The cream and Calva route

Boulogne and Dieppe deserve to be seen as more than just ports of call, as Sean Hardy (and his liver) discovered

eading west from Calais to Normandy, you feel the closeness and the divide known as The Channel. The bridgeheads in both world wars were attempted along this coast; the guns of the Somme could be heard equally in Folkestone and in the gardens at Giverny where Monet continued to paint his waterlilies. Duke William embarked from Saint-Valery-sur-Somme to claim his rightful throne via Hastings. Today, the Pas de Calais and the whimsically dubbed "Cote d'Opale" and "Cote d'Albatre" suffer a different sort of invasion in return - from the British day-tripper flooding in via the tunnel in the east, and via the crossings to Boulogne, Dieppe and Le Havre to the west.

In fact, this whole coast, often seen only from the hypermarket car park or rushed through en route to other parts of France can offer a rare and easily accessible experience of fine living and gourmet shopping.

BOULOGNE and WIMEREUX

I had rather unhappy memories of Boulogne from queasy school trips. This has all changed since the opening of the Channel Tunnel. First stop: Philippe Olivier, the famous Boulogne Maitre Fromager.

For cheese-lovers, this is pretty close to paradise. The locals complain he is overpriced, but it can be worth it for a wide choice, for expert advice and for the positive encouragement to try anything your nose lights on. This is the taster, literally, for our lunch at nearby Wimereux.

Jean-Francois Laurent, the young chef chosen to cook for the Queen and President Mitterrand when the tunnel opened, now runs a delightful restaurant within minutes of the French exit. At lunchtime, quite a number of the clientele are English, but his adventurous twists on French classics tend to go down well with those of us versed in Blanc, Novelli, and Roux - if only in theory. He has become famous for a signature dish, based on a Boulogne breakfast tradition and involving kippers and a coffee sauce. I don't know what the Queen made of it - I was more impressed with a tabatiere of locally smoked salmon stuffed with perfect baby-fleshed langoustine and foie gras (another favoured new pairing).

LE TOUQUET

The perfect spot for tea and shopping and a hop away from the tunnel or the Boulogne ferry, Le Touquet - albeit once sufficiently elegant to have attracted Wallis and Edward - is rather sad out of season.

A coven of impossibly elegant ladies and their equally coiffured poodles have chosen to seek tea and synergie at Le Touquet's famous salon de the, Le Lido, as have we. Jean-Jacques Pacquelet, the Willy Wonka of northern France, here transforms chocolate into anything and everything. It is as much art as food, and we stock up on presents before braving the Ladies Who Sip and the heady fug of coffee and hot chocolate.

LE CROTOY

BAIE DE SOMME

In order to get stuck in to the real France as quickly as possible, we are staying the first night at a guest-house recommended by Alistair Sawday, whose books eschew trouser-press hospitality in favour of something more idiosyncratic.

Chez Madame Weyl, overlooking the Baie de Somme, is certainly that. She is also a formidable cook, theatrical hostess, and invaluable guide to all local fare. She points us towards all the best local markets and wine stores, proffers advice on godchildren ("Teach them to eat well, leave God to the priests"), and she cooks up a storm.

As well as the distinctive local lamb, fed on the salt marshes, she has created a "simple" terrine of duck, chicken and goose liver, with prunes, Armagnac and port. Just as effective in its way, a Jerusalem artichoke pate for my vegetarian friend ("La pauvre ... here we feed them to pigs," she says. The Jerusalem artichokes, I assume, not vegetarians).

Madame Weyl - or "Catty" as she insists on being called - entertains guests when she wants to, but if so disposed, will take visitors shopping for the best local produce. In some cases, this wouldn't be far - the catch lands direct at Le Crotoy harbour on the Somme estuary. Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from this vantage point, where the sea is often 2,000 yards beyond the mudflat. Here, in the winter, the Somme is as misted and eerie as any ghost road, monochrome and windswept.

On the other side of the bay, Saint- Valery is altogether less of a fishing village. The houses are smart, so is the marina, and so are the restaurants. Red snapper is the catch of the day. "La vegetarienne" has omelette.

DIEPPE

Like an elegant elderly actress, Dieppe is currently resting between ferries, P&O Stena having pulled out and the Hoverspeed from Newhaven not operational until 10 April. It will then return to being a naughtily easy hop-over. As a resting port, it has an added eclat: a lack of Brits.

Dieppe has had a long and not always noble relationship with this side of the Channel - their fleets bombarded Brighton in the 16th century, only to have the favour returned in the 17th. Like Brighton, Dieppe was the aristocratic resort of choice when sea-bathing first became popular, and in Edwardian times saw many expats on the arcaded seafront. Aubrey Beardsley holidayed here, Oscar Wilde wrote at the Cafe Suisse, yet it retains a positively medieval air, especially around the cathedral, the first stop en route to Compostella.

We were lucky to find the cathedral quarter in the throes of its excellent Saturday market; the goat's cheese was particularly good. I recommend the Marmite Dieppoise at 8 rue St Jean for lunch, though in truth I had eaten my fill of oysters on the street. Dieppe also has a tradition of elaborate bread-craft; we bought some and were pleasantly surprised to find it tasted good as well as looking like an Easter bonnet.

LE HAVRE

Our search for the best gastronomy in easy reach of the Channel next took us south. This is best done via Le Havre, or the Channel Tunnel if you are happy to put in some miles: we travel along empty roads and our Citroen Xsara is taking diesel at half the British price.

Over the vertiginous new Pont de Normandie and inland along the rich pasture land of the Seine valley, we seek out Le Petit Coq aux Champs - a small thatched hotel built around and for a restaurant. In the summer, the pool, the gardens, the cows at the end of it, must be bliss. Otherwise, the only reason to be there is the award-winning chef Jean-Marie Huard and his silver-laden table. This gets pretty seriously Norman: foie gras, duck, coquilles Saint-Jacques - a lot of alcohol, a lot of cream.

I had foie gras and caramelised apples in Calvados as an entree, followed by several courses of seafood. They even stretched to vegetarian amuse- gueules to start, which was a first. Christian-Fabrice Thomasson was in charge in the kitchen that evening, no stranger to London, or to the "politically correct" palate. (In fact, they are so attuned to British and American ways they will even offer cheese after dessert).

He created a glazed vegetarian tartelette with a sort of savoury creme anglaise, followed by wild mushrooms and the same pate feuillete baked in a scallop shell that graced my seafood. It may be formal, with lashings of linen and silver, but it is still, joyously, a Normandy barn. The rooms aren't special but that is hardly the point. You can eat like a king - even a vegetarian one, for the price of a Beefeater.

The best way to help cure our livers, we are told, is to go Calvados- tasting the next morning. Fortified with viennoiseries at Le Petit Coq, I am designated driver ("it's only fair") while Claire takes her unsullied, vegetarian palate to the serious business of the local hooch.

"Hooch" doesn't quite convey Calvados ("Calva" for short) the apple brandy that can mellow from harsh scrumpy into peaty honey over the years. I am rather a fan of Pommeau de Normandie as well, the local aperitif made from Calvados and apple juice. Claire, increasingly knowledgeable, and decreasingly focused, tells me this is like preferring rum-raisin to pure malt. The bargain factor is not huge, but the distillery experience - all half-timbered buildings and Victorian barrels - is worth the detour.

HONFLEUR

Further along the coast, and again as accessible from the Portsmouth- Le Havre perspective as via the Channel Tunnel, are the port and resort of Honfleur and Deauville. If it's moules-frites you are after, and I was, and watching the world and his yacht go by, then Honfleur is for you.

The old harbour pokes right into the centre of the old town, the quays now packed with art stores and cafes rather than the Quebecois products of old. It also boasts an organic food market on Wednesdays, as well as a traditional Saturday one.

DEAUVILLE

A small drive but many centuries separate the old harbour of Honfleur and stylish Deauville - Paris-on-Sea. I had been told we would find some of the most elegant salons de the squeezed between Deauville's designer boutiques, and these have to be about the safest gastronomic experience for a vegetarian.

I love Deauville out of season; I aspire one day to the sort of Nivenesque glamour that les Planches (the boardwalk) demand, but know I am better off with the excuse of winter for a duffel coat and an inexact knowledge of the best cabins to be seen by. These days they are all named after American film stars, visitors and heroes from the annual Deauville Festival of American film. The arts scene is year-round however, as is the horse- racing, and if the town now has the feel less of the French at play than the French at conference (La Defense-on-Sea) this does nothing to detract from its grande dame charm - or its tea-shop patisseries.

ROUEN

Nothing like sea air to work up an appetite. Rouen is our last stop - still an easy jaunt from the UK, with fast roads from the tunnel and from Le Havre, Dieppe and Boulogne, it has long been a romantic city-break.

Its charms are compact, not best approached at rush hour, when a one- way system forces us round and round the Vieux Marche where the English burned Joan of Arc. We're due at the Hotel de Dieppe for early dinner. Five generations of the Gueret family have cooked here - a provenance for the food not immediately apparent from the latest renovations of this railway hotel. Have faith, and young Pierre and Julien Gueret will talk you through their sumptuous, largely traditional offerings. Their greatest pride is their caneton rouennais a la presse.

Not for the faint-hearted, a duckling is lightly grilled and then flayed in front of you so that the skin can be crisped separately, the tendons removed, and the carcass placed in a sort of giant nutcracker. The jus produced is then taken to be sauced with port, Cognac, duck livers, heart and butter. Great theatre, and a complex, delicious if heavy end-product.

It's not surprising to learn that this version of an 18th-century classic, handed down through the Gueret family, came via a chef once favoured by Edward VII. The desserts are exceptional. Nothing better, on the walk back to the pretty Hotel Dandy, than Rouen by night, dominated by floodlit spires.

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