Montreuil: 21st Century Booze Cruise

The Booze Cruise, at its peak in the 1990s

The booze cruise of the nineties played out to a set rhythm: hire a white transit van, make a beeline to a greasy spoon, then a mad dash across The Channel to Calais warehouses where the booze was piled high and flogged cheap … and back in time for tea.

Hoards flocked across The Channel, fueled by 48p/litre petrol and £1 ferry crossings. They took advantage of the paltry amount that the French taxed wine and cheerfully crammed the boot full. Eight years ago, the enthusiasm for a ‘booze cruise’ started to waiver though. The pound began to slide. Petrol prices went up, and so did the cost of Channel crossings. A wider variety of cheap wine became available in British supermarkets, and lots of the Calais wine warehouses started to close.

Perhaps people got put-off by the prospect of the trip too. A Calais warehouse isn’t the dream location for a day out. Plus, there’s the danger of blind-buying. Pity the poor booze cruiser who returns home, and reaches for one bottle from a six-case haul, only to uncork something really fiendish.

Top: View over Calais port
Bottom: View over rural Montreuil from the citadel
(…what a difference 45 minutes can make!)

So, let me put to you an alternative: Montreuil.

Battle through the carnage that is Calais, hug the coastline heading south for 45 minutes on the A16, and you’ll stumble across a charming town. While the corrugated Calais warehouses could exist on any border, Montreuil could only be in France. And while the overriding aim of Calais warehouses is to ‘get in, get out,’ it’s easy to eke out a weekend in the old province of Artois.

The other big bonus is that Montreuil is home to The Wine Society’s French showroom. It means that once you’ve finished flâneur-ing round town for a day or two, you can pop-by to collect your pre-ordered cases – while taking full advantage of the French excise duty –  and potter back home without the stress of a warehouse scrummage.

There’s a lovely story behind The Wine Society’s conception, which dates back to a Great Exhibition in 1874. Wine from all round the world had been sent to the cellars at The Royal Albert Hall, where it was being stored before a showcase event. But when it came to setting-up, the Portuguese offering got overlooked. Instead of being put out on tables, the cases were left languishing in the cellar.

The Portuguese growers – who had gone to a lot of effort to present their wines – appealed for help, and a couple of the committee members agreed to host a lunch, and invite along some guests who might be interested in a Portuguese tasting. At the end of the meal, diners were offered the option of buying a case or two. The event was such a success, those who attended the lunch asked for the committee to continue sourcing wines, and giving them the opportunity of expanding their cellars with interesting bottles.

The Wine Society Shop is tucked behind The Hermitage Hotel (top left), and within easy walking distance of gems such as Fromagerie Caseus (bottom left)

And so ‘The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited’ came into being. The company is still run as a co-operative, and anyone can become a member. The only entry requirement is the cost of one share (£40). It allows the company to continue operating on similar principals – supporting nine buyers who travel over 300 days each year to source the best wine they can, and make it available at the best price possible without screwing the (often small-scale) wine producers.

Much of The Society’s success is down to the buyers,” explains wine expert, Charles Metcalfe. “[they are] truffle-snufflers, experts at finding interesting parcels from smaller producers and not buying for the sake of fashion.

The Wine Society’s selection sits somewhere round 1,500-bottles, and includes ‘The Society’ range (low-middle) and ‘The Exhibition‘ range (middle-high) – two lines which are often lauded by wine experts for being ‘textbook’ examples. While supermarket-own ranges are often driven by price, The Wine Society’s decision-making is driven by reputation, and it’s not the sort of company which is quick to compromise.

Buying through The Wine Society is a good idea UK. But consult the ‘budget changes‘ grid, and you can see how that buying through The Wine Society in Montreuil is an even better idea. Bottles which were £5.95 in the UK were just £3.64 when I visited – and The Wine Society runs a deal which guarantees a minimum of £24 savings per 12 bottle case, should the exchange rate should suddenly wobble.

There are a few ways of going about the shopping trip. Those who want access to the full 1,500 bottle range are best to place an order online before leaving, and then drop by the shop at the end of a jaunt to pick up the pre-packed wine. The other option is to turn up on the day and pick from the 150 bestsellers available in The Wine Society Shop, or to coincide the expedition with one of The Wine Society’s tastings or events.

Views from Montreuil (starting top left): Queen Berthas Tower, view over the citadel where Les Miserables is performed, flowers in the wall, nave of St Saulve, window box, wisteria draped house in the town centre

My expedition started in Bethnal Green with a bowl of muesli. St Pancras to Ashford International is a swift forty minutes by train. Then I hopped into a car which took me from Folkestone to Calais, meaning I arrived in Montreuil for a leisurely lunch at L’Anecdote, followed by a ramble round the historic citadel in the afternoon.

As a town, Montreuil is defined more by its past than present. It’s circled by rampart walls, now heavy with ivy and wisteria. The citadel used to provide shelter to the eight thousand residents when the town came under attack (it often was). Now just 2,000 people remain, Even the coastline has fled as a result of tidal change, meaning that the town’s full name – Montreuil-sur-Mer –  is redundant, as it lies ten miles inland. Climb to the highest point, a you can squint at Le Touquet lighthouse on the horizon, which now marks the coast.

Of the two thousand residents, five hundred take part in the annual rendition of Les Miserables, which is more of a reenactment, with life-sized barricades built in the citadel and horses hurtling up and down the full length of the set. It’s said that Victor Hugo visited Montreuil. Allegedly he saw a man being rescued from under a cart – and he used it as inspiration for Jean Valjean. Ever since then the town has been obsessed. “Victor Hugo didn’t have much to say about Montreuil,” remarked a local Victor Hugo expert, “but Montreuil has a lot to say about Victor Hugo.”

Eating well in Montreuil, (from top left, clockwise): starter at Château de Montreuil; main course part of L’Anecdote set lunch; pudding and selection from the cheese trolley Château de Montreuil

Another of the town’s claims to fame is its role as GHQ in WWI. From October 1914 to March 1916, it was the beating heart of Britain’s military effort, which was restricted to a pretty narrow front from Bethune to Flanders. It was where Field Marshal Haig (always ‘General Melchett’ in my mind) was stationed  – far enough from the fighting to feel safe, but close enough to quickly send orders – and was also home to hospitals, training camps and depots during the war.

The thought of the town swarming with military personnel  seems incongruous now. As afternoon seeps into evening, a few old men begin a slow lap round the nave, which is all that remains of St Saulve. For all its strategic importance in the past, Montreuil is now a pit-stop for car enthusiasts, a popular spot for golfers, and tourists driving home through France who stop for a final food shop. The elaborate fromagerie and boulangerie trays of fat, flaky croissants are still set up to feed an army, rather than cater for a small town.

I finish my circuit of the town before heading to The Wine Society Shop for a tasting. First, Les Pierres Bordes Marsanne-Voignier, Pays d’Oc, 2014 – a beautifully dry and refreshing white, which would make the perfect first glass at the end of a long summer afternoon. Amazingly, just £3.64 (£5.95 in the UK). I work my way along the line of bottles – a Falanghina with its trademark effervescent finish (£7.25 in the UK, £4.96 in Montreuil), and the Latria Garnatxa-Carinyena, Montsant 2009, which reminds me of the wines of Priorat – big, chewy reds which would be perfect with a Sunday lunch, a snip at just £5.51.

The next morning, I return to the shop, and carefully choose six bottles to take home – sadly all I can carry on the tube. As I leave the chocolate box town, I think about its illustrious past. Its life as a busy, pre-medieval port on the maritime route, and its centuries of constant invasion – the Spanish, the Dutch, the English. I think of its ramparts being continually bombed, and then being dug into gunpowder stores, then turned into casemates, then logistic headquarters during WWI and barracks during WWII, and I figure that the town deserves a break. If its next chapter is as a site of wine tourism, a new era ‘posh booze cruise,’ then I wish it well … and look forward to returning with an empty boot soon.

(Scroll down for tips on where to eat/stay).

Fromagerie Caseus, Montreuil

Where to eat

L’Anecdote (1 Rue des Juifs, 62170 Montreuil)
Modern brassiere. Confident food, clean flavours and great wine list.
Option of a very reasonable set-menu (17 € for 2-course set lunch, 21.50€ for 3 courses).
Run by Alexandre Gauthier, son of Roland who won nearby La Grenouillere its Michelin star.

Château de Montreuil (4 Chaussée des Capucins, 62170 Montreuil)
Medley of old-school grandeur and nouvelle cuisine. Eccentric but utterly charming, if not slightly reminiscent of a great aunt’s drawing room. Lovely gardens, which make a fine setting for an aperitif.

Froggy’s Tavern (51 Bis Place du Général de Gaulle, 62170 Montreuil)
Friendly rotisserie. Fuss-free meat cooked on a spit. A cheerfully busy neighbourhood joint.

 Where to stay

Coq’Hôtel (2 Place de la Poissonnerie, 62170 Montreuil)
Sweet town-house-turned-hotel. Beautiful floor tiles, pretty courtyard out back and a breakfast worth writing home about.

Hotel Hermitage (Place Gambetta, 62170 Montreuil)
Historic building dominating the centre of town, with parking next to The Wine Society shop.
A bit more corporate. Popular with visiting car enthusiasts.

La Grenouillere (19 Rue de la Grenouillère, 62170 La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil)
Blow-out boutique a few kilometres out of town, in rural Montreuil. Rooms are in self-contained huts. A pilgrimage for food lovers thanks to hotel’s avant garde restaurant, also called La Grenouillère (older brother of L’Anecdote)

What to do

Fromagerie Caseus(28 place du Général de Gaulle 62170 Montreuil-sur-Mer)
Stunning selection of cheeses, and dramatic displays. If there’s space on the back seat, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Citadelle (Rue Carnot, 62170 Montreuil)
Use the citadel as the starting point to walk the ramparts, or drill down into the various historic exhibitions inside the museum itself. If visiting in July/August, then make sure you get your hands on some tickets to Les Miserables.

Place de Gaulle Market (Place du Général de Gaulle, 93100 Montreuil)
A Saturday morning market fills the square. Stalls heaving with local produce.


Leaving Coq’Hôtel, and heading back to the UK…

Many thanks to The Wine Society for inviting me on this expedition. 
As with all posts, I maintain full editorial control, and only make recommendations on this blog which I would happily make to a friend. 

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