Oysters, Omelettes, and Baskets – The Homage to Small Town France
Ah … France. One of those countries we visit time after time and can never get bored. On a third day of our Normandy trip, we woke up in the city of Bayeux and headed to a Saturday market. Visiting a Saturday market is one of those truly not-to-be-missed French experiences. Walking around a square filled with local farmers, selling everything from cheeses and artichokes to foie gras and oysters, there is simply no better way to start a day in France. Our first French Saturday market visit was in 2009 in the city of Rouen and then another visit in the city of Amboise in Loire Valley in 2016. Both visits involved us mingling with the locals, chatting with friendly farmers, sampling and buying various types of French cheese, pate, and bread and then enjoying them on a nearby curbside.
In Bayeux, we visited the market early in the morning as the sellers were unpacking their wares. This was a warm, sunny Saturday in May, and a little cobblestone square hosting the market was soon filled with the locals, young and elderly, going about their weekend grocery shopping. As we were strolling between the market stalls, I immediately noticed that a lot of locals were carrying little cute woven baskets with lush greens and freshly baked baguettes sticking out of them. I was mesmerized by these baskets as they looked very French and blended very naturally in this open-air market scene. I was staring at these baskets in silent admiration and suddenly had an idea.
“Hey, what do you think if I buy a woven basket for my grocery shopping back home?” I asked Julia.
“Are you serious?” Julia said incredulously.
“What, why not?”
“You will look like an idiot. You realize that you are not going to be doing grocery shopping in a French town on a sunny summer day. If you show up with this basket on a freezing day in Milwaukee in Costco, people will think that you are a weirdo.
She had a point. But, even a year later, I still can’t get those woven baskets out of my head. Here is the thing. When I travel, I often borrow and bring back home ideas, traditions, and customs for my life in the U.S. In my view, this is what travel is for: to find something unique and interesting in a foreign land and enjoy it at home. For example, after visiting the Netherlands, and observing an obsessive flower culture there, I make sure to regularly decorate my condo with fresh flowers as they always brighten up the room and create a joyous mood. Or if I need to stay awake late at night to finish a project for work, I brew Argentinian mate and sip it from a gourd that I bought in Buenos Aires. Shopping for groceries with a cute woven basket may not be very practical but it would certainly have reminded me of that Saturday market in Bayeux and my affinity for everything French.
In the end, I had to let the basket idea go. We had our breakfast here at the market: local cheeses, from Camembert to goat cheese, croissants, apple brandy-soaked pastries and two cups of freshly brewed coffee bought at a nearby coffeeshop. We parked ourselves on a curbside and enjoyed our breakfast and the view of a bustling Saturday market.
As we were ready to leave the market, Julia had a proposition.
“What do you think of also trying oysters here? The sea is just 5 miles from here; the oysters should be fresh and cheap.”
The oyster stand that we approached was located right next to a fresh flowers stand. The aroma of fresh flowers intermingling with the briny smell of the sea was creating an atmosphere of a tropical paradise right in the center of a French town. We went for 8 medium size oysters that just a few hours ago were picked from the seabed of the English Channel. The whole order came around $7, a real steal. In his book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain quite memorably described his first time of trying oysters, when he was on a summer trip to France with his parents as a kid, and compared the experience with, among other things, his first sex. I had oysters before and was not a big fan. But here, opening an oyster and sprinkling it with lemon juice, and then slowly swallowing the mixture of an oyster, residual salty seawater, and lemon juice was a truly unforgettable experience.
“After trying oysters here, I don’t think I can eat them anywhere else” I sadly confessed to Julia as we were leaving the market.
Saying goodbye to woven baskets and oysters, we left Bayeux and drove west to a little town of Dinan over at the neighboring Bretagne province. Dinan is a delightful hilltop medieval town where movies based on Alexander Dumas books can be easily filmed. Traditional half-timber houses, picturesque cobblestone streets, and delicious buckwheat crepes, Dinan had it all. Even women’s white bonnets that I first saw in the Breton paintings of Paul Gaugin were sold here in gift shops as a homage to Bretagne of the past. The only regret we had was not having more time in Bretagne to visit other places, such as St. Malo or Dinard. This province of France with its beautiful rugged coastlines certainly deserves more time and we hope to be back soon.
After spending a couple of hours in Dinan, we started to drive back to Bayeux in order to time our visit to an island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel for early evening. The timing was important. The postcard pretty abbey is a very popular place, especially now in the age of Instagram, and as a result is overrun with tourists. When we arrived at the abbey walls at 5 p.m., there were still small crowds of people there, and we could only imagine what this place looks like in the middle of the day. The fortress-like abbey is best enjoyed from the distance. And although we did go inside and walked the abbey’s impenetrable walls and labyrinth-like streets, the best views of the abbey were from the expansive fields that were not flooded this time of the year.
In the last post, we described how we were splurging on fancy meals in Normandy on this trip, but the abbey found a new way to shock us. Here is the question: will you pay $120 for two omelettes? Why am I asking? Because that’s the price for two omelettes de la mère Poulard (omelette of Mother Poulard) at the original restaurant where Madame Poulard created this omelette in 1800s in Mont Saint-Michel. The incoming and outgoing tides around Mont Saint-Michelle which flooded the roads from the island meant that pilgrims had to carefully time their journey and didn’t have time to wait for food preparation and not even for a sit-down meal. Madame Poulard solved the issue by creating this quickly prepared to-go dish to feed the pilgrims. Besides being convenient, it is also very fluffy and creamy to the point that you can barely taste the eggs… But $60 for an omelette? Madame Poulard probably would have been very surprised to find out how much money is charged for her creation these days. My advice: if you can eat before and after visiting the abbey, do so. The food prices on the island are ridiculous. With limited food options and thousands of daily tourists, the supply and demand drive food prices at the abbey to shocking levels. We did visit Madame Poulard’s restaurant to learn about this “world famous” omelette phenomenon and watched quick-handed cooks beating dozens of eggs in a large metal bowl into high froth and pouring it into sizzling skillets. We learned that royalty, high level officials and politicians, including U.S. presidents, all eat this omelette when visiting Mont Saint-Michelle probably due to a rumored superstition that failing to eat this omelette during a presidential campaign guarantees a defeat. Unfortunately, the prices of this delicacy defeated even our splurging attitudes. But wait … how do we know that the omelette is “fluffy and creamy to the point that you can’t even taste the eggs”?
Well… because we tried it! After spending nearly five hours at the abbey, we found ourselves quite hungry and had to eat something. No, we did not get one for $60 but rather split a cheaper version of the “abbey” omelette for $30 from a nearby restaurant that copied the “secret” recipe. I can confidently report that we overpaid about three times of what this omelette was worth, even though it was just as fluffy and delicious as advertised.
After bidding goodbye to majestically lit Mont Saint-Michell rising out of the darkness, we drove towards our Airbnb in Bayeux. We spent three days eating the most delicious food France could provide and seeing some of the best French sights. Tomorrow, everything was going to change. That last day in France was the reason for our entire visit and it was a sobering reminder of just how fleeting all of life’s pleasures truly are.
Coming Up Next: Tour of D-Day Beaches on the 75 Anniversary Battle of Normandy.