This quote by Victor Hugo in 1866 is part of a dedication of his book set in Guernsey and sums up this proud island. Peter Morrell sees the heritage of the author and along the way discovers a rich history and outstanding cuisine.
The short 40 minute Aurigny Air flight from Gatwick soon had my wife and I in Guernsey, Within minutes of landing we were through baggage reclaim and meeting Gill Girard. Gill is an accredited guide who would help us get acquainted with the island. First stop was ‘The Little Chapel”, built by a monk Brother Déodat in 1914, he had been inspired by the grotto at Lourdes. This charming building is decorated with a mix of shells and broken crockery.
The island has a large number of food heroes and our next stop was to meet one, along the way Gill pointed out tunnel entrances built by the German occupiers during World War II. Arriving at the farm where the delicious Rocquette cider is made we were met by James Meller, who tends his 4000+ trees without the need for pesticides and who has a flock of sheep to keep the orchard grass in trim. Taking a look around the brewery I’m struck by the passion James has for producing a top quality product, dry and crisp, it’s an ideal summer cooler.
Our next two food heroes were husband and wife team Peter and Mandy Girard who own a herd of rare breed goats, the long haired Golden Guernseys. Mandy makes cheese and yoghurt and again there was a strong sense of commitment to the animals and the quality of the food.
The products are stored in a fridge and people pop in, take some cheese, yoghurt or milk and leave the money. This level of trust extends to the ubiquitous ‘Hedge Veg’. Small huts, tucked in roadside foliage, offering potatoes, tomatoes and soft fruits which are all sold on trust.
We then set off on a circumnavigation of the island to see the contrasting landscape and the legacy left by the Nazis. In 1942 Hitler created the Atlantic Wall, a series of defensive fortifications from Scandinavia to the Spanish border. One of the most heavily defended sections was Guernsey. All around the coast are gun emplacements, range towers for naval engagement and storage facilities, many of the structures are still in excellent condition.
Seeing these installations also gave us the opportunity to appreciate the stunning coast line, from quiet sandy bays to dramatic rocky cliffs buffeted by waves from the ocean. The pink tinged rocks in Cobo Bay have been weathered to create shapes of animals, Victor Hugo commented on a camel and a lion and subsequently a baboon has emerged.
Picture perfect villages, fields of wild orchids and distinctively coloured grazing cows complete this natural idyll which could easily be the English countryside of the 1950s
We edged our way around to the capital and Guernsey’s main town, St Peter Port. Solid houses, restaurants and a bay with the sister islands of Herm, Jethou, Sark and Brecqhou standing guard in the distance all made for an attractive base to spend a couple of nights. We bade farewell to guide Gill whose encyclopedic knowledge had taught us so much.
Our home for the stay La Fregate, is a beautifully positioned hotel, its elevated location giving it extensive sea views. The rooms were comfortable and well appointed and the excellent service from General Manager Simon Dufty and his team added to the experience.
I had a chat with the hotel’s head chef Neil McGinnis, he is a firm believer in using local ingredients and this includes the abundant seafood caught off the coast. Neil knows the fishermen and food producers personally and the menu in the restaurant is designed around fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Dinner that evening was a great showcase for both the food and Neil’s cooking. Sea fresh brill, plump scallops, sweet crab meat and buttered new potatoes made it a memorable meal. Our wine pairing, chosen from the extensive list was a luscious Pouilly-Fumé.
Next day we took a look at Seafresh, perched on the quay it’s the fish monger who supplies La Fregate. Inside was an eager queue of customers selecting from a wide range of shiny eyed fish and large bright pink crabs and lobsters.
One of the main reasons for my visit was to see Hauteville House, It was the residence of Victor Hugo from 1856 to 1870 while he was in exile from France. It was here that Hugo completed Les Misérables and wrote Toilers of the Sea, the quote above was its dedication.
The house is large but unprepossessing from the outside and belies the interior which is very atmospheric. Untouched since Hugo lived there, each room has its own eclectic decoration which bears the eccentric stamp of the author. My feeling is that Hugo never fully recovered from the tragic drowning of his eldest daughter Léopoldine. There are signs of his pre-occupation with death and he had even prepared a bed in the house to die in.
The rooms vary from lavish décor of bright red to dark wood but Hugo himself slept and worked in the attic with a simple couch as a bed and he wrote, standing up at a fold down table which overlooked St Peter Port harbour. This really is a must see in Guernsey but book in advance as entry is timed and the guided parties are small.
Dinner on our second night was at the harbour-side restaurant Le Nautique where chef-proprietor Günter Botzenhardt, who was previously head chef at La Fregate, continues the culinary theme of seafood fresh from the boat served with locally grown vegetables.
Our final day was devoted to looking at the island’s rich history and heritage. The morning started with a bang, the noon day gun ceremony in the imposing gateway to the harbour. Castle Cornet. A single ounce of gunpowder had both sightseers and seagulls squealing. With ears still ringing we went inside to see the Sunday morning performance of the Regency Dancers in the Hatton Gallery, a light-hearted and fun 20 minutes.
It is worth spending time in the castle which dates from 1206, there is a well presented exhibition which describes its history including its near destruction when the magazine was hit by a bolt of lightning in 1672. Also on-site is the maritime museum which is a fascinating record of artefacts and displays of events from around the island’s shores.
A stroll from the castle is a series of oil storage tunnels dating from World War II. It is now the home of La Vallette Underground Military Museum and houses the private collection of Paul and Peter Balshaw. When they were boys the brothers amassed a collection of items left in tunnels and bunkers by the retreating Germans. It is an intriguing record of the occupation featuring weapons, uniforms, handicrafts and communications equipment.
Our final stop on the tour was very close to the airport, the German Occupation Museum. It is also privately owned by Richard Heaume and has a slightly different twist. It covers the invasion from the human perspective with a wealth of documents and exhibits including a full size “Occupation Street”. We learnt that the most difficult time for the people of Guernsey during the war was the period after the D Day landings when supply lines from mainland France to the island were severed.
Our time on the island was over and it had been a rewarding visit. The quality of the food, the friendly and helpful people and the wealth of history all combined to make it an ideal short break destination
The first Guernsey International Food Festival is being held in September of this year. The 10 day event will highlight its unique cuisine, local produce and highly skilled chefs. Click here… to read more
For more information on visiting Guernsey go to www.visitguernsey.com