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A Norman Expérience At The Château La Chènevière

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 celebration.

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 here.”

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.”

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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 chief constable.

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.

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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 surrounding park.

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.

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“When I 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.”

It hardly 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 fell.

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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.”

Chef Didier Robin - click to enlarge
Chef Didier Robin

Headwaiter Philippe de Baeker - click to enlarge
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 exquisite piquancy.

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 vegetables.

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Apple sorbet 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.

Happily, the 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.

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“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 they are.”

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 marvelous.

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.

Château la Chenevière
14520 Port-en-Bessub

Phone: 02 31 51 25 25

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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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