I had grown very fond of my Moustache, (the bike that is, not facial hair!), so as I hopped on my faithful steed at the start of Day Three, it was tinged with a little sadness as I knew this was the last day of our Normandy adventure.
We were in the department of Manche, on part of the Tour de Manche cycleway exploring the area named after the English Channel, (La Manche is the French word for sleeve, which the channel is said to resemble).
The Tour de Manche is a fantastic cycle route that links Normandy, Brittany, Dorset and Devon in a massive 1200 km loop, via the ports of Cherbourg, Poole / Portsmouth, Plymouth and Roscoff.
(There is also a Petit Tour de Manche, consisting of 450 km using the ports of Poole / Portsmouth, St Malo and Cherbourg).
The 230 km Manche section starts in the north at Cherbourg and follows the Vire Valley until it weaves its way from the Cotentin Peninsula south of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Le Mont Saint-Michel.
Our 45 km taste of the Tour de Manche started 7 km north of St Sauveur – le – Vicomte and finished in the town of Carentan via the Cotentin – Bessin Regional Natural Park.
And of course, in the spirit of slow tourism, included a couple of stops to sample local dishes, produce and culture.
We cycled in familiar surroundings of a tree-lined disused railway, listening to birdsong in-between our own conversations and laughter. By now I was totally smitten by e-bikes and how versatile they are. Not only are they perfect for a group of cyclists with different fitness levels, enabling everyone to cycle together with ease, an e-bike would also be ideal for a cycling commuter. A typical perspiring slog into work, dressed in figure hugging lycra could easily be transformed into a joyful easy spin wearing every- day clothes.
We slipped off the cycleway to enjoy lunch at our half way point in the medieval town of La Haye-du-Puits.
The Pom’Cannelle is a delightful, small, cycle friendly restaurant in the centre of the town. It is run by a lovely couple serving gorgeous classic French dishes. Again, the ingredients were sourced locally. All courses were delightful, but the calvados ice cream that complimented the seasonal fruit puff pastry proved to be a particular favourite.
Suitably refreshed we hit the trail again. The landscape changed to low lying marshlands and meadows as we made our way to our next stop at just a little way off the main route at Auvers; a cider and calvados farm.
I was looking forward to visiting an authentic cider and calvados farm that Normandy is so famous for. The Hérout family farm was the perfect venue.
The farm has been producing cider since 1946 when Auguste Hérout and his wife Marie- Thérèsen decided to follow in the family’s cider tradition. Auguste’s father had sold cider and the father of Marie-Thérèsen had traded in cider at Cherbourg.
The business grew and the family renewed their apple trees to grow traditional varieties of the Cotentin terroir apple. Later in the 1970’s the family concentrated on gaining an organic certification, of which they were successful and now the farm offers officially recognized quality controlled products with the Appellation d’Origine controlee (AOC) label or Agriculture biologique label.
We also learnt that the business is soon to be issued with the Appellation d’Origine protégée label (AOP) which will officially acknowledge the natural fermentation method and the natural secondary fermentation in their bottled cider.
The farm is still in the hands of the family with the only female producer in the area at the helm; one of the daughters of Auguste and Marie-Thèrésen, Marie-Agnès.
We parked our bikes adjacent to a piece of machinery straight out of ‘Wallace and Gromit’, which I originally thought was an old exhibit of some kind.
Marie-Agnès magically appeared and after introductions started to show us around. I soon learnt that the ‘Wallace and Gromit machine’ was actually a still, used to produce calvados and was in regular use! In fact, 90% of the equipment was original including the hand operated press.
It was fascinating discovering how both cider and calvados were produced on site and to learn how Marie-Agnès is keeping the family’s values alive by planting new trees, even though she will never taste the cider or calvados from her investment in her life-time.
True to the values of slow tourism we tried her produce. I now know the difference between dry and sweet cider and best of all the difference between differently aged calvados.
I asked Marie-Agnès how long a bottle of cider or calvados would keep. Maire-Agnès gave a lovely reply, “The vocation of a bottle is to be drunk”. A saying that will remain with me for ever!
Not surprisingly, after our cider and calvados tasting, we cycled the last 5 km of the trip to our final destination in very good spirits. Carentan is a major centre for the dairy industry of Manche and is also home to a museum commemorating the D-Day landings at nearby Utah beach. And typically for the area it has many excellent eating establishments.
The old saying ‘Leave the best till last’, could easily be said of L’Escale des Sens. I have no doubt that the restaurant’s young chef, Valentin Doraphé will one day hold Michelin stars. The food was exquisite and superbly presented.
Valentin is just 27 years old and after learning his skills at the Hotel School in Granville, Manche, went on to hone his culinary expertise in high quality hotels within the region before eventually working alongside the Top Chef of France 2011, Christophe Pacheco in La Clusaz.
He is now in charge of the bistro – chic restaurant and his gastronomic mastery is clearly on display with each and every dish he creates.
It was definitely haute cuisine of the finest quality. However, the staff and atmosphere was far from stuffy. Remarkably, other customers or staff didn’t seem to notice or care that we were still dressed in our cycling outfits.
We had pre-ordered and the restaurant had produced individual menus describing our specific choices for each of us. A lovely touch, made even more special when Valentin signed each one.
The meal was the perfect end to a most enjoyable long weekend.
Over dinner we reminisced on our Normandy adventure that incredibly had started less than 72 hours earlier. The trip had certainly opened my eyes to all that Normandy has to offer, from the varied cycle ways, historic sites, beautiful natural landscapes and environments, to the fantastic local produce both in solid and liquid form.
Not that I ever needed convincing, but my experiences proved that this province of France is a superb cycling destination. It certainly will not be the last time that I disembark from a Brittany Ferry at Ouistreham and visit wonderful Normandy.
Keith travelled to France with Brittany Ferries
Bike hire was provided by Loc-Velo
Bike transfer/support was provided by Petite Reine
Further Information can be found at: Normandy Tourism