It wasn’t the opening of the advent calendar, the stirring of the Christmas pudding or the hanging of the mistletoe which signified the start of the festive season in my household. No. Christmas always began with the family booze run to France.
The British tradition of a day trip to France with the sole aim of buying vast quantities of cheap alcohol – the “booze cruise” – reigned supreme throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Every weekend, endless queues of cars and white vans would snake onto the back of the Dover ferry for a day trip to Calais to fill up with dirt-cheap crates of Stella Artois, gallons of Le Piat d’Or and boxes of Benson & Hedges from the EastEnders Cash & Carry, a vast grog warehouse run by Dave West, a notorious East End businessman dubbed “King of the Booze Cruise”.
I grew up in Newhaven, an industrial port town on the Sussex coast, and my parents regularly took advantage of our proximity to France with trips to Dieppe on the Sealink ferry. I still have flashbacks from those rough December crossings when the ever-present threat of vomit would cut my festive spirit to the quick.
When the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, it became even easier to stock up on du pain, du vin, du Boursin as you could be in Calais in 35 minutes and shopping in French hypermarkets and wine warehouses before you could say a merry “bonjour”. As the Euro gained in strength in the 2000s and the price of wine in Britain dropped, the booze cruise went out of fashion.
This year, however, after a steep rise in supermarket prices in Britain, I decided to revisit the Calais drinks run. Less than three hours door-to-door from my home in Brighton, a day trip seemed a fun way to stock up for Christmas and catch up with my old friends, Nicola and Ben. (The booze cruise is also the ideal way to tick off the “Let’s do festive drinks” admin en masse.)
Christmas jumpers on, a Mariah medley on Spotify and an empty car boot, we pile into my Honda Jazz on a soggy Monday morning and drive to Folkestone and go through the Eurotunnel to France.
Nowadays LeShuttle – which currently has day trips from £27 each way for a car and four passengers – is my preferred way to get to the Continent. Drive on, drive off, the journey is straightforward and quick, and even cheaper than the ferry (P&O’s trips start at £29.50 per car each way for a journey that takes an hour longer). As the Cité Europe shopping mall is only five minutes’ drive from the terminal, we’re joyfully cruising the aisles of Carrefour hypermarket less than 45 minutes after leaving Blighty.
(I should mention, though, before we go any further, that it’s essential to check opening times before travelling, as French supermarkets are not as generous with their shopping hours as Britain. Especially on a Sunday – Carrefour Cité Europe closes at 12.30pm.)
At first, it’s all too much and I feel overwhelmed by the Gallic offerings. Tinsel-clad aisles teeming with Lindt chocolate, fridges filled with foie gras and truffled delights, displays of colourful pâtissière and fragrant fromage. But before too long, we’re flinging bags of madeleines, wheels of brie, entire saucissons and jars of duck rillettes into our trolleys with gay abandon.
The clinkety-chink of a laden trolley reminds me of why we’re really here. Luckily, Carrefour’s wine section is reassuringly extensive. Split into regions like Alsace, Bourgogne, Provence, we spend a fun hour or so browsing the shelves looking for the prettiest labels at the cheapest price. Something of an oenophile, Ben knows a little about wine and finds an excellent value Picpoul de Pinet at €4, while I find some pretty Provençal rosé for a delicious €4-5. My trick was to search the better-known wine regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire Valley and pick the cheaper bottles with a nice label. Nicola was more savvy in her choices and watched what the locals were buying and stocked up on those. For true connoisseurs, the fine-wine section throws up some real treats like a 2021 Château Du Grand Soussans Margaux for a bargain €16.
It’s worth downloading the Vivino app, where you can find reviews, ratings and the prices of more than a million wines instantly just by scanning the label.
While leaving the EU meant the end of unlimited alcohol for personal use, the post-Brexit allowances are still pretty generous – 24 bottles of still wine, 12 bottles of fizz and 42 litres of beer per person. However, the quality and value in France is unbeatable. A box of three bottles of Champagne Jeanmaire is a bargain at €49, while I pick up a couple of bottles of Crémant de Loire – the sparkle of choice in many a Parisian bar – for little more than €5. The same bottle is easily £9 in Aldi and almost £11 in Waitrose.
Wheeling my towering trolley to the check-out, I call out a friendly “bonjour” and “je suis thirsty” to the cashier, who has no doubt seen and heard it all before. My haul of 20 bottles of wine, a case of beer, and various cheeses and chocolates comes in just over €100, which in the past, I’ve easily spent in my local Tesco Express on Christmas Eve.
Sated with our haul, Nicola, Ben and I go in search of lunch in Calais. Nearing 2pm, many restaurants are closing for the afternoon – as is the French way. However, a quick Google found us Au Café de Paris on Rue Royale, an old-school French brasserie-cum-café packed with dusty, dated Gallic charm. Warmly welcomed by the maitre’d, we feast on seafood platters, moules marinière and an excellent bottle of Aligoté white burgundy, before clinking back across the Channel to England.
As we roll back into Brighton, our hearts and car boot are both filled with festive cheer. And while today’s trip cost around £150 for LeShuttle and petrol, when you divide it by three, there are still savings to be had by shopping in Calais – and a whole lot more fun than facing the hordes in Aldi. We all agreed, a new Christmas tradition had been reborn.
The Booze Lowdown: Aldi versus Carrefour
Carrefour’s extensive wine offering ranges from €1 a bottle up to thousands. The cheapest wines I bought were a very palatable Bordeaux at €1.99 (£1.71) a bottle and some deliciously dry Muscadet at €2.79 (£2.39). Aldi’s cheapest wine is Baron St Jean, a Spanish table red at £3.45 a bottle.
At the top end is Aldi’s Specially Selected Châteauneuf-du-pape, which at £17.49 is actually cheaper than Carrefour, which was €25.09 a bottle. Aldi also currently offers Château Guillemin La Gaffeliere Saint Emilion Grand Cru at a very reasonable £9.99, while a similar Grand Cru from St Emilion was €11.55 in Carrefour.
However, the range and quality of wines in Carrefour far exceed that of Aldi, Lidl, Asda et al, making it the number one choice for me.
Aldi’s own-brand spirits like gin, vodka and blended whisky are all priced at £15.99 a litre, while liqueurs such as Bellucci Superiore Amaretto is a bargain at £5.49 for a 50cl bottle.
Carrefour is slightly cheaper at €13.51 for a litre of Sobieski vodka, while Old Thames London gin is €11.09 for a 70cl bottle. But it’s the World Duty Free store at LeShuttle terminal that comes up trumps with Gordon’s Gin and Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum at £11.69 a litre.
The cheapest beer I found in Carrefour was a crate of Saint-Omer for €10.15 for 24 x 25cl bottles. However, you can pick up 3 cases of Saint-Omer for €24 in World Duty Free at Le Shuttle.
Aldi’s cheapest beer is the French-sounding Sainte Etienne (made in England), a premium lager which is £3.49 for four 440ml cans, and The 1079 Project, a pilsner for £3.49 for six 330ml cans.
Carrefour just pips Aldi at the post for good, cheap festive booze.
The final saving
Our LeShuttle tickets were £108 return for the car and us three passengers. I spent £45 on petrol. Lunch was €30 each. Taking all this into account, and thinking about how much I usually spend on booze each Christmas, I still saved around £40-£50.