carry on their business of sorting and hauling their glittering, slithering cargo, eyeballed by seagulls and given more cursory attention by people who need distraction from their slow day.

The port is not a tourist drawcard; instead, it is the reason for the town's existence. This lazy fishing bustle is Barfleur's centre of commerce, with the village slowing to cobbled streets, bobbing boats and the flat beaches and fields that spread to neighbouring towns.

Barfleur's moment in history came in 1066 when William of Normandy set sail from here for the last successful invasion of England, earning himself the Conqueror tag and a position at the head of the royal family tree.

Thankfully, the English haven't returned the favour and the town retains its sleepy French feel. Much of this is due to the fact it is a dry harbour that drains to sand twice a day. Walking the waterfront at low tide, seaweed is strewn like bright green tinsel around boats listing drunkenly on the ground. The harbour's unsuitability for keeled boats has prevented the yachtie invasion that has happened 10 kilometres away in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, as well as the accompanying influx of wealth and development.

Another invasion occurred a couple of hours' drive away on the D-Day beaches of World War II. As well as littering the region with German pillboxes and other artefacts, there is other evidence of the war: friendly French people (at least, relatively speaking). The stereotypical disdain of the English and those who speak their tongue is not found here: gratitude to the Allied forces is too real for that. Although there isn't a lot of English spoken in this rural region, "Bonjour" will get you a long way.

Barfleur consists of quaint cottages, a smattering of shops, a few tiny bars and restaurants and a whole lot of water views: there aren't any tourist attractions in the conventional sense of the term. But any visitor with an appetite for adventure could never get bored here. There's so much to cram into a week: fishing, sailing, swimming, exploring the coast and its rock pools, cycling through the flat countryside collecting blackberries, climbing the lighthouse, playing boules on the local court.

And that's without even mentioning one of the area's main attractions: food. This is not the place to come for those who are lactose intolerant, vegetarian or watching their weight.

We spent many mornings at local markets admiring pyramids of shiny, perfect fruit, sampling cheeses and buying fresh produce. Then we launched into three-course lunches that left us only hours to explore before we began on dinner.

Creamy butter, handmade cheeses and thick, tongue-coating cream are the flavours of the region and good enough to be exported to the world. In fact, cream is the main ingredient of the sauce Normande served with everything from mussels to veal; it is even used as the base on the delicious snail pizza at Le Moulin pizzeria in nearby Fermanville. Cheese lovers will be in gooey, stinky heaven: camembert originates in Normandy, with pont-l'eveque, livarot and neufchatel among other famous locals.

Le moulin des Corvees is a farm that seems imported from an earlier era, its small herd of cows munching on the green, rolling field behind the shingled barn. It is open to visitors, its farmer-mother-cheesemaker explaining the process of making camembert before you leave clutching unpasteurised butter, cheese and cream.

The orchards of Normandy rival its dairies. However, it's not as simple as flavoursome apples: as with the camembert, it's all about the fermentation. The cider is delicious, tasting of apples rather than chemicals, but it is calvados that brings a nostalgic (or wincing) tear to the eye. An apple brandy as strong as it is tasty, it's a part of daily life, offered to visitors with coffee, regardless of the hour. We have much to learn from the locals about eating: when full, the Norman approach is to pour a shot of "calva" over apple sorbet to "burn a hole" through the rich dishes so dessert can be squeezed in.

Although home brew is illegal, every man and his grandma is into it and it is the locals who make the best stuff. Tarte aux pomme (apple tart) is another treat and, as in the rest of France, the patisseries are packed with other tempting goodies.

In the food stakes, the sea again brings fame to Barfleur, this time courtesy of its mussels. The sweet, succulent orange morsels that make up a dish of local "moules et frites" are delicious: so good that you can't trust your memory, believing that you must have embellished their freshness and flavour. Ray, sea bass, cockles and crab are other specialties, although all the seafood is generally great. In Barfleur, as in nearby villages, you can buy your dinner straight from the fishermen.

This is the kind of place where a family plans a wedding around how long it takes to fatten pigs for the feast, where homemade liquor or preserves made from hedgerow fruit are given as small gifts. Where good food is valued and there's time to savour it.

As a visitor from Australia, the history ingrained in the village takes some getting used to. The three-storey cottages that line the cobbled streets date to the 17th century; Le Manoir de l'Epine guesthouse in neighbouring Gatteville is almost 500 years old. The quiet country lane where it stands was once the main road to Cherbourg, with the building and its beautiful walled garden offering protection from bandits. With walls thick enough to withstand a siege and arrow slots for returning fire, it's a fortress but a very comfortable one that sports four-poster beds, open fires and claw-footed baths.

The area is flat, the fields meeting the sea without much interruption. The massive tides also help to merge the distinction, adding and removing hundreds of metres of land twice a day.

The beaches are stunning, windswept and sparse; on sunny days, the water looks inviting but the temperature isn't. With each stretch of coastline, the character changes, from sand to pebbles, tiny inlets to small harbours. The exposed rocks provide hours of entertainment, whether exploring the pools with a net and bucket or just eye and camera.

To get a perspective of the area, the best vantage point is the lighthouse at Gatteville. It is a lovely half-hour walk along the coast from Barfleur, although the 365 steps up the tower will work your thighs. The view from the top is fantastic: fields and hedges interrupted by hamlets and spires, coastline and boats, then nothing but water stretching forever - or at least until England.

The region is full of villages to explore. The most famous are Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue with its old fort and famed oysters, the pretty town of Bricquebec, dominated by an ancient church, and Saint-Pierre-Eglise.

However, just about every dot on the map has its own gems. The D-Day beaches are within an hour or two, while further afield the wines of the Loire Valley and the ancient beauty of Mont-Saint-Michel await. It's a region to linger over, to savour like a long, leisurely lunch. Whatever you do, don't rush.

Trip notes

Getting there

It is easiest to get to Barfleur from Paris. The TGV fast trains take about three hours to reach Valognes, with advance bookings starting about €20. Barfleur is a 25-minute taxi ride from here.

From Britain, Brittany Ferries runs at least one ferry a day from Portsmouth to Cherbourg (brittanyferries.com). The trip takes between four and 10 hours, depending on the boat, with return journeys costing from €35 for a foot passenger, or €105 for a car and two passengers. There are infrequent buses from Cherbourg to Barfleur but it's easier to do the 25-minute journey in a taxi.

Staying there

Le Manoir de l'Epine is a guesthouse two kilometres from Barfleur, in Gatteville-le-Phare. Rooms from €70, manoirdelepine.com.

Hotel le Conquerant is in the heart of Barfleur. Rooms from €70.50, hotel-leconquerant.com.

Eating there

From Cafe de France, you can watch the fishing boats in Barfleur harbour while eating delicious moules et frites. +33 2 3354 0038.

At Hotel Moderne, you can choose from an up-market restaurant or a bistro. It's near the post office in Barfleur. +33 2 3323 1244.

Le Panoramique is a couple of kilometres from Barfleur. It has amazing views and great food. +33 2 3354 1379, le-panoramique.fr.

Le Moulin pizza restaurant is amazing: try the ones with cream as a base. La Vallee des Moulins, Fermanville. +33 2 3354 2728.

Restaurant les Fuchsias is St Vaast's best: +33 2 3354 4041, france-fuchsias.com.

Le Moulin des Corvees farm is in Le Theil. It's on the D120 between Digosville and Le Vaast. +33 2 3320 0546, payscotentin.net/terroir/camembert_fermier_normandie.php.

With the kids

Horse-riding trips along the beach can be organised at the equestrian centre in Reville, a short drive from Barfleur.

Find food: show the kids how it used to be done. The rock pools are full of edible critters  shrimp, cockles and crabs  so take your buckets, nets and enthusiasm and spend low tide at the beach. You can fish for bigger prey with rod and reel off the beaches and headlands.

Hire bikes from the square in Barfleur and explore the surrounding countryside. Trips along the coast are lovely, while neighbouring villages are charming. The flat terrain is a cyclist's dream, as are the hedges of berries.

Parc Festyland is an enticingly named theme park near Caen, about an hour's drive from Barfleur. A day trip to Disneyland Paris is also possible if you are really keen.

In the area

The Channel Islands

Spend a weekend exploring the green, whimsical charms of Guernsey or the more cosmopolitan pleasures of Jersey. The Channel Islands are not just tax havens for the ridiculously rich: they have beautiful beaches, relaxed atmospheres, interesting histories and quaint towns. On a clear day you can see Jersey from Normandy. The ferry from Carteret (45 minutes' drive from Barfleur) is the quickest way to the islands, taking less than an hour. manche-iles-express.com.

Valley of the watermills

One of my favourite walks in the area is through the picturesque Vallee des Moulins in Carneville, 20 minutes from Barfleur. Most of the mills along the river are now lovely old houses, although they were once used for more practical purposes. The walk begins at Hameau du Moulins, a hamlet of ponds, streams, gardens and beautiful buildings straight out of a fairytale. Walk around the village and down the valley, keeping an eye out for pillboxes. (The Germans had a base here during World War II.) Follow the huge, disused viaduct across the valley and end up at the final mill, Le Moulin restaurant, for a delicious cream-based pizza.

Bayeux

The famous Bayeux Tapestry (part of which is pictured) is smaller than you might think: the story of the conquest of England by William of Normandy unfolds over 70 metres but is a paltry 50 centimetres high. However, the detail is amazing, as is the fact it is about 800 years old... Bayeux also has a nice cathedral and huge war cemetery and is a bit more than an hour from Barfleur.