The Perche is Normandy’s little secret. Bypassed by motorways and modernity, it is about two hours and 30 years from Paris
An invite to the Foire au Boudin – black pudding fair - was what first drew me to Perche, but I had to look in the atlas to find Mortagne-au-Perche, even though we had holidayed all around it. It’s that kind of place, a landlocked desert island.
Mortagne, the spiritual capital of Perche, may be small, with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, but it is crammed with character, a symbol of the area. Houses of typical Norman pink wood and white plaster give onto the quiet streets, mingling with stone structures like the 16th century gothic church of Notre Dame, with its gargoyles looming out at the townsfolk; the residence of the Comtes du Perche; and the 13th century Gate of St Denis. This is reached by passing the Hotel Tribunal, the French provincial inn of your dreams, where I week-ended for the Foire au Boudin in March. Wood smoke scents the reception and the restaurant at the Tribunal, in keeping with the flower-decked 18th century frontage, the sloping floors, solid furniture and soft beds. Its pre-war advert on the side-wall belongs to another age, as do its rates.
Such is Mortagne’s love affair with boudin noir that it is nick-named Boudinville. The butcher’s in the centre is called Au Roi du Boudin. Its Italian restaurant serves a pizza Mortagnaise with boudin topping. And this is the home of the Confrérie du Goute Boudin de Mortagne-au-Perche, sworn to defend the delicacy.
Nothing goes with boudin as well as fried apple slices, and though the number of orchards has dropped since the 1960s, the apple is still important here – there are local ciders, now seeking AOC protection, and in Condeau Maurice Levier makes excellent Calvados well worth seeking out. Outside the Quincaillerie du Centre stand bright red cider presses and, in the window, contraptions for roasting apples in front of log fires, and the vast fire-dogs to make them. The lively Saturday market draws suppliers from miles around, some selling local apples that probably feature on no EU-approved list, but are pictured on the campaign-poster in the Office de Tourisme. This is a region prepared to fight for its heritage.
When we return en famille in July to spend a week in a Gite de France, we get to explore the place and its history better. The changeless quality of Perche comes from the region supplying the majority of emigrants to Quebec. Robbed of its go-getters and with land aplenty for those who stayed, the area remained in a time-warp for centuries. It is still slow: when we arrive at the gite we are greeted with: “But you are not due till the 19th!” It was the 19th. But by the time we return from the restaurant madame recommends everything is ready for us.
Perche exported horses to North America too: it was the mighty white Percheron that first ploughed the prairies. At the manoir to which our gite belongs, monsieur works as a farrier, and the fields around the place hold fine examples of the beasts. At the end of the 19th entury some 10,000 a year were shipped to the USA, bred on stud farms around the region, until the tractor replaced real horse-power.
These white giants still graze the bocage fields in Perche’s rolling hill-country. Nowadays the horses are bred not for work but for shows like Percheval, held every May in Nogent-le-Rotrou, Perche’s other large settlement. It’s not only shire horse country either: “We have some English friends who live here and hunt in the area. They used to hunt in England but when the government there stopped it, they bought a house here and some horses and carried on with their passion,” says madame.
The area’s natural potential, especially for tourism, was under-utilised until the late Seventies, when local activists petitioned the government to establish a Parc Naturel Regional in Perche. Sitting across two départements, l’Eure-et-Loir and l’Orne, Perche offends French bureaucratic precision, and it took almost two decades before, in 1998, the dream was realised, and Perche became the first of now 45 such Parcs nationally.
Meantime the people of Perche collaborated to harness resources like historic buildings, forests, and artisans to generate tourist business. They decided to maintain what they had rather than develop new attractions. Evidence of their action is found in the centre of Mortagne-au-Perche, where new buildings must use stone and tile, even the pitch of their roofs fixed at 45 degrees to match the town’s predominantly 17th and 18th century architecture. We wandered the market, sat and had an ice-cream, and felt suitably transported back at least three decades.
In a day touring the back lanes, where even the road signs are out of the 1950s, we counted just three foreign registrations, though proximity to Paris means big cars with 75 plates parked by weekend cottages. The back-country holds a delightfully old-fashioned and ghetto-blaster-free Base de Loisirs, a swimming lake with pedalos, water slides, and more ice-creams. Monsieur Hulot would not feel out of place there: rotund Parisians strutting the sands to work up an appetite; teenage Sylvies and Bertrands flirting in the water.
Another day we try the Parcours de Santé in the forest near the still-occupied La Trappe monastery, following the cartoon instruction boards – knees-bend, pull-ups, monkey-bars and all. A French family observes us with amazed amusement. It is midday. They return to setting out the basic necessities of lunch: wine, water, cheese, pâté, some pastries, good butter, bread...
Maybe their loaf is the celebrated baguette du Perche, launched a few years ago but quickly taken up by more than 50 local boulangers. Even in a country where good bread is the rule, the baguette du Perche stands out. It is well worth the premium price. Baked in the old way, slowly, with a toothsome crust and irresistible aroma, it is a parable for this special place.