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In search of a French fantasy a few hours drive from London

Just south of Calais lies the Boulonnais region, where you can find yourself lost in a quiet corner of 'deep France', says Stephen Bayley

I am writing these notes at breakfast in an old French inn. The sight before me is powerfully evocative. Outside there is mist. Inside, beyond the basket of bread and croissants, a generous coal fire roars as fires should in a large brick grate. The floor tiles are age-polished terracotta. I could be in the photographic cover of Elizabeth David's francophiliac love song, French Provincial Cooking. The picture on her 1960 classic launched a thousand interior design stories and fed even more French fantasies. The rumpled tablecloth, the crusty bread.

Searching for this idyll remains a preoccupation, at least for my generation. I love it that, since the Channel Tunnel, you get signs to "France" in Folkestone. But Calais is not a place to linger, so what's the first opportunity to engage with the myth? It used to be, so far as I was concerned, the Grand Hotel Clément in Ardres, where you found a splendid old dining room with framed menus showing that André Simon's Wine and Food Society had also found it a convenient stop on the journey into real or imagined France. But the autoroute now bypasses Ardres and, truth be told, the old Clément never did merit a detour. So for the precious first sensation of being lost in France you need to go to the Boulonnais.

I was introduced to the this lovely area by the late David Sweetman, a raffish film-maker with an acid wit and author of popular lives of Van Gogh and Mary Renault. His proposition was: did you know that just a couple of hours from London you can access la France profonde? The proposition is just as alluring today. About 45 miles from Calais you are in the arrière-pays of Boulogne. Streams trickle, cows moo, fish swim.

It is not true that the English have completely ignored this area: John Ruskin spent productive time hereabouts and modern Le Touquet has a notable number of English-registered Porsches, but the general inclination for travellers by road is to get through the area as quickly as possible. Nor is it true to say that the terroir is unspoilt, since the French are expert at systematically spoiling their country. But for rapid immersion in deep France, the Boulonnais makes an absorbing weekend.

The agreeable sense of isolation is now keener still since the last cross-Channel ferry stopped serving Boulogne (although a high-speed service from Ramsgate is rumoured). Inevitably, this has had a depressing effect on a once prosperous town. In 1763, beginning the journey that led to his Travels through France and Italy, the curmudgeonly Tobias Smollett noted the "putrid vapours" of the harbour. He found the locals "very ferocious and addicted to revenge". He did not like Boulogne one bit.

Today the locals are more depressed than ferocious: deckhands have become barflies. One of the last remaining reasons to visit Boulogne is the cheesemonger Philippe Olivier. Killing an hour waiting for his shop to open, I sat in an ineffably depressing café just outside the fortified walls of the Vieille Ville. In a bitter wind, the drunks were tippling flutes of a thin rosé, whose sunny origins mocked the encompassing bleakness. Their florid complexions competed with the joylessly garish Lotto posters. Matisse, I reflected, came from the north and its harshness drove him south. Easy listening made it difficult to stay: decline is not picturesque. I bought my boulette d'Avesnes and aged mimolette and left muttering "never again".

A short drive from Boulogne's putrid vapours is Montreuil-sur-Mer and its windswept fresh air. A girdle of fortifications has kept the contents of this hill town intact: there are almost none of the hideous architectural interventions which debauch so many French towns. It is unchanged since Victor Hugo used it as a source for scenes in Les Misérables.

Indeed, Montreuil is prettily romantic, if a little self-conscious: the landmark restaurant is Le Darnétal, more or less as it was on my first visit. Along with pitilessly polished copper chafing pans and " bibelots en cuir" (leather trinkets), there's a folklorique menu of frogs' legs, snails and pot-au-feu (beef stew).

The landmark hotel is the Château de Montreuil, where Michelin has scattered its fickle stardust. Despite its lofty Relais & Chateaux status, there is peeling paint on the shutters and faded colour snaps in smeary vitrines. Fatal to any reputation, a life-size cut-out of a jolly chef stands bearing a chalked menu in the silent street.

But my destination was elsewhere. A tree-lined, gently rising and falling road called the Vallée de la Course follows a modest river and leads to the Auberge d'Inxent where this article began. Since my first visit, the road has been much built up. Still, I parked the car and anticipated pleasure. There was the smell of horses and, opposite, a graveyard with those glossy black tombs that bring death into disrepute. And, if you strained your ears, the occasional buzz of a distant moto ridden by a youth briefly taking a break from the local tradition of eating crisps in a bus stop.

The Auberge d'Inxent is truly a Proustian édifice du souvenir. Elizabeth David stayed here when researching that very same French Provincial Cooking, and her account of dinner is so perfectly redolent of a seductive French dream world that it is worth reproducing at length:

"In a country inn in the village of Inxent ... although the house, the dining-room and the service are modest, the cooking is famous both because of the excellence of the materials employed and the skill and simplicity with which the dishes are chosen and presented. There is very little choice. You will probably start with a trout, killed on the spot and cooked au bleu, served with melted butter so white and creamy that it practically is cream. Almost certainly the next course will be a chicken, plump, tender, roasted a delicate gold in butter ... the cooking so perfectly timed that you begin to wonder if you have ever really eaten a roast chicken before ..."

The current proprietors are Jean‑Marc and Laurence Six, who continue a commitment to local produce, if not always to perfect timing. A map on the menu shows snails from Airon-St-Vaast, honey from Bouin-Plumoison, and ouillettes from Montreuil, fish from Etaples and bière de garde from from Beninfontaine. These find their way into interesting dishes including tarte a l'andouille, flamiche aux poireaux, lapin du haut pays aux pruneaux and Mrs David's very own truite au bleu (although her favourite sweet omelettes are missing).

To be honest, the historical reach of the Auberge d'Inxent exceeds its contemporary grasp of modern cooking and hospitality realities. An ambitious-sounding rognons flambés au genièvre (kidneys in jenever) was without point or taste. A request for chablis was met with a crestfallen look and an indifferent minervois offered instead. M'sieur serves dinner wearing a not particularly fresh-looking woolly.

As lodging, the fragile charm of the Auberge does not exceed its practical shortcomings. The bed was small and mean, heating arrangements noisily comic and there is nowhere to sit in the public spaces. Worse, my tolerance of French kitsch is diminishing with age; there is no pleasure to be had from the rabbit made of straw which decorated my room, but at least I was grateful there was no television.

To this patchy rustic dream world, Le Touquet, less than half an hour away on the coast, makes a splendid urban contrast. You approach through huge pine forests, planted in 1855, the same year other diligent French administrators decided to classify in perpetuity the wines of Bordeaux. In the forest are not wild animals and evil spirits, but large second homes. It feels like East Hampton or Virginia Water. The town is built on a grid and filled with cartoonish architecture of gables and turrets which gives way, as you approach the sea, to apartment blocks which say rich, not social, housing.

Le Touquet's international shmutter shops sell these rich their worthlessly expensive baubles, but the rich are evidently not much interested in eating. Despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious prosperity, Le Touquet has no notable restaurants. Best bet is a quick visit to Pérard's oyster bar for a glass of champagne and some natives at the back of the poissonnerie. Here you can also stock up on jars of the excellent own-brand fish soup, a product of sweating, fat-armed women stirring vast cauldrons with paddles. And then you drive for lunch in Etaples, across an ugly bridge to the other side of the sluggish River Canche.

Aux Pêcheurs d'Etaples is a wonderful French idiosyncrasy: a large restaurant above the fish co-operative's pavilion which has, at car park level, one of the best glistening and still-twitching arrays of God's finned, scaled, shelled and tentacled marine bounty you are ever likely to see. The temptations of fish kitsch have not been avoided and the interior aesthetic depends on marine ropes and portholes. Loo seats are transparent blue with disconcerting fish motifs. The plat du jour was a petite bouillabaisse at €24. This you eat while watching desultory, if bumpy, arrivals at the small airport. The solid fish elements of the soup were fresh, but it was an otherwise undistinguished dish. Mayonnaise was served in the sort of plastic flute used for holding pens and inclined to gather dust.

A weekend in the Boulonnais has pleasures and pains. I drove back to the Tunnel with mixed feelings: dreams cannot stand too much critical analysis. La France profonde still exists surprisingly close to London, but the profondeur of the culture is not as deep and impressive as it once was. In fact, it's getting thin. But that's the mutability of dreams for you.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Euroferries (0844 414 5355; euroferries.co.uk) plans to launch a 75-minute service between Ramsgate and Boulogne later this year.

Alternatively, Eurotunnel (08443 35 35 35; eurotunnel.com) operates between Folkestone and Calais; a short-break saver ticket costs from £47 each way per car.

Staying there

Auberge d'Inxent, La Vallée de la Course, Inxent (00 33 3 21 90 71 19; auberge-inxent.fr). Double rooms start at €73, room only.

Eating, drinking and shopping there

Fromagerie Philippe Olivier, 43 rue Thiers, Boulogne-sur-Mer (00 33 3 21 31 94 74; philippeolivier.fr).

Restaurant Le Darnétal, 1 place de la Poissonnerie, Montreuil-sur-Mer (00 33 3 21 06 04 87; darnetal-montreuil.com).

Restaurant Le Pérard, 67 rue de Metz, Le Touquet (00 33 3 21 05 62 32).

Aux Pêcheurs d'Etaples, Quai de la Canche, Etaples-sur-Mer (00 33 3 21 94 06 90; auxpecheursdetaples.fr).

More information