Often overlooked by the foodie world, Hauts-de-France is full of delightful surprises, from mussels in cheese sauce and chocolate rats to Welsh rarebit (yes, really!).
Hauts-de-France has quite the quiver of arrows in its backpack to defend its gastronomic might against sunnier and more célébrées regions of France. It has exceptional landscapes and age-old traditions mixed with innovative attitudes, knowledge, skill and incredible value for money.
The Saint-Omer marshland – or marais audomarois – is a great example of working with the land. The only continuously cultivated marshland in France, it was dug by monks back in the 17th century, and is an incredible network of canals (700km) separating peaty lands, fertile spots to grow food. Right up until the 1970s the area had no roads, its lands connected only by water and its Flemish inhabitants mostly made up of market gardeners.
Although the way of life has changed now – the guinguette danced its last slow waltz a few years ago and many of the houses are now occupied by holidaymakers who are keen on peace and a spot of boating – the area still produces six million white cauliflowers per year, as well as 50 other vegetables including leek, tomato, endive, watercress and artichoke, and its UNESCO-recognised nature reserve boasts an incredible 1,600 species of plants and animals.
The Hortillonnages of Amiens are a similar curiosity of cultivation. In the centre of the city, in the original river bed of the Somme, are 300 hectares of floating gardens criss-crossed by waterways which, like the marais audomarois, benefit from abundant peaty soil.
Like its rural cousin, its numbers of gardeners have fallen recently; where there used to be 250 hortillons , there are now only seven and the area is used for a mix of gardening, fishing, nature observation and rest. Boat tours in both are recommended, and you can snap up crops grown at the weekly Marché sur l’eau d’Amiens in Place Parmentier.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Being an area not front of mind for gastronomy in the eyes of even its nearest French, Belgian and British neighbours, Hauts-de-France has the weapon of surprise in its arsenal – the quality and innovation you find here are remarkable.
Take the Association Tourville project at Gravelines. It is led by diver and shipwright Christian Cardin who, having dived in the Bay of Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue in 1985 and discovered the wrecks of six 17th-century ships (his name is on a plaque in the museum in Tatihou), decided to embark upon a massive project to construct the warship Le Jean-Bart, a replica of Louis XIV’s 84-cannon vessel.
So where does the food come in? Leftover wood and sawdust (some 3,600 oak trees from Compiègne will be needed to complete the project!) have so far been used to build a museum, restaurant, shop and – here’s the important bit – a craft smokehouse. As Christian explains: “There was no electricity in the 17th century so smoking fish and meat was the way to preserve food for the thousands of workers in the yard”.
The team imports Red Label salmon from Loch Duart in Scotland, guts, fillets and salts it, and smokes it in the cold smokehouse (max. temp. 24 degrees) for eight hours. The result is a delicate, buttery, creamy taste, smoky on the outside of the fillet and milder in the centre. The yard also produces smoked herring and plans to add a meat smokehouse in the next couple of years.
While we’re on the subject of seafood, la moule de Dunkerque, also known as moule de corde is definitely a welcome surprise. Punching above their weight – literally – Dunkirk mussels are big and fleshy, but still tasty, and they come with a grit-free guarantee.
All this is possible because they are grown on ropes 5km out to sea, their growth not limited by tidal water. In season, between March and December, they crop up on the menus of countless restaurants in Dunkirk – but make sure you’re getting the real thing.
When they run out, they run out, and are swiftly replaced by the common or garden mussel from Holland or elsewhere in France.
If you’re planning on cooking these scrummy babies at home, getting the cooking time exactly right is crucial, according to the chef at Le Grand Large on the Port de Plaisance in Dunkirk – far more so than the ingredients of your chosen sauce. “Fill the pan half full, boil the mussels once on one side, turn them and boil again. Four minutes total,” he recommends.
Keep it in the Family
Heritage and tradition is another part of Hauts-de-France’s foodie armoury, where generations-old skills mix with invaluable experience. It should be illegal to leave Dunkirk without a trip to glacier to the stars, Cornet d’Amour, on the seafront.
Monsieur Franck Verschave, an ice cream enthusiast and one of only 50 maîtres glaciers in France, runs the family business set up by his great-grandfather who came here from Chicago.
He runs tasting sessions twice a week, which take you on a journey through the intricacies of pistache, from the namby-pamby French variety to the mighty Italian pistachio-punch (wow!); and from classic chocolate to interesting ingredients like ginger, marmalade and ‘jellifi ed’ rum.
He has 64 flavours on sale in his display freezers at any one time but there are 260 in total in the shop’s repertoire. I had a Mojito, my husband a Grand Marnier, one kid a chocolate and the little one a mango, and as we tried to leave he kept finding more flavours for us to try.
Each time a plastic spoon got dipped, licked and chucked in the bin. We snuck out but wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d followed us down the street, spoon aloft.
In terms of heritage, the greats like Méert in Lille – with its beautifully ornate pâtisserie and restaurant – is unsurpassable. Méert’s famed thin waffl es come highly recommended and if you need a lead on fl avour, take it from son of the city Charles de Gaulle and go for his favourite, the Madagascan vanilla.
Aux Merveilleux de Fred is another Lille institution. Fred’s fl uff y meringues have only been around since the mid-1980s but their magical lightness hails from way back in the 18th century.
Arras also dishes up a couple of historical sweet treats in the form of its chocolate rats, inspired by the ancient pronunciation of the town’s name (without the ‘s’) which sounded like ‘un rat’; and its coeur d’Arras biscuits – small and mildly spiced gingerbread hearts – that are sold in pâtisseries around the city, namely Pâtisserie Thibaut in the Place des Héros.
Head to the Aisne département in the southeast for a taste of the pavé de Laon , a gianduja chocolate encased in grey meringue to make it look like a paving slab from its eponymous medieval hilltop town. Amandine in the main street opposite Laon’s towering Gothic cathedral has some of the finest around.
Potjevleesch, Frites, Rarebit etc.
For a taste of age-old classics and à la bonne franquette (fuss-free) dining, make a beeline for the region’s famous estaminets . These café-bistros serve up a hearty menu of Flemish staples and northern mainstays including andouillette, black pudding tart, carbonade flamande – a slow-cooked beef in beer stew – and the tongue-twisting potjevleesch, a potted meat terrine.
It’s fair to say that northern cuisine is a hodgepodge of various traditions and cultures, thanks to the region’s proximity to Belgium. Other nations have put their stamp on the local fare too, not least Wales. Yes, Wales! Welsh rarebit, believe it or not, is a local speciality.
The cheddar is melted with beer, poured onto toast and ham, then grilled. Topped with an egg, it’s known as the Full Welsh. If you fi nd yourself in Lille, pop into microbrewery 3 Brasseurs, near the station, for the best in the city.
Northerners take their chips (frites) very seriously and Lille, like every city, town and village in these parts has a friterie (chippy) on every corner. Chips tend to be served with mussels, croquettes – in the case of the Friterie Meunier in the Grand Place, which is always buzzing at lunchtime with a huge queue out front – or toutes seules with a dab of mayonnaise.
It can be the smallest of outfi ts that creates a big buzz in the north. Take La Halte d’Autrefois goat farm near Montreuil, whose organic goat’s cheese and bread (a mellow loaf made with goat’s milk) have quite the cult following.
Owner Valérie Magniez milks her 30 goats by hand twice a day and produces a fresh moussey cheese in two days or a delicious matured ash-coated number over a month. Visitors can milk the goats, watch the cheese and bread being made and, of course, buy some.
You can even stay on site – in a wooden chalet full of rustic charm and rented by anyone looking for peace and rural living (literally everyone, from rock bands looking for inspo, and donkey associations taking the asses on holiday, to school children from London learning simple skills).
Although Hauts-de-France is not famed for its wine production – abroad at least – the region has a thriving Champagne sideline. In fact, the Aisne département accounts for 10 per cent of all the Champagne produced in France. The remainder is made in the neighbouring Grand-Est region.
‘Northern’ Champagne’s relative anonymity means it doesn’t have the bling and clout of the others, but it lacks none of the heritage of its better-known siblings. There’s an authenticity here and a great microclimate too, and Champagne houses dot the map from small independents to larger corporates.
Champagne is made from a mix of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes. You need about 1.25kg of grapes to make a single bottle and it’s a long process, hence the notorious price tags.
I’m assuming we’re all quaffing aficionados here but for those Champagne novices, here’s a bottled version of how it’s done.
The grapes are picked by hand and pressed. Where once they were turned with pitchforks, the presses are now mechanical (costing €90,000 and in use for just ten days per year!). The first fermentation takes ten to 18 days, at which point l’assemblage takes place, a critical – and still human – process of blending the varieties and quantities of grapes.
At this stage the wine is still flat; it needs to be fermented a second time in order for the prise de mousse – the bubbles! – to occur. At this point the Champagne is aged, for anything between 15 months and ten years or more.
After ageing, the process of turning begins – a previously repetitive, strain-inducing labour of love that has now bowed to machines. Turning the bottles gradually works the sediment to the neck of the bottle, where it can then be frozen and popped out of the top before a cork is inserted.
While the sediment is in the bottle, the wine keeps improving but once removed, the Champagne starts to degrade and must be drunk within three years. Before the bottle is corked, a mix of reserve wine and sugar – called liqueur de dosage – is added. It’s all firmly shaken to mix it in. The bottles are then left to rest for a few months before being sold For the lowdown on Hauts-de-France’s many Champagne houses (and the region’s craft beers and other liqueurs) go to pages 82-83.
The Holy (gastro) Trinity
If you fancy a criss-crossing gastronomic tour of Hauts-de-France, prepare for impossibly indulgent food, with no pomp and incredible value for money.
There are many giants in this area, and you’ll find plenty to satisfy those hunger pangs in the foodie Mecca that is Montreuil-sur-Mer. But there are also many wonders hidden away in the countryside like La Chartreuse du Val Saint-Esprit in Gosnay near Lens, and Château de Breuil just outside Laon in Aisne.
La Chartreuse is a traditional hotel in the Pays d’Artois not far from Béthune. You’ll probably recognise the name Béthune as it’s on those motorway signs you usually speed past on your way south… This time slam on the brakes and pull up in this tranquil retreat for at least one overnighter.
The service is friendly but discreet with none of the rules you normally get when you arrive at a hotel (“You can do this, you can’t do that, you must eat at this time, not at that time”).
There are a few menus on offer in the gastronomic Le Robert II restaurant but you won’t go far wrong with one at around €70-90 for three courses. Many of the ingredients come from the bountiful kitchen garden, bordered by espalier plum and apple trees.
The Château de Breuil is a similarly glorious place for a pit stop or long weekend. Serving semi-gastronomic food at great prices, nurse-turned-chef Stéphanie Méreau has transformed the 19th-century château owned by her parents into a perfectly-pitched foodie destination.
Having lunched here on a mind-blowingly affordable, €32 three-course meal, I’m chomping at the bit to try dinner. Among Stéphanie’s signature dishes are the sublime ris de veau and Camembert truffé and melt-in-the-mouth mozzarella and pesto tartlet. Highlights also include steak tartare on bulgar wheat risotto.
Last but not least, Les Orfèvres restaurant, a stone’s throw from Amiens cathedral, should be top of any confirmed foodie’s scoffing spree. Here, chef Frédéric Barette pulls out the big gastro guns, putting a modern (and inventive) twist on traditional northern flavours.
Everything, from the amuse-bouches – for example, the liqueur-like but alcohol-free cucumber bombe which explodes in the mouth on entry (“Eat it in one shot,” warned my waiter) – to the madeleine with coffee, is perfectly cooked, judged and flavoured.
The pasta parcel stuffed with smoked haddock and a runny egg yolk is a standout, as is the pot of lobster and bread drenched in lobster and truffle sauce. Did I mention the vanilla ice cream with grated cheese, olive oil and black pepper on top? Oui, ça marche! (Yes, it works).
Ravenous yet? Breeze on over to Hauts-de-France: you’ll feel on top of the world in more ways than one.
NORTHERN CHEESES The good, the great and the remarkable
There are so many fromages in Hauts-de-France, an area known for its strong, often pongy varieties, I enlisted the help of cheeseman Julien Planchon to narrow down a Top 5.
Julien comes from a family of farmers but has been a cheesemonger for many years, specialising in northern French, Italian, English and Dutch cheeses. He has two stalls in La Halle au Frais in Amiens and a fromagerie-épicerie -restaurant called MEALK (merging the words ‘meal’ and ‘milk’) in south Amiens. He recommends:
1. Tomme aux salicornes de la Baie de Somme
A salty samphire-flavoured cheese that’s good with Riesling.
2. Tomme au foin
A cow’s milk cheese, which goes particularly well with Picard cider
3. Bray aux graines de lin
Using linseed grains, this cheese is similar to the Tommes aux Salicornes but less salty.
4. Tricorne de Picardie
This cheese is like Maroilles – regional king of cheeses – but washed with a brown beer which gives it a different flavour. Both Tricorne and Bray pair well with a good beer or cider.
5. Crémeux au safran de la Baie de Somm
This cheese is from the same producer as Neufchâtel. It goes very well with Champagne.