Monday, November 13, 2006

Dieppe No.3. People (Part 1)

Written without prejudice, this is about the people we meet on our various sojourns in Dieppe. They are mostly regular acquaintances - hotel owners, restaurant proprietors and the like. We meet them regularly and are friends enough to, at one time, take presents of Christmas puddings to some of them. They were not used to the treatment of clients bearing gifts, and did not quite know how to respond. Anyhow, my modest "restaurant French" gave me a chance to have my piece ready about how the 'sauce' was made from a mixture (a mélange as far as I know) of butter, powdered sugar and Cognac. Margreet, who speaks the lingo pretty well, listened to my efforts "maternally".

Our boat was once late to dock on an early winter's afternoon, so, having left our luggage in the car, we went straight to one of our favourite restaurants for a late lunch, with pudding under arm. The patron was 'désolé' that his wife, below in the kitchen, had finished cooking for the rest of their half day. We retreated (avec pudding). Christine, who is now taking over the hotel where we stay, is the third generation patronne. Her grandfather was building the place when I first visited it in the late 1940s soon after the war. Then his son took over. This man, once hale and hearty, suffered first from an exploding boiler and then from a brain tumour. He became a shadow of his normal self - grey of hair and demeanour, quiet and slow. But he lives.

Madame, his wife, whose hair is curled hat-like on top like a can-can dancer from the Follies Bergère of the Belle Epoque, and must have looked much like one in her youth, was unhappy that this time we had booked our room through the internet. It meant that she owed the internet company a good sum for each day of our stay. We assured her that it would not happen again, and that we would book directly with the hotel.

Christine, her daughter, is bouncy, elegant, pretty, all eyes and teeth, dresses just a bit tartilly, and usually ties her blond hair into an unsuccessful and scruffy knot at the back of her head. We are delighted that she will take over as soon as both of her parents have retired. We hope that the young man, who now works with her, is more than just a friend. So we put the luggage in our room, presented our Christmas pudding to the proprietress and ate a fine lunch at a recently refurbished brasserie.

This establishment has changed a lot since the 'old days', when it was scruffier, busier, noisier, and my boys could pass quite a bit of the day happily playing with the pinball machines there. With upgrading, the machines have gone.

A statuesque waitress, dressed in the almost obligatory white top and black skirt, served us on sturdy legs, shod with sensible shoes that seem somewhat too large to go with the rest of her body. Her legs were ideally suited to serving her many customers with speed and efficiency. She was a pretty girl, with fair hair, tied at the back in a manner resembling the vane part of a weathervane.

Madame, on the other hand, stockier of build and with close-cropped hair was dressed in a military-brown tunic and trousers, and looked more like a Belsen warder than a restaurant proprietress. And she acted accordingly, with overseeing eye and authoratative demeanour, making sure that her place was run as it should be - with considerable efficiency. She was much slower of foot than the waitress. When reaching our table she was pleasant enough when taking our order.

To have found good food in clean and pleasant surroundings on a Monday in Dieppe was fortunate - though the excellent choucroute Alsacienne of the past had now been replaced by choucroute de la mere.

With other favourite places to eat still closed, we returned to madame's brasserie for an evening snack. I remarked to her that she had changed the colour of her blouse since the morning. She had done it because of the cold. It was a warmer top.

Breakfast in bed at the hotel is always so good that we are unable to do justice to lunch after it. So we buy a tart or croissant in a bakery to take to a nearby bar/tabac to eat with our grande crème coffee.

The black-moustached waiter of old at this bar/tabac had some altercation or other with the then landlord, left, and graduated to a smarter place (where the bier de Noël was excellent. The old boss, too, had left, to be replaced by an unsmiling, middle aged couple, who, without style, serve drink and take money for papers and cigarettes in a businesslike fashion. But the coffee is good, so we favour the place as our breakfast venue.

At another favourite restaurant, where we always eat at least once, the patron was delighted with our gift of a Christmas pudding, as was madame.

Madame, whose greying hair is cropped at the sides and curly on top, slides around the restaurant doing most of the waitressing, unobtrusively, charmingly, and slowly. It is not a restaurant where one would eat in a hurry. But the food is always excellent - plain, traditional French. Margreet finished her meal with an apple ice covered with calvados. We are now experimenting at home in England with this light, yet formidable dessert.

On leaving, we were presented with a bag of a Bordeaux speciality - little raised sweet tarts, sticky, and tasting of almonds. This was, presumably, in thanks for our gift of a Christmas pudding.

At a warehouse on the outskirts of Dieppe, where you can have your bottles or barrels filled from tanks of 12 percent wine from various regions of France, we enquired if they still sold a wine of our choice, bought at an earlier date. The bespectacled youth in charge, who did not deign to raise his eyes from the computer or his head above the high counter unless he thinks you are about to buy, assured us that we were mistaken in thinking that the wine was sold by him (he was correct). But we did buy six bottles of cheap red from the Tarn, on the assumption that as most of his wines for sale were choice and expensive ones, the Tarn, too, might be good (it was only fair).

Two prominent wine shops in Dieppe had closed since our last visit. Could this be a manifestation of the decline of wine-drinking in France?

In wanting a choucroute in the evening at a corner brasserie, the patronne was apologetic that no food was served in the evening, but if we wanted to eat locally, not to patronise the first six restaurants opposite along the Quay Henri IV.
Their kitchens, she said, were not hygienic, as she rubbed her tummy and made a sour face. But we had already eaten at the first one without ill effects.

We returned to the now open first choice restaurant, a favourite place for plaice and Coquille St Jacques. Our pudding gift was gratefully received by monsieur, whose back is now straightened from bent. Dressed in jeans and a pink striped shirt, he comes from somewhere in France where 'merci' is pronounced as 'meerci', and 'pardon' as 'paardon'.

We have never seen madame, who stays below stairs in the kitchen, receives shouted commands, and cooks each dish as it is ordered. This is another restaurant where one is expected to take time over a meal - and get each dish in perfect condition.

An excellent bistro on the Pollet island, in the middle of town, was started by two gays, who rather dominated the place. Under new ownership the restaurant is more sedate, but just as good. The slightly rotund waitress has been employed there since the restaurant's inception and has a charm and wonderful knack of making you feel very much at ease and at home.

There we eat our favourite Coquille St Jacques, the season for them starting on the 4th of October and ending on the 15th of May.

Soon after we had taken our seats just inside the window of another restaurant, an old cyclist appeared, dressed in Tour de France gear, wearing a brightly coloured cap with upturned peak. He looked not only rather rediculous in it, but also somewhat tramplike.

We, and the patron of the restaurant, watched as he took a long time to chain his bicycle to some boxes of petuneas that were attached to the front of the establishment. He used a rusty iron-link chain, usually seen attached to old-fashioned lavatory systems.

The proprietor looked on aghast at this potential customer whose presence, in or out, might discourage smarter-class clientèle from entering.

But in came the cyclist, who was thoughtfully offered a table in the window next to us - so that he could keep an eye on his bike.

The old codger ordered well, in a squeakily high voice, in French, well accented in English.

Beore we left, we engaged in conversation with him. He had been in public service in England, was retired, 69 years old, and cycled daily for distances from 80 to 100 miles. Cycling was his life - his entire life.

I asked if he had ever ridden in the Tour de France. No, but he followed it each year, cycling with it. When the contestants rested at night, he would cycle on ahead to witness the following leg of the race.

He was a cheery, red-faced man, who had obviously been involved in a dreadful accident, as part of his face had been crushed and his teath did not fit the usual space in his mouth.

He had written much on his sport for journals, but no longer had the time to do so or write a book on his cycling experiences. Being so old and so active would not, he thought, give him the ability or time. He rather wanted do die in his saddle.

End of Part 1