La Grande Fête (or “GF”)—what was this all about? M. Cheesemonger and I returned home to Normandy in large part because M. Cheesemonger’s father was celebrating his 70th birthday with an enormous garden party. The week was full of preparations, beginning with cake.
During my first evening back, the family tasted cakes from the top pâtissier in town to choose the GF’s desserts—there was the coffee and chocolate explosion of a particularly fine Opéra cake, a sweet and crunchy pillow of a praline cake, and a slightly disappointing gâteau aux fruits. In the end, my father-in-law needed five cakes to feed the crowd, and he settled on the Opéra, the praline, and a marvelous, silky soft raspberry cake. Yes, there were some duplicates. Everybody was delighted at the final result, a five-tiered cascade of hedonistic French pastry. The look of unbridled joy in my father-in-law’s face was priceless.
There was much more than cake and cheese to prepare, though. Our thirty-five guests, who came primarily from Paris and points north, would be treated to 100 skewers of the finest local meats, a selection of salads, the best organic, traditional bread the town could offer, local strawberries and cherries, canapés, champagne, and a selection of wines. My mother-in-law, through her mysterious means, procured enough silverware, dishes, tables, tablecloths, and chairs to accommodate everybody. Tents were raised in the backyard to shield guests from the relentless sun. A separate tent was raised for the children. A barbecue that could accommodate dozens of skewers at a time was found.
Guests began arriving the day before the GF, and so we needed to organize some pre-party meals as well. This is where we were treated to local savory cakes filled with flavor combinations like salmon and dill, olives and artichokes, ham and pine nuts. Local hams, local pâtés, and roasts from the market were brought to the table. Strawberries of the season filled our bellies at dessert. Glasses were filled and re-filled with chilled rosé. The evenings were getting warmer, so we took our meals under my in-laws’ wisteria-laden patio.
When the day finally arrived, everything fell into place. The sun even decided to shine nonstop. I don’t think my father-in-law could have asked for a more perfect event. The Parisian crowd cooed over how lovely it was to spend an afternoon in the country, while their children retreated into one of the dark, low tents reserved for them. My father-in-law’s brother gave a moving speech, and everyone competed in a quiz to see who knew him the best (Thanks to M. Cheesemonger, our team won. Maybe that’s cheating, but you have to take what you can . . . .).
As for me, the Grande Fête was also the culmination of the great cheese quest of the previous week! The goat tomme from La Ferme du Bois Normand (I’m such a sucker for goat cheese) was like eating goat milk snow—it was fluffy, soft, mild, and sweeter than I have tasted in the States, with a bit of the characteristic goat tang. The pave d’Auge from La Ferme de la Moissonnière was quite mild, despite having a washed rind, and a little springy in the mouth. The mildness comes in large part from its thickness! The slightly smaller Pont l’Evêque was a bit more pungent in its hay-tinged, barnyard essence. The Livarot from Graindorge was appropriately stinky and springy in texture as well. I loved the Neufchâtel, which I found was like the cheese ice cream of the lot. That’s the texture it has, just a little bit sandy just before it dissolves completely into creamy goodness. The universal favorite was the exceptional round of Camembert by Lanquetot. Not all Camemberts are created equal, as I learned during our Camembert tasting. This one was perfectly ripe, and therefore runny—almost jam-like in its consistency. With every bite, its full, lush, creamy, flavor charged onward, unequivocally crowning itself king of Normandy cheeses. I could have eaten that whole round myself, but there were 35 other guests to think about, not to mention a birthday boy.
The day floated joyously toward its close, helped along with summery wines and blowing wisteria, and eventually, guests trickled out the door. Everyone was sated and content, perhaps no one more than my father-in-law. It was a birthday that will stay with us all for many seasons to come.