Northern Exposure: Lille And Amiens

Cooking with beer and locally grown chicory, leeks, potatoes and sugar beet mark the cooking of the northern cities of Lille and Amiens, two of the great textile towns of medieval Europe.

Cooking with beer and locally grown chicory, leeks, potatoes and sugar beet mark the cooking of the northern cities of Lille and Amiens, two of the great textile towns of medieval Europe.

Lille

With its Grand-Place and tall, brick and stone gabled houses, Lille is a town that is as much Flemish as French - it only definitively became part of France in 1667. It has an active cultural scene, lively bars, the chic fashion and interior design shops of Vieux Lille and the cosmopolitan street market of Wazemmes. And Lille's highlights range from the Vieille Bourse sculpted with caryatids, masks and fruit, the art collections of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, rehabilitated factories and the modern Euralille district. The dual Franco-Flemish heritage is also seen in the local food: mussels and chips (try 1930s brasserie Aux Moules on Rue de Paris), cooking with beer in the famous carbonnade flamande (pieces of slow-cooked beef) and coq à la bière, the unpronouncable potjevleesch (a layered terrine of assorted white meats in jelly), fish or chicken waterzoi stew, and tarts and sauces made with pungent Maroilles cheese. There's also plenty of excellent fish - the restaurant and fishmonger L'Huitrière with its tiled art deco facade is an attraction in itself. Some people come to Lille simply for the gaufres from Méert; the thin waffles filled with sweet vanilla cream were a favourite of Charles de Gaulle who was born here, while Méert itself has a wonderful vintage interior and a busy tea room. As well as beer - there's a microbrewery at Les Trois Brasseurs facing Lille-Flandres station - another local tipple is genièvre, once the staple drink of textile workers and miners. You can visit the Distillerie Claeyssens in Wambrechies, where this juniper-flavoured spirit is still made on historic machinery.

Amiens

The largest cathedral in France is in Amiens; it was begun in 1220 and built in record speed to achieve a remarkable unity of Gothic style, with its statues of kings and three sculpture-laden portals. From June to September, the facade is spectacularly illuminated at night to recreate its original polychrome colour scheme. The watery Somme has also made its mark on the city, with the canals and low houses of the St-Leu district, and the hortillonnages or market gardens created on the drained bed of the Somme and dissected by an intricate network of canals, along which the vegetables were transported. The hortillonnages still cover some 300 hectares coming right into the centre of the city and can be visited on foot from the towpath or by boat trip from April to October, although today there are only nine hortillons (market gardeners), compared to 250 a century ago. Their produce is sold at the canalside Marché sur l'Eau every Saturday on Place Parmentier; the floating market when the hortillons bring the produce by boat now takes place only one Sunday in June, on June 19 in 2005. Many of the vegetables find their way into the traditional soupe des hortillons; other local dishes to try include ficelle picarde (a pancake stuffed with ham and mushrooms), and the Gâteau Battu or the Macarons d'Amiens. This year, Amiens celebrates the centenary of the death of Jules Verne, who moved here in 1871.

For further information and bookings, contact Lille Tourist Office on 00 33 3 59 57 94 00; www.lilletourism.com. For Amiens, 00 33 3 22 71 60 50; www.amiens.com/tourisme

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