Cream and butter are what come to mind first for most people when they think of the basis of French cuisine. No doubt you will be thinking "It's all butter and cream, right?" before you arriving in France.
In Normandy, the stereotype about French cuisine is somewhat true. The region of Normandy is full of lush fields set upon gently rolling hills. Cows graze in any direction you look. There are stories - one could daresay legends - about the cream in France. You can't go wrong with any of the brands found in most major markets, but there are a few clues to watch for. These are fat content; if the cream is raw or pasteurized; and if the cream is from a local farmer.
Ignore the health-conscious American mentality. In the case of French cream, the more fat the better. Whether the cream is pasteurized or not makes a tremendous difference. Raw milk creams are much stronger in flavor and can almost border on a sour cream flavor. Raw milk products are indicated by a label stating "lait cru." Local products are often displayed proudly, and in their own section in grocery stores. These products tend to be fresher, and handled with much more care.
Arguably the most iconic of all Normandy (often called Norman) specialties is camembert. The camembert found here is unlike any you will find outside of France. Strictly monitored by the government to protect its "AOC" or "controlled origin" status, camembert producers follow set rules in place as to how the cheese can be made. One of the first rules is that the creamy cheese must be made with unpasteurized cow's milk. There are fromageries (or cheese makers) that produce camembert with pasteurized milk, but these cannot be awarded AOC status.
The cheese first made its appearance back in 1791, when legend says a priest from Brie taught a young woman living in Camembert town how to make cheese. The resulting delight is similar in appearance in texture to Brie, but has a much more pungent, hearty aroma. The best manner in which to enjoy this cheese is to let it sit out in a warm (not hot) place for most of the day, allowing it to soften and increase in intensity.
Historically, camembert gained notoriety for being part of the pack issued to French soldiers in World War 1. It is still made traditionally by ladling it by hands into round molds (the mantra being "good cheese can only come from manual labor").
Of course, to make room for all of this cream and hearty soft cheese you'll need to have "le Trou Normand" or "the Normandy hole." This is a local tradition which consists of having a shot of calvados either alone or splashed onto some apple sorbet in between courses. Calvados is a local brandy made from apples, and is enjoyed as both a palate cleanser and appetite increaser. It may be either single or doubly distilled and must be aged for at least two years in oak casks.
Calvados is generally rated by its age in the same manner of whiskey. Generally the older the brandy the smoother. Bottles of this apple based specialty can fetch well over $100 but expect to pay around $20-60. Good calvados should taste first of apples with notes of caramel and spice. It should be smooth and warming on the palate.