After a month of over-indulging in New Zealand it was clear that what my waistline really needed was a new challenge, and where better to look than France, where it is physically impossible to go on holiday without ingesting your body weight in cheese? One can only love a country that invented a way of serving chocolate in bread just so you can have it for breakfast.
We found ourselves spending a few days in Le Touquet, which I suppose is best described as a sort of Gallic Bournemouth, although probably only if you want to offend the French, which we are of course managing with stunning regularity these days. Very much the high-end-most-expensive-real-estate-in-the-country part of Bournemouth though, as this part of the Pas-de-Calais coast is well known as the getaway destination of choice for the moneyed Parisian classes, as is evident from the size of some of the houses. It has an air of Martha’s Vineyard about it, not to mention a little of the architectural laissez-faire of Sentosa in Singapore and has been an equally popular destination with visiting Brits. Edward VII was a regular visitor when he got tired of being manipulated into interesting positions on specially designed chairs by a certain kind of Parisian hostess, and P.G. Wodehouse lived there for many years. You could see both Berties fitting in very comfortably.
Despite being June, it was clearly still off-season, as you could tell from the way the town essentially ground to a halt from about 11am til 3:30 in a display of midday inactivity that would make a Spaniard proud. I had demanded a proper seafood binge as one of the pre-conditions of my holiday, and having located Perard on Google, was a little worried they might be following the trend of not opening for lunch despite being an actual restaurant, but I needn’t have worried. The smartly turned out dining room was quiet, but very much open, as was its adjoining fishmonger and oyster bar, and we were immediately impressed by our young waiter’s decision to seat us in our own section, presumably so that our daughter couldn’t annoy other diners by throwing prawns at them.
Perard is something of a legendary Le Touquet institution, opened in the sixties and famous as much for its celebrity clientele as its lobster bouillabaisse. This is evidenced by framed cartoons all round the walls, which manage to pull off a more elegant nod to its status than the rictus-grinned ‘film star with owner’ shots favoured by other destinations with a similar reputation. However, it is justly renowned for its food, and despite this being the town where Emmanuel Macron casts his vote, he didn’t appear to be around, which was lucky as I was far more interested in what the menu had to offer.
There was no point in messing about. I went straight for the full Plateau Prestige Fruits de Mer at €55 Euro a head. Admittedly, this isn’t cheap, but then there is no way a full tray of prawns, shrimps, langoustines, oysters, whelks, half a lobster and half a crab would, or frankly, should be. For what arrived at the table, I actually consider this rather good value. I had a glass of Pouilly Fumé and frankly, a tear in my eye. A seafood platter like this is one of the great joys of life, and in the unlikely event I retire somewhere luxurious with abundant wealth in years to come, I can very much see myself making sure I do so somewhere that serves a good one. Le Touquet, in fact – I mean, why not? I’m only a mere best-selling series of iconic comedy novels and a Eurotunnel away. This was simply excellent, although with a couple of caveats that are really not the restaurant’s fault.
Firstly, whelks can fuck off. I had a couple, and actually, dipped in a very good mustard mayonnaise they weren’t bad at all, but good seafood should sing of itself rather than need slathering in mayo. They are cheap, and bulk up a platter in a way that is completely understandable, but have always stood out for me as not really belonging, like Dairylea on a cheeseboard or Angel Delight on a dessert trolley. Similarly, shrimps. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a shrimp, and a good potted version is a thing of beauty, but unshelled they are fiddly little buggers, and unlike some, I just don’t like them when they’re crunchy, so they need peeling. These were particularly delicious, with a wonderfully nutty taste, but in the end, well, I simply couldn’t be bothered and left the majority – presumably to go to waste, which is a shame for such lovely produce.
I think the secret in future, is going to have to be the perfect customised personal seafood platter, and I am very much considering gearing my fictional retirement towards the pursuit of that ideal. Holding the whelks and shelling the shrimps is certainly a great place to start. Hey – it’s my fantasy, and if I want to employ a specialised shrimp-sheller, you can’t stop me.
While I spiralled off into seafood dreamland, my wife very sensibly ordered the skate wing with capers, buttered spinach and mash. This is another of the restaurant’s classic dishes and this was simply beyond reproach. I have not tasted a better version anywhere.The only mild downside to the whole experience was that they served Perrier Fines bulles – a slightly less fizzy version which I thoroughly disapprove of, as does my daughter who presently spends most of her time at the dinner table shouting ‘BUBBLES!!!’ when she’s not getting herself around a faultless children’s portion of salmon linguine.
Sadly, they had no tarte tatin, and some floating islands were perhaps a slightly richer dessert than the meal required, but then I’m pretty sure my protein heavy main course had left me a couple of calories to play with, and the crème anglais was rather good. A lemon meringue tartelette and a chocolate mousse were both predictably faultless.
There are few greater, or rarer, pleasures in life than planning something you really enjoy, and then reality playing out as if your imagination was in charge. It is not something that happens often, and when it does, you must cherish it. Should you wish to experience something similar, I can only advise jumping on the Eurotunnel. The sense of massive release you will achieve by leaving Folkestone, will only be heightened by the drive to Le Touquet, and even the parking was free. Leave Europe? Are you insane? I’m pretty sure I’m going to retire there – I just need to find myself a butler and the right sort of chair.