Ask any Parisian what they are up to at for the long weekend and you have a strong chance of hearing ‘we’re off to Normandy’. The escape ‘par excellence’ Normandy offers greenery, fresh air, great hearty food and beaches galore, even if you can’t always count on the weather.
We joined the crowds exiting Paris on a grey November weekend, curious and keen to discover the food, the region and pay our respects at Omaha Beach.
Our first port of call, our home for the weekend: “La Chenevière”, a one time farm which looks more like a chateau and mansion.
After being used as a rope and clothing hemp manufacture in the 17th century, La Chenevière became the property of the Gosset family who built much of what stands today in the 18th century.
Vast stables, now luxurious rooms, were home to the foals destined to the Barbeville Stud for the famous Deauville yearling sales. The property was occupied by the Germans during World War II and by the Americans after the D-Day landings. In 1988 it started a new life as a hotel and gourmet restaurant. If those walls could talk!
Our family friendly suite in one of the outbuildings was cosy, romantic, yet contemporary in design. The kids were delighted with the large Jacuzzi style bathtub and its bubbles, while I was won over by the comfy bed and its swish linens. My husband, who has a penchant for breakfast, was converted thanks to the buffet. The best of both worlds, it allied the English breakfast goodies with French Viennoiseries, most notably the ‘Brasillé’, a local pastry consisting mostly of sugar and butter, reminiscent of the Kouing Amman, for aficionados of all things calorific. Another local treat? The bread from the Fournil de Saint Loup and the honey made by the resident bees.
Normandy is good with butter. The dairy production here is something they are proud of and hence, the food isn’t quite ‘light’ but rather rich and succulent. The hotel’s gourmet restaurant, Le Botanist is all chic vert d’eau bird print wallpaper, antiques and smart silverware. As for the menu?
Chef Didier Robin is a fan of local produce and also uses plenty of home grown produce from the chateau’s very own veggie patch. Out in the vast 12 hectare grounds, we went hunting for the elusive ‘kiwi tree’ on our first morning. We came across plenty of herbs, raspberry bushes and rhubarb hidden beyond the walled garden. Amidst the rose gardens, and trees – a botanist’s dream – we also came across the tennis court and the pool. Next time, we’ll have to come in Spring. Perhaps in May when the chateau holds its own Flower Show?
Chef Robin likes to change the menu to follow the seasons and our visit coincides with the Coquille St Jacques (scallop) festival. Inspired by the seaside air, we tested the Scandinavian sharing plate: a feast of salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines, while junior indulged in the juiciest Parpadelle I’ve ever encountered, oozing with butter.
Scallops were served with Manakara berries (no, I don’t know either) and celeriac and pear mousseline as well as local chorizo. Prefer it as a main? Try them poached with seaweed, and served with foie gras and a champagne sauce. Truly decadent!
In addition to a tour of the quaint harbour of Port-en-Bessin, taking in the sights and sounds of the scallop festival in full swing, we were glad to have a few rays of sunshine to make the trip to Omaha Beach. A few moments of reflection along the windy shore, and a tricky time trying to explain WWII to a 5 year old, who blissfully was unaware of the very concept of ‘war.’
Back at the ranch, or rather, in the chic converted stables, as the kids watched very cheeky chipmunks on TV from the hotel’s extensive movies collection, it occurred to me that we were cosying up in the very place that was the German officer’s headquarters, home to soldiers and their 80 horses…
La Cheneviere is without a doubt a hideaway for those who are interested in history, as well as food and kiwi trees. The story says the Germans had set up telecommunication stations and all their trucks, cars and motorbikes here and that on the night of June 4th, 1944 the “Grande Coupure” was set up by local Armand Lapierre to help the Allied Landing on D-Day. After the Royal Army Service Corps moved in, La Chenevière remained a strategic spot for dispatching fuel. What a difference 70 years makes. La Cheneviere will be celebrating 30 years as a hotel soon, part of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World group and with 5 stars to its name. It’s come a long way away from its days as a military hub!
Chateau de La Cheneviere, Commes, 14520 PORT-EN-BESSIN
02 31 51 25 25, www.slh.com
Rooms from €220/night. Room only.