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The end of the world


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Calais, a part of the world most of us pass through on our way elsewhere. But John Hillman has discovered a time when for a few unfortunates it represented the end of the road.

Calais is peopled with English slight sinners and heavy debtors, the needy and the greedy, a sort of purgatory for half-condemned souls.

– Harriet ‘Harryo’ Cavendish, later Lady Granville Gower, daughter of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

During the heady days of the Regency the port city of Calais was, although ancient and historical, a pretty unappealing place to live. Not, of course, for the people who had family connections there stretching back generations, but for the numerous English immigrants to be found scratching a living on the hoary old streets of this semi-fortified town this was, quite simply, the only place left available to them.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Calais was a rather curious anomaly. A person fleeing England for legal reasons, most commonly to avoid the horror of debtor’s prison, could live in Calais beyond the reach of English law. However, to leave the town and head into the wide open spaces of Europe they would have required a passport, thus they remained stuck in a sort of strange limbo.

Many Englishmen chose to live the rest of their days in the port of Calais rather than face the consequences of their actions back home, the fashion for high-stakes gambling at the time ensured that there was never a shortage of desperate men looking to escape writs for debt-arrest issued by the tradesmen and bankers once their luck at the gaming tables had run out.

The prospect of spending their lives in jail with no realistic way of ever repaying their debts and gaining freedom was weighed against spending the remainder of their days trapped in a dreary foreign town and, unsurprisingly, the lesser of the two evils usually won.

One of the nation’s most celebrated debtors to have taken this option was George ‘Beau’ Brummell, whose fall from the highest echelons of Regency society to the depths of exile; madness and a slow syphilitic death in penury are the subject of a fascinating account in Beau Brummell, the Ultimate Dandy, by Ian Kelly. The biggest celebrity of his day found himself, like many others, trapped in Calais, forced to walk his dogs along the battlements each day and stare longingly across the English Channel to the land where he once counted the Prince Regent as a close personal friend.

Describing his arrival in Calais Kelly writes:

The place to stay in Calais for debtors on the run and English travellers was Dessin’s Hotel just off the Place des Armes. It was run by a Gascon family who had long profited from English gentry on the first or last leg of Grand Tours, and from distressed gentlefolk like George Brummell who beached themselves first, and often permanently, in Calais.

Dessin’s – Dessein’s – Hotel offered guests a large courtyard and garden, ‘commodious baths’, a small theatre, and even the novel concept of a ‘restaurant’; unheard-of in London in 1816. It was sufficiently regal – and suitably well placed next to the Hotel de Ville – for it to have been used by the returning Bourbon monarch three years earlier for his first address as King Louis XVIII on French soil.

So next time you pass through this city on your way to warmer climes spare a thought for your unfortunate ancestral countrymen, condemned to a semi-existence in a small French town so few, yet so very many, miles from a place called home.

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Image Credit: Edouard-Henri-Theophile Pingret

Get back on the boat!


Jersey Channel Islands 2008 - christmas time by jorbassa

P&O record a sharp seasonal increase in sales, reports Peter Moore

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With a trip on a British aeroplane increasingly resembling a stint in Bergen Belson Concentration Camp, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that more and more of us are opting to take to the seas instead.

P&O Ferries recorded a late surge in ferry passengers in the last part of August, as thousands of Britons decided to head to Calais to enjoy a late summer holiday in the north of Europe.

The sharp increase hit its peak over the bank holiday weekend. Speaking earlier in the month Simon Johnson, P&O’s sales and marketing director had predicted:

‘We’ll be a few percent up on the number of passengers, cars and coaches carried over the Bank Holiday. Our ferries to France, from Dover alone will carry close to 140,000 passengers over the weekend.’

Now one can only speculate, but it’s probably not just the delicate lure of French cheese, the historic Norman coastline, a weekend of glamour and romance in Paris or an expedition into deepest Belgium that has managed to attract us across the Channel.

No. It could be that we’re fed up with the Orwellian horrors of the typical British airport, where we are searched, poked, prodded and scrutinised before being lined up to board the plane as if we were about to complete a lap of the parade ground.

In comparison to this, a voyage on a P&O Ferry appears faintly idyllic. Driving into the belly of the boat in your own car, watching the deck hands cast off from the quay, bobbing gently over to Calais with the white cliffs melting into the horizon behind you.

It’s a choice that many Britons have chosen over the past month, with people preferring the romance of the waves to the oppressive sterility of Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.

Mr Johnson said:

“As the peak season draws to a close we can be confident that we’ll finish this year slightly ahead. That’s a considerable achievement in the so-called year of the staycation. We’ve been highlighting the affordability of ferry fares for self-drive family holidays compared to the cost of flying and the message has clearly got through.”

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image credit: jorbasa

If it’s moules, eat them!


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When the months start to end in …ber, then it’s time to get stuck into a bowel of mussels John Hillman takes a look at the different places to enjoy them, all accessible with P&O!

Mussels have been enjoyed by Northern Europeans for thousands of years, beginning as the original foraging food of our ancestors and ending up as protagonists in the culinary specialities of many different regions.

So whether you enjoy them deep-fried in Holland, beer-brothed in Belgium, or Bouillabaissed in Brittany the months from September to December represent the season to best enjoy these tasty little treasures. It just remains to be decided where.

Brittany is widely considered the finest place on earth to eat Mussels, the smaller delicate ones cooked here are supposed to be superior in flavour to the fatter ones found in the Low Countries, but this will of course be hotly dispute by many.

Anyone fortunate enough to be passing through this region over the next four months can judge for themselves by stopping at one of the many Mouleries found scattered across the region. These are eateries that serve nothing but moules in a wide variety of different flavoured sauces along with frites or fresh bread.
This part of France is also famous for its incredibly dry white wine, Muscadet, and delicious local cider; you’ll find that many dishes are cooked in one of these two delicious beverages along with butter, herbs, garlic and shallots. La Rochelle holds and annual mussel bake on the beach known as the Éclade des Moules, where thousands of mussels are arranged in circles and baked over white-hot pine needles.

Over in Belgium you’ll find an equal number of great places to eat your mosselen met friet or moules frites and what better way to enjoy that wonderful stock of white wine, herbs, butter and vegetables than with a selection (selection mind) of flavoursome Belgium beers. A trip to Brussels around this time of year promises to yield some truly spectacular mussel dishes.

In Holland you’ll find Mussels are treated with rather less respect than in Belgium and France, more fast food than fine dining. You’re more likely to be served mussels that have been rolled in breadcrumbs or batter and deep-fried at your local take-away. But remember that Mussels have always been the food of the peasantry and the very first fast food dish in Northern Europe, and deep-fried mussels are actually quite delicious.

So happy eating and remember: however you enjoy your mussels this season the most important thing is that you do so, and in large quantities.

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Image Credit: Foshie

Waiters seek Pineau pride


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Crazy European traditions have always been a part of good service, but could waiter racing be taking it too far? Pavla Tolonen sneaks a peak at Belgium’s highly anticipated service slander.

Slow service is the plague of any frequent restaurant enthusiast, however your pleas for savvier, speed-zapped waiters could be found in Brussels – the Parc du Cinquantenaire, or Jubel Park, to be exact.

Each year Belgium’s most amazing and atrocious waiters and waitresses flock to the park to hurdle down an obstacle course while delicately dangling trays filled with four full glasses and a tempting bottle of Pineau des Charentes liquor.

Five laps later, or after a few failed metres of trembling arms and lagging feet, the contestants end up drinking some of the deliciously tasty aperitif which consists of unfermented grape must and Cognac.

The two-day event kicks off with some amateur races with an exuberant food selection boasting oysters, cheeses and foie gras, not to mention, birthday cake to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Pineau. Music and animation displays will also be exhibited at the location, as well as, a commemorative concert.

The drink was created by accident in 1589 when a winemaker mistook a fruit brandy barrel for empty, thereafter adding grape must (young fruit wine). He unknowingly produced one of the most popularly associated drinks in the Charente region.

The liquor is now intensely concocted with a variety of six separate grapes, including Montils, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and undergo a gregarious 18 month ageing process in oak barrels. The most prestigious types of Pineau will have matured at least five years. Rosé versions of the drink usually contain grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and mature for 14 months.

Bottles of Pineau only contain grapes taken from the vines in Charente-Maritime and Charente, with the exception of a few areas in Dordogne. Each batch must receive the Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) mark before being considered genuine Pineau.

The event will be held from 3.30-7.30pm on Saturday 19 September and ends after the official race on Sunday 20 September. The waiters race begins at 4pm on Sunday.

For more information please visit the Pineau-Club website

Image Credit: Pineau-Club

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