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Tournai: The oldest treats are often best

Henry Palmer goes in search of food with historical significance

Just a few kilometres east of the French border, Tournai is a dramatic phoenix of a place, all but destroyed in the Second World War and then painstakingly rebuilt. Much of what you see today comprises dextrous reconstructions of ancient properties. Beautiful and atmospheric, they are too. And rightly so, for it would be a tall order to overstate the significance of Tournai – to Belgium, to France, to Europe. This has been an important commercial centre since Roman times. In the mid 5th century it was the powerful seat of the Merovingian king, Childeric, whose son Clovis was born here in 465. Having succeeded his father at a young age Clovis went on to become the first king of France.

There is much to see in the old city, not least the large, triangular Grand Place; the enormous cathedral dating back to the 12th century; the Pont des Trous, a 13th-century bridge complete with arrow slits; and in complete contrast an Art Nouveau gem, the Musée des Beaux Arts (0032 6933 2431; tournai.be/musee-beaux-arts). It contains works by Monet, Manet and Van Gogh. Between these sights there's a great deal of eating and tasting to enjoy too.

Tournai produces a number of epicurean specialities that reflect the little city's tremendous sense of history and love of legend. Bonbons au miel, for example, are locally produced honey sweets that celebrate a particularly striking Tournai tale. In the mid-17th century a mason making repairs at the church of St Brice discovered the previously unknown tomb of King Childeric. Great treasure was found inside, including a ring inscribed with Childeric's name, a golden bull's head and about 300 little images of bees cast in gold. Hence the honey sweets sold today, which are made in the shape of Childeric's golden bees. Other local confections include Succès du Jours, waffles stuffed with vanilla and sugar, and Ballons noirs de Tournai, round sweets of glucose and brown sugar originally devised as a lozenge for miners working nearby.

The charming Folklore Museum (0032 6922 4069; tournai.be/musee-folklore) at Réduit des Sions 32 is a trove of information about these and other local goods and traditions. One of the most intriguing is the feast of Lundi Perdu, or Lost Monday, which the museum explains in a special display. This Tournai celebration takes place on the first Monday after epiphany (6 January) and the prevailing theory is that it became known as a "lost" day, because no one was paid over the public holiday. Revived over the last three decades, it is a unique local event when special dinners are served in homes or at restaurants across town. Between courses of time-honoured Tournai fare – saucisse followed by rabbit cooked with prunes – a traditional game involving jokes and drinks is played.

Of course, Tournai offers plenty of contemporary culinary options too. For fine handmade chocolates head over to Maison Léger (0032 6984 7816; maison-leger.be) at Place de Lille 10, which started business here in 1995. Nearby, at Rue des Meaux 15, Fromagerie de Lille (0032 6984 7315) has a display cabinet groaning with wonderfully ripened cheeses from across France and Belgium – try the piquant local goats' cheese. Then sample some of Tournai's own brew – Trappist St Martin beer or perhaps liqueur de chicon, made with endives – at L'Impératrice (0032 6921 5567) just down the road at Rue des Maux 12b. This is a typical Tournai café where games of jeu de fer billiards are regularly played.

Meanwhile you'll find a large choice of Belgian beers (as well as Belgian sparkling wine) on the menu at La Vie est Belge (0032 6977 5450; lavieestbelge.be), a chic café-bar at Quai du Marché au Poisson 17. It is one of a number of lively outlets on Tournai's newly revamped embankment along the Escaut river.

There's an especially good choice of bistros here, too. L'Archestrate (0032 6955 7922), for example, is a neat newcomer serving traditional Belgian cuisine with a modern twist at Quai du Marché aux Poisson 5. Or try the small and convivial Bistro des Traboules (00 32 498 52 41 26) at Quai Notre-Dame 33. Alternatively, prepare yourself for a gastronomic treat and head north west to Rue de la Madeleine where, at number 19, La Petite Madeleine (0032 6984 0187; lapetitemadeleine.be) is an intimate, supremely elegant restaurant offering a beautifully devised menu and good value with set three-course menus priced from €40.

Anniversary cake

Step into Herbaut Boulangerie Pâtisserie (0032 6922 1510; herbaut.net) at Rue Gallait 20 and you'll find yourself in a haven infused with the aromas of just-cooked breads and spicy cakes.

You'll probably be greeted by Margaret Herbaut (above), who runs the family shop while her husband Manu makes the breads and pastries. Stop for a chat and Margaret will tell you all about Gâteau Clovis, a traditional looking brown cake produced here. You might be forgiven for thinking it is made to an ancient recipe passed down over many generations. Actually it was devised only two decades ago – and illustrates the inventive yet tradition-loving nature of the people of Tournai. Gâteau Clovis dates back to 1982 when the town was celebrating the 1,500th anniversary of the accession of Clovis as ruler of Tournai. To mark the occasion the Tournai association of confectioners devised this cake, made with apricots, pineapple and almonds.