Food evokes place. Marcel Proust was one who pointed to this when staying in Cabourg, an hour or so westward along the coast from Étretat.
Proust, wonderous yet over-quoted, famously tripped out on his madeleines and yet their home was way out east in the coal mining towns of Lorraine. Search down the original recipe, Madeleines de Commercy and be happy – people still send round-end wooden boxes of these to friends when they passed through Lorraine, en-route to Alsace. ‘In Search of Lost Time’ stays with us – and soon we publish the new quarterly ‘In Search of Taste’, but sadly no new Proust.
I write this with heavy heart. Our rented address in Étretat these past few years may soon change hands. An era, which began with a small ad in The Spectator, ends abruptly yet on a joyous note. This means finding a new place of equal measure. A chance meeting on the Perrey with a man from Rouen suggests possibilities, but back to food.
Let’s agree that it’s not just because foods like madeleines are local specialities, it is because the spirit of place brings forward emotions. Sounds evoke too – crying gulls looping overhead, crashing waves shifting the stones below, the scrape of the sea-warped front door at the entrance to Les Roches Blanches, cables rhythmically knocking on masts of moored up catamarans at night and, early morning, Jacquot’s small fishing boat being launched down the pebbled beach with the outboard held high to protect the already battered and twisted propeller.
A man I’ll call Jacquot goes early morning to set and check his lobster pots. His life has always been in Étretat – like his two friends since school who are always there on their bikes to help him pull his boat back up the beach and discuss his catch. Like oysters, lobster only becomes expensive when one pays the restaurant price for having them prepared.
Guy de Maupassant, who spent much of his early years here and later returned to live in the town, said the Porte d’Aval arch reminded him of an elephant drinking from the sea. Once that image is in one’s head, the Porte d’Aval is forever an elephant, still more when frozen in time by Corot, Boudin, Courbet and of course Monet.
He and all the others discovered the then sleepy Étretat and came to the coast from Paris with paint box and easel, most by steam train, for the light, cliffs, and seascapes and, for some, the life. Oscar Wilde said he could be himself when in Étretat. There’s even a loose, little known connection here to Sherlock Holmes.
The town’s train station has long since closed, but the day trippers keep rolling in – most arrive late morning and have departed by early evening. I’m often thinking of Llareggub when I walk through the sleepy town early in the morning.
For us, holidays raise high emotions of the best sort – if they did not then surely something would be missing. Like the sounds described, taste and smell also stir memories.
Rough seas churn up seaweeds and the air hangs rich with the smell of a crop that in past times added much to the town’s economy. Back then kelp was burned all along the pebble beach for use on farm land and in medicine. Courbet painted the scene – or was it Boudin?
Boudin Noir is as Normandy a delicacy as farm cider. I like mine cold and spread generously on bread with a small Pommeau as an appetiser. I see it eaten less and less like this since I first was encouraged to taste fresh boudin on bread in a market bar early one morning in Evreux. The tradition continues when the boudin is artisan made and fresh.
Whelks (bulots) taste best if eaten freshly cooked and still a little warm, with a shop-bought heavy mayonnaise and when seated close enough to the shore so as to pick up the roll of waves on stones – after all, the whelk’s shell is too small to be put up to the ear. That the whelk shells are greener than those on the English south coast means one is in Étretat, not Folkestone, Rye or Hastings.
Steack Haché, made to order with the lean beef fore-quarter in Serge Helin’s shop, cannot be rivalled by a haché bought ready-made. Ours this week were hefty Charolais, but that changes with what’s going through the abattoir.
Setting taste aside, it’s also the sound of the steel handle opening and closing on the small, shoulder height fridge door, followed no time later with the dull metal clack of the pitted, hand operated haché former and finally the clink of coins in the glass tray when Monsieur Serge counts out the change. Another butcher in town has a modern haché maker – all polycarbonate and digital. Je m’excuse, mais ……. with modernity we lose evocation.
Bread is fresh baked morning, noon and evening from any one of the three boulangèries. Étretat’s population is today just short of 1,500 and yet there are three bread shops, three butchers and one slightly aloof l’épicerie fine (delicatessen cum grocer). One of the baker’s is also a confisèrie selling the most exquisite hand-made individual cakes and gateaux. Each cake is lifted from the cabinet on its own little black tray. The silent sliding glass door is a mark of their arrival.
The butchers each have cabinets of selections of wine and vegetables in glass, mustards, potato chips (crisps) and the mayonnaise. It is rare not to queue at least 10 deep for the bread and half that for meat. One queues for longer to be served the town’s best ice-cream – one of the first shops to make and sell flavours such as Caramel Beure Salé, Tarte Tatin, Pommeau, Marrons (made from Faugier marrons glacé), Camembert, Palet Breton, Speculoos and now Poppy, Violet and Rose. Business is so brisk each summer that their recipes are now made for Le Glacier far away in Annecy.
Thanks be that one can pass over the town’s new supermarket which now occupies where there was a traditional garage until two year’s ago.
Weekly each Thursday the customised camionettes, vans and their trailers roll into the main square and car park to set up shop. It’s market day and the original WW2 air raid siren sounds out with chilling shrill promptly at 09h00 telling that the market is open. Some locals have come, bought and gone by then like cheeky early birds and the worms. Economics come into play for many shoppers as we pick only what can’t be bought from the town’s shop-keepers. Not to value them is to play a part in their demise and that is the supermarket’s gain.
Fruit, vegetables, salad – much labelled as grown locally in nearby Octoville-sur-Mer – then Normandy’s famous butters, cheeses and cream from farm not factory, poultry (chicken, duck and Guinea fowl), mallard (colvert shot the previous evening’s flighting into the Seine estuary) – and now a specially long trailer showing a selection of fish and crustacea that would make Harrod’s famous fish counter look like rationing has been re-introduced.
A customer at the fish trailer is insistent he wants to serve only female crabs but doesn’t know how to select them – and why would he. The seller turns two over and points out the difference – that is as close as a crab will get to a human, however crabby some humans can behave when they romance about the tourteau.
Toto sold up his fish shop two summers ago, so one can choose fish from the trailer without fear of nailing a local trader’s coffin. Similarly, there is no butcher on the market – not even one selling horse-meat (is that because we are in the land of the horse – surely not because the Chevaline trailer does good trade in other weekly markets close-by?). Toto is the butcher’s nephew.
Toto has moved on to where he started. He’s taken charge of the stoves at one of the town’s best fish restaurants – Les Roches Blanches. In effect, moving from boat to quay to shop to stove was the natural way up for Toto, swoping the cold of a day boat and quayside market for the heat of the kitchen. The town is poorer without his fish shop – Le Dos Plat – but time moves on even in Étretat.
His kitchen is through the wall from ours in the 1950’s building which replaced the elegant half-timbered seafront Belle-Epoque apartments destroyed by in WW2. We can hear Toto and his brigade joke, jape and curse their way through prepping the morning’s mise-en-place.
Toto is a gentle man we’ve known for 10+ years. He seems acutely aware of his hands having been handling fish for so much of his life – his trade mark hand-shake is to swiftly offer up a strong right forearm.
Toto is the town’s man for preparing a celebratory fruits de mer – his come in a delightfully kitsch white polystyrene fishing boat. More holiday memories are evoked with the ever popular holiday wine, Picpoul de Pinet – for but a fleeting moment, I am back in Sète, Leucate or Valras in the 60’s and I am a teenager again enjoying oysters from Bouziques.
No Bouziques oysters needed in Étretat, for here we can select those grown all along the Normandy and Brittany coast from St Vaast to Quibèron. If in any doubt, Toto will open one of each to taste and so decide. Oysters stay inexpensive and thus popular when compared to those on sale in England.
Toto is the lucky guy who has found his metier. He and his friends in town assure me he’s never been happier that manning the Les Roches Blanches kitchen working with a patron called Daniel, his father. Étretat is a family town.
Pizza comes with holidays – and in Normandy they are the only ‘foreign’ food – unless we include the ‘Hoa Binh’ Vietnamese restaurant run by a man who came to visit, met a local girl and stayed. That was many years ago and the tiny restaurant continues.
Wood oven pizza is best kept simple – Margherita’s, Marinara’s and nothing too fancy – baked in what seems like seconds not minutes and then taken away to be eaten on the sea wall. The gulls eye you up, but none this time come too close to steal. This way our pizza, not cut, but torn, is eaten while almost too hot to handle. Like proper fish & chips bought at the English seaside, as their temperature drops, so does appetite. Anticipation beats satiation.
Please God forbid I should be blinded, or like my ’68-er friend Yvette’s mother who was deprived by a car crash of her sense of smell. If it were to be, bring me back to Étretat and I’ll find my way around, then rest, cook, eat and stay.
PS We bought four fine bladed steak knives near identical to ones bought down south in Castelnaudary’s market 30 years ago – amazingly their price per unit had changed little, even with Euro’s replacing Francs.
NOTE: Some names, not all, have been altered. You will find them all in Étretat. But that is only part of the story. Far more to come on the real Normandy, its food, markets and kitchen, in future www.insearchoftaste.com
ENDSPIECE: Étretat locals make for Le Maupassant to discuss life and the price of fish, punt on horses and joke spare time away. The Patron is Thierry (real name). He has befriended a sea gull called ‘Chandon’ – as in Mouette et ……..All including the dog relax in Le Maupa’.