"Over successive D-Day commemorations I have devised 'Le Grand Repas du Débarquement'—the Great Meal of the Invasion—a homage that grows a little more ornate each year"by Wendell Steavenson / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
When Staff Sergeant Laurie Weeden noiselessly piloted his glider down to capture Ranville Bridge in the opening minutes of D-Day, he had only a 48-hour ration pack to sustain him. Canned ham, vitamin-fortified chocolate, beef tea cubes, “the sort of condensed food, desiccated, you had to pour water over.” He could not remember any particular taste. “There was tea of course. Being British, you had to have tea.” Now, when he returns to Normandy each year for the anniversary on 6th June, he is feted with meals and toasted with vin d’honneur.
My dad was too young to fight in the Second World War, but he grew up collecting shrapnel and logging fighter plane sightings, and has become an amateur expert on the Normandy landings. Some families gather for Easter or Thanksgiving; the Steavensons go to Normandy every June.
Each year we notice more tourists, more museums and monuments. This year was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the whole coast was full of re-enactment fans: French and Belgians dressed up as American GIs in battle dress, with rifles over their shoulders, aviator sunglasses and stogies; whole families in period costume—women with rolled hair-dos, little boys in shorts and sandals. The roads were traffic jams of Second World War jeeps and ambulances, half-track tanks, motorcycles with side cars, amphibious “ducks”—half boat, half lorry—and black 1940s Citroëns painted with the Cross of Lorraine insignia of the Free French Forces. On Omaha Beach at 6.30am, several platoons re-invaded, taking plenty of photographs of each other and a carefully posed upturned American helmet at the edge of the surf in the silvering dawn.
Family traditions always focus on a meal. Over successive D-Day commemorations I have devised “Le Grand Repas du Débarquement”—the Great Meal of the Invasion—a homage that grows a little more ornate each year. We begin with a dish of stewed horse meat and turnips to represent the privations of the French under occupation. Various hors d’oeuvre follow, each commemorating a different part of the invasion—bread topped with fried spam and quail’s eggs, to remember the midnight breakfast served to the soldiers before they deployed to the landing craft; sand made out of crushed fried anchovies, breadcrumbs and oat biscuits; a pigeon pie to signify the homing pigeons the resistance used to send messages back to England. This year I made a surprise cake, entirely plain and white on the outside, until you cut into it to reveal the red, white and blue stripes of the French tricolour.
The Queen and 18 heads of state attended the 70th anniversary of D-Day this year. Laurie Weeden shook hands with Prince Charles twice, “and with his lovely lady—I’ve forgotten her name,” he said. “It really was very special and lovely because everyone made such a fuss of us!” One of the local mayors came out in all his regalia and offered them glasses of calvados, “even though it was only 12 o’clock in the morning,” said Laurie’s wife, Annie. We went to the beach at Arromanches where veterans with their medals and military berets mingled with crowds of re-enacting soldiers. Everyone admired the landing craft, and all the jeeps, troop trucks and Sherman tank zooming over the sand.
In the evening we drove to my favourite restaurant in the world. It is in a hamlet at the end of a cul-de-sac, on the edge of a salt marsh. It has no sign and is only open two days a week. When you call to make a reservation, the proprietor-chef asks, “Where did you get this number?” There is no menu, you eat what you are given and the fare never changes and you never want it to because it is the perfect meal. A pot of homemade silky rillettes, sometimes goose, sometimes pork. A giant platter of grilled split lobsters, nude except for fronds of wild fennel. The chef pours calvados all over it and sets fire to it and everyone claps. Sauce boats of perfect buerre blanc accompany. Then there is a gigot, a leg of lamb, roasted whole, blushing, juicy, carved into thick slices with a pot of haricot blancs. Camembert, salad. A slab of crusty caramel tarte tatin and a pillow of crème fraîche. Several more glasses of calvados…
We raised our drinks. At the next table was an American in his 60s who had come to see where his father had fought. “So we are drinking to your father,” I said. The man had tears in his eyes. His father was a captain in the 59th Engineer Combat Company and had landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He had taken out two 88mm German guns in this very village. “He spent three days here, probably in this house we are in now, guarding several dozen German prisoners.” We drank and remembered. “To be honest,” said the American, “my father was damaged by this, he never talked about it, he wasn’t a good parent; but to come here and begin to imagine what he experienced— what he did at 26! This is a very special day.”