I grew up just eight miles from Newhaven Harbour so I have many blurry childhood memories of ferry trips to France. The crossings were dirt cheap back then, even as low as £1 with a voucher cut from a local rag. It was so easy my family and friends often went to Normandy on booze cruises, school trips and family holidays.
I thought myself so familiar with Dieppe that I haven’t returned since I was sixteen. Boring, I thought, but now I have a kid, and it comes with parental duty to explore more dull and, er, frugal holiday options. So, for my birthday weekend I decided to treat my family to a weekend in Normandy. It is not as cheap as I hoped, our crossing with the car cost £115, but the journey was hassle and vomit free.
We stayed in Maison d’hôtes Archangels Home, a family run guest house in Arques la Bataille, just 6.5km from Dieppe. Our host Sophie Perrin practises chromotherapy and her beautiful home is decorated in a rainbow of shades. The garden is huge and carpeted in chamomile, and Sophie even grows her own kiwi fruit.
Sophie’s breakfast trumps any ‘Continental’ I can remember. On the first day we woke up to a selection of homemade compotes: kiwi, grapefruit and greengage; pain d’epices (ginger cake with plenty of honey); homemade peach and elderflower yogurt and mini fruit cakes with poppy seeds, millet and locally grown flax. The meal managed to be both wholesome and lavish at the same time – quite a feat. On Saturday we had brioche and pancakes and on Sunday, homemade chocolate cakes with fresh pear hidden inside. All were served up seemingly effortlessly by Sophie, and I thought I could cook.
My birthday was rainy and grey so we chose to drive along the Ivory and Spice Trail to Fécamp and visit the Palais Bénédictine, home of the famous liqueur. We had lunch on the harbour, three courses for just €13.50 a head, but you often get what you pay for, and the food was bland, to say the least.
After our leisurely lunch we entered the impressive Palais Bénédictine and promptly filled it with my daughter’s sugar-fuelled wails of tiredness. I ended up walking around alone while Keane and S had a snooze in the bar, but it gave me the chance to learn a few things. I thought Bénédictine was brewed by monks, but it turns out I misinterpreted one of the most ingeniously marketed products the world has known. The liqueur was in fact developed by a savvy nineteenth-century merchant named Alexandre de Grand who based his brew of 27 herbs and spices on a medicinal drink made by monks at Fécamp Abbey.
De Grand was one of the first to copyright his product in detail, and the drawings of the original bottle and ‘DOM’ logo specifications are on show in the museum along with a large cabinet of counterfeights and the story of the grand palace he commissioned to brew it in. De Grand employed famous contemporary artists to create advertisements for his drink, creating a strong brand ‘mythology’ that has survived, and scared off, its many imitators.
The drink is still brewed in Fécamp and you can visit the distillery in the bowels of the Palais Bénédictine, but I found the tour disappointingly rushed and scripted. I think you’re better off visiting small businesses to get a real insight into the booze-making process (like Sarah). I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of Bénédictine to take home however; my dad called it overpriced, but the sweet brew sure tastes good.
The sun shone on Saturday giving us the chance to enjoy market day in Dieppe. We watched the fishermens’ wives gutting and selling fresh fish on the harbour and browsed stall upon stall of quality seafood, cheese, cured meats and veg. Tomatoes in all colours, turnips, artichokes, white asparagus and bundled watercress. It seems clichéd to wax lyrical about French market culture but it’s hard not to mourn the lack of decent food markets in the UK when you spend an hour or more eyeing up what is on offer just the other side of the channel. I walk round reminding myself: I am not in self-catering, damn it.
We had lunch at The New Haven on Dieppe Harbour. An upgrade on Friday’s set menu, we pay of €18.50 each for a delicious, unpretentious meal. For starter I had a half crab with mayonnaise while Keane opted for monkfish liver. My main was trout, fried until crisp outside and soft within, coated in almonds and served with cream. This, followed by a hunk of local Neufchatel cheese and for dessert, choux buns with chantilly cream. A fish and dairy feast worth every penny, and the sunburn.
By Sophie’s recommendation, we then took a short drive down the coast to give S a run around Le Bois des Moutiers, an Arts and Crafts house, formal garden and park created for Guillaume Mallet in 1898 by British architect Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. The space has an understated formality, with borders planted with wild garlic and shiny statement tulips in deep purple. The park is shadowed by trees of all tones and runs steeply downhill to the sea but because I drank rather a lot of wine with lunch and had the pushchair, we played among the flat lawns by the house until it was home time.
Our final find of the weekend was the seaside haunt of the Impressionists Pourville-sur-Mer, a short drive from Dieppe and home to the most wonderful oyster bar I am ever likely to visit. The l’Huitrière is a striking 1960s building situated directly on the beach, raised high above the tide and glazed on three sides giving diners an unobstructed, blue view. Downstairs is a large oyster pool that ensures the shellfish are served as fresh as can be, and a wet and ready-looking takeaway bar. The decor and furniture is simple and functional and a waiter dressed in vivid orange smiles as she lays down sheets of printed paper and plates of fresh oysters.
Because we have already, foolishly, eaten our lunch (moules frites on Dieppe Harbour) we share a plate of six small oysters at €8.50. Served with brown bread and butter, half a lemon and shallot vinegar they are the most delectable I have tried, so I can only imagine how fab they are in season. A perfect end to our holiday in and around Dieppe, which wasn’t frugal or dull, but very much enjoyed.
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About Chloe King
I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.
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