Travel: From ferry fodder to the gourmet delights of Dieppe

Hop across the Channel to Normandy for a gourmet feast, suggests Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Online
Once upon a time, the port of Dieppe, nestling amongst the not- so-white cliffs of Upper Normandy's "Alabaster Coast" (the sea near the coasts is indeed a sort of alabaster, thanks to the eroding chalk) was a prohibitive four-hour ferry journey away. After the best part of a morning chugging across a choppy Channel from Newhaven, immersed in the smell of diesel fumes, frying chips and the occasional pool of vomit, gourmandising was the last thing the weary passenger had in mind as he disembarked in La Belle France. Stena-Sealink, as it was, used to schedule some brave on-ship entertainment - bingo, high-kicking dancing girls complete with ostrich feathers (particularly good fun in force nine seas) and Hammond Organ-players covering the Fine Young Cannibals. "Caught in a Trap..." You sang along with feeling.

Eventually, though, you were more or less forced to partake of ferry food, the result being that the restaurants of Dieppe got little change out of day trippers from Blighty, which was everybody's loss. Dieppe has some very decent restaurants indeed, brimful of fresh fish and crustaces. But now P&O Stena - the latest incarnation on this route - has established a fast-ferry service taking just two-and-a-quarter hours. It's revolutionised Dieppe as a day-trip destination.

Unlike Honfleur, which it resembles in size and, in my eyes, in beauty, Dieppe is not really a tourist town at all. It has a busy working harbour and imports large quantities of bananas and shellfish. Only chimps would travel to France for bananas, but the small restaurants bustling along the quai Henri IV are stacked full of platters of fruits de mer (lobsters, oysters, prawns, whelks, shrimps, cockles and winkles, displayed on a bed of ice and seaweed), not to mention the less ambitious mussels and chips.

Saturday is a perfect day to hop across. Get up at dawn and catch the 6.45am fast ferry which will have you decamped in the centre of town in time to take advantage of the huge Saturday morning street market. Stalls range from massive displays of cheeses, sausages and fish, down to local farmers with rickety trestle tables holding a few beetroots and eggs and a dead duck.

This is Normandy, so cream and cheeses crop up in the cooking - nowhere more deliciously than in marmite dieppoise, the local fish stew. Just a few miles inland and you are into cider country, so apples and Calvados are also everywhere.

Put your feet up with an aperitif at the Cafe Tribunal, from where Oscar Wilde was banned during his exile in the town, and contemplate lunch. You'll still have time for a booze shop before the 5pm fast-ferry home.

Dieppe diners

La Melie, 2 Grand Rue du Pollet (00 33 35 84 21 19): despite its Michelin star, this is a friendly restaurant, and it has some exquisite seafood dishes. La Marmite Dieppoise, 8 Rue St Jean (00 33 35 84 24 26), is a well-established favourite with both Brits and Dieppois, which means it can be very busy, but, as the name suggests, they make the definitive marmite dieppoise here. Nice apple tart, too. Service can be maddeningly slow. Au Gran' Duquesne, 15 place St Jacques (00 33 35 84 21 51): I had previously been avoiding this because it looked a bit of a tourist trap, but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the cooking, the service and the extreme good value. You can eat well for 79F on the set menu.

P&O Stena (0990 980980) is offering a Saturday day-trip fast-ferry fare of pounds 10, or pounds 5 on other days.

For a day out in Newhaven see page 6