Caen


Partner and I stayed in the city of Caen, in lower Normandy, while we toured northern France. In the four days we stayed there, we both fell in love with the city. It is modest and charming, and has wonderful medieval structures still standing – the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames and Palais Ducal, all built by William the Conqueror, and the St. Pierre church built by William’s grandfather.

Caen has streets full of shops and bakeries and bistros. We had our best French meal in Caen, at Le Bouchon du Vaugueux.

Ah, we thought: a real French town, unchanged since the Merovingians.

But then we talked to the concierge of our hotel.

It was at the Hotel Kyriad on the Place de la Republique, which I highly recommend to you if you’re ever staying in Caen. It was charming, and it had a wonderful breakfast buffet, and some really nice concierges. Our first was a funny skinny dark-haired guy with glasses, very French, very animated and helpful. Then, after a day or two, he was replaced with a tall blondish Norman-looking fellow with a doleful/cheerful expression.

On the day we were checking out to go to Paris, I noted a postcard behind the counter, a picture of the hotel in days gone by: LE VILLA DES CLOCHERS, the Belltower Building. The building has no belltowers now, so I asked the tall blond Norman concierge, in my (still halting) French: “Is this a picture of this hotel?”

He smiled sadly. “Yes and no. Look –“

It turns out that he was something of a history buff. He pulled out some old photos, from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. He even had an aerial view of Caen in August of 1944. In it, you could see that the city had been almost completely flattened. “You see,” he said very calmly, “a lot of the old churches survived. Medieval stone – who knows? It stood up. Maybe you saw the Church of St. Etienne-le-Vieux?

“Across from L’Abbaye aux Hommes?” I said. “We thought it was a ruin -”

He nodded sadly. “Yes. From World War II. It was left unrepaired, as a reminder of the war. But most of the rest of the city has been rebuilt.”

“What about the bombs?” I asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “They estimate that maybe two out of ten are still unexploded. People find them all the time when they excavate or build new foundations for buildings. They have ‘controlled explosions.’”

Partner and I left Caen about half an hour later via train to Paris, but as we left, we saw the city through new eyes.

We’d seen Caen as a clean beautiful city, nicely preserved. We hadn’t realized that it had rebuilt so completely.

How very frail we human beings are, and how frail our creations are: our cities, our civilizations.

But sometimes, even if they’re destroyed, they can be rebuilt.

(Somehow this gives me hope. I don’t know.)


Restaurant review: Le Bouchon du Vaugueux

 


Food in France is wonderful and plentiful, but it is generally not cheap. Even lunch at a corner bistro will set you back maybe thirty or forty euro. We lunched one day at McDonald’s (well, you need to touch home base once in a while), and even that was nearly twenty euro for the two of us.

As a result, we ended up eating prepared sandwiches and pastries a lot. This was not a problem, really; these are very inexpensive, and easy to find, and really pretty good most of the time.

But Partner and I agreed that we needed a few really good meals, just to complete our France experience.

Before our departure, Partner did a lot of web-surfing, and found a small restaurant in Caen called Le Bouchon du Vaugueux. The pictures were charming, and the menu was tempting. Here’s the current prix-fixe menu (a few items have changed since our visit):

MENU A 20 EUROS

Persillé de jambon et palette de porc aux lentilles  ou
Velouté de potiron toast au fromage de chèvre  ou
Salade de joue de porc et saucisson de volaille, vinaigrette de châtaigne.
*******************************

Carré de porc épais et moelleux , laqué à la moutarde douce et cornichons ou
Pavé de colin à la plancha beurre blanc poivre rose et ciboulette ou
Lapin braisé aux raisins et confit d’oignons.
********************************
Assiette de 3 fromages Normand ou
Crème chocolat-café et nage de poires à l’anis ou
Mousse ivoire aux litchis pulpe de framboises  ou
Pudding façon pain perdu au rhum.

(I do not translate, on purpose. I want you to get the full flavor of the place.)

Partner corresponded with the manager, Mme. Poussier, and she confirmed our reservation well before we left.

We ate there on the evening of Friday the fifth of October.

I will remember that meal for a long time.

Mme. Poussier welcomed us warmly. “I know, I know!” she said when we arrived. “From the Internet!”

We both started with the celery soup, garnished with sesame seeds and served with toasted bread and cheese. Does that sound too simple? It was very simple. It was also wonderful. (I know we should have had two different appetizers, but we’re stupid tourists, and we both thought that the soup sounded too good to pass up. It was.)

For a main course, Partner chose the “carre de porc epais et moelleux” (thick juicy pork steak), with sweet mustard and French-style pickles as a garnish.

I had the rabbit.

Yes, I know.

(My mother long ago told me that, when she was growing up, her mother would serve rabbit from time to time, and tell the kids it was chicken. Grandma’s father, who lived with them, would wait until Grandma’s back was turned and then make little hippety-hop motions with his hands. And the kids would refuse to eat it, and Grandma was invariably furious, and never did figure out how the kids knew.)

Rabbit, if you’ve never had it, is delicious. You can certainly make believe that it’s chicken, but it’s really like nothing else. The rabbit I ate at the Bouchon – served in a sauce flavored with onions and raisins – was heavenly.

Dessert? I went with the cheese plate. Partner had the grilled pineapple with chocolate sauce. Both of us were very happy.

When we arrived at seven-thirty, the place (which is not large) was almost empty. By eight-thirty, it was packed: a few tourists like us, and lots of very contented-looking locals.

The service was immaculate. Mme. Poussier had the dining room running like a Swiss watch: I saw her more than once give instructions to a waiter with a nod of her head or a glance.

And all of the above, with the addition of a few beers and mineral waters and two cups of coffee, ran to sixty-five euro, which is approximately twice the price of two burger-and-fries combos at a Paris bistro.

I am also pleased to tell you that Le Bouchon has earned a Bib Gourmand citation from the Michelin guide, which means they provide “excellence on a budget.”

I know, dear reader, you’re probably not planning a trip to Caen in the near future.

But if you are: please go to Le Bouchon du Vaugueux, and treat yourself to a wonderful meal.

And, when you’re there, please let Mme. Poussier know that we think of her daily.


Off to France


Attention, mes copains et mes copines!

Partner and I are leaving for France today. We will be there for about ten days; we will mostly be in Paris, with an excursion to Normandy (Caen, Honfleur, Rouen, Bayeux). We already have a dinner reservation for Friday evening at a really charming-looking place in Caen, Le Bouchon du Vaugueux, with a tremendous menu which includes rabbit and local fish and Norman cheeses. We have tickets for the Moulin Rouge in Paris. We have tickets for EuroDisney.

I know you cannot live without me, so I have set up automatic posts over the next few weeks, on general topics, which you can discuss among yourselves.

I will come back from la belle France with beaucoup d’histoires, you can just be sure.

Think of us as Eloise in Paris.

Oh my lord!


%d bloggers like this: