We knew we were paying through the nose, but boy did we need it. A long series of mishaps and delays (no I won’t go into them except that at one point I thought I’d been shot back into the film Bagdad Café as, bag in hand, I trudged along an endless, empty road) had meant that it was mid-afternoon when we finally emerged from the Channel tunnel. We were famished and frustrated, but our priority was a DIY store to pick up some items my friends had spotted on a website. Our steely determination temporarily won the day but an hour or so of wandering through the Gallic equivalent of B & Q was enough; our stomachs were crying for revolution.
Central Calais is hardly picturesque and I don’t think I’ve set foot there for at least 20 years. It’s not really somewhere that you choose to make a beeline for and most people charge on in all cardinal directions merely to avoid it. Still, we were amazed to find a brasserie with “open all day” signposted in the window – until we realised that those wily burghers of Calais now cater purely for the Brits on day-trips. Us in fact.
Turning down the waiter’s sycophantic offer of raie, his plat du jour (raie being that rather unpleasant and slimey ribbed fish otherwise known as skate), all four of us opted for entrecote-frites. Sometimes simple is best. Then all four of us opted for medium-rare. Huge slabs of beef eventually came and turned out to be utter perfection – slightly pink inside, crisply char-grilled outside, with real fat frites, not frozen matchsticks, and no grease in sight. We also agreed (what harmony) on a carafe of St Nicolas de Bourgueil, an acceptably light Loire red. The accompanying baguette was chewily good and we cleared up any possible confusion by all finishing with creme brulée. Then coffee. What a fantastic consensus. Then we paid and trooped out, happily replete, marginally enebriated. But it didn’t matter as by then it was totally dark.
Our greatest moment finally came in an impromptu raid on the local supermarket, Champion. We loaded baskets and trolleys with a feast of squidgey Brie au lait cru, pungent Saint-Marcellin, crottin de Chavignol, soft goat, dense Comté and a creamy Reblochon for good measure. It took me back to the ripening aromas of the fromagerie in rue Montorgeuil which I used to visit religiously every Saturday when I lived in Paris. A decade has whizzed by since and I’d forgotten these pleasures of the nose – a foretaste of the palate.
As I chucked in a few patés as an afterthought, one of our quartet quietly added a few pots of foie gras with jars of confit d’onions. Then it was over to the wine shelves. What paradise, what prices. Those beautiful bottles with their white labels sporting coats of arms and sloping cursive script spelling out poetic phrases such as grande réserve, Haut Médoc or mis en bouteille au chateau. Some Rhone wine bottles (Gigondas to be precise) had the name actually embossed in the glass. I ran my fingers over it. So noble, so Old World. And all under 10 euros. How sad our shopping experiences over in Bllighty seem in comparison….
When I finally clanked home through the streets of North London, lugging bulging bags, it was close to midnight. A long day and a long way for 4 bottles of wine and a few kilos of cheese and pate. But last night’s dinner party made it all worth it – there remains just one little crottin de Chavignol. The rest disappeared in a gourmet flash.