More memories, this time from Family Holidays in Northern France (1978-2017)…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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My favourite part of all of France.
Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France; the Côte d’Opale is a craggy, green, undulating and often dramatic coastline stretching for eighty miles between the port towns of Calais and the Baie de la Somme and the mouth of the river.
English tourists may avoid it but it has been long prized by the French and the Belgians, who enjoy the informal seafood restaurants in fishing villages dotted along the coast and the miles of intriguing coves and sandy beaches that run all the way down this coast that looks across at the south coast of England and leaks away inland to a glorious countryside.
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It was the last morning and the final breakfast and I was now fully recovered from the previous night which I still put down to two very stiff gin and tonics prepared by my brother Richard in his quest to finish the whole litre bottle of ‘mother’s ruin’ before returning home.
There was a mid afternoon channel crossing ahead so we checked out early and made our way along the coast with the intention of stopping somewhere along the way for a last lunch in France before returning to England.
The chosen route took us past Boulogne, Wissant, Wimereux and Ambleteuse, all places that we had already visited and we had a mind to stop in Audreselles which we liked the look of but was busy to busting on the day that we had arrived so we had had to drive straight through.
Luckily it was nowhere near as hectic today so we could take our pick of the car parking spaces in the market place and then we took a walk along the beach and an adjacent coastal path. Along the way we stopped to watch the surf and a local man pointed out to us a dolphin that was swimming close to the shoreline and regularly breaking the surface of the water and we were excited about that in the way that humans are always unnaturally thrilled about seeing dolphins.
Apart from temporary dolphin visitors down at the water’s edge there were teeming rock pools, where local children were busy catching small green crabs, and back in the small town, for lovers of fruits de mer, there were a number of sea food restaurants, but it was too early for any of that by at least an hour or so and the tables were still being prepared so after a beer at a pavement bar we left and moved on to our final stop at Wissant half way between Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez where we had started our journey just a few days before.
Wissant was busy so we parked the car on the edge of the town and walked to the centre looking for somewhere to eat but most of the restaurants only specialised in sea food and three of the four of us were not inclined to eat fish or anything else for that matter that swims, slithers or crawls through the ocean so finding myself outnumbered we had to try and find an alternative and we came across a friterie which the consensus declared to be acceptable and I had to agree that this seemed a very good way to spend our last hour or so in northern France.
Friteries are a feature of this part of France and are a simple place to buy French fries accompanied by a selection of sauces and accompaniments. The thin strips of potato are fried twice, first to drive out the moisture and second to achieve the essential golden crispness of the French Fry and the friterie we chose was full to overflowing with customers lining up for their favourite combination.
I was interested to discover that there is controversy about the humble French Fry, frite or chip and there are conflicting claims to how it came to enter the culinary traditions of so many countries.
It is served everywhere in northern France but it is the Belgians who claim that they invented it and there is a rather unlikely tale attached to the claim. The story goes that the local people rather liked eating small deep fried fishes but when the rivers were frozen and fishing became hazardous they cut potatoes in the form of small fish and put them in a fryer instead. I can’t believe that this was going to fool anyone but then again take a look in a supermarket freezer section today and potatoes are cut into all sorts of different shapes to amuse the kids.
In Spain they say that this is nonsense and the potato wasn’t even grown in (what is now) Belgium at that time and some claim that dish may have been invented there, which might make sense because this was the first European country in which the potato appeared via the New World colonies. It goes on to back up this claim with the assertion that ‘patatas fritas’ were an original accompaniment to fish dishes in Galicia from which it spread to the rest of the country and then to the Spanish Netherlands, part of which only became, what we now call, Belgium more than a century later.
Belgium however still stubbornly hangs on to its claim and dismisses the assertion of the French themselves by arguing that the description ‘French Fries’ originated due to a linguistic misunderstanding, because in old English ‘to French’ meant ‘cut into sticks’ and because US soldiers in the Second-World-War called them French Fries on account of the fact that the official language of Belgium at the time was French.
While researching this I half expected to find a German claim with the fried potato strips no doubt invented by someone called Fritz!
Of course we don’t care what the Belgians, the French or the Spanish think because we are convinced that they are an English invention and that we make a better job of cooking them anyway. Traditionally, chips in the United Kingdom are cut much thicker and since the surface-to-volume ratio is lower, they have a lower fat content. According to legend, the first chips fried in the UK were on the site of Oldham’s Tommyfield Market in 1860.
Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves with the history of the frite today and we each ordered a medium portion served on a French stick – a sort of continental chip butty – and as we cleared the table and left we declared the simple meal a resounding success.
There were only a few moments left in France now so we drove the short distance to the Eurotunnel terminus, waited a few minutes in a line of traffic and then drove onto the train and within half an hour we were back in Kent in the United Kingdom. It had been a good few days and I hope that we will be able to do it again when my mum celebrates her ninetieth birthday!
Some more posts about dolphins:
2013 is a special birthday year for my mum as she noisily tips over from her seventy-ninth year to become an octogenarian and as part of the celebrations she invited my brother Richard and me to join her and her partner Alan to visit the north east corner of France and stay at at a hotel that they especially like, the Chateaux de Tourelles in the village of Le Wast, just a short distance away from one of my favourite French towns, Boulogne-Sur-Mer.
Normally I have a preference for travelling by sea and always enjoy the short, weather unpredictable, ferry crossing but they like the Eurotunnel shuttle so on this occasion we took the thirty-minute subterranean route rather than risk the choppy seas of the English Channel and the mad rush to the car deck upon docking. It was busy at the terminal and on the following day the service set a new record for numbers of vehicles at almost sixteen-thousand. I had been through the tunnel before on Eurostar but never on the vehicle carrying train so this was a new experience for me and overall I have to say that although it is quick and convenient I think I prefer the boats and the rugby scrum.
After arrival disembarkation was quick and we were in the Cite d’Europe, which is an international shopping centre that was constructed as part of the Channel Tunnel project and is designed to bring English shoppers across to France to stock up on cheap booze and cigarettes. The place has one hundred and forty shops and restaurants but we made straight for Carrefour and the substantial alcohol section where we piled the trolley with cheap beer and wine and then set off for the short trip towards Boulogne but avoiding the direct route down the A16 and driving sedately down the Côte d’Opale instead.
Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France; the Côte d’Opale is a craggy, green, undulating and often dramatic coastline stretching for forty kilometres between the port towns of Calais and Boulogne. English tourists may avoid it but it has been long prized by the French and the Belgians, who enjoy the informal seafood restaurants in fishing villages dotted along the coast and the miles of intriguing coves and sandy beaches that run all the way down this coast that looks across at the south coast of England.
The coastline is punctuated with history, most of it bloody and violent and as soon as we could we found a place to stretch our legs at the Cap Blanc Nez about twenty minutes from the port where we strolled up to the breezy hilltop obelisk commemorating the Dover Patrol that kept the Channel free from U-boats during the First World War and then walked along paths surrounded on all sides by German World-War-Two gun emplacements and bunkers that were built here in anticipation of an Allied invasion.
These concrete defences are so well built and inconveniently indestructible that it is difficult to easily demolish and dispose of them so the answer seems to be to just leave them where they are and let nature do its work and simply let the grass grow around and over them because no one really wants to be reminded of this grim heritage any more and this approach seems to be very effective because five years after I first saw them there is now a lot less to see.
Our next stop was Cap Gris Nez, where France pokes its large chalky white de Gaulle like nose westwards towards Dover and where there are more remains of mighty bunkers that are slowly disappearing under the earth because this is where the Germans aimed their big guns on Britain during the Second World War. Windblown, isolated and perched high above the choppy waves bathed in the iridescent light which gave the Opal Coast its name, the headland was an exhilarating place to watch vessels passing by below in the English Channel and then to become alarmed by a few spots of rain that blew in with the clouds racing in from the west.
It was time for lunch now but Friday in France must be a day when no one goes to work because every town that we passed through was busy and chock full of cars so we drove through Wissant, Audreselles and Ambleteuse without stopping and finally found a parking space in Wimereux as the lunch-time rush finally began to subside and we found a small bar for a beer and a snack before resuming our afternoon drive towards Boulogne and then to the Chateaux.
The sensible thing to do was to avoid Boulogne in late afternoon but we didn’t do the sensible thing and instead crawled through the traffic and then through the other side and on a thankfully open road to the small village of Le Wast and the Chateaux de Tourelles which lived up completely to the gushing reviews that promised us a wonderful hotel in extensive gardens, a good room and the prospect of an excellent evening meal.
We unpacked, sorted out the bar, poured a drink and sat for a while and simply enjoyed the place until it was time to eat.