Depressing truth of French cuisine
La Terrasse in Wissant, France, and Rocksalt in Folkestone, Kent, are just 21 miles apart. But, as our new restaurant critic VICTOR LEWIS SMITH discovers in the first of an occasional series, there is a world of difference between British and French cuisine
As an ex-smoker, who used to be on 60 a day (and I admit that 60 lighters a day was going it a bit), I can still remember the era when restaurants were divided into smoking and non-smoking areas. That distinction always made about as much sense to me as having a 'no-pissing' policy in one half of a swimming pool, and thankfully – more than a decade on since the introduction of a total ban inside restaurants – the whole business of smoking in public has now become anathema. Well, haven't the medical profession always warned us that smoking can lead to anathema?
However, customers seated outside La Terrasse in Wissant can still smoke in public, which is why, as I approached, I could only view the English Channel through a thin fog of tobacco fumes.
I was there because – in defiance of Brexit, and in the spirit of the opening titles of Dad's Army – I thought I'd compare the two French and English restaurants that are geographically closest to each other, a mere 21 miles or so across la Manche, from Cap Gris Nez to Rocksalt in Folkestone.
I've been living in Northern France for seven years, and have discovered some stark truths about the cuisine here (not least that the French are the world's largest per capita consumers of McCain's frozen chips), truths that need to be set down in print, because many of my British friends simply refuse to believe them. The central one being that French cooking, which was once rightly revered by the rest of the world, has been resting on its laurels for decades, and (with a few laudable exceptions) no longer deserves its traditional reputation; while British cooking, which was once rightly reviled by the rest of the world, has come on in leaps and bounds, and no longer deserves its traditional reputation either.
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Although I entered La Terrasse at 8pm, I wasn't even given a menu until 8.30, so I had plenty of time to look around me. The promised sea view was technically accessible from my table, but only by peering through a tiny crack, while wearing stilts and binoculars, and with the ability to see round corners. The air conditioning wasn't working, no aperitif was offered, cigar smoke kept wafting in from a diner on the terrace, and I was seated directly beneath a low-hanging lampshade reminiscent of a 1950s hair dryer, but with the hair seemingly on the outside. Disturbingly, there were numerous insects (possibly nits) crawling all over it, but on the bright side, whenever one of them fell off and landed on my table, it invariably turned out to be the most appetising thing on my plate. In short, even before the first dish arrived, I'd realised that this was a place to which one should travel hopefully, but never arrive.
I have often been disappointed by food, but seldom depressed by it. Yet everything here was wrong, from the bottle of body-temperature Vittel water that was plonked down unopened on my table, to the soupe de poisson which was served in mortuary-cold black porcelain bowls, and which almost certainly came from a catering pack. Worse, the accompanying rouille was tasteless and split, and looked disconcertingly like the stuff that cross-channel swimmers smear all over their bodies before setting off, an allusion which made me wonder about those intrepid people who swim the English Channel alone. Where do they keep their passport while they're breaststroking their way across la Manche? And if they crawl exhausted and passport-less on to the Kent beach, does someone from the UK authorities tell them to swim back home again and get it?
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As I awaited my main course, the parents of a screaming Tin Drum enfant terrible at a nearby table proudly recorded his caterwauling for several minutes on their mobile phone, then loudly played it all back again so I could enjoy it in stereo. When my timbale du pêcheur did arrive (with two sets of forks), it proved to be a fillet of cod with some tasteless red peppercorns floating in a dairy product that I presumed was supposed to be crème fraîche but actually resembled sterilised milk from the 1960s (in the sort whose bottles had crimped metal caps), accompanied by crunchy rice that had the great taste of 'not sold yesterday' about it, and some overcooked spinach that had been prepared in the '60s style (presumably, that was when they put it on to boil). As I ate, a member of staff switched on a vacuum cleaner, and began lugubriously hoovering nearby (which sucked). Appropriately, he was dressed entirely in black, presumably as a mark of respect for the death of French cuisine.
Mercifully, a mere twenty-four hours later, I was sitting in Folkestone harbour, looking back towards Cap Gris Nez from a table in Rocksalt. Being located in England, this restaurant is technically one hour behind La Terrasse, but gastronomically it is light years ahead, and is very much the bee's knees (although it specialises in seafood, rather than the trocho-ginglymus of the genus Apoidea). It's part of the regeneration of Folkestone harbour, pioneered by Roger de Haan, and everything about the place is right, from the spectacular interior design, to the equally spectacular views, and the staff. Oh the staff. Under the guidance of Sarah Wentz, who runs a very tight ship, they're invariably attentive, on the ball, and full of enthusiasm, very much the sole of the plaice.
Chef/owner Mark Sargeant (whose business partner is Josh de Haan) is one of this country's unsung gastronomic heroes (and I use the word 'hero' advisedly, not least because he worked with Gordon Ramsay, and survived). He's an experienced and unassuming genius, with reliable tastebuds and a desire to source almost every ingredient from the Kent terroir or the sea, and his menu perfectly balances the potentially dangerous combination of surf and turf. As we munch our pre-starter seaweed, then taramasalata, then springy crispy bread on which I spread pork fat and crackling (quenched with local cider), somebody at an adjacent table proposes marriage to his partner, and the staff time the celebratory champagne to perfection. It's such a moving scene that she who must be obeyed sheds a tear, then kicks me under the table when I cynically point out that a wedding is simply a funeral where you can smell your own flowers.
We both order the chicken liver pâté for starters, and are rewarded with a magnificent, thixotropic, mousse-like masterpiece, perfectly pink inside, just as it should be. It's so good that even a vegan would sit up and salivate, and is subtly offset with bitter mushrooms, sherry vinegar caramel crunch and buzz, flowerbuds, lollypops, and roses. For main course, she who bruised my ankles chose another starter, grilled smokey prawns in a tankard with mayo, and paprika fries (and other side vegetables) that were to die for, while I opted for the red onion tarte Tatin with celery hearts, pear, goat's curd, and candied walnuts, the whole inspired edifice tasting like pissaladiere on crack.
We expected excellence from the Kent gypsy tart, and that's what we got – the very apotheosis of a school pudding. Even the WC (or 'poop deck', as it is labelled) was a joy, with Popeye songs and spoof shipping forecasts being played through the speakers, thus providing us with toilet humour that was genuinely funny. Rocksalt is a jewel in the crown of English gastronomy, and every time I visit Folkestone, the town seems to have acquired a little extra spring in its step, as the regeneration of the harbour continues apace. Some locals have complained that it is 'gentrification' and to be fair, they do have a point; but to be fairer, the town has long needed a facelift, and thanks to the de Haans, it's finally been getting one over the past decade or so.
I mean no offence to Folkestone, but there was a time when it looked like a town that had just been arrested, and had its belt and shoelaces removed by the authorities, in case it tried to self-harm. Indeed, an appallingly snobbish and haughty friend of mine tells me that he once visited the place in the late 1990s, and still remembers seeing a banner outside one of the many run-down houses, saying 'Happy 30th Birthday Grandma'.
Rocksalt, 4-5 Fishmarket, Folkestone, Kent CT19 6AA. Phone 01303 212070 email: email@example.com. Web site: www.rocksaltfolkestone.co.uk
La Terrasse, 1 Rue Jacques et Pierre Wissant, 62179 Wissant, France Phone: +33 3 21 36 78 00 (no email or web site).
Victor Lewis-Smith is a television critic, producer and writer
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