“Champagne tasting is a strange concept,” says wine critic Oz Clarke, as he kicks off our sampling session. “We don’t usually bother tasting it, we just get on with drinking it.”
Over the next 36 hours I drink and eat a lot, with Oz as one of my guides. I’m on a whistlestop gastronomic tour of the Pas-de-Calais, courtesy of SeaFrance. Along with the local tourist board, the ferry company wants to show us that just a short hop from Dover is an oft-overlooked part of northern France, normally a destination for hypermarket hit-and-runs.
My focus is Canche-Authie and Sept Vallées-Ternois departements, the green and hilly hinterland of the chalky-cliffed Côte d’Opale. The real secret of the area is that it’s a gourmet’s gathering ground, where a host of farmers and specialist producers will show and sell to the public. Forget those “French markets” that pitch up in your town. This is the real deal.
I’m here to see if I can furnish my festive table with the finest French food. Oz is encouraging us to hunt beyond the hypermarkets for our alcoholic accompaniments. Never be tempted by cheap, non-vintage Champagne, he says, for that way headaches lie. If you can’t afford the good stuff, pick up a decent bottle of sparkling, such as a Cremant de Bourgogne.
The Wine Society is a good place to start, says Oz. The only French outpost of the British, member-owned organisation is in the Hotel Hermitage in the pretty hilltop town of Montreuil-sur-Mer (once on the sea but now a 15-minute drive inland). A £40 life membership to the society allows you to buy. Otherwise, Oz rates Vinophilie, which is also in the town.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is the base for my tour, not least because it has a small but superbly stocked Saturday market. So we kick off there, led by Michelin-starred chef-patron Christian Germain. He’s our host at the four-star manor house hotel, Chateau de Montreuil, and is our personal guide to the delectable delights of the area.
The taste of Jean-Claude Manier’s artisanal charcuterie lingers on our lips as we pile into Christian’s cute vintage Citroen hunting van (complete with bench seats and stubborn stains). After a bumpy ride along leafy lanes, we turn into Aux Legumes d’Antan, where piles of interesting fruit and vegetables adorn a table in the farmyard.
Owner François Delepierre specialises in organic, traditional and experimental varieties, such as black-skinned carrots and pineapple sage. He and his mother have prepared their new-season preserves early for tasting and I nab a jar each of my favourites: sophisticated courgette and liquorice for us, chocolate and Pear for the kids. Two B&B rooms, workshops and a farmhouse restaurant opening next year are among François’ sidelines.
Diversity is key to sustainability, it seems. At the organic sheep farm La Ferme du Bois d’Esgranges in Créquy (book to visit), Christophe and Sylviane Henguelle sell on their fleeces, often as wall insulation. Each spring and winter the best bits of their excellent quality lamb find their way onto local restaurant tables, including Christian’s. But they’re left to find a market for the less popular cuts – the shoulder and leg, which are too large for one diner.
The clever way around surplus is to launch a line of prepared food, which is exactly what the Henguelle family has done. You’ll find their homemade traditional dishes on sale at the farm, along with their popular sheep’s cheeses.
In nearby Hesmond, goat’s cheese is on the menu. Valérie Magniez runs a cheese and bakery business La Halte d’Autrefois out of a fairytale farmhouse, and rents out her miller’s cottage down the lane. We sit down to a picnic lunch in her garden, expecting her to ply us with simple homemade breads and cheese.
But the table is heaving with M Manier’s charcuterie (local speciality andouillette, a spiced bread mousse, a coarse pate with walnuts and slithers of filet mignon – lightly smoked pork tenderloin similar to Spanish lomo de cerdo).
M Delepierre and M Henguelle pop up, as does M Manier. They’ve come to try Mme Magniez’s homemade pizza-like bread with crumbled goat’s cheese, as well as each other’s specialities. And it doesn’t stop there. Two platters of slow-roasted lamb appear (those “unwanted” cuts – superb and made for sharing), followed by a cheese plate and two sweet melt-in-the-mouth tarts.
Conviviality is oiled by a selection of fizzy fruit aperitifs from Le Perlé, which offers free tastings in nearby Loison. Owner Hubert Delobel’s signature drink is his groseille, a sparkling version of his grandmother’s redcurrant recipe. But he also produces a light cider, a frênette, and a 51 per cent proof Eau de Vie de Cidre for the brave.
We heave ourselves up from the table, for in just a few hours I am due to be indulged with Christian’s five-course gastronomic menu focusing on local produce. He’s kind, offering a succession of exquisitely light dishes, paired with excellent wines from his 600-reference list.
It’s early to bed; tomorrow marks the beginning of the hunting season for Christian, and I have beer to drink tomorrow. On my return trip I will hit the Brasserie des 2 Caps, an artisanal brewery between Boulogne sur Mer and Calais. Like true continentals, I sip Christophe Noyon’s medal-winning black beer, then his Frométon, which was designed to complement the cheeses of regional fromagier Philippe Olivier. Now, that’s what I call locally sauced.
How to get there
SeaFrance (0871 22 22 500; seafrance.com ) offers crossings between Dover and Calais from £25 each way for a car and five passengers.
Chateau de Montreuil offers double rooms from £165 per night (00 33 3 21 81 53 04; chateaudemontreuil.com ).
Aux Legumes d'Antan ( auxlegumesdantan.free.fr );
Brasserie des 2 Caps ( bieredes2caps.com );
Caseus (00 33 3 21 06 50 88);
Chocolaterie de Beussent (00 33 3 21 86 17 62);
Jean-Claude Manier (00 33 3 21 86 80 97);
La Ferme du Bois d'Esgranges (00 33 3 21 81 13 14);
La Halte d'Autrefois ( halte-autrefois.com );
Le Jéroboam ( lejeroboam.com );
Le Perlé ( perledegroseille.com );
Les Quatres Saisons (00 33 3 21 06 00 07);
The Wine Society ( thewinesociety.com ).Reuse content