Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rising costs in France? September 2008

We had heard from friends returning to London from Paris about how much more it now costs to stay in that lovely city. Is this the case in other parts of that country? We were about to spend a week in Dieppe. So I would try to find out.

I foresaw difficulty in putting together my modest survey, as being almost enumerate was not going to help. But I had Margreet at my side.

On descending from the ferry in Dieppe I heard a lady complain that £1.50 for a tea bag and some hot water from the bar on board was extortionate.

Margreet’s first cup of tea in Dieppe cost nearly £2 and her second nearly £3 (more than the price of my beer). But the profit made from serving tea anywhere has always been excessive. Although this did not convey much in the way of rising prices, it was an interesting start to my modest little survey about whether costs in France have rocketed in the same way that they have in England.

It seems that one of our first purchases in France is for a good cake of soap to use instead of hotel soap. But not remembering how much we had paid for it in the past gave no indication of any rise (or fall) in prices. So that wasn’t much help.

In Dieppe we found that it was still possible to obtain an excellent three-course meal (the menu) for around £10 a head. I had an excellent three courses at the Restaurant New Haven, and Margreet chose, for £15, Choucroute de la Mer (Grandmother’s recipe) for about £15. She said that, with its cumin and cream in the choucroute, this was one of the best dishes she had ever eaten. We had enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Crozes-Hermitage in the past there, so we had one again. I need hardly add that, except for carafe (pichet) wine in France (usually quite adequate and not pricey), good wine is expensive. It cost twice as much as our food. But we were on holiday and splashing out, and it was worth it.

Our breakfast “buns” (super cookies) from La Mie Câline bakery were no more expensive than in the past, nor was the grande crème coffee more costly at the Globe bar nearby.

We used to lunch at the Victoire with some regularity. It was a typical French red-checked-tablecloth café/restaurant, overseen by the appropriately French-casual dressed patron. It closed down, much to our disappointment.

Now it had re-opened beyond the Pollet “island” where the Michelin-starred La Mélie once served small portions of expensive food.

The patron must have bought out the Mélie’s fixtures and fittings, but now, dressing as he did before, in much smarter surroundings, nothing seemed to fit. Gone was the busy café atmosphere, the regular clientele, check tablecloths and intimate repartee. But with the patron’s wife in charge of the kitchen, the food was just as good as before, and the three course menu only marginally more expensive. But with the café feeling and cramped conditions had gone all the fun. However, for about £13 for the menu of moules, fried plaice and chocolate mousse, the meal could hardly have been bettered for the price. And the sparkling cider was quite up to scratch. It had been great value, as before, but now, sadly, in dreary surroundings.

One of the great pleasures in staying in a foreign seaside venue is to walk a lot in bracing air. Our visit had coincided by chance with the biennial Kite Festival (Cerf Volants). There has always been masses to see as you walk around the town and sea front, but now, kites of every description, shape and colour, flew in the salty wind either under human control or tethered to the ground by bags of gravel. The seaside sky was alive with movement and colour – a feast for the eyes.

So international was the festival that it seemed every country on the globe had a booth where the staff sold their national designs of kite and talked about their art. An English couple at our hotel did not fly kites, but went over to Dieppe in September every two years just to watch the magnificent display. And as for wind, it is usually windy in Dieppe.

So what with a visit to the well-organised Castle Museum, where an astoundingly good Van Dongen looked quite out of place among the collection of Braque prints and dark Sickert paintings, we found ourselves to be walking around 8 kilometres a day (measured by Margreet’s electronic pedometer).

At one time we sheltered from a storm beneath an awning outside Restaurant Heidi. There we saw that a three-course menu was obtainable for about £8 – including a ¼ litre carafe of wine. So, as this piece is about prices past and present, we thought that we must try it. But it was a menu for accredited kite-flyers only.

So we settled for an evening meal at the Sully (an old, comfortable and well-run favourite), ordering a £10 salade Nicoise for Margreet and £10 worth of two courses (whitebait and ice cream) for me. All was excellent value, with prices probably much the same as in the past. But with a splendid bottle of Vacqueyras the meal came to £20 a head – which by present-day standards must be pretty good value – especially in such a nice place.

We often stop at the Café de la Paix, situated at the centre of movement and life in Dieppe. From it one can see all that goes to and from the town, and from glazed-in comfort. There I chose Chimay, a Trappist Belgian beer that is hoppy, dry (bitter) and strong. It is a sipping rather than a swilling beer. For a (possibly) 1/3 litre glass, the cost was about £3. Not having drunk this beer before I could not relate its price to past experience.

Had the price of a meal at a favourite lunch place (the Bar Rouen) risen since we were there some six months before? No. For £13 a head we enjoyed 3 excellent courses and (in pichets) the equivalent of a bottle of wine. The place was just the same - same family – same ambience – same clientele (office workers and police) – same friendliness – same noisy landlord and quiet landlady – same cost - same everything. It was by chance that when clearing out junk in London on our return to England that Margreet found some four-year-old Bar Rouen meal bills. Prices had not changed at all.

And the Saturday market? We bought huge strings of two kinds of garlic – Rose du Tarn and Violettes, with enough shallots to see us through the winter. But did we pay about £21 the last time we bought such a supply? I have no idea. But about a third of the quantity of our string of Tarn garlic costs £5 in Chiswick. So French garlic is probably a little cheaper in France. But I think that prices both here and there have probably risen.

We had read about a bar just beyond the Pollet “island” that had a complete mix of mostly local customers. It’s name was Mieux Ici Qu’en Face (better here than the other side). And it was better than many a place across the Marina on the smarter side. Not only was it a most convivial bar but half the price of “over the water”. Their pression beer was very cold, and the coffee excellent (£3.50 together, £5 over the water) – a great find in every respect, and, moreover, with wifi (internet café) available.

At the Restaurant o’DKLE, at 10 Quai du Carénage, on the Pollet “island”, where we ate adequately one evening, it would have been possible to have had two courses at lunchtime for £8.

Nearby we lunched at Le Turbot. Good it was, but expensive because we ate (turbot obviously), and drank well. Margreet plans to return, to order what she saw being eaten at another table - the Assiette Danoise (a variety of mostly smoked fish.

Before we ate there we sat in sheltered sunshine on the harbour wall watching fish (bream) galore being hoiked from the harbour and sea, along with the occasional sea bass. These must have filled many a freezer for winter eating.

Our evening snack at the Tout Va Bien Brasserie of salads with a dessert of Dame Noir and a Trou Normand (calvados with apple ice sorbet) would have compared reasonably with prices of the past. And the pichet of ordinary white wine was modestly priced.

In the course of one afternoon we found what we already knew about, yet had never discovered, as it lay within an ochre-coloured sort of “town hall” building. It was a quite beautiful little early 19th century theatre, devoted now to a memorial monument/museum of tragedy and valour, concerning mostly Canadian soldiers, involved in the 1942 wartime raid on Dieppe. The Canadian troops and ours were slaughtered through the gross ineptitude of our military and naval commanders.

The museum itself is of considerable interest, with a unique film recording the disaster, its aftermath, and implications. But the theatre in which it is all housed (built in 1826 and given to the Duchesse du Berry who promoted if not initiated sea-bathing in Dieppe) is the unsung jewel of the town.

As a small and intimate theatre, with proscenium arch and much plaster removed to reveal its wooden construction, I thought it to be quite the most charmingly beautiful theatre I had ever seen – and French to the last cherub.

The modest fee for viewing a tragedy within a small palace of delight can not have changed much since it was opened as a memorial museum in 2002.

To find this building it is best to first locate a medieval gateway (les Tourelles) to the town that leads to and from the sea front near to and beneath the castle. Behind the gate is the fairly ordinary-looking building (with no hint of a theatre inside) coloured in yellow ochre. Inside an ordinary door, with little or no advertisement to indicate what lies inside, is all that I have described above, and more.

After a 100 mile drive through Normandy roads, lanes and tracks, and over hills and across deep valleys containing sometimes enormous fields, we reached Londinières, where lunch was recommended at the Relais Lion d’Or (but we were too early). So we had coffee and beer nearby at half the price for the same in Dieppe. So prices in the countryside are certainly cheaper than in town.

I wanted to discover how much hotel prices had risen in France over the last six months or a year. Charming Christine, who runs the Aguado Hotel, where we stay in Dieppe, told me that they review prices in March each year, and last March (it was now September) they raised prices by no more than 2 Euros (£1.60) a room, and for some rooms not at all. This indicates that the price of hotel rooms, in Normandy anyway, have hardly increased at all.

That great illustrator and artist of the “retro”, Frank Martin, had a house near to Dieppe for most of his life. In one of his delightfully illustrated books on Dieppe and its environs, he mentioned one of his favourite restaurants on the outskirts of Envermeu, some 10 miles away from the port. The Restaurant de la Gare (closed Mondays) is run by Jean-Marc and Françoise, and caters for everyone – smart, white-collared, and plasterers and their like. We had to try it.

From our 3 course (£8) menu we chose mixed sliced sausage, minced raw beef (steak tartare, and at least twice or three times the cost of our entire menu if ordered in Paris) and apple tart. So, with beer, a bottle of sparkling Normandy cider, the menu and coffee, the entire cost of this grand repas for the two of us came to about £28.

Oh, if we could only eat like that and in such congenial surroundings in England for so little it would be marvellous. And this was in “expensive” France. Well, it was Normandy.

How, then, might the cost of an evening picnic in our hotel room compare with a restaurant meal?

For the same average price of a meal (less wine) for one person, we bought a bottle of 2006 La Croix St Louis, Lalande de Pomerol, a coeur of local Neufchâtel cheese, a thick stick of bread and half a kilo of plums. The wine we finished (excellent), and half of the rest remained uneaten when we had had our fill. We picnicked splendidly, overlooking the black- and red-roofed landscape in evening mist, and watched starling families learning to fly together in preparation for their winter careerings about the sky in their thousands – a sight that should be witnessed by all (and it happens in Dieppe in the winter).

Petrol was more expensive in France. And as it seems to have been the cost of oil that has been the crux of the increase in living costs everywhere, so prices in France should have be rising. So far we had not found this to be so – in that part of Normandy anyway.

To enjoy shellfish in wonderful circumstances in Dieppe, there is one place to go – well, many, but this one in particular.

Seen in the distance from on high at the back of the Aguado hotel, beyond badlands of desolate and not yet redeveloped scrub land, stands, almost isolated, with two other interesting-looking eating places, the Comptoir à Huîtres. It lies on the Cours de Dakar, Quai de Norwège.

You could drive or walk there, and would find, in its unprepossessing environs, a charming Edwardian-style restaurant of the highest order.

As you enter you might see, as we did, a gourmet sitting alone in front of a layered, mountain of tinwork on which rested two dozen huge oysters on crushed ice – oysters, obviously, being a speciality of the place.

Even the prices for their menu were reasonable. And the white Edelzwicker, en carafe, was as good a white wine as you could possibly encounter for the price (well it was when we were there).

For the rest of the shellfish, shelled, charcoal grilled and sprinkled with sea salt and resting on miniature dark lentils, you could find no better.

And there was no need to change to red wine for the three-cheeses and salad course. The Edelzwicker complimented them just as well.

So what can be concluded about the present-day (September 2008) cost of living in France?

For Normandy anyhow, the price of accommodation, food, carafe wine and cider seem hardly to have risen since we were there some six months, or even a year, before.

So for good value and good food, Normandy beckons.