Saturday, 4 February 2012

Lille gastro-tour

I've just come back from a two-day trip to Lille in northern France. Apart from doing a bit of sightseeing, which on previous trips I'd not had the opportunity to do, I was there to eat some of the local specialities and buy foodie treats to bring home.

When I lived in Paris, Parisian Boy and I would make the trip north every September for the famous Braderie de Lille, staying with friends and wandering the streets over the weekend to browse and maybe buy. The 1st of September is also the start of the mussel season - all the brasseries spill out onto the streets with extra tables and everyone tucks into moules frites, washed down with some of Lille's fabulous range of locally brewed beers.

I skipped the moules this time, as I was keen to sample different dishes. Here's a snapshot of some of the things that pleased my palate.

Tarte au maroilles - this local cheese is used as an ingredient in many dishes. The tarte is based on a thin pizza-like dough and the only topping is maroilles. It is briefly baked at a very high temperature so the cheese melts and forms a crisp crust. It's on menus everywhere as a starter and often sold in slices as a snack.

Carbonnade flamande - this gorgeous rich beef casserole is made with brisket and cooked very slowly with lots of onions and the local brown beer. The onions melt into the sauce to make a thick gravy. That little triangle is a melba toast made from pain d'epices, which is produced in Lille as well as other big cities.

Les delices de Quinquin - three different tarts (flamande, made from apples and cinnamon, sucré, with a sugary, syrupy topping, and chicory, which shouldn't work but did, the bitter chicory complementing the sweeter base perfectly) and chicory ice cream, dense and bitter-sweet and utterly moreish. Le petit Quinquin is a cute little statue in the centre of the city, in case you're wondering.

That blow-out three-course meal, washed down with a pichon of house red and finished off with a balloon of Armagnac, was enjoyed at Aux Moules, my favourite brasserie in the city. Its speciality is mussels, of course, but there are plenty of other local dishes on its extensive menu. I was too squeamish to try Lille's famous potjevleesch - a mishmash of chicken, rabbit, belly pork and veal set in a thick jelly - because I don't like aspic, but it truly is a unique dish for this region.

Tartiflette au maroilles - tartiflette is from Haute Savoie, but this version uses the local cheese again. Underneath the crispy top layer of melted maroilles was a creamy blend of soft, sliced potatoes, lardons and creme fraiche.

Of course, there were other delights - piping-hot fresh waffles slathered in melted chocolate bought from street kiosks, baked chicory (this vegetable pops up everywhere in the local cuisine) and I also sampled a little waterzooi. I heard of a shop specialising in homemade ice cream, but didn't have time to find it - a shame as I was keen to sample their beetroot ice cream.

As well as the eating, there was the buying - a supermarket raid netted me a large bottle of raspberry vinegar, mustards (Dijon and tarragon), a large saucisson fumée and a big tub of dried ceps, which was a bargain at around £1.50.

But it was the fromagerie that yielded my best purchases. At the rear left is a small standard maroilles - the washed rind is sticky and the texture inside is a little like a port salut. It's as stinky as a munster. Front left is an artisanal maroilles - the rind washed in local beer and then encrusted with sea salt from the salt pans at Dunkirk (and outrageously expensive at £10 but so worth it). The red pyramid next to it is fresh maroilles - it's very young and fresh at this stage, more like a cream cheese or a crottin, and rolled in paprika, tarragon and black pepper.

Not local at all but a bargain for a fiver - a Vacherin Mont d'Or. Well, it would have been rude not to...