Good chocolate should be sweetly fragrant but not over-powering”, says Sara Jayne-Stanes, author of Chocolate: The Definitive Guide. In its complexity, you can detect tones of “vanilla, berry, caramel, roasted nuts”. As someone with rather unsophisticated nasal skills – who tends to class wine as smelling either ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’, all I can say is that Les Chocolates de Beussent is a shop that smells as good as it looks.
Inside, the counter is like a giant chocolate mosaic. Some are drizzled, some are dunked, some are dusted. The quantity and quality is almost too much to bear. Yet this isn’t Belgium, Lille or Paris. This is the much-derided port town of Calais. Away from the warehouses, hypermarkets and sprawling shopping malls, central Calais is home to numerous character-filled specialists. There are wineries, fromageries, fishmongers, lace makers, oyster houses, luggage specialists and, of course, countless patisseries.
In the chocolaterie, the proprietor offers me a sample. Do you get many Australian customers? I ask. She looks at me blankly. How about New Zealanders? South Africans? We get a few Americans and Canadians,” she says cheerfully, as if by concession. I ask her about the Brits, almost rhetorically, a wry smile creeping over my face as I anticipate the answer. But to my surprise, she pushes out her bottom lip in that very French way and says a nonplussed “Bah, sometimes.”
Sometimes? But surely Calais is crawling with British shoppers? This is where the booze cruisers land, where wine outlets have names like Eastenders; a place with a ferry port and an out-of-town Eurostar terminal, where loaded cars seem to strain at their joints; a place with a Tesco where you can use your clubcard.
When I find out the chocolaterie has only been open since February, it starts to make more sense. Channel-crossing Brits are creatures of habit. Whereas regular visitors have come to love certain local retailers (such as Luc Gille, the wine merchant at Le Bar à Vins, and the Crespo family at La Maison du Fromage), few take time to explore.
On a Saturday afternoon, I walk through the bi-weekly market, held just a 20-minute walk from the seafront at the base of the Grand Theatre. This is a practical, down-to-earth market without a single English voice in earshot. You won’t find the photo opportunities here that you find in tourist-groomed parts of the country, but it’s refreshing being able to walk anonymously among the locals as they go about their business.
There are no frills here – not least on the piles of knickers that form giant, unsexy mountains on a surprising number of stalls. I watch the customers wade through the piles to seek out a bargain and chat with the numerous farmers lining the streets. Vegetables look like they’re supposed to: instead of those insipid tomatoes you see in English supermarkets, these ones are crimson and plump. If you are willing and able to transport them, veggies are up to half the price of the UK equivalents.
Over the next couple of months, Calais will be getting its annual Christmas makeover. Temporary Christmas chalets will be erected to sell traditional foods and crafts, local shops will dress their windows for the town’s annual competition and an ice rink will take over the medieval town square. At this time of year, more Brits will venture into the centre of town, but, rest assured, there will still be enough chocolates to go around.
Christmas shopping in Calais
Tell someone you bought their Christmas present from France and it automatically implies more thought went into it, especially if you can’t buy it in the UK. After all, there’s no shortage of French plonk in Threshers and you can buy your weight in fromage at Borough Market. Here are some tips:
1. Cheese isn’t the best of stocking fillers, but La Maison du Fromage et des Vins, Rue André Gerschel, also does a nice range of chutneys and sauces. Why not create a French Christmas hamper?
2. Try Le Bar à Vins in Place d’Armes not just for wines, but also for extra virgin olive oil and their surprisingly popular range of hand creams. If you can’t resist a bottle of wine or two for yourself, speak to owner Luc Gille. He tours the country tracking down the best buys and will happily advise you on ways to impress your friends and relatives.
3. For mums and nans, try some lace from Royalle Dentelle on Boulevard Jacquard. Calais lace is world-renowned and helped boost the town’s fortune after it was virtually razed to the ground during World War II.
4. If you have a baby to buy for, French toys are not necessarily cheaper, but they are certainly cuter. Head to Bebe or Natalys on Boulevard Lafayette.
Festive opening hours
Across the water, shops usually close on a Sunday, but most will be open throughout December for Christmas shopping.”