"The best thing I know between France and England is the sea."
Douglas William Jerrold
Last week was a guru week and it was Jane Grigson's turn from her Fruit Book. It was actually not a good time of year for fruit, so I ended up with apples - and her recipe for Filet de pork à la Normande. I could not find anyone who had made Jane Grigson's version but there are thousands of options with similar names and also referencing the La Vallée d'Auge which is the area in Normandy which delivers Calvados, butter and cream and which is the picture postcard image of the place.
Anyway - here is a terrible picture of my effort. It looks gluggy and awful, but actually tasted pretty nice. Next to it is a picture of somebody else's version and much more like it was supposed to look.
Basically it's pork - chops, fillet, loin - that sort of thing, sautéed in butter with onions, and finished with a sauce made from Calvados, cream and cider - and a bit of stock as well, garnished with sage and butter sautéed and caramelised apples. And let me say the apples were delicious and provided the finishing touch. Not one of my greatest ever achievements, although the asparagus was lovely, but it's a stepping off point for me to ponder on why Normandy - well anywhere really - comes to be known for particular things food wise.
Obviously local dishes are based on the local produce, but how come a particular area produces a particular kind of agricultural produce which is then used in a particular way. Elizabeth David asks the same question but rather more eloquently than I:
"How deeply our own roots are in Normandy quickly becomes apparent to the English traveller. The churches, the old timbered houses, the quiet villages, the fruit orchards, the willows hanging over the streams, are familiar. But not the cooking ... It is indeed curious that, with such similar pasture lands, we should never have taken to the manufacture of anything like the soft rich cheeses of the Normans, while they have apparently never attempted to make anything in the manner of Cheddar or Gloucester. And while we on the whole prefer to eat our butter with bread and our cream with fruit, the use of these two ingredients in Norman cooking is almost excessively lavish."
I had a quick look at the local specialities of Kent - just the other side of the channel with very similar geography and geology and climate - and did see that there was an apple tart, which looked very much like a French one, and also a sort of cherry clafoutis. But that was it. Kent does indeed grow apples, but British cider is really centred on Somerset, and cream on Devon and Cornwall. Kent does beer, because they grow hops. These days I think this is where the British are making wine.
It's even stranger because basically these parts of England and France were once the same country inhabited by the same people. In the 9th century the Vikings invaded Normandy - did you know that the name Normandy - 'La Normande' in French is derived from 'Norsemen'? The Vikings and all those other Norsemen also invaded England of course, and, as in France, intermarried with the local population. In 1066 William - Duke of Normandy - a descendant of the original Vikings - invaded and conquered Britain - by then I imagine a hybrid race made up of the original British tribes and all those Scandinavian and Northern European invaders not to mention the Romans. Probably much like France. For three hundred years or so the official language of the aristocracy in England was Norman French. Doubtless the food of the aristocrats was French based as well.
And in Normandy that food is based on apples, butter and cream. Drink too - from the apples - with cider, Calvados and Pommeau - an apéritif.
"when you get to the dairy stalls, then you know you could only be in the astonishingly productive province of Normandy, where you can buy the butter of Isigny and of Gournay carved off a great block, where bowls of thick white cream and the cheeses of Camembert, Livarot, Neufchâtel, Pont l'Evêque, Rouy, Isigny, and a dozen other districts ooze with all the richness of the Norman pastures" Elizabeth David
Over the centuries, in spite of the constant wars and rivalries between the two countries, there was much intermarriage between the royal families, and much travel between the two countries by everyone who could afford it. Today that's just about everyone. People go to Calais for lunch. And yet the two nations do indeed have very different cultures, attitudes, and food. How did this happen? When did this happen? It can't simply be geography, because the geography is the same:
"A sun that warms without burning, a rain that waters without drowning, a chalky and complex soil, this is what appeals to apple trees." Alliance Française San Francisco
On the left Kent, on the right Normandy - there's not a lot of difference. Ok I chose these particular photographs but if you browse photographs of the two places, they do indeed look very similar.
The same factors also produce lush pastures on which to graze dairy cattle, and yet, in England, well in Kent and Sussex, there is not the same emphasis on dairy products. The salt marsh lamb -yes - and the seafood, particularly the mussels and oysters, but the rest no. The two countries went their separate ways, culturally speaking at some point.
Of course, you can say the same for just about every European country - so close to each other, and yet so different to each other in virtually every way. Sometimes the food sort of drifts into the next country's - as in Spain, the south of France and Italy - there's a gradual transition going on there, but not England and France. Maybe it is because of that tiny bit of sea that separates them.
Anyway do have a go at a Normandy dish of pork or chicken with cream, butter, Calvados and cider with some apples on the side sometime. It's a very winning, if rich and bad for the cholesterol, combination.
Here is one of our bottles that we bought yesterday - a 2004 Chardonnay from Yarrambat Winery. Apologies for the blurriness of the photograph.
But look at the colour of that wine. And it tasted as good as it looks.
It raises another question though. We thought it was delicious but then we have not tasted - say - a top Burgundy - as comparison. How would it stand up to that? I shall never know. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. I've always thought that was one of those sayings worth living by really.