A weekend in Lille: This pretty northern city's a real French fancy for foodies
When it comes to la gastronomie in France, Paris and Lyon tend to steal all the headlines.
But if you’re looking to hop across the Channel for a foodie foray, the northern city of Lille also takes its cuisine pretty seriously.
Boasting something of a mélange of French and Belgian cuisine, Lille is something of a gourmet’s dream.
Think beef stews, meringues slathered in cream, strong cheeses and even stronger beers.
And the best thing is, it’s less than 90 minutes away on Eurostar - so, you can be there faster than you can work out how to pronounce potjevleesch (that’s a meat terrine to you and I... more on that later).
I whizzed through the tunnel late last month for a whistle-stop, 30-hour stay in the city.
Here are few of my foodie highlights (and just the one lowlight).
Champagne, Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape: France is pretty well known for its (admittedly, pretty fabulous) wine.
But given its seriously close proximity to the Belgian border, it’s little surprise really that you'll probably feel more at home supping a beer in Lille.
You’ll find a range of delicious blondes and ales in pretty little bars and cafes on almost every corner.
In fact, we popped into a newsagent on Rue de la Monnaie on Sunday morning and they were even serving beer in there.
Do beware though. We're not talking the sort of pale ales you'll find in your average hipster haunt in London. Beers in Lille tend to be a lot stronger - usually 6-9% proof. My first beer in the city was my first drink in four weeks (I fell off the Dry January wagon slightly early this year) - needless to say that after one goblet of my potent 9% proof pint, my face was glowing and my speech slurred.
I tend to profess an ‘eat like a local’ philosophy when I head abroad - when in Rome and all that. But if your tastebuds are like mine (I’m not a fan of pork pie-style cold meat and can’t abide that meaty jelly stuff that comes with it) then potjevleesch is one to avoid. I’m sure my lack of enjoyment of this local delicacy, which is essentially a cold meat terrine served with warm chips, was more of a reflection of personal taste rather than a slight on the charming restaurant that served it. That said, I couldn’t finish the plate.
After my potjevleesch experience the night before, I was a little reluctant to try another local dish when we ventured out for Sunday lunch. But I soldiered on (with the help of a full-bodies red) and I’m glad I did.
Although us Brits are hardly renowned for our prowess in the kitchen, there’s something reassuringly ‘British Sunday lunch’ about carbonade flamande - aside from the fact that it's served with chips.
It’s a deliciously rich stew of melt-in-the-mouth beef slow-cooked in Trappist beer and traditionally seasoned with thyme, mustard and bay leaves.
Left to right: The delicious bone marrow starter and that divine carbonade flamanade enjoyed at the Barbier qui fume
At the Barbier qui Fume - a delightful restaurant we found on the Rue de la Monnaie - the carbonade was served topped with a slab of spiced cake (a bit like Jamaica ginger cake), which looked odd but really added something to the dish.
One thing I did learn from the trip is that the internet is rubbish when it comes to finding places to eat. We deliberated for ages using TripAdvisor and the like to try and find a Sunday lunch venue.
But we stumbled across Barbier qui Fume and it was a bit of a gem of a find. Great service, fantastic wine, brilliant meat, and my starter of bone marrow was pretty special too.
Merveilleux meringues aux Fred
We were lucky enough to be given a window seat at the Barbier qui Fume, which meant we had a fantastic vantage point for people watching while we ate. We were sat just across from a little confectioner on the corner and couldn't help but notice the queues of people waiting outside, slowly filing in one after the other, each coming out with varying-sized cardboard boxes.
We watched fascinated as a young worker in the shop picked up small meringues from a tray, sandwiched them together with cream, then slathered more cream all around them with a palate knife before dusting with chocolate shards.
The worker was like a machine - she must have made several hundred of the things while we lunched (admittedly it was a long lunch).
You know something is going to be pretty special when tourists and locals are queuing out of the door to get hold of it. So, we skipped dessert and joined the queue.
And we certainly weren't disappointed by les merveilleux.
Tamper Espresso Bar
Another of our great finds was Tamper Espresso Bar. Tucked away on Rue des Vieux Murs - a quieter cobbled street close to the city's cathedral - Tamper is a charmingly tiny little coffee shop.
It manages that rare thing of combining Instagrammably bare-brick decor with food and drinks that are as good as the place looks.
The service also lacked the typical aloofness of a hipster type place - our waitress was incredibly warm and friendly (and happy to speak English thankfully as my French is my F grade GCSE than fluent these days).
Dessert for one: Les merveilleux come in the cutest little boxes
The drinks in particular were a hit. I'm not much of a coffee drinker and I'm far from being any sort of hot drink connoisseur, but the 'all green' tea was perhaps the best tea I've had - so good I had two mugs of the stuff.
We both had a beetroot and smoked salmon quiche for lunch - delightfully light with puff pastry for a base and only a thin layer of egg filling (unlike the doorstop wedges of the stuff that are normally served up here).
For dessert, a Mississippi mud cake which was so light and dreamy that it practically tasted healthy.
Light lunch: The smoked salmon and beetroot quiche and Mississippi cake served with a smile at the Tamper Espresso Bar
No feature about Lille would be complete without mention of the city’s legendary patisserie, chocolaterie and tea room. Meert is something of an institution here and while every visiting blogger, website or visiting food journalist rhapsodises the place, they do so with good reason.
Meert has been serving sweet treats to royalty and other important folk since around 1761. It was taken over by the Belgian Michael Paulus Gislinus Meert in 1849. He put his own spin on the humble gaufres (that's a waffle to you and I) and in turn put the place on the map.
His version is very different from the Belgian version. Far from being thick and fluffy, Meert's is a wafer-thin waffle with an even thinner Madagascan vanilla sandwich filling.
Chocolate heaven: Just a fraction of the sweet treats on sale at Meert
Sugar rush: Some of the cakes on display in the window at Meert.
Nowadays the place is a veritable smorgasbord of delectable delights - everything from hand-crafted chocolates to macarons and the aforementioned gaufres are on sale here.
The shop doubles up as a tea room, which I'm told does a pretty mean brunch (we hadn't the foresight to book, sadly). And there's also a patisserie selling some of the most delicious-looking cakes I've ever cracked eyes on.
I treated myself to a religieuse caramel - a choux bun filled with caramel creme patissiere, topped with caramel frosting, a paper thin chocolate shard and a delicate macaron.
I scoffed the lot on the Eurostar on the way home. And I was so engrossed that I failed to notice that half of the creme pat was smothered all over my chin for quite some time!
Pretty city: I neglected to get a picture of my potjevleesch, so here's some attractive scenery shots I took instead
Foodie weekend: Lille is a great place and only 90 minutes from London