MONTREUIL SUR MER
A land-locked island surrounded by abundance: admired by gourmets for centuries.
by Philippe Valcq
With forests, sea coast, rolling pastures and marshes, filled with game of all kinds, Montreuil was considered a culinary Shangri-La, even as early as the 13th Century.
Left: Abbatiale Montreuil-sur-Mer in 1817
The Bishop of Amiens, (a town not on the doorstep in the 14th century), published charters in 1311 and 1316 regarding culinary matters in Montreuil, allowing its cooks to make cugnots, a kind of brioche with spices and a melting sugar centre, which became a specialty of the town.
On gala days, meals combined luxury with quantity. The salons and the great halls were opened, silverware unpacked. Porcelain statuettes from Germany, pyramids of fruit and baskets of flowers decorated the tables. Meals lasted for hours, and if they took place at night, guests would not get up from the table till the early morning. If guests lived in town, the host made it his duty to take them home.
18th century travellers write of the quality of the coaching inns, the Renard d’Or, the Hotel d’Angleterre, and the Relay du Roy, serving the marvellous and witty specialities of woodcock and snipe pate. These were presented with the birds’ heads surrounded by pastry a la stargaze pie, trout and frogs’ legs from the Canche and excellent seafood. (Montreuil being a important stop on the ‘route-des-poissons’ from Boulogne to Paris)
Arthur Young (1741-1820), travelling on the eve of the French Revolution was surprised to find so many of his compatriots established in Montreuil.
Laurence Sterne, considered the father of travel writing, evoked with pleasure the quality of the “Cour de France” hotel.
Left: Stargaze pie
During the Roman era, Montreuil was connected to the sea by the Canche river.
Ramparts were built in the 9th Century, and by the 10th Century Montreuil was main sea port of the Capétiens.
As the estuary silted up, the port fell into disuse. During the Hundred Years’ War, the town suffered badly and was largely ruined. Over the centuries, Montreuil was in the sights of conquering armies, but always the Ramparts offered considerable protection, something the British Army had uppermost in their minds when they chose the town to be their command centre during the First World War.
THE GREAT WAR
Montreuil was the headquarters of the British Army in France during the First World War from March 1916 until it closed in April 1919. The military academy providing excellent facilities for GHQ.
Montreuil was chosen as G.H.Q. for a wide variety of reasons. It was on a main road from London to Paris—the two chief centres of the campaign—though not on a main railway line, which would have been an inconvenience. It was not an industrial town and so avoided the complications alike of noise and of a possibly troublesome civil population. It was from a telephone and motor transit point of view in a very central situation to serve the needs of a Force which was based on Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, and Havre, and had its front stretching from the Somme to beyond the Belgian frontier
Left: British troops (the soldier on the left thought to be of the Worcestershire Regiment) purchasing mistletoe from women on a market, Montreuil-Sur-Mer, December 1916.© IWM (Q 1628) (IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM)
General Haig was quartered in the nearby Château de Beaurepaire. King George V, accompanied by Haig, made a triumphant passage through Montreuil on his way to Paris on 27 November 1918.
A statue of Haig on horseback, commemorating his stay, can be seen outside the theatre on the Place Charles de Gaulle. During the German occupation of the town during the Second World War, the statue was taken down. It was never found and is thought to have been melted down. It was rebuilt in the 1950s, using the sculptor’s original mould.
Right: Interior of the Officers’ Club during a lunch at the GHQ in Montreuil, 19 April 1919. © IWM (Q 3795) (IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM)
Montreuil is the setting for part of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, where it is identified only as M….sur-M… in past translations.
The protagonist, Jean Valjean (going by the name Father Madeleine), is for a few years the mayor of Montreuil, as well as owner of the local factory, and it is where the character Fantine lives, works, and later becomes a prostitute before dying in a local hospital. Hugo had spent several vacations in Montreuil.Pictured: Victor Hugo in 1876 (Étienne Carjat)