Northern France: A land of culinary and cultural discoveries
France is the ultimate address for all the great pleasures in life - from love to food. French food is so celebrated that UNESCO declared French cuisine 'world intangible heritage’. Frankly, it is not just about the taste of French food, but the culture that embodies it. In France, food is sacred. Whether it is choosing the freshest and the best quality ingredients or laying the table with care before anyone takes a bite, food is celebrated even if it’s a daily simple meal. Eating is a celebration of both the food and the company around you.
It is this reverence for food that attracted me to go on a tour of a region termed as the best-kept secret of France – Northern France. My entire trip was nothing short of a gourmet pilgrimage with food being my entrée into a land of gastronomy.
Northern France, often dubbed as French Flanders, was a historical county of Flanders. As a result, even today you can see a huge Flemish influence in the region’s food, language, and architecture. Its cuisine is quite distinct from the rest of France and as my local friend, Pierre-Yves aptly said, “The food of the North mirrors the region - packed with generosity, variety, creativity, and flavours. One bite of the carbonnade is enough to start the rhapsody of flavours in your mouth! And the best thing is, it pairs very well with a local beer! The food here represents the union of land and sea. While the dishes may not be easy to pronounce (for foreigners), they surely are scrumptious to savour! Some of the essential ingredients of Flemish cooking are meat, beer, cheese, raisins, sugar, and chicory. The secret to the unique Flemish flavour and tender meat is a long marinade and slow cooking.”
This lip-smacking explanation of Flemish food worked as a catalyst to my culinary and cultural discoveries. However, Northern France is not as small as it may appear on the map, so I decided to explore two cities that are near Paris – Lille and Chantilly.
Lille: World Design Capital of 2020
Despite being the only French city to be named as the World Design Capital 2020, Lille is an overlooked gem. As I walked through the chocolate-box-pretty town squares, cobblestone streets and the 17th-century gabled houses, I couldn’t help stopping myself every hundred metres to enjoy the imposing architectural legacy around me. Lille’s architecture and cuisine proudly showcases its Flemish roots. After all, the city became a part of modern France only in 1667. Thanks to its design credentials and young student population, today it has become a melting pot of French and Flemish cultures - garnished generously with medieval town squares, art museums, shopping boulevards, traditional and modern cuisine restaurants, and a buzzing nightlife.
If Bordeaux is the capital of wine, Lille is the centre of France’s beer culture. While there are plenty of brewpubs, beer shops, and breweries to explore in the city, I began my epicurean exploration by visiting a family-owned brewery - Celestin’s Beers. Amaury d'Herbigny -- the brewer and owner -- passionately explained their historic journey of beer brewing since 1740. Over decades, it has become one of the most loved breweries in Lille because of its specialty of brewing beers with different types of hops and spices like La Dix (a blonde with 10 hops varieties), Wal (Tripel with pepper and coriander seeds) and citrusy Hoppy Yuzu (IPA with yuzu). The spices are carefully sourced from different parts of the world.
After beer tasting, I arrived at a landmark address – 27 Rue Esquermoise. In my local guide, Akine Babinet writes, “A visit to Lille is incomplete without visiting Méert, a renowned pastry shop that has delighted kings, viceroys, generals and gourmands since 1761.” As I took a bite of the acclaimed waffle filled with the divine Madagascar vanilla I realised why Méert was a favourite patisserie of Charles de Gaulle (General and first President of France) and Léopold I (first king of Belgium). Today, the former confectionery is an elegant patisserie, salon de thé, and gourmet restaurant, and is not to be missed if you’re in the area.
Charles de Gaulle once famously said, "How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?" Lille has no shortage of good cheese. Just across the Méert patisserie is the famed Fromageries Philippe Olivier that has been selling over 300 varieties of cheese since 1907.
As the night curtain befell on weary souls, it was a perfect time to enjoy Ch’ti, the favourite lager of Lille. My friend and I decided to spend a few hours at Gare Saint Sauveur, an upcycled train station home to various art expos, concerts, film projections, and its own bar-restaurant.
Don't miss the following in Lille:
Pastries and waffles: Méert & Les Merveilleux
Traditional Flemish food: Les Compagnons de la grappe, De la vielle bière Goudale and Le Barbier qui Fume
Cheese: Fromagerie Philippe Olivier shop
Beer bars/café/brewery: Celestin’s Beers, Bistrot St So, Gastama
Chantilly: France’s Horse Capital
On the edge of Paris, just half an hour away from the city of lights, I found France’s greatest and probably least appreciated chateaux - Château de Chantilly. The imposing chateau is one of Europe’s most opulent royal residences housing one of the world’s best art collections, as well as the most prized Shetland ponies. The elegance of the château is enhanced by an artificial lake and luxurious expanses of 593 acres of lush lawns and fabulous gardens, designed by André Le Nôtre, the landscapist of Versailles. No wonder it is a perfect place to host big fat Indian weddings and pre-wedding shoots.
Being a horse lover I loved spending time at the estate’s Grandes Écuries (Grand Stables) and racecourse, which is one of the most prestigious hat-and-dress addresses in Europe. Chantilly is known as France’s Horse Capital because not only does it have the largest racehorse-training community in France, it is also home to the Living Museum of the Horses at Great Stables. Moreover, it is home to two of France’s most important races.
However, Chantilly’s claim to fame is not just the grand chateaux and horses. The name Chantilly has taken the 'whipped cream business' by storm and wherever you go in France you will find that whipped cream is referred to as ‘Chantilly Crème' or even just 'la Chantilly'. I was lucky to witness its live demonstration and sample the traditional French fare made using it at the Château de Chantilly kitchens, La Capitainerie restaurant.
Northern France is called “the best kept secret of France” and after exploring the splendours of Lille and Chantilly I find it difficult to disagree.
Don't miss the following in Chantilly:
French food : La Capitainerie and La Table du Connétable
French and vegetarian food : Château de la Tour
French and street food : Couleurs Café
Archana Singh is a travel writer; she can be found at www.travelseewrite.com.
All photographs courtesy of Archana Singh