Photograph by Catherine Karnow

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Steepled stone churches like this one in the village of La Roque-Baignard dot Normandy's countryside.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow

A Normandy Invasion

Decades ago, back when I worried nobody in Paris liked me (I was an American—and a food critic), the wife of a French Michelin three-star chef tried to help. “Please tell people in America that Parisians are not unpleasant only to them. They are unpleasant to everyone.” The thought was comforting. Also disturbing. Like more than a few Americans, I am wary of the French, believing that no matter what we do for them—drink their wines, praise their sauces—they don’t like us one bit.

So I was intrigued when a French chef working in California, Bruno Herve-Commereuc, told me, “To meet the best people in the world, go to Normandy.” He’s biased; he’s from there. Still....

Most Americans know this region in northwest France along the English Channel as the site of the momentous D-Day landings during World War II. It made some sense that, of all of France’s regions, the one where we sacrificed so much in that war might be inclined to act kindly toward us.

I’d never been to Normandy but always longed to go. Everything elemental about French cuisine is there, no more than a half-day’s drive from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. Cream. Butter. Cider. Calvados. Oysters. Smelly cheeses such as Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque. It’s a region of old-school artisanal producers, people whose way of life has always been about craftsmanship, not the nouveau rural types who move to the countryside and purchase a herd of goats. The restaurants are traditional and unfussy, for the most part unsullied by Michelin stars, which tend to reward expense and extravagance.

As Herve-Commereuc uttered his comment I knew the time finally had come for me to travel there. It took me a nanosecond to figure I’d use food as my entrée (if you will) for connecting with the culture. We all eat when we travel; we have to. What we sometimes overlook is that every dining experience, be it at an upscale restaurant or a food vendor’s stall, offers a gateway into a new land. I was embarking on the journey with two challenges: I don’t speak French (though I do read French menus well), and my itinerary would be stitched together as much as possible by following the recommendations of kindly Normans.

I address challenge number one just a few hours off the plane, when I speak to my first French stranger while looking for a public phone (telephone boxes, or cabines, have all but disappeared in rural France). The woman, Dominique Laguerriere, works at a highway information booth and graciously lets me use the phone there. Only hours into my journey I’ve made my first friend. All is going well. My trip, I decide, will be recognized as the finest example of French-American collaboration since the Marquis de Lafayette came ashore at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1777.

Camembert is a mousetrap of a village. Lures you in. Lacks road signs, so you can’t get out. I appear to be the only person around when I arrive at 6 p.m., though plenty of cows, the signature livestock of Normandy, are grazing nearby hillsides. Small billboards lining the town square promote Camembert cheese, but in the late afternoon, when a weary traveler might welcome refreshment—say, a bit of Camembert—the place seems shut down. Even the Maison du Camembert is locked. My problem is that I hadn’t asked anybody where to go here. I had just set out for Camembert on my own, which is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. Serves me right.

Maybe I’ll have better luck at the next cheese stop on my itinerary, Pont-l’Évêque. Another town producing another pungent, washed-rind, cow’s milk cheese—the staple of Normandy—it lies some 30 miles to the north. Chef Herve-Commereuc had said that a visitor could buy the namesake cheese from festive stalls lining the streets. That isn’t so when I drive in, but Pont-l’Évêque will be among the liveliest towns I’ll come across. In its center I stumble upon L’Épi d’Or, one of the best pâtisseries anyone could ever hope to find. So much so that I get a room in a hotel outside town just to be able to buy more of its pastries in the morning. I awake early to wait my turn at the counter—long lines are always promising where pâtisseries are concerned—thus beginning what would become a mild obsession with this shop. The croissants prove profound, maybe the lightest and most delicate of the dozens I’ve sampled in my years of travel. The brioches taste downright soulful. And I pronounce the little puffs of choux pastry called chouquettes, studded with kernels of sugar, the perfect breakfast food. (Eat these and you’ll never again say that about doughnuts.)

On my drive from Camembert to Pont-l’Évêque I’d wandered some back roads and passed a farmhouse inn, or gîte, called Le Lieu Chéri (The Cherished Place), sitting alongside a large apple orchard. The name, winsome in its simplicity, stays with me; I just have to spend a night there. Driving up its fenced lane outside the town of Ouilly-le-Vicomte, I spot signs to a cider museum on the grounds. What good luck: I’m at a working farm that has been churning out apple cider and apple-based Calvados brandies since the 1500s. By the look of the slanting, half-timbered, hangar-size structure ahead of me, I expect a rustic sort of B&B—a Barn & Breakfast. Instead I find an extremely comfortable, even spiffy, inn with now and then a cow wandering by the front door. The beamed ceilings are freshly painted, my bathroom has all the modern touches, and details include pillowcases embroidered with the inn’s name. Owner Jocelyne Desfrieches welcomes me in French—she speaks no English—and when asked (which is immediately), eagerly shares the name of her favorite local restaurant, L’Auberge du Pêcheur, bringing out an English-language guidebook to make sure I find it.

I do, near the end of a nondescript street in the nearby town of Lisieux. Coming upon its cheery white facade trimmed with blue awnings is like coming upon Goldilocks’s cottage in an industrial park. My first taste here is of the Atlantic Ocean—a cold appetizer of crab, shrimp, clams, and more whelks than any American really wants to eat—followed by a pitch-perfect taste of the countryside: steak au poivre prepared with a filet of Normandy beef. Being in apple country, I had an idea what dessert would be: an apple-filled tart tatin, rich with milk, sugar, and caramelized butter. The ensemble proves a perfect example of the more than reasonable fixed-price meals I’d find throughout the region. Owners Lina and Olivier Martel remain entirely good-natured when I point out the incongruity of finding such a gentle, congenial restaurant in such a lackluster section of town. Then, mindful of my promise to depend on the kindness of strangers, I ask for recommendations for another worthy local restaurant. They don’t hesitate. “Les Mouettes, in Trouville-sur-Mer.” Happy news, for that seaside resort town and its higher profile neighbors Honfleur and Deauville, all just to the northeast, were my next stops.

“The jewel of Normandy” I’d heard Honfleur called, and I’m finding it difficult to disagree. A fishing town since the Middle Ages—the local fleet still unloads its catch almost daily—it unfurls a parade of Norman architectural styles as I drive in. On this sunny September day locals and visitors sit around the boat-filled harbor, tucking into mussels and fries (mussels are to Normandy what burgers are to America). Nearby, a parade of steep-roofed timber-frame buildings line Place Sainte-Catherine, a square presided over by the largest wooden church in France, the medieval Église Ste-Catherine, celebrated in painting by both Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet. I find it breathtaking in its somber simplicity and primacy.

I grab a bite—chicken with a mushroom stuffing—at the tidy, redbrick Auberge du Vieux Clocher, then bid adieu to quaintness for the grandeur of the belle époque, which awaits me just ten miles to the southwest, in Deauville. The swankiest of the three coastal resorts, founded in the late 1800s by a half brother of Napoleon III, Deauville is renowned for its seaside promenade, horse races, and long-running Deauville American Film Festival. With its mix of astounding architecture—here vintage belle époque, there half-timbering more distinctive and ornamental than in Alsace—it’s where Normandy meets Burberry.

Alas, I’m not wearing my double-breasted trench coat, so I cast my lot with the least celebrated of the three resort towns, Trouville-sur-Mer. Here, just minutes north of Deauville, I finally feel at home. I splurge on a junior suite at the 1930s-style Hotel Le Flaubert, overlooking the beach filled, even in September, with French people taking the sun. Settled in, I make my way to town to find Les Mouettes, the brasserie that Auberge du Pêcheur owners Lina and Olivier Martel had recommended. I find it on the corner of a street eerily reminiscent of Restaurant Row in the theater district of Manhattan, which is hardly an epicurean destination. I circle it warily, but its sunny yellow walls and ceiling frescoed with seagulls immediately put me at ease, as does the unexpectedly homey menu. I order the house-made pâté en terrine, which arrives in such a massive portion that I assure my waiter I really am enjoying it, though I cease eating halfway through. “The poule au pot you ordered is bigger,” he warns. And so it is, arriving in a big black pot—it’s always exciting when a black pot is plopped on your table—filled with broth, dark-meat chicken, potatoes, carrots, leeks, and particularly wonderful cabbage, fresh and crunchy. This main course, enough for two or three, costs me less than $20 and is impossible to finish. The waiter, solicitous to the end, nudges, “Eat your vegetables.”

I’m now ready to head inland again to my next Normandy experience: the Route du Cidre, a 25-mile drive through cider and Calvados brandy country, along which I intend to drink my fair share, and maybe more. I make a beeline south to a region called Pays d’Auge and my entry point, the little town of Saint-Ouen-le-Pin. It, alas, offers no cider. I continue along the route, rolling under trees forming a cathedral ceiling. Devoid of other travelers, it is everything a country drive should be. But where oh where is the cider?

It’s waiting at Domaine Familial Louis Dupont, outside the wee village of Victot-Pontfol. This estate best known for its Calvados brandy and complete with manor house, apple press, still, and gift shop has been in the Dupont family for four generations. Upon arriving I’m invited, as are all visitors, to taste an impressive range of Calvados. The oldest dates to 1969. I particularly admire those aged about 20 years: The perfume of apples remains profound. Very old Calvados, while sublime, tends to taste the same as brandies made from grapes. I also sample the 2009 Cidre Bouché—fizzy cider—which I declare the best I’ve had in Normandy, exquisitely complex, earthy, and deep, with a hint of goût de terroir, like that found in a fine red Burgundy.

But it’s the renowned Calvados producer Huard, which I’ve long felt to be the best of all, that is fixed in my head. I motor southwest from the Route de Cidre to Huard’s home, the village of Caligny—and find a town of total silence. I park in front of a house to figure out what to do next and notice an elderly woman peeking through her window at me. Finally, she comes out—and proceeds to ask in perfect English, with exquisite politeness, if she can be of assistance. Yes, please. She gives me careful directions to Huard, down a country lane about a half mile away, but the absence of signs beyond there stymies me. When a tiny old Citroën stops, I appeal to the driver. “Huard?” He points to himself. “I am Huard.” It’s Michel Huard, 83, the name on the label, Calvados maker and grandfather of the man now in charge of production. I follow him to the estate, where I find grandson Jean-François Guillouet-Huard, 38, distilling spirits in a 50-year-old, wood-fired still. The place smells like a Texas barbecue restaurant. I receive an informative nonverbal tour of the property, since neither of us speaks the other’s language. But what I see is enough: Calvados aging barrels that are a hundred years old, a cask with a shrapnel-inflicted gouge, a corner of a stone storage room that was hit by an English bomb during World War II. After tasting a number of vintages from barrels, I depart with many mercis and one thought: If you can buy the 1984 or the 1992, do so.

On the way to Caligny I had noticed a sign for a German World War II cemetery at Saint-Désir-de-Lisieux, a reminder of the key role Normandy played in that global conflict. I make the detour and find a graveyard, plain and quiet. I am the only caller. So many of the German soldiers who died in the Normandy invasion were young—16, 17—and for them I feel some sympathy, as I do for those whose nameless tombstones read “A German Soldier.” For those with military titles, my heart goes cold.

The vagaries of war are writ large in Bayeux, a town that is home to one of Normandy’s world-class masterpieces, the 231-foot-long (and only 20 inches wide) Bayeux Tapestry, which unspools in its very own museum. I point the car northwest and go. Almost all visitors in the museum, I notice when I arrive, are using the audio device that comes with the entrance ticket. It’s set up to send you rocketing the length of the tapestry in 20 minutes, but no one goes that fast: This matchless visual documentation of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the culmination of the Norman conquest of England, teems with details—messengers delivering urgent dispatches, warships being built, battles being fought (complete with decapitations), treaties being negotiated. A highlight for me, of course, is the banquet scene, in which soldiers fortify themselves with roasted meats, wine swigged from drinking horns, and what look like loaves of bread.

Did the loaves back then come with butter? I wonder, for that’s the Norman specialty I now have in my sights. From Bayeux I angle west some 20 miles to Isigny-sur-Mer, a town of 3,000 that has been churning out the dairy spread for 500 years. Thanks to a confluence of factors, including a mild, humid climate and moist soils rich with minerals, the cow milk here features high butterfat levels and a distinctive flavor. I will sample the butter the best way I know: by eating croissants. Driving down the main street of this prosperous town I count four pâtisseries, a promising turn of events. All make croissants. I eat a couple at each one to determine which makes the best use of the rich Isigny-sur-Mer butter. The winner for most buttery: the croissant au beurre d’Isigny at Boulangerie Bissonnet. The shops showcase another butter-infused treat I hadn’t heard of: Isigny caramels, known for their special salted-butter flavor and awarded an entry in France’s food bible, the Larousse Gastronomique.

Tarts, brioches, croissants, éclairs—I’m beginning to overdose on butter and sweets. High time for my antidote: huîtres, or oysters. The local “special oysters of Isigny” claim a devoted following among oyster lovers, but I’m headed to what many consider the oyster capital of the region, the port town of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, 30 miles to the north on the Cotentin Peninsula. Eager for local advice, particularly about dining, I drive right to the tourism office and approach the woman on duty. In no time she informs me she’s forbidden from offering opinions. A friend with whom she has been chatting seems amused by my frustration, so I ask for her counsel. The woman, stout and earthy, giggles at my request and agrees to help, but warns, “I do not eat out much.” Her first name is Cécile, and her job is driving a tractor that transports oysters from their beds. I’m in the right hands.

She leads me outside and points to a restaurant, Le Chasse-Marée. Sitting by the harbor, trimmed in nautical (and French) reds, whites, and blues, this neighborhood spot serves up some of the best food I’d tuck into on my trip, at preposterously inexpensive prices considering most of it centers around fresh fish. I start with—what else?—a dozen of the local oysters. They taste like the briny Atlantic waves that splashed me when I swam off the Jersey shore as a kid. I proceed to the three-course prix-fixe special, a must-order at less than $30. I go for the fish soup, which arrives properly accompanied by croutons, grated cheese, and a garlicky rouille sauce; and a bowl of marmite, an assemblage of vegetables and fresh fish (cod, monkfish, salmon, pollack, and a sprinkling of mussels)—sort of an all-seafood pot-au-feu. When I praise the marmite, the restaurant’s tireless proprietor, Lucas Gilbert replies, “My father was a fisherman. I know well the fish.” I feel at home here, maybe because Gilbert acts just like a New Yorker, bustling around, charming customers, and bossing his staff. He even seems to take this assessment of him as a compliment.

Leaving town I pass a fabulous emporium, Épicerie Maison Gosselin, selling everything from windup toys to lavender soaps to housemade soups (both broths and creamy veloutés; the French differentiate). The shop, which says it stocks some 15,000 items, has been owned by the Gosselin family since its founding in 1889—which explains why its coffee beans are roasted in a machine from the 1930s. Tastes of Calvados are offered complimentary and served in tiny coffee cups to honor a maritime tradition, explains Bernard Besselievre, who is called Monsieur Gosselin locally because he is married to the store’s owner. “Local fishermen chased their morning coffee with a sterilizing shot of Calvados”—and didn’t see the need for separate cups.

I would spend my final day in the city of Rouen, my departure point, known for its great Gothic cathedral immortalized in paintings by Claude Monet, and, to me, for canard à la rouennaise, a unique dish featuring Normandy duck, a crossbreed of wild and domesticated ducks. I parked the car and headed to a local restaurant to try a version but came away disappointed by the unyielding chewiness of the meat. Perhaps it was that dismay that caused me to become lost on the way back to my car to catch my afternoon flight. Once again needing help, I walked up to a group of youths slouching outside the cathedral and showed a boy the address of my car park. To my surprise, he practically escorted me there. It’s what I have always thought: When it comes to courtesy and friendliness, you can’t beat the French.

Award-winning food writer Alan Richman is Dean of Food Journalism at the French Culinary Institute and contributes to GQ and Bon Appétit. Photographer and contributing editor Catherine Karnow also shot “Ghosts of Hong Kong” for this issue.