Over the weekend, we celebrated my Dad’s birthday with a Normandy-inspired dinner party — at his request! Last summer, (when traveling abroad was a thing) my parents and my family spent three weeks in France. We all agree that our favorite leg of the trip was our week in Normandy.
Tiny roads weave through beautiful little villages — and in between is a patchwork of farmland that produce Normandy cows and apples. There are famous cheeses from the region, like camembert and Pont l’Evêque, and from the apples, come cider and calvados. And if you’re lucky enough to be near the shore, as we were, you can easily visit the fish market to purchase that morning’s catch.
We spent our days sightseeing and our evenings cooking meals in the quaint farmhouse we rented. The house had an amazing garden, complete with fresh herbs, artichokes, tomatoes and a wonderful array of flowering bushes that our host graciously encouraged us to use.
Dad wanted to evoke the flavors and experiences from Normandy for his celebration. We made an effort to acquire French-produced goods where possible, but paid homage to the region where we couldn’t.
During our trip, we sampled the local cider and visited a tasting room for calvados and pommeau (calvados mixed with apple juice…yum!). We couldn’t get our hands on calvados, but hard cider is abundant in Virginia. Along with cider, we had an assortment of French + Belgian beers and French soda. We served wine along with the meal — both French and otherwise — that best paired with our dishes.
In France, you may typically have your cheese course after dinner, but when you’re serving adult beverages, you should definitely offer something to nibble. For our starter course, I put together a board of pâté de campagne and cheeses. Our local Wegmans carries a very delicious Brillat-Savarin (even if it’s made in Burgundy and not Normandy) that we paired with some camembert and comté (again, not from Normandy, but at least it’s French). These were accompanied by apples, grapes, nuts, baguette and whole grain dijon.
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For the main course, I lent Dad a couple of my French cookbooks for inspiration— one of which is *A Cook’s Tour of France: Regional French Recipes by Gabriel Gaté. From this book, he selected Roast Lamb with Flageolets: a roasted leg of lamb accompanied by roasted carrots and flageolets (a small, delicate bean) sautéed with butter and cider. I added a simple green salad with a dijon vinaigrette on the side.
We were blessed with beautiful weather and were able to take advantage of my parents’ patio. On one side of the patio, I set up a serving table and draped it with a simple *tablecloth. To that, I added candlesticks, a *lavender bouquet and small bud vases filled with baby’s breath. (Side note: I used to turn my nose at baby’s breath, but now I feel that it’s incredibly romantic and makes a lovely statement when allowed to be the star of the show.)
At one end, I set a tub filled with ice for cold beverages beside bottles of red wine and plenty of glasses. This makes it easy for everyone to help themselves and see what’s available to sample. At the other end, I stacked flatware rolled up in linen napkins so guests wouldn’t have to fumble with individual pieces and balance their plate of food.
Years ago, one of my besties turned me onto French Cafe Radio on Pandora and I’ve been hooked ever since! It’s a mix of classic French songs, jazz standards and modern interpretations of French dancehall and bistro music. It has such a happy vibe, and it’s my go-to background music when I’m in the kitchen. It worked just as well to set the tone for Dad’s birthday.
PULLING IT TOGETHER
Planning ahead is key! We settled on the menu several weeks ahead of the party. Then I started thinking through how to lay things out and began collecting and ordering supplies. I have a trusty tote to use for such occasions — I place items I need in the tote as they come to mind (i.e. candlesticks, bud vases, etc.) so they’re ready to go.
When it comes to preparing food, I create a timeline with an eye on prep + cooking times, storage needs and how much of it I can prepare in advance. Some shopping can be done ahead of time, but I prefer to buy perishables the day I cook or maybe the day before. I’ve even been known to set alarms on my phone to remember to preheat an oven!
For this party, everything had to travel from my home to my parents’, so I made a checklist to be sure we left nothing behind! All the preparations ensured dinner went off without a hitch and that I got be part of the party, too!
Creating a festive dinner inspired by your travels is a great way to reconnect and reminisce — and enjoy things you love with people you love! Joyeux anniversaire papa!