A Norman Expérience At The Château La
September in Port-en-Bessin.
Sunlight lingering through long, still-warm afternoons.
Deep and dreamy dusks. In verdant pastures, cows creamy as the Camembert
their milk will become, graze with calm indifference to the occasional
passing car. It is apple harvest time. Everyone is drinking cider or
calvados, the lively apple brandy. If, as the locals say, apples are the
heart and soul of this part of Normandy, September is the time for their
It is also time for end-of-summer poignancy in the
village positioned between Bayeux (home to the famous tapestries
depicting the Norman Conquest of 1066) and D-Day landing sites along the
English Channel. The first French port to be liberated during the Second
World War, Port-en-Bessin is a short drive from the cliffs overlooking
Omaha Beach and the 172.5-acre Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
Every year, a million and a half people visit this site, the resting place
of 9,386 American servicemen and women, the seemingly endless rows of
white crosses and Stars of David a perpetual testament to their sacrifice.
“World War II is very present, very close to us,” says
Philippe de Baeker, headwaiter at Château la Chenevière – a hotel and
restaurant at the end of an arbored lane off Port-en-Bessin’s main road.
“Everyone in the area has stories. My grandmother, who is 90, remembers
the night before the Allies landed when members of the French Resistance
came into the village to get the children evacuated. She still talks about
how the Germans killed people along the way as they left. One was my
father’s sister; she was only 20 years old.”
“My grandmother remembers when this chateau was occupied
by Nazi soldiers,” Dave Legoupil, the dining manager of la Chenevière,
told us. “The officers had private suites; their horses were quartered
It was an image Dave thought of often during his first
stint at the hotel which ended some thirteen years ago when he left to
work in the United States for several years before returning to Normandy
and opening a bar.
“Then someone made me a good offer, and I sold the bar.
Soon after, I got a call from Claude Esprabens, the general manager here.
He wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I’d just sold my bar. ‘Why
don’t you come back to work with me?’ he asked.
“‘How about tomorrow?’
“Tomorrow was June 6th , 2005.” David paused for a
moment, letting the coincidence sink in, before adding, “I’m very happy to
be back here. The atmosphere is special, very quiet, relaxing. When people
come here, they feel like they are home.”
Many of the people who come to la Chenevière are
Americans; many others are English. We had drinks with a lively sextet
from Oxford in Normandy for their annual visit of World War II sites.
Their informal guide is a policeman who told us the “Inspector Morse”
series was filmed in and around his precinct. He also provided us with an
outline of the different landing beaches, monuments, and museums in the
area, pointing out the nearby town that was liberated by his now-retired
We had arrived only a few hours before, but already
could understand why la Chenevière is their regular Norman destination.
The 18th century chateau is just minutes from the sea and a short drive to
Omaha Beach. It is also a beautifully restored property with every modern
convenience (including computer access) without sacrificing the graceful
accoutrements of a bygone day.
From an entrance lined with pots of pink and yellow
lantana, one enters an inviting parlor to be greeted by the attractive
front guest manager Christell Théry or the effervescent receptionist
Françoise Fauquet who proved an excellent resource guide for information
about the area. Sunlight splashed through the long French windows onto
downy sofas, wooden floors, and Louis XV furniture. Walls, carpets,
upholstery -- everything seemed to be colored by the sun in shades of
yellow, amber, burnt orange and gold, a decorative scheme that continued
in the 22 guest rooms on the second and third floors all of which face the
Our corner suite overlooked expansive lawns that gave
way to meadows and distant woods, peaceful in the quiet afternoon. Ancient
trees provided abundant shade; little gardens were framed by low hedges
and stone walls. Later we would discover the swimming pool hidden behind a
garden wall and the chef’s garden with its profusion of late summer
vegetables, and kiwis growing on a white brick wall.
first worked here, the hotel was only the main building, and the dining
room was where the bar is today,” Dave told us. “Now we have added 15
rooms using the two other buildings; the restaurant was added in 1998.”
looks like an add-on, more like a pavilion at the southeast end of the
chateau. Spacious and high-ceilinged with parquet floors shining like a
ballroom’s, it is lined with French doors that stood open to the outdoors
during our visit, each framing a particularly splendid view. Our table
faced an enormous old tree illuminated by the setting sun when we sat down
for dinner, but which gradually receded into darkness as night slowly
La Chenevière’s award-winning chef
Didier Robin, who was only twenty six years old when he came to the
chateau six years ago, has a modest and gentle demeanor, refreshing in
this era of self-important celebrity chefs. “The cuisine is basically
Norman but it is infused with ideas from the rest of France,” he told us.
“The apples, the calvados, the cream and the salty butter all are local.
Foie gras used to be a specialty from the southwest of France, but we now
do our own foie gras here. The beef is local.”
Headwaiter Philippe de Baeker
In honor of the season, a glass of cider and champagne
starts every meal. There follows an amuse bouche of some seafood-based
mousse. Then the gastronomic menu begins in earnest. Pan-fried foie gras
comes with a unique raspberry caramel sauce -- the combination of the
sweet caramel (made by the chef) and the tart raspberry flavors adding an
A bottle of Reuilly, a clear, dry Sauvignon blanc from
the Loire Valley with a lovely floral aroma, accompanies two fish courses.
Sweet and succulent blue lobster in a morel sauce is served out of the
shell with wild rice. “People tell me the blue lobster from Normandy is
the best in the world,” Philippe said, and though as New Englanders we
could always make a case for the red, under the circumstances it was hard
to disagree. Filet of barbue, a local fish, was flash-fried and grilled,
accented with fresh dill, and served with mashed potatoes and a puree of
flavored with calvados to cleanse the palate precedes the meat course:
pink and tender filet of veal in a truffle sauce, accompanied by a
full-bodied red Bordeaux: Château Malromé.
Bordeaux lasted through the cheese course as it married splendidly with
the two Camemberts (one had been marinated in calvados), the flagship of
Norman cheeses, as well as the other creamy varietals from the mild,
semi-soft Pave d’Auge, to the strong Livarot (both are ancient regional
cheeses), to the Pave d’Isigny with aromatic herbs, and the Pont l’Eveque
– another old cheese, rich and full bodied.
“Five cheeses from Normandy are recognized by the ARC (Appelation
de Region Controlle),” Philippe said. “We are proud of this. We try to
feature the Normandy products, the dishes with Normandy character,” he
added, confirming what Didier had told us earlier.
Apple-rich desserts: a warm very flaky apple tart topped
with just a drop of cream and a star-shaped slice of kiwi; and a miniature
crème brullee that contained tiny bits of apple and was topped with burnt
sugar are two memorable examples of the Normandy character.
“We are working towards a Michelin star,” Didier had
said. “All chefs want one – it is recognition. It’s like you go to the war
and you get a decoration. Michelin was here; they spoke to us. They looked
at the property. Then they will come back for a meal but we won’t know who
Trained in Paris and St. Tropez, Didier has contentedly
returned to his roots. He has set his sights high but judging by our
experience, his hopes should be realized. We sampled the products of his
talent a second time: a miniature portion of gazpacho made with red
peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, a lobster (blue, naturally) salad with
greens, radicchio, endives, and chives fresh from the garden, grilled St.
Pierre with mushrooms and little artichokes, and a surprising non-apple
dessert: a tomato cake. Sounded strange but turned out to be quite
Only as we lingered over coffee did we suddenly remember
what day this was: September 11th. The realization brought a swell of
feeling. To be on this particular date in this part of the world where
memories of World War II retain such resonance reinforced the poignancy of
our Normandy experience.
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Photos by Harvey Frommer
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About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
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