Just half an hour from Calais is a different France, still unknown to the average tourist. But it’s easily reachable from Dover.
The ferry self-service restaurant has a very good selection of food. I had roast chicken that just fell off the bone, with chips and a Nicoise salad, followed by an irresistible French strawberry tart.
Montreuil is a fortified town. It used to be a seaside town, but it’s four kms inland now. There’s a wonderful choice of restaurants there!
We walked on top of the town wall, admiring the views. Then we visited the old Citadel, which was used during WW1.
2014 is the 100th anniversary of WW1, so watch this space.
Victor Hugo used Montreuil as a setting for part of Les Miserables.
We spent the night a couple of miles away in Le Grenouille, which loosely means Frog House.
In the 1930s, the mistress of Reynolds, the Punch artist, owned the house, and the lounge walls have a cartoon of frogs, painted by him.
The whole place is full of frog statues, and guests bring even more, most of which get hidden in the loft!
Chef Alexander Gautier took over most of the running of the business from his Dad, Roland. He employs 10 chefs and he’s trying to use fresh local produce in a modern way. And, boy is it modern! We were served course after tiny course, all presented like works of art on different plates.
First came a slither of monkfish with sliced asparagus and a vinaigrette dressing, followed by a razorclam balanced on a spoon across the same bowl.
The next course was thinly-sliced asparagus with a dash of balsamic.
This was quickly followed by smoked spinach, which had an interesting flavour, and a finger of John Dory fish, lightly pan-fried.
And then it was pea puree with the very fashionable pea foam.
In between each dainty course, the waiting staff regularly topped up our glasses with just a dash of wine and water.
The waitress appeared, carrying what we thought was a pile of broken plates that someone had dropped. But, no, we were wrong. These were for the next course, which was frogs’ legs for us to nibble on.
After that, the waitress re-appeared, carrying a bowl of nettles. We had to carefully reach into the pile and take out a large green parsley ravioli.
Then it was back to normal plates, with a little stack of fried leeks and a perfectly-cooked lamb chop.
That was the final savoury course and we congratulated ourselves before continuing with the puds.
I’d had my eye on the first one when it was carried to other tables, and I was pleased when the waitress came along, carrying a whole honeycomb. She stood it on the table and scraped honey onto spoons which she lined up at the front. Then she gave us one each while she went to collect the next course.
It was called strawberry potato, but it wasn’t really a potato. Strawberry coulis was encased in white chocolate.
The final course was amazing. Listed in the menu as a bubble from the Marsh, it was a clear sugar bubble filled with mint leaves and a mint sorbet. When I broke it, all the mint leaves spread out. I can’t figure out how they made it.
I passed on the coffee and chocolates. I was completely full. Then the waitress came back, carrying a large glass carafe filled with a reddish liqueur which she told us was cherry pip liqueur. She placed a long straw in it, sucked up some of the liquid, and let it drip out into glasses. Very strange!
My main interest though was watching the chefs in the open kitchen. Everything was done in total silence with everyone working in their own space. Chefs come from all over the world to train there.
A system of five lights switched on in different formations informed the staff when a course was ready, and which table to take it to.
(I fell asleep counting light variations. There are hundreds!)
The restaurant has a Michelin star, and is due for a 2nd one. It’s now the 54th Best Restaurant in the world.
I loved the rooms! They’re huts. (I kid you not!) They’re even made to look like sheds as you approach them along a woodchip path, with hay bales, bunches of twigs, etc.
But, oh, as you round the corner! Gasp! They’re done out in an almost black wood. The steps are huge so you go from side to side, while clutching a rope.
(I tried my Tarzan act after a couple of glasses of wine, but I didn’t manage it!)
There’s a tea/coffe-maker under the wood on one side of the raised level, and a free mini-bar on the other.
In the middle, you lift it up, and there is the bath!
One wall is glass, looking out over the natural garden.
In the morning, the breakfast was all served in jars, flasks, etc. with freshly-squeezed orange juice and freshly-baked brioche. Great fun!
We travelled on to Saint-Omer and visited the magnificent Cathedral, which is over 800 years old.
Then we went to the St Omer Brewery, which started in 1866.
The factory’s amazing, and well-worth seeing. It’s practically unmanned, and the bottles whizz round at an amazing rate, being filled, capped, labelled, and put in cardboard packs. We watched, fascinated, as an enormous plastic bag was filled with air, then turned upside-down and dropped over a pallet of beer. Tres Willy Wonka!
Our next stop was interesting. The Marsh People live and farm on little islands in the waterways, originally dug out by hand by monks in the 7th Century to grow produce on.
Now there’s over 560kms of waterways. Most of the inhabitants can only get to the mainland by boat.
It’s absolute heaven for birdwatchers and nature-lovers and it’s now UNESCO protected.
We travelled in an electric boat, which is silent and doesn’t upset the wildlife.
Lunch was at La Baguernette in Clairmarais. It means a scoop for bailing out boats.
We had the oven-baked suckling pig.
The owner makes his own wine. So do I, so I was interested to sample it!
After lunch we piled in the minibus and drove to Les Belles Echappees. They rent out refurbished 2CVs and vintage Volkswagen vans.
They have all been lovingly refurbished and they really are eye-catching.
Bruno the owner offered to let us drive some of them, but only one of us could manage the column gears, so we declined the offer, especially after our beer and home-made wine sampling! So Bruno came along for the trip.
Along the road I’m glad that I’d decided not to drive as we were stopped by the police. They obviously thought we were old hippies. They quickly waved us on with big smiles.
When we all rolled up outside the Chateu de Tiques, a wonderful small castle, we quickly attracted a small crowd of wedding guests who abandoned the bride and groom, and came over to us to take loads of photos.
My bedroom was a suite, with an upstairs. The views of the parkland were beautiful, but the room was private and not overlooked.
While we ate, we watched a wedding reception out the windows. A perfect setting!
We had a Pain Perdu with marbled Foie Gras. It looked very effective.
This was followed by an Amuse Bouche of gazpacho in a liqueur glass.
Then we had slow-cooked lamb, cooked for four hours with fresh vegetables, and a galette biscuit with strawberries and mascarpone cream to finish.
The breakfast was self-service and perfect. I had scrambled eggs and bacon.
Bain Maries can be a disaster. They’re often overloaded, which dries everything up. And temperatures aren’t checked enough, resulting in lukewarm food, which can be dangerous. But this was just right.
After breakfast we visited Paul the Cheesemaker. He creates all his own cheeses, including cheeses with carrots, the local beer and gin, and one with coffee and chicory..
There was a Sunday market in the nearby square, with a carboot sale next to it. And a Saturday market too, with great bargains and fresh produce. Everything was artistically displayed, and prices were good. I bought some huge, mis-shaped beef tomatoes, and two kilos of peaches which cost two euros. I ate some of them and used the rest for two gallons of home-made peach wine. Cherries were cheap and plentiful, but I just couldn’t carry any more.
We travelled on to Calais, stopping at Cap Blanc Nez to admire the views.
In Calais, we had lunch in the old restaurant Au Cote d’Argent (named after a 1930s liner) and watched the ferries sailing in and out.
It’s famous for the local fish, and I can see why. We shared a huge selection of seafood; messy but absolutely delicious. There wasn’t much conversation round the table as we cracked crabs and peeled prawns.
I must admit that it was my favourite meal of the trip. You don’t need hours of preparation to produce great food!
MyFerryLink operates 16 daily crossings on the Dover-Calais route. Fares for a car and up to nine passengers start from £19 each way any duration and from £20 for a day return. To find the best fares, visit www.myferrylink.com or call 0844 2482 100
19 rue Saint Pierre La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil , 00333 21 06 07 22
Visit Brasserie de Saint-Omer brewery
35 Bis Boulevard de Strasbourg, Saint-Omer 00333 21 98 76 00
www.les-belles-echappees.com in Clairmarais
Meet Bruno Delforge 00336.08.85.19.32
Drive 2CV and a Volkswagen vintage van around Saint-Omer