France is hailed as one of the guard posts of fine dining with its UNESCO-listed French cuisine, and no one takes this fact more seriously than the French themselves. For centuries, they have believed that nothing is so fine, so culturally gratifying, so spiritually stirring as indulging in a good meal with family and friends. What is more, the meal is one of the most important parts of French identity. Recently when I visited Northern France it was nothing short of a gourmet pilgrimage for my taste buds. Food was my entrée for connecting with the rich French culture as I embarked on an unforgettable journey of sights and bites of Northern France. Every dining experience, be it at an upscale Michelin star restaurant or a tiny food stall, offered a gateway into a new land of gastronomy.
Why did I choose Northern France?
When it comes to travel, especially for good food and wine, France always tops the list. But most visitors stick to Paris and French Riviera. While I had visited the city of love and Côte d’Azur several times before; I had never explored the northern part, which is often dubbed as French Flanders. The 200-year old border region between France and Belgium was historically a part of the ‘County of Flanders’ (modern Belgium). As a result, everything from the food, language to architecture has a strong Flemish influence and looks distinctly different from the rest of France. This difference in façade and character led me to explore Northern France.
How is North’s cuisine different?
“The atmosphere in our Estaminets (local cafes of Northern France) is so warm and welcoming you wouldn’t want to leave even after finishing your meal. Moreover, the food of the North mirrors the region – full of
He further continued,
“The food here represents the marriage of land and sea. The dishes aren’t the easiest to pronounce (for foreigners, of course) but mouth-watering to gulp down! Some of the main ingredients of Flemish cuisine are beer, meat, cheese, raisins, prunes, brown sugar, and chicory. A long marinade and slow cooking are crucial for
This delicious explanation of the Flemish food was good enough to start my epicurean excursion. However, Northern France is not as small as it may appear on the map, so I decided to focus on four cities renowned for their unique sights and bites – Lille, Le Touquet, Amiens, and Chantilly.
A must-try trio of classic Flemish entrees
- Carbonnade (beef braised in dark beer)
- Waterzooi (chicken, cream, egg, carrots, leeks, onions, and celery)
- Pot’je vleesch (boned rabbit, veal, pork, and chicken)
Lille: France’s fourth largest city is an overlooked gem
Despite being the fourth biggest city in France, Lille doesn’t behave like a grand French city – snobbish and hoity-toity arrogance. With chocolate-box-pretty town squares, cobblestone streets lined with steeply gabled houses of brick and golden sandstone from the 17th and 18th century; Lille is an overlooked gem. Its architecture and cuisine proudly showcase its Flemish roots. After all, the city only became French when Louis X1V captured it in 1667. Today it’s a hotpot of French and Flemish culture garnished with the charming medieval town square, renowned art museums, stylish shopping boulevards, exceptional cuisine, and a buzzing nightlife.
If Bordeaux is the capital of wine, then Lille is definitely the hub of France’s beer culture. There are plenty of brewpubs, beer shops, and breweries to explore in the region. I start from a family owned brewery – Celestin’s Beers. Amaury d’HERBIGNY, the Brasseur (Brewer), took me through their epic journey of beer brewing since 1740. As per him, their specialty is 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) among others, which they source from different parts of the world.
After beer tasting, I continue navigating through the labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets of Vieux-Lille to reach a landmark address – 27 rue Esquermoise. My local guide, Akine Babinet, explains,
“No visit to Lille is complete without visiting Méert, a legendary pasty shop that has delighted kings, viceroys, generals and gourmands since 1761.”
As I take the bite of the world famous gaufre (waffle) filled with the divine Madagascar vanilla I realise why Méert was frequented by Charles de Gaulle (First President and a national hero) and Léopold I (first king of Belgium). Today, the former confectionery is an elegant patisserie, teahouse and a gourmet restaurant.
Charles de Gaulle once famously quoted, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” And, Lille is filled with good cheese shops everywhere. Just across the Méert patisserie lies the famed Fromgerie Philippe Olivier shop that has been selling over 300 varieties of Cheese since 1907.
The setting sun was a perfect time to try the
Lille must-try places
- Pastries and waffles: Méert, Les Merveilleux
- Traditional Flemish food: Les Compagnons de la Grappe, De la vielle bière Goudale, Le Barbier qui Fume
- Vegan food: Itsy Bitsy Café
- Cheese: Fromgerie Philippe Olivier shop
- Beer bars/café/brewery: Celestin’s Beers, Bistro St So, Gastama
Le Touquet: where the rich come to relax
The next day, we headed west, to the colourful affluent coastal seaside town of Le Touquet. Driving through lush pastures and occasional windmills, we soon arrived at seven kilometres long soft golden sand beach dotted with rainbow-coloured beach huts. While walking on the beach, Pierre-Yves shared the historic relevance of the town,
“Le Touquet has long been a playground of the rich, not just from France but from all over the world, where famous figures like French President, Emmanuel Macron, owns a home. In the past, frequent visitors included Winston Churchill, Prince Edward, and even James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, who lived here and drew inspiration for Casino Royale from the town’s Casino. There’s no dearth of action here – endless sandy beach, horse riding, tennis, golfing, racing, gambling, and sand-yachting.”
I spent a few hours strolling along the promenade and beach before moving away from the seafront to explore famous sites like Phare Le Touquet (a red-brick lighthouse), Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc Church and Marche Couvert (fresh food covered market). Lastly, I arrived at the Rue St Jean I, which is the most happening part of the town lined with classy French boutiques, specialist food shops and classy eateries serving the wealthy Parisians who now own most of the villas and come here for the weekend.
Pierre and I settle down to have lunch at Cafe des Sports, a traditional and the busiest brasserie in the whole town that has been serving a wide variety of French and English dishes since 1915. The Menu is extensive and we order the local specialties – ‘Le Welsh’ (toasted bread, ham, egg and cheese melted in beer), Choucroute de la Mer (sauerkraut and fresh seafood) along with mussels and fries (mussels are to Northern France what Butter Chicken is to Punjab). The restaurant had a huge VIP cocktail bar and a wine bar that offered a selection of more than 48 wines by the glass.
After visiting the two drop-dead gorgeous towns of Lille and Le Touquet it was time to visit the historical town.
Le Touquet must-try places
- Traditional French: Café des Sports, Le Jardin, and Le Pavillion
- Traditional seafood: La Coupole
- Crepes, waffles, ice creams, and sorbets: Aux Mignardises
Amiens: Venice of the North
The charming town of Amiens marries the watery beauty of Venice with French small town elegance. My camera couldn’t stop clicking the Saint-Leu district and Hortillonnages (2000 years old floating gardens). One building that blew my mind, was the UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage site of Notre Dame Amiens, a gargantuan cathedral about twice the size of Notre Dame Paris. We climbed 307 stairs of the cathedral to soak in the panoramic view of the city, which was destroyed over sixty percent in the two world wars.
A day full of sightseeing was complemented by an equally alluring night spent in the most happening part of Amiens – Saint-Leu district. The district adjoining the Notre Dame Cathedral and situated on the banks of the Somme canal reminded me of other canal cities like Venice and Amsterdam.
For dinner, we decided to stick to the most renowned riverside brasserie of the town, Le Quai. A great place to sample traditional French and Picard dishes with a spectacular night view of the cathedral and canal. The famed dishes of the brasserie include Pâté en croute (a duck pâté baked in a thick pastry crust), Potjevleesch (boned rabbit, veal, pork, and chicken), Ficelle Picarde (savoury pancake stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, and ham), and the homemade ‘Special Quai Hamburger’. We order ‘Special Quai Hamburger’ and Ligurian Trofie pasta along with the local beer. We wind up the delectable meal with the celebrated ‘macaron d’Amiens’.
After spending two hearty days in Amiens, I continue my journey to the last destination.
Amiens must-try places
- Traditional French and Picard cuisine: Le Quai
- Riverside restaurant with a great view: Au fil de l’eau
- Lively bar with great local beers and cocktails: Le Living
Chantilly: France’s Horse Capital
Just 50-km North of Paris I found a Renaissance gem and the Horse Capital of France, Domaine de Chantilly. The city is famous for two things – Château de Chantilly and Crème Chantilly. The elegant and very well restored château is surrounded by an artificial lake and magnificent gardens, designed by André Le Notre, the landscapist of Versailles. The Château de Chantilly contains a superb collection of paintings (next after the Louvre) and handwritten manuscripts (next after the National Library). The estate’s Grandes Écuries (Grand Stables) and the racecourse is one of the most prestigious hat-and-dress addresses in Europe.
However, it’s not just the historic heritage and horses that Chantilly is famous for. Beneath the vaulted stone ceiling of the Château de Chantilly Kitchens, La Capitainerie restaurant captures and showcases the palace’s splendour and romance through its dishes. The fare is traditional French food made from the fresh produce and included the regional signature whipped cream – Chantilly Crème. I was lucky to witness its live demonstration while relishing a sumptuous meal.
My trip had come to an end but I had learned a new secret – Northern France is called “The best-kept secret of France”. After exploring the sights and bites of Lille, Le Touquet, Amiens, and Chantilly; I find it difficult to disagree.
Chantilly must-try places
- French food: La Capitainerie, La Table du Connétable
- French and vegetarian food: Château de la Tour
- French and street food: Couleurs Café
So, when are you booking a trip to Northern France? Have you ever visited the region? If yes, I would love to hear from you.
PS: I am sure many of you are following my ongoing #OffbeatEuropeWithTSW journey on my social media channels. In case you want to know more, do read
- 4 months Solo Budget Travel in Europe
- 10 reasons to look beyond Paris and visit Northern France
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- Complete Travel Guide: From Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
- Plitvice Lakes: why this is a must visit Croatia National Park
- Czech out: Fun things to do in Prague
An edited version of this story was published in Food and Wine Magazine – Dec 2018-Feb 2019 issue
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