back to map >

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 skin.

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 footsteps.

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 flottante.

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
like Champagne.

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.

Dieppe basics

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 offers a similar break from £61 per person.

Transmanche Ferries (0800 917 1201; 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; 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 £25.

Eating out
Bistrot du Pollet, 23 rue Tête de Boeuf (0235 846857); booking essential. A La Marmite Dieppoise, 8 rue St-Jean (0235 842426).

First published by the Telegraph

back to map >