Written by Allan Hall
The bray of the English upper classes is hard to miss. Sort of a cross between a donkey’s snort and a duck’s quack, it cut through the busy brasserie in the French port of Caen with the penetration of a well-educated sonic boom.
I had been despatched from Berlin by the Daily Mail to cover the commemorative ceremonies being staged for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. My Hungry Hack compadre Roger was there in his role as a staff photographer for the Daily Mirror. The opportunities for serious dining seemed illimitable.
+ + + + + +
Caen, like all towns around and about, was at bursting point. Every hotel full, every restaurant ‘complet.’ We were luckier than lucky to get a table at this particular watering hole where long-coated waiters struggled to complete the orders of a largely English crowd seemingly determined to remember the fallen through the prism of an upturned wine glass.
“God bless the senior service!” chuntered the bray from the nearby table of middle-aged men wearing cravats and chunky sweaters from Christmases past.
“You know who that is don’t you?” asked Roger, midway through my first course of stuffed onions.
I didn’t. “It’s General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the bloody British army!” he informed me. The senior service, the navy, had just presented the general with another bottle of fine wine, joining the numerous others littering the table’s stained cloth so that it resembled a Reservoir Dogs T-shirt.
+ + + + + +
Apart from the voyeuristic frisson of seeing those responsible for the defence of the realm get completely plastered, I was impressed, in this time of terror, at the seeming lack of security surrounding the top table of warriors: the staffs of all three branches of the British armed forces. I looked around the room and could discern no obvious sign of bodyguards, no bulging breast pockets denoting concealed weapons. The warlords could have been an outing of Eton schoolmasters cut loose from their privileged charges for a day.
I tuned out the white noise of their accents to concentrate on my superb appetizer. Normandy is home to much fine produce and cookery, much of it seafood related, but I was firmly on land with my stuffed onions in a tomato-cream sauce.
This is the kind of vegetarian cooking I like. Rich, savoury, cheap: I felt as privileged as those well heeled gentlemen at the next table – and even more so when the next course arrived.
Variations of it abound across Normandy: some with fried apple slices on the side, some with an apple puree, others with a glass of calvados – the rich apple brandy of the region – added to the cider sauce for extra richness. But the following recipe is the real McCoy and you won’t go far wrong with it. Cook and eat this and you will feel like a Norman squire who is at one with the world.
You can serve practically any vegetable accompaniement to this that you choose – mashed potato, pureed haricot beans, plain white rice. My particular favourite is a potato straw cake.
It was close to midnight before we finished in the brasserie, but the army, navy and air force were still at it. If only the enemy knew the window of opportunity that presented itself that night…..
Our accommodation in a hotel so basic that even the fleas had left was fairly grim, but the next day, June 5, promised more culinary delights so it was not with too heavy a heart that I went to sleep with the sound of those honking accents ringing in my ears.
+ + + + + +
The next morning I said my goodbyes to Roger and headed for the Daily Mail chateau. The paper had sent me, its freelance Berlin correspondent, to record the first ever appearance at Normandy commemorations by a serving German Chancellor. Gerhard Schroeder, it was decided, could now represent a democratic Germany far removed from the Nazi terror the men of Normandy stormed ashore to defeat.
I was but a small part of the team the Mail had assembled to record the grand affair. And in grand style the best-resourced newspaper in Britain had rented a mansion in the seaside town of Arromaches-les-Bains, site in WW2 of the famous floating ‘Mulberry’ harbours the Allies built and towed to the beaches of Normandy to provide the vast enterprise of Overlord with landing places for the men and materiel needed to wage, and win, the war.
+ + + + + +
After meeting up with the team it was time for a tactical withdrawal to the Hotel de la Marine overlooking the beaches and the twisted, eroding hulks of the Mulberries that are exposed at low tide.
The Marine is a timeless place where, although the cooking is modern and fresh, the respect for old recipes and values is ever present. One can dine on lobsters, oysters, foi gras and the like, but on this day I enjoyed a dish fit for royalty that is within the budget of a peasant.
Normandy is famous for its butter, cheese and cream, exported all over France and beyond. Cream in cooking is common both in restaurants and homes. The Marine also does a succulent rabbit stew cooked with Normandy cider which I believe I have faithfully approximated.
An abundance of cider, Muscadet and Calvados to follow negated any room or necessity for a dessert on this day, but try not to pass up the famous open-fruit tarts of Normandy if you are there – or indeed in your kitchen at home. Apple orchards are also in abundance – hence the cider and apple brandy – and perhaps, probably, their open tartes aux pomme are the best of all.
That night, after a sleep of several hours, I found myself at Deauville, that gem of the Norman coast where high-end hotels, shops and restaurants edge close to golden sands. It is, and has the feel of, a rich town with rich residents and wealthy visitors. But you don’t have to break the bank to eat well.
My appointment with Chancellor Schroeder at a German cemetery containing the graves of Wehrmacht soldiers who fell in the battle all those years ago was not until the next day. Time to squeeze in one last repast at the expense of Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail.
+ + + + + +
I found a small brasserie on the way to the seafront where the menu was classically French, the wine list good but not expensive, the owner knocking back carafes of Beaujolais at a table by the bar as he played cards with some friends. I ordered the cod with a herbed lemon and coriander crust.
At the bistro this excellent fish came unadorned, but I think a freshly made, simple tomato sauce elevates the dish.
As I pondered dessert I looked up from my table, set back and slightly raised, from the window to the street to see shooting about to start.
That’s what it looked like: buzz-cut beefcakes with earpieces, dark glasses and serious machine guns prowled menacingly up and down outside. Across the road from them sat two oversized white American 4x4s with blacked-out glass and, no doubt, reinforcements clutching reserves of weaponry.
Was it the influence of the grape, I wondered. But then I glanced across to the table directly in front of the window facing the street and saw what all the palaver was for – recognising in that instant the huge divide that yawns between us and our “special relationship” cousins from across the pond.
+ + + + + +
“God bless the senior service!” Sir Mike Jackson had shouted in that Caen brassiere on receipt of a bottle from the navy. There was no danger of such an exclamation coming from the mouth of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the USA, General Richard Myers.
There he sat resplendent in his Pentagon uniform, next to Mrs. Myers and another couple – diplomats of some unknown grade. They were munching timidly on green-leaf salads on a table groaning under the weight of bottled mineral water.
The General was his nation’s martial representative at the Normandy commemorations and obviously seemed determined to have as little fun as possible. I watched the joyless ensemble work their way through some quiche followed by coffee before one of the Rambos outside entered to pay the bill. Not one glass of wine corrupted their lips, not one oyster, mussel or whelk dressed with homemade mayonnaise appeared before them.
Their loss, I suppose.