Years ago, when Boulogne-sur-Mer was open to ferries from the UK, the town was a popular day trip. It was often the first French port of call (scuse the pun) for school kids. Its boulangeries inspired a lifelong love of French cakes and bread for thousands of British children subjected to ready-sliced flavourless bread in plastic bags and sticky buns, which whilst tasty, simply can’t compare with a jewel like French strawberry tarte.
Coach loads of pensioners were disgorged in the car park of Auchan hypermarket and then let loose in the town to cram into smelly cheese shops and wander the market. Those with grand ambitions to drive south in search of the sun, disembarked from the ferry and stopped off in the town for a spot of shopping.
However that ease of access somehow made Boulogne-sur-Mer less valued than some French towns. Despite its historic centre, cobbled streets and ancient buildings. Its marvellous market, wonderful shops, delicious restaurants, great bars and cafés. Long sandy beaches where you can pluck mussels for your tea and roam the cliff tops full of poppies, climb Napoleon’s column, explore ancient forts, museums and cultural sites. And Nauiscaa, France’s National Sea Centre, and the biggest aquarium in Europe.
When the ferry route from Boulogne to the UK stopped. So did the tourists.
The town suffered. Shops were no longer full of Brits ooh’ing and ah’ing over Maroilles, the local stinky cheese. The queue at the chateau museum on a rainy day had gone. The restaurants were no longer full to bursting with happy British punters tucking into the local favourite – moules frites.
But time has passed. Things have changed.
Find real France
Those who want to lessen their carbon footprint but still feed their French fix are discovering that Boulogne is a perfect day trip or weekend stopover. It’s still easy to get to. From Calais it’s just 25 minutes down the autoroute A16 (a toll-free part).
Boulogne is a snapshot town of quintessential France. And those who don’t have time or the inclination to drive hundreds of miles south, but who love French food and wine and want to stock up, crave French culture and French cakes – are discovering that this coastal city has it all.
Medieval centre – check. Castle – check. Gorgeous countryside and beaches – check. Fabulous boulangeries and patisseries – check. Loads to do – check.
And restaurants that you dream of returning to because they’re so delicious – check.
Which brings me to La Matelote, a Michelin Star restaurant that’s been shining a light on French gastronomy for more than 40 years.
In the March 3, 1888 issue of the New York Times a journalist wrote of “a galaxy of Gallic femmes a barbe”, ladies with beards, and of their popularity in France. In fact, so popular was the look that some women took to wearing fake beards and whiskers. And, in Boulogne-sur-Mer in the far north of France, one of the most famous of bearded ladies was Clémence Lestienne. Born Clemence Clarisse in 1834, she was known as much for the sweet treats she sold at markets in northern France as she was known for her looks. By the time she was 16 it was said that no one could compete with her gingerbread.
More than 100 years later, her great, great, great grandson Tony Lestienne is equally famous for his Michelin starred kitchen and hotel, La Matelote, which he runs with son Stellio. It’s just a stone’s throw from the market where Clémence once plied her trade.
La Matelote means the “fisherman’s wife” and the restaurant excels in its fish dishes. Chef Lestienne opened the restaurant in 1979 and won his star in 1982 and he’s held it ever since. Its plush but cosy intimate interior, outstanding menu of fresh fish and mouth-watering desserts at an outstanding price (lunchtime 2-course menu at €30/2021) has made it an institution in the north of France for foodies. With fishing boats unloading their daily catch virtually at the restaurant’s door, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a fresher selection of fruits de mer anywhere in the region.
“In a way” Chef Lestienne says “losing the ferry port allowed us to become more French again.”
And in a way, La Matelote represents the updated Boulogne-sur-Mer – understated, unpretentious, honouring its past, comfortable in its own skin.
See Chef Lestienne’s gingerbread loaf recipe created in honour of his great great grandmother