THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Underground in Épernay

We took our time over a shorter drive from Beaune to Épernay. French autoroutes somehow sit more lightly on the landscape than British motorways. They lack the embankments to screen them from their neighbours, the gantries to monitor and nag their users and the ugly safety infrastructure that makes a British motorist feel part of some dark industrial process. In consequence one can get a sense of terroir as one passes through it. I enjoy driving in France more than anywhere I’ve been — except the United States. Swiss roads are more beautiful perhaps, but too aggressively policed to provide enjoyment!


Higher speed limits help too. On this run I made a conscious effort to slow down in order to break the habits I’ve acquired on this road trip before returning to the UK. The French limit of 130kph is 11mph over the UK’s maximum. I need our home limit to feel fast again when I return or I’ll be picking up points between Folkestone and London. 

At one stage of our run, we found ourselves stuck in a convoy, driving precisely at the French limit, behind a gendarmerie van. Time after time we were overtaken by motorists surprised to find themselves faster than a Ferrari, a Porsche 911 and a nifty little Abarth 500 only to watch their brake lights come on as they spotted the gendarmes’ waspish paint job and see them join our snake of frustration.

They played with our heads a little to amuse themselves. They slowed by 5kph at one point, tempting a Citroën to overtake them — very slowly — only to return to the limit and hold him there, uncomfortable in their gaze. They tried that again after a few kilometres but no-one took the bait. We never did find a boundary to their jurisdiction. We took the exit for the road to Lille and Calais while they carried on — for all I know or care — all the way to Paris  


Our goal was to arrive at Moët et Chandon’s headquarters on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay in time to take a tour. We arrived at 3.15pm. Having posed for a photo with the statue of humanity’s benefactor Dom Perignon and bought our tickets, we rested in the elegant exhibition area for thirty minutes before joining the last tour of the day with Belarusian guide, Marina. 


I’d been before so knew that Mrs P II would enjoy it. Épernay has 110 kilometres of champagne cellars beneath its streets. 28 of those kilometres belong to Moët et Chandon, the biggest if not necessarily the greatest of the famous houses. Marina told us it produces enough of its fizzy joy juice for one bottle to be opened every second. That’s almost true. The house produces 28 million bottles a year (taking seven years per vintage bottle). There are 31.5 million seconds in a year. Near enough for elastic marketing arithmetic.

I enjoyed the tour as much the second time as I did the first though I’d forgotten how much Napoleon featured in the story. M. Moët was so excited at the prospect of his enthusiastic imperial customer's first of several visits that he built a palatial Versailles-style home opposite his workplace to receive him. We viewed that from a domed pavilion built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Moët Impérial — the House’s iconic product — created in 1869. The dome is made from bottles of it! 

Boney is of course the Emperor referenced in the cuvée’s name. Marina’s constant warm references to that old tyrant jarred a little, but he’s long dead and deserves some credit for his excellent taste in booze, watches and bonbons. Sadly his influence lives on in his legal code, which has done more damage (in the view of this proud Common Lawyer) than his cannons ever did. 

Our tour rounded off with a tasting of the white and rosé expressions of the latest vintage — 2012 — we bought some to take home and headed for our hotel. 


We are spending our last night of our honeymoon in one of my favourite hotels in the world. Many years ago I was journeying south in Claudia — my beloved Mercedes cabriolet — with my family. I asked the satnav to suggest a lunch spot on our route. It guided us to a converted brickworks on a champagne estate where we enjoyed ourselves so much that it became our regular overnight stop on road trips from our then UK home in Chester to the Côte d’Azur.

Since I was widowed and moved to London it’s been too far north to be a half way point and I’ve tended to break my journeys at Dijon instead, but I wanted Mrs P II to experience its charms. I knew its splendid restaurant would provide a superb last supper of our honeymoon.

After an aperitif in the sunny garden outside, It duly did. 

La Bastide Saint-Antoine

Bastide means either a fortified village from the Middle Ages (a small bastion, I guess) or a small country house - a Manor House perhaps. This particular Bastide may once have been the latter but is now a cathedral of French cuisine. We had planned for the dinner last night in Cap d'Antibes to be our grand culinary farewell to the Côte d'Azur but, having extended our stay to compensate for the time taken by our overnight excursion to Italy, we needed another.

I have eaten here before and knew what to expect. For my wife, new to this scene, the ceremonious approach in such a great restaurant was at first mildly amusing. In such surroundings in London one would still make an effort to dress up, but in the relaxed South of France "smart casual" was enough. Jacques Chibois is the chef-proprietor, which actually means something in France. Here they don't go in for the aggressive branding of the anglosphere mega-chefs, with chains lightly bearing (and sometimes debasing) their names.

He is no occasional visitor here but wields his own knives. Formerly head chef at the Gray d'Albion Hotel in Cannes, he worked in London and New York having first served his time (among other greats) with the area's culinary hero – the late Roger Vergé. Vergé now has a square named after him in Mougins, where his restaurants were and I imagine Chibois hopes to be remembered in the same way by his adopted home town of Grasse. He spent years searching for a suitable country house in an olive grove "in the style of the Colombe d’Or in St Paul" to establish his own restaurant.

We checked out the a la carte menu, mainly for the delectation of Mrs P II, but opted for the "menu Dimanche en Fȇte", as chosen by the great man himself. Each course was matched with wine selected by his sommelier. Gentle reader, any eloquence on my part would only torment you. It was superb. All I can say is – if you ever get chance to do so – go and try it yourself. Even if it means cutting your stay in the area by a couple of nights to save on hotel costs to pay for it, just do it. You will never spend a better €400+ with aperitifs and (as we did) with cheese.


The heat was excessive today so the short drive there and back required the roof up and air-conditioning on full blast. It was so hot that the restaurant called us before we set off to say that the famous terrace was unbearable and to ask if we minded eating indoors! I imagine we might have coped with some shade, but it would hardly have been fair to the staff, who were – unlike their guests today – very properly dressed indeed!

Our plan today is to pack for an early departure tomorrow, then cool down in the pool shared with our neighbours. Tomorrow we say a fond farewell to our Mougins home. I am authorised by my friend the owner to say that if any of you would like to stay here yourselves, it's available to rent and you can contact him through me. It's a two bedroom villa in a gated development adjoining (and with direct access to) the Royal Mougins Golf Club. His paying guests can make use of his membership there. Even if you're not into golf, there's an excellent restaurant and spa facilities.


I am not seeking to become an "internet influencer" on the backs of my small group of readers. I hope this small promotion – made entirely from the heart and not for gain – does not increase the number of irritating emails I receive from people wishing to use my blog for their own commercial purposes. It is and always has been a not-for-profit personal venture and I have no desire to change that. Besides, my political blogging is often provocative enough to drive customers away, rather than draw them in!

Heaven is on the Bay of Angels

Gourmet restaurant in Antibes, on the Côte d'Azur (French Riviera). Specialized in Fish. Michelin-starred. Restaurant de Bacon..

I spent a quiet yesterday anticipating my visit to my favourite restaurant in the world. I did pause to worry that I might have oversold it to my friends who were about to experience it for the first time. I need not have troubled myself.

It is a family business and that shows. There is a simple, loving attention to a project they built that goes beyond — well beyond — just making a living. It's the least pretentious Michelin-starred restaurant I know. The decor is elegant, restrained and with a little dash of quirky. Lots of fishy objects blown by local glass makers. The views of the Mediterranean are so stunning that I could have wished we were lunching not dining.

The service is polite and a little formal in the French style — none of that irritating "hey guys" mateyness you get in London now — but there are friendly smiles and an evident warmth and concern for your enjoyment. There is an excellent wine list too and our group of Bon viveurs enjoyed a superb Pouilly Fuisse (though as Speranza's pilot I was sadly limited to one glass)

And then there's the food. If you're not a fish fan you might think it's not for you but you'd be wrong. Anywhere else neither am I. Great cuisine is not about tricks and elaboration. It's about the best ingredients prepared carefully in the way that suits them best. Ideally, as here, by a chef who takes the work — but not himself — very seriously. The polar opposite of Jamie Oliver. Talented, self-effacing and diligent.

Bacon's menu features a diagram that begins with the choice of fish, goes on to the methods of preparation (grilled, steamed, en papillote etc) and ends with variations. They tell you what fish they have and offer recommendations. It's all fresh from the sea outside their windows. I have such confidence in them that I just let them choose for me. Less time studying the menu. More time talking with my friends and drinking in the scenery, the surroundings and the quiet elegance of the mostly local diners. 

Before leaving table there's also the best millefeuille in France to enjoy. Diet or no, I was having it and will deduct it from today's calories without any sense of regret.

The voiturier knows Speranza by name. I consign her to his tender care without a backward glance. He has never seen me not smiling, either in anticipation as I arrive or in satisfaction as I leave. I can be grumpy and moody at times so I rather wish all my friends and acquaintances had the impression of me he does!

If when I die there is a heaven after all and I am lucky enough to be admitted, my home will be in Cap d'Antibes, my "local" will be the Bacon and Speranza and I will spend the time between meals on the rocky, winding coastal roads of the Côte d'Azur. Except in Heaven there will be the occasional straight and there will be neither speed limits nor daydreaming locals in 2CVs. 

Did nothing else happen yesterday? Nothing of consequence. A day that involves the Bacon in the company of friends is, for me, complete.

Art, food and friends

My friends from London invited me along on an artistic excursion yesterday. I picked them up from their hotel (rare use being made of Speranza's +1 seat — there's no +2 when the driver is 6'7" tall) and we headed to the Fondation Maeght gallery in Saint-Paul de Vence. I like art. I have a modest collection of paintings — all modern. I think it's amusing how old some "modern" art now is and wonder how useful a category it really is these days. 

I loved the Fondation's buildings. They nestle on a steep wooded hill and provide a wonderful exhibition space. The collection is a very mixed bag, which says more about the collectors than the artists. There were many pieces I would give house room to, if I had a roomy enough house. But one piece by the Bulgarian artist Christo dominates much of the gallery during a current exhibition. His "mastaba" made of one thousand one hundred and six brightly painted oil drums stands in a courtyard. That I rather enjoyed, if only for the photographic opportunities presented by the coloured shade it cast. But drawings and models of it — and other versions of it, actual and proposed — took up room after room inside. There are only so many oil drums presented as art that a sane chap can see without giggling. Especially if he's rash enough to read the explanations on the gallery walls.

I love the French language. My only criticism is that it's so musical it makes wicked things sound appealing (e.g. "fiscaliste, impôts, l'État"). It needs some ugly sounds to prevent French people being drawn to ugly concepts. A serious obstacle to the enjoyment of art anywhere is the self-worshipping pomposity of dealers, curators and (sad to say) some artists and when that is compounded by the ferocious up-themselvesness of French intellectuals it's just hilarious.

After a modest but agreeable lunch at a pavement café we headed off to see what Matisse appparently thought was his greatest work, the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. I beg to differ with his assessment, but it is an attractive and spiritual place, promoting calm reflection. I confess that I am prejudiced against any place that prohibits natural light photography (as non-invasive an activity as could be conceived) so perhaps all the rules raised my hackles and prevented me enjoying it as I should. It's an excellent piece of interior design inside a mediocre piece of architecture, embellished by some wonderful stained glass, delightful drawings and imaginative vestments designed by the great man. 

I dropped my friends off so they could taxi to their next hotel in Juan les Pins. I drove home to Mougins and processed the day's photos. A couple of hours later we met again in Antibes where they introduced me to other friends of theirs; an Irish couple  at whose place in St Tropez they are going to stay on the next leg of their tour of French pleasures. 

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From Frankfurt to Poperinge via Ghent and "Wipers"

We skipped breakfast at our mediocre hotel on Saturday morning; reasoning that €18 each would buy a better frühstück en route. I drove Speranza out of Frankfurt onto the autobahn and we found a suitable place within 20km. We breakfasted Teutonically on rösti, eggs, sausage, bacon and coffee.

Then the Navigator belied his nickname and took the wheel. He had driven Vittoria back in the day so had some prior experience. This was his first drive in a Ferrari however and it was straight out onto an unrestricted autobahn! In his first 20 minutes, after acclimatising himself to Speranza's controls and the road conditions, he hit 150mph.

He found the concentration involved tiring. There are lots of other performance cars driving at high speed on the autobahn, but there are also more modest vehicles popping in and out to overtake. One needs one's wits. Still I don't think his stress compared with my own; sitting by his side while he gave my pride and joy a thrashing! I am no natural passenger.

We took the northerly route to our overnight stop near Ypres. This was to avoid the congested Brussels ring road, but also to have more chance for autobahn excitement. We switched seats at a fuel stop and I drove the last few (speed-limited) German kilometres to the Netherlands and then on to Belgium.

Ghent and Ypres-1 Ghent and Ypres-2   Ghent and Ypres-6  Ghent and Ypres-7

We took an afternoon break in Ghent; a pretty town I had never seen before. We found a central parking place and – after I had drunk a local coffee with inexplicable fruit puree in the bottom – strolled through the pedestrianised centre and along the river. Some of my photos are above. Don't ask about the shoes suspended above the street. I have no idea what that's all about.

We then continued to our home for the night, making another stop to visit the Menin Gate. I am old enough to have had long conversations with a British soldier who probably passed through Ypres ("Wipers") on his way to the front and lived to tell the gory tale. He was my late wife's grandfather and one of my favourite humans. He was shot going over the top during the first Battle of the Somme and lay for hours in no man's land until the daily truce to recover bodies. He was found still to be alive and - after a bottle of whisky as anaesthetic – had a bullet removed with a bayonet.  He was the happiest man I ever knew (as well as one of the kindest) because he decided that day – at the tender age of 16 – that every subsequent hour of his life was a gift to be enjoyed.

Ghent and Ypres-8 Ghent and Ypres-9
I had not expected to be much moved by the Menin Gate. The Great War's warriors are gone now. It is as thoroughly history as the Napoleonic or Boer Wars. However, I thought of Mrs P's granddad Joe as I stood at the massive memorial with its hundreds of thousands of carved names. I thought of how they died and shed a surprising tear. Then I realised he would have laughed and told me to enjoy my wonderful life.

After refuelling for the first stage of Sunday's run home, we drove to our B&B. It was an eccentric but friendly little place in the hop-growing village of Poperinge. While I freshened up for dinner, the Navigator enjoyed a beer from hops grown in the field across the road made in a nearby brewery. 

It astonishes me that little villages in France and Belgium can sustain serious restaurants, while my own home town in Wales can only support a chip shop, an Italian, an Indian and a couple of Chinese take-aways.  Our restaurant had two Michelin "macarons" and a chef – Franky Vanderhaeghe – who is a slightly mad genius.

We threw ourselves on his mercy and ordered the "degustation menu". He combined flavours I would never have expected to work and left us in a culinary ecstasy. It was a perfect end to one of my life's best days. I could wish you nothing better, gentle reader, than that you should have many such experiences. I bet you have never heard of the village of Elverdinge until this moment. I suggest you sear its name into your memory and build a stop at the Hostellerie St Nicolas into your next continental journey!

Doctors out of their boxes

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: The dictatorship of public health.

I am not quite sure how I missed the linked article back in September but I am glad I found it via Chris Snowdon's review of the year at his excellent blog, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. The authoritarians of the medical establishment are in many ways our best hope for liberty. This may seem paradoxical, but bear with me.

The greater the State becomes, the more authoritarians it attracts. Wormtongue types are drawn, as so many of them already have been, by the chance to subvert legitimate authority to their own ends while living on the state's plunder. The more they succeed, the more arrogant they become. They see no legitimate boundaries to their control of their fellow men. Our corrupt political class will offer no defence against these parasites unless and until popular resistance threatens their own power. We cannot count on their principles, if indeed they have any. We can rely entirely, however, on their self-interest.

 Where, however, is this resistance to come from? State education, state broadcasting and the generally emasculating effect of the Welfare State have much weakened the yeoman spirit that made England, for most of its history, delightfully ungovernable. The unthinking majority of voters will never rebel - until it's far too late - against threats to freedom of thought. Attacks on their lifestyle however are another matter. Cromwell fell not because the Monarchy won a rematch of its debate with republicanism, but because, having weakened his appeal by forbidding dancing, aleing and Christmas, his hypocrisy in having his son succeed him (just like a King) tipped the scales of popular feeling.

The state can beat up as many anti-statist intellectuals as it likes and no-one will protest. Let it beat up the smokers, drinkers and pie-fans however and popular resistance can be expected - even from those usually too idle to move further than to the nearest Greggs. Doctors with God complexes may therefore be our best hope. Perhaps as we enter the final phase of end-of-year excess, we should be campaigning for votes to be proportionate to BMI, units of alcohol per week or fags per day?

The Free Society: Punishing the poor, the moderate and the sensible

The Free Society: Punishing the poor, the moderate and the sensible.
Over at the Free Society blog, economist Eamonn Butler states what used to be the bleeding obvious before welfarism rotted the national brain. As to his immediate point, he is quite right that the only people whose behaviour will be affected by minimum prices are those whose behaviour is not a problem. Drunks will prioritise alcohol purchases over more important ones, just as drug addicts do. And we all know what happens when you price their preferred purchase at a level that leaves them without other choices; crime. 

What struck me most strongly was his headline. Isn't "Punishing the poor, the moderate and the sensible" the true, if undeclared, manifesto of all the UK's mainstream, statist parties?

OTT or what?

The Last Ditch is not going to become a food blog. You should still look to Sicily Scene and others for your culinary fix. However, I thought this photo of a few spoonfuls of granita served in a tower of ice might amuse you. Bruno Oger's presentation of food is certainly imaginative. The tower is hollow, about the size of a piece of drainpipe and is illuminated by an LED standing on the plate beneath it. It looked impressive when eight of them were carried in procession to our table last night. If you get the chance to sample M. Oger's food, I recommend you seize it.

How real Leftists approach alcohol

Mrs P. and I ventured out for an afternoon stroll and ended up at a bar. Sitting under a canopy outside on a warm, rainy evening, we did some people-watching here in the Peoples' Republic. It was all very enjoyable, despite being surrounded by (gasp!) smokers. Picking up the drinks menu (accustomed as we are to the conflation of leftism and puritanism back home in Guardian-land) how we laughed to read the following on the cocktails menu.

Quite different from all that miserable stuff, eh? I realise you must all be very worried about us, so let me hasten to report that Mrs P and I managed to "consommér avec moderation" despite the bar owner's wicked and self-interested recommendation. As far as we could see (as there was none of the behaviour that keeps middle-aged couples out of city centres on weekend evenings back home) so did everyone else.

And all without any advice from a government. Remarkable.

Any ideas?

DSC_1389_2Don't worry. I am not becoming a food blogger. However there was some confusion over a (very pleasant) lunch in Shanghai today as to what exactly this - the dessert included in our set meal - was. There were excellent Chinese speakers there, but the giggling waitress was rather testing their vocabulary with an account of it being made (so they understood) from the generative organs of a frog. It actually looks more like frogspawn, which may well have been what she meant.

I was not up for trying it myself but it smelled quite pleasant. The idea was to pour syrup and milk on it and then scrape it, along with the fruit, onto a spoon and eat it. We were told it's good for longevity (though it doesn't seem to have helped its original owners in that respect).

Can any knowledgeable reader tell me what my braver friends were really eating?