Written by John Troup
“We’re in mate – they’ve fallen for it again!” I gleefully announced down my Nokia trumpet to photographer Marc Giddings.
It was October 1999 and moments earlier one of the ‘grown-ups’ on the news desk had called me to confirm they did indeed agree that Marc and I should jet down to Marseilles on a ‘trouble watch’.
I had strongly suspected that my grim warnings of Manchester United fans needing to run a terrifying gauntlet of fists, bottles and knives when they arrived on the Mediterranean coast to follow their team for a UEFA Champions League Group D match would earn us both another ‘foreign’.
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I’d been to the port city a few years earlier, digging around for background on Eric Cantona in the immediate aftermath of his infamous Kung Fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park, and I knew even then it was the kind of joint where things could easily ‘go off’.
It was an edgy place, a multi-cultural boiling pot of a metropolis where Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians and Turks rubbed noses with the men from the Maquis, and where any bloke of a certain age ran the risk of being press-ganged into mercenary service if they wandered past the Foreign Legion barracks late at night after one too many Ricards.
My earnest prediction that every ne’er-do-well in the city would be looking for a United scalp when the Red Devils came to town did the trick, and worried the boys and girls from the Brains Trust enough for them to send over a ‘team’ (one ‘blunt’ and one ‘monkey’) to cover their backs in the event of aggro.
Like myself Gids is a football fan – I’m Tranmere, whereas Bristol Rovers is the cross he has to bear – and unlike many panchromatic artistes he was a sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful soul who also happened to have a laconic sense of humour and exceptionally good taste in food, wine and overnight accommodation.
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On the morning of the game we dumped our gear in our hotel and made for the city’s Vieux Port area for a spot of petit dejeuner. It was in that slightly downtrodden and cosmopolitan neighbourhood that I had my first encounter with Menemen, the so-called ‘King of Turkish breakfasts’, a spicy Ottoman-style concoction of vegetables and oeufs. Here’s the thing though – I didn’t even eat the darned thing, because I simply can’t stomach eggs.
The café we chose to ingest the first meal of what promised to be a long old beer and wine soaked day in the sunshine was a real hive of activity. Sitting down at our table we espied a group of seriously focused cooks toiling away in an open plan kitchen where their skills were entirely visible to the punters, long before such close up and personal eyeball access became commonplace.
I was mesmerised at how quickly and expertly the Turks turned out their menemen. It looked and smelled so good I was almost tempted to ignore long distant memories of turning purple and heaving my guts over my high chair every time my mum plonked a soldier of dippy egg into my infant gob and give the yellow and white evil one more try. Thankfully I resisted the temptation, but I looked up the recipe as soon as I got back to Blighty and I’ve been cooking it for my other half (a vegetarian) and numerous hungover breakfast guests ever since.
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Gids and I didn’t have tickets for the game, but showed up at the stadium nonetheless. Much to our surprise we didn’t even have to try and blag our way in at the press entrance, as a young French lad overheard us discussing tactics and offered us a pair of tickets for the end behind one of the goals. We half expected ‘notre ami’ to be a tout who wanted telephone numbers in exchange for his offerings, but he simply wanted face value. We parted with our cash and then stood scrutinising the tickets as we tried to work out which turnstile we needed to head for. Within minutes we’d both convinced ourselves that we’d been sold a pup, only for our benefactor, who’d clearly carried on watching us as we stared blank-eyed at the merchandise after he’d bid us adieu, to stroll over again and point us in the right direction. Fair play to the lad, he was genuine.
We found ourselves on a huge terrace in the opposite end to OM’s numerous and notoriously volatile Ultras groups. As long as we kept schtum, nobody would know we were Rosbifs on a jolly caper, and we wouldn’t have to try and prove that we hated the Mancunian outfit more than any singer of the Marseillaise ever could.
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Everything was going spiffingly until two minutes into the game when the fans around us unfurled the largest flag I have ever seen in my life, one so cavernous it covered the entire ‘tribune’ and rendered the game, the pitch and everything else in the city invisible under a cloud of canvas. Worse still, the lunatic flag-obsessed frogs then began jumping up and down in unison under the giant sky-blue and white banner screaming ‘Allez OM!’ Naturally Gids and I were forced to join in, for fear of blowing our cover. Fifteen minutes of frantic Francophone pogoing plus tard and we were so utterly exhausted neither of us could speak. For the record, the home side beat Beckham, Giggs, Scholes et al 1-0 courtesy of a 69th minute strike from William Gallas.
After the game, and ignoring the French cuisine all around us, we repaired to another dockside restaurant where I plumped for an Italian main course that has since become another Troupy staple – Spaghetti Puttanesca. Translated from Italian it means ‘the whore’s spaghetti’, and is right up my straight Roman road.
Those who knew everything back in London wanted us to head inland and north west to the city of Limoges, where police investigating the death of a young English girl a week earlier had belatedly announced that she had met her tragic end as the result of foul play, rather than desperate and fatal self-harm as they had previously surmised.
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Twenty-year-old Birmingham University student Isabelle Peake had been making her way home to Britain via the Brive to Paris sleeper train when she somehow ended up being launched out of one of the carriages to her death at 90mph, colliding with an electricity pylon on her way. Inspector Clouseau and his garcons had originally thought Isabelle had opted to end her own life, until items of her clothing and her handbag were discovered miles further up the line several days later. Her ID papers, credit cards and £200 she had withdrawn from a cashpoint before getting on the train were all missing. Isabelle was the 23rd Briton to have been murdered in France in the previous 20 years.
It was a horribly sobering story to cover, and our morose mood on arrival in Limoges, the nearest city to where Isabelle’s body had been found and where she had been on a study visit, was exacerbated by a long drive through the night to the Haute-Vienne capital, during which we almost ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, leading us to speculate on our own chances of survival ‘a la campagne’.
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With representatives of every esteemed organ of Her Majesty’s Press descending on the city, work had to be done, and fast. Fortunately, every fellow hack and hackette despatched to the scene came from the ranks of the decent cove, and we worked as a team to acquire all the pertinent information from the sneering, unhelpful French constabulary.
After one night in a particularly miserable city centre hotel, saved only by a fantastically convivial meal at a cheap and cheerful French bistrot where the gentleman reporter from the Daily Mail laughed so hard at a joke he fell backwards off his seat onto the floor (much to the disgust of the natives) my snapper with a brain came to the rescue.
Using a secret travel book obtained from his then (or perhaps recently ex) travel agent lady friend, the Bristolian culture vulture found us all a superb and tranquil chateau in which to relocate. Set on top of a hill in wooded grounds, it was equipped with a handful of huge, wooden floored rooms replete with period furniture.
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After an afternoon spent watching Springbok fly-half Jannie de Beer kick England into oblivion with a 34-point haul in a Rugby World Cup encounter, ‘le pack’ headed on downstairs to the chateau’s impressive silver service restaurant for a stunning meal served by penguin-suited waiters who were both ruthlessly efficient and devastatingly charming in a most un-French manner.
It was here that I had the best bowl of French onion soup I’ve ever had in my life. I know, I know, c’est un cliché, but it really was.
One of the cheeses I sampled was so jaw-droppingly delicious I was determined to take some home with me. It turned out to be Epoisses, a pungent soft-paste cow’s milk cheese from Cote-d’Or, half way between Dijon and Auxerre in the former duchy of Burgundy, the rind of which is washed in brine and Marc de Bourgogne, giving it a soft red orange colour. It’s been a guilty pleasure ever since.
I did manage to get my hands on some more Epoisses, but I almost caused a chemical alert on landing back in London when I opened the overhead locker where I had stowed my plastic bag of duty free goodies. Something had happened to the cheese as it went through various levels of the stratosphere, rendering its odour comparable to Sarin on the pungency scale. A ripple of shrieks made its way down the plane toppling dominoes style as I lifted the bag out of the locker, prompting one woman nearby to blame the stink on “some horrible dirty fucker’s trainers”.
That said, if you haven’t tried it, you simply must. I’m still trying to work out a way of introducing it as an ingredient into my favourite macaroni cheese recipe, which comes courtesy of the late great Anthony Bourdain, though I fear it may be an indulgence too far…
John Troup is 53 and splits his life between his modest flat in Essex and his partner’s cottage in a Norfolk seaside town. Originally from Wirral he worked on his local paper before joining Liverpool-based Mercury Press Agency and then gave up a salaried job to start shift work at The Sun in 1990. He left 19 years later after stints in the paper’s Manchester and Wapping offices and a 10-year posting as East Anglian district man. He is now Communications Manager for the NHS Ipswich & East Suffolk and NHS West Suffolk clinical commissioning groups.