|Pleasures of the Deep
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Contrary to its damp and
dreary reputation, Dieppe is a dazzingly beautiful
gourmet's paradise, says Sarah Shuckburgh.
The smells, sounds and colours are spellbinding. The
aroma of fish, hot bread and old socks blends with squawks
from gulls wheeling overhead. A church bell tolls. Tinny
music crackles from rusty speakers as throngs of
weather-beaten shoppers jostle for bargains. But above all,
there is food.
Stalls overflow with gnarled celeriac, pale endives and
bundles of black salsify. Carrots and potatoes, still
covered in soil, nudge hosepipe coils of boudin noir and
boudin blanc - sausages made with blood and heaven knows
what else. Fishwives hawk home-made soup and display their
husbands' fresh catches of scallops, oysters and mussels on
dripping beds of ice. Spicy paella bubbles in huge outdoor
vats. Bowls as big as bathtubs glisten with olives.
I am astonished at this exotic pageant. Can this really be
Dieppe? Surely Dieppe is damp, dull and dreary, the scene of
ignominious defeat in the war, a dirty, noisy dock from
which one hurries to somewhere warmer?
Every Saturday, local farmers' stalls fill Dieppe's narrow
streets. The cobbles become slippery, strewn with stray
vegetables. Apple-cheeked ladies arrange latticed tarts
beside baskets heaped with loaves. Cheeses teeter in
haphazard piles - Livarot, Camembert, delicate Petit Suisse
and the pungent Pont l'Eveque (source of the old-sock
smell). My friend Guillaume buys me a heart-shaped
Neufchatel, a creamy cow's cheese with a grubby-looking
At the hub of the market stands the cavernous Cafe des
Tribunaux - long a favourite haunt of writers and painters.
Renoir, Monet, Sickert, Whistler and Pissarro all came here,
as did Oscar Wilde after his release from prison in 1897.
While in exile in Dieppe - perhaps sitting at our very table
- Wilde wrote what became his final work - the agonised The
Ballad of Reading Gaol. Flaubert and Maupassant, local
literary heroes, were regular customers too, and as we sip
our coffee, bohemian types at other tables suck their pens
and scribble on napkins, hoping to follow in their
Now it's time for lunch, and we stroll to the harbour. Until
a few years ago ferries docked right here in the centre of
Dieppe, with squealing trains and ugly terminal buildings,
but today the quay is a breezy promenade overlooking gently
bobbing dinghies. Waterside restaurants are already full of
large families tackling serious four-course lunches.
Guillaume orders a mountain of seafood and a bottle of
Muscadet, and as we crack open lobster, gulp oysters and
lick garlic from our fingers, he explains Dieppe's ancient
links with England, which go back to the days of another
Norman Guillaume, in 1066. Dieppe remained the busiest
Channel port for the next 900 years and its famous scallops
gave the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela its
coquille Saint-Jacques emblem. Dieppe's history is long, but
so is lunch.
Finally, after Calvados and tarte Normande, we stride along
the harbour jetty, past impassive fishermen in anoraks. Dark
clouds bring a sudden shower, and waves splash through gaps
in the walkway as we make for the beach.
The grey sea looks uninviting, but we take off our shoes and
socks, roll up our jeans and hobble over the pinkish-grey
pebbles towards the surf. For centuries, only lunatics and
invalids braved these choppy waves, and they were hoping to
be healed. Nobody thought to bathe for fun until the
eccentric Duchesse de Berry tried it in 1806. She persuaded
her aristocratic friends to follow her example, and Dieppe
suddenly became France's first seaside resort. The craze for
bathing spread, and when the railway from Paris arrived in
1848 Dieppe became a favourite destination for nobles,
writers, musicians and painters.
Our ankles are numb, and the knobbly stones bruise my tender
urban soles, but I'm sure I can feel the water curing all my
ills. As we hop from foot to foot with the waves licking our
legs the dark clouds disperse, the wind drops and the beach
suddenly gleams with pale sunshine.
Turner, Delacroix, Vernet, Monet and Gauguin have all
painted this coast, attracted by its famous ethereal light.
Incredibly, this is also the scene of terrible carnage. On
this beach, on August 19 1942, more than 3,000 Allied troops
were killed and a further 2,000 taken prisoner during
Operation Jubilee, a disastrous commando raid.
Back on the quay, history gives way to hot chocolate,
aperitifs, and then, guess what, more food. Guillaume's
favourite restaurant is across the drawbridge, a heavy iron
contraption designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower
fame. The bridge is raised and we join a crowd watching the
scallop boats. Fishermen have sailed from here since Viking
times, when the harbour acquired its Norse name, "deep". As
the bridge creaks down, pedestrians vie with each other to
risk the greatest leap over the swirling water. I wait until
the creaking stops.
The Bistrot du Pollet is tiny, but caters for huge
appetites. Gigantic dishes arrive flambeed in Calvados, and
cooked "a la Dieppoise", with white wine, mushrooms and
Normandy cream. Guillaume is impressed by how much I can
eat, especially when I find room for a mouth-watering ile
Hours later, as we stroll back over the bridge, the lights
along the quay twinkle in the gentle ripples of the harbour,
and I am struck again by the unexpected charm of Dieppe.
There's more food to come. On Sunday, Guillaume wants me to
try une marmite - not the yeast extract but a rustic
Normandy stew of local seafood. Before lunch, we peer at an
aquarium of unexpectedly colourful channel fish at the small
maritime museum, and then we tuck into delicious marmite in
a busy little restaurant near St Jacques
cathedral. We wash the meal down with several bottles of
chilled cidre bouche, the local dry cider which is corked
After lunch, there is time for one more bit of sightseeing.
The Tourelles gate, at sea level, is all that remains of the
medieval ramparts which once encompassed both town and
fortress, but, high on a cliff, the chateau contains a
wonderfully imaginative collection of exhibits reflecting
Dieppe's maritime history, including hundreds of intricate
ivory sculptures, carved by local sailors. The composer
Saint-Saens, whose family came from the nearby village of
St-Saens, left his piano and other personal possessions to
the museum. And, best of all, the exhibition includes
paintings of Dieppe by Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Boudin and
by many British artists, including Walter Sickert who lived
here for seven years at the turn of the 20th century. There
are also works by Dufy, who came from le Havre, and by
Braque, who was buried in nearby Varengeville.
"Still think Dieppe is damp, dull and dreary?" asks
Guillaume. No, Dieppe is delightful, delectable, dazzling,
dramatic . . . and delicious. I arrive home with a box of
pinkish-grey galets - sugar pebbles bearing an uncanny
resemblance to Dieppe shingle - some Calvados, a Neufchatel
heart and a Pont l'Eveque cheese smelling, more strongly
than ever, of old socks.
Shorelink (01707 329988) offers one night's b & b in Dieppe
from £76 per person, including return travel for a car and
two passengers; Hoverspeed Holidays (01304 225151;
www.hoverspeed holidays.com) offers a similar break from £61
Transmanche Ferries (0800 917 1201;
www.transmancheferries.com) runs daily services from
Newhaven to Dieppe; day returns for a car and two passengers
cost from £55 and from £95 if you stay in Dieppe overnight.
Foot passengers are charged £12 return. Hoverspeed (0870
5240241; www.hoverspeed.com) offers quicker SeaCat crossings
from March to September only. The Grand Duquesne (0033 232
146110) has doubles from £20 a night. The Hotel les Arcades
(0235 841412) has doubles from £30. The Villa des Capucins
(0235 821652) in Le Pollet has doubles with breakfast from
Bistrot du Pollet, 23 rue Tête de Boeuf (0235 846857);
booking essential. A La Marmite Dieppoise, 8 rue St-Jean
First published by the Telegraph