Exploring Normandy, France: The Harbor Town Of Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue

The land of Calvados, Pont l’Evêque cheese and World War II history, Normandy, France, is one of those places that manages to pack almost everything into one region. Coastline, farmland, history, culture, food – in a trip to Normandy you can get it all.

Well known for some of its larger cities and the World War II beaches like Utah and Omaha, an often forgotten gem of Normandy is Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, a small fishing village just east of Cherbourg. A tiny village in the off-season, during the warmer months it explodes with French and Brits descending upon their vacation homes. Which makes late spring or early fall the perfect time to explore: the weather is nice and the streets are quiet.The first harbor to be freed by the Allied Forces in 1944, the village is also home to the La Hougue Fort and Tatihou, part of 12 groups of fortified buildings across France that have UNESCO World Heritage classification. Built by King Louis XIV’s famed engineer Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban, the Vauban fortifications include citadels, urban bastion walls and bastion towers. In Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue you’ll find one just east of town and the other on the island of Tatihou, both built after naval Battle of La Hougue saw twelve French ships sunk in the surrounding waters. Go to La Hougue Fort early in the morning and have the place to yourself, the waves crashing on the rock wall that surrounds the fort and, if you’re up for it, an excellent promenade.

In town you’ll find the infamous Maison Gosselin, a family-owned store that’s been in operation since 1889. It’s still set up like a classic store – you take your produce to be weighed before you pay for it – and it’s complete with regional products like Sel Guerande sea salt and plenty of options for Calvados. In fact the wine cellar almost seems bigger than the store itself. Foodie heaven.

From here you are a short drive to the WWII beaches, Utah Beach and the Utah Beach Museum being the closest. Omaha Beach, which houses the Normandy American Cemetery is just a little further east.

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When in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue:

Eat:

Le Pub le Creperie – Owned by an ex-Parisian named Philippe, this is the place to go for good crepes. You can also get the traditional serving of moules frites (mussels and fries). Be sure to accompany with the rose. 36 rue de Verrue.

Oysters – One out of four oysters in France come from Normandy, and Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is a hub of oyster production. You can visit a local oyster production complete with a tasting at Ets Lejeune.

Shop:

Snag a classic striped mariniere French sailor shirt. Check out local boutique Cap Saint Vaast Marine (12 rue de Verrue) for the classic brand St. James. While you’re at it, stick to the maritime theme and pick up a few jars of flavored sea salts at Maison Gosselin.

Do:

Get up early and check out the La Hougue Fort; you’ll have it to yourself and the fortified walls are beautiful in the early morning light.

Go to Ile Tatihou. The island is limited to 500 people per day so make sure to book a time on the local ferry that shuttles visitors to the island.

Get outside. In the summer Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue is a hub of activity, from cycling to sailing.

Nighttime ‘Oyster Picnics’ Offer A DIY Taste Of Puget Sound

oystersOyster aficionados and hunter-gatherer types will want to hoof it to Seattle this winter for a moonlight adventure of the briny kind. Fifth-generation, family-owned Taylor Shellfish Farms is hosting its annual “Walrus & Carpenter Picnics” on January 8, and February 7, to support the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.

Taylor is famed for its sustainably-farmed Manila and geoduck clams (click here to read about my ‘duck dig at Taylor’s farm on the Olympic Peninsula), Mediterranean mussels, and four species of oysters. The company has other farms around Puget Sound, as well as a much-lauded restaurant, Xinh’s Clam & Oyster House, at their Shelton location.

The oyster picnics are held at low tide, and inspired by the 1872 Lewis Carroll poem, “The Walrus & The Carpenter (“O Oysters come and walk with us … A pleasant walk, a lovely talk, along the briny beach!”).” Participants depart Seattle on a chartered bus at 6:30 p.m., returning at midnight.

The evening includes DIY gathering and shucking (experienced shuckers are available for those who prefer to keep their extremities intact) of Taylor’s celebrated Olympias, Kumamotos, Pacifics, and Virginicas, which are paired with chilled wines. Chilled participants get to enjoy steaming bowls of Taylor chef Xinh Dwelley’s famous oyster stew prior to departure.

Tickets are $125; reservations required. For more information click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zone41]

Falling in love with oysters

The allure of the oyster always mystified me. For years, I’d wrinkle my nose when my tablemates would order the slippery creatures, put off by the texture of the little puddles of flesh. Don’t get me wrong: I like seafood. I grew up near the water, and I’ve scarfed down everything pulled from the sea ever since I could chew. And that’s not just fish–crustaceans are more than fair game, and I clamor to pry clams and mussels from their shells. But oysters always made me uncomfortable. It was something about their slimy, briny consistency–it seemed akin to willingly slurping down a slug.

So for a while I feigned interest. In New Orleans, I passed over the famous Oysters Rockfeller at Antoine’s, opting instead for a taste of something I thought would provide a perfect out: The Po’boy. A heaping portion of anything fried and served in a bun typically falls within my culinary wheelhouse, and the Parkway Bakery’s po’boy is considered to be one of the best in the city. The rubbery consistency of fried oysters was close enough to the clam rolls of my youth that I bit in without second thought. And to be honest, even mid-meal, no real difference between the two really registered in my mind; if anything there was a slightly creamier texture beneath the crispy oyster’s crust. I convinced myself that I’d overcome my aversion, but inside I knew the truth. I was still an oyster virgin. And for a while, I was okay with that.Then, earlier this year, I was offered an important opportunity that hinged largely upon my knowledge of oysters (or at least an appreciation for the creatures). So I did what most journalists do when encountered with an unfamiliar subject, and I dug deep, researching a foodstuff that I’d never really tried. I read that the Greeks worshiped the oyster and believed that Aphrodite, goddess of love, emerged the ocean in an oyster shell (which is the root of why they’re now considered aphrodisiacs). I found out that when the first colonial settlers arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, oyster reefs were so plentiful that they were considered navigational hazards (back then, they reportedly found oysters that were 13 inches long). Oysters, I learned, are an important part of the watery ecosystem, flushing out algae and pollutants from the water and creating reefs that help support other sea life. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have been working to repopulate oyster beds in areas around the country, as the conservancy estimates that in places like the Chesapeake, the oyster population is only one percent of what it once was. After giving myself a tutorial in all things oyster, my assignment thankfully worked out, and I was left feeling extremely beholden to the little bivalves. So I set out to get to know them better this summer.

In New England, where I live, oyster-selling establishments have history: The Union Oyster House is Boston‘s–and the country’s–oldest restaurant. It opened in 1826 and has been continuously operating ever since (J.F.K. apparently used to patronize a booth upstairs). It’s also a pretty crowded tourist attraction, but thankfully, one of Boston’s greatest oyster galleries is just a few blocks away, and it’s there that I had my official introduction.

Neptune Oyster bar is tiny and covered in white subway tiles that make you feel a bit like you’re dining in a fish market. Which in essence, you are. Their rotating menu of oysters are brought in daily from both coasts, and are served fanned out in circles and placed on a pile of shaved ice and rock salt. They’re elevated on the table on a little stand, not unlike the way pizza is served in certain restaurants, which allows you to get a closer glimpse of each variation. That was how I realized that I’d never really looked at an oyster up close: The ripples in the shells, the pearly white insides, the little pools of meat that admittedly still kind of creeped me out.

But I was there for the experience, and so experience I did. Aligning my mouth on the edge of the shell, I made my first fateful slurp. Salty and fresh, it tasted like the ocean. For the next half hour, as we worked our way through the plate, my friends and I explored the flavors as we would with wine. Earthy, mossy, bright, and fruity; who knew oysters varied so greatly? I spent the next few weeks ordering oysters on every menu I encountered, hoping to expand my palate. By summer’s end, I had not only gotten over my squeamishness, but landed on a favorite, the creamy, buttery Island Creeks, which are sustainably harvested in nearby Duxbury, Massachusetts.

I quickly learned that Island Creeks are a big deal in the Bay State; they have a new restaurant that opened in Boston this year, and are also the subject of a the book Shucked, out this month, about author Erin Byers Murray’s year spent working at the oyster farm. So I decided to complete my oyster appreciation tour with a pilgrimage of sorts.

Island Creek hosts an annual festival to raise funds for their charity, the Island Creek Oyster Foundation, which is working to build sustainably-grown oyster beds in Zanzibar and Haiti. So on a gorgeous afternoon earlier last month, I entered the huge tent that they’d set up on the beach in Duxbury, which was filled with outstanding chefs preparing oyster BLTs, grilled oysters, and hundreds and hundreds of raw oysters, shucked and served just out of the sea. “Look this one, it’s a porn star,” one shucker said as he handed an extremely large selection (apparently both oysters and porn stars are judged on the size of their cups). I eyed it greedily, and realized that when I comes to oysters, I’d finally come out of my shell.

The sushi invasion of Eastern Europe

sushi in eastern europeTraveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.

My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.

In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.

Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”

Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”

While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”

Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]

Daily Pampering: The Pierre Hotel’s organic caviar and oyster tasting

When the Pierre Hotel wants to celebrate, it celebrates in style. In honor of the hotel’s 80th anniversary, the Pierre in New York is recapturing the glamour of its past with a tasting flight of a trio of organic caviars with wine and vodka pairings.

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from October 22 – December 31, 2010, Executive Chef Stephane Becht will debut the caviar tasting menu and The Pierre’s Two E restaurant. Enjoy a hand-selected tasting menu of organic caviar as well as North American oysters with wine and sprit pairings. The tastings start with three organic American Caviars served with blinis and crème fraiche for $65. The caviars served include:

AMERICAN PADDLEFISH: From the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, these glistening steel gray eggs rival Sevruga from the Caspian Sea
MOUNTAIN LAKE WHITEFISH: From Montana, these crisp and golden eggs burst with a fresh, mildly salty flavor WILD
HACKLEBACK STURGEON: This dark, silky caviar from the rivers of Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee offers a refined, nut-like flavor with a semi-sweet finish

If oysters are more your liking, choose from Neguac, New Brunswick shells, Kumamoto from California, Oregon, and Washington and Chesapeake Bay oysters.

Add wine or vodka pairing for $14 that includes: Chablis Domaine Roland Lanamtureux 2007 Burgundy; Muscadet ‘Clos de la Senaigrie’ Luc Choblet 2008 Loire; Picpoul Saint Garrigue 2007 Languedoc. Vodka options include Russian Standard Imperial; Belvedere and Chopin.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.