Monday, 24 August 2009

Day trip to Lille

.. Souviens-toi
Ça parlait
De la Picardie



Invited by Eurostar, food bloggers were invited to take a 'little break' to encourage us to visit nearby European cities such as Paris, Brussels and Lille for the reasonable price of £59 return. Lille is probably the least known of this trio.
Lille is situated in the North-West corner of France. The coal and mining industry there, like in the North of England, was decimated in the 70s. Statistics show that the Northern French are poorer and drink more. On the route from Paris, the architecture gradually changes as you near Calais. Buildings are made with red bricks and you see terraced houses with gardens, unknown in the rest of France. The people are known as 'ch'timis'; they add a 'sh' sound to anything beginning with 'c' (eg 'ch'est =c'est). The Picardie or ch'timi dialect springs from early French with Flemish influences. One of the biggest comedy hits last year in France was the film 'Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis' poking gentle fun at this unloved area.
As the best of British manhood, soldiers, come home from Aghanistan, in ever increasing numbers, rotting in their bodybags, sent by politicians so that their own sons can continue to live consumerist lives, I remember also that Picardie was the scene of some of the worst carnage of World War I.
Yves Montand, the French Frank Sinatra, famously sung 'Dansons la rose (Les roses de Picardie)' although the song was originally written by a British officer in 1916, inspired by his love for a French widow while staying under her protection in that area.
Our trip lasted 12 hours, taking the 7am train and returning at 7pm. The point of this promotion is to show that even in such a short period of time, you can take a break, have a change of air, and return refreshed.
You can spot a food blogger a mile off: they aren't slim (bar the Asian food bloggers such as the thorough and hard-working WorldfoodieGuide, who have a horridly unfair genetic advantage). We were a sight with our muffin tops, beer bellies, double chins, pudgy hands, chafed thighs and flat feet. We didn't so much tour Lille as waddle around it. Give us another year and Eurostar will have to provide wheelchairs for a similar trip.
This was our schedule:
6.59 Eurostar leaves St Pancras. We met romantically under the enormous bronze statue of a couple saying farewell to each other. I tried to encourage food blogger duo 'Dinner Diary' to replicate this pose. I noted that Krista of londelicious was wearing sexy but impractical patent leather wedges.
On train: we weren't in First class but some sort of Club class. Nice. Big bucket seats, copies of Paris Vogue, and breakfast: tiny sliver of smoked salmon, two tiny blinis, bit of creme fraiche, coffee or tea, yoghurt, orange juice, rolls etc. Helpful staff. I didn't eat much, had a feeling I might have to pace myself.
On the way I talk to two bloggers/mothers: Margot of coffeeandvanilla, who is Polish, married to a Dominican, hence the 'ebony and ivory' style title of her blog. She creates Eastern European/Caribbean fusion food. Also Michelle of greedygourmet who plans to set up a site for food bloggers to sell their food, a gastronomic 'Etsy'. Great idea! Sign me up!
9.27: Arrival in Lille: the young French PR girls lead us around Lille. It's sunny and the shops aren't open yet. We are shown a belfry, very typical here, and a building with cannon balls wedged into the walls, result of a siege. We are shown Benoit Chocolatier. I thought we would taste some chocolate but the girl behind the counter backs away looking nervous when faced by 15 food bloggers photographing manically.
We discover a cake shop that sells multi-coloured macarons. We get a bit in trouble with shop owner because we help ourselves. I buy two cakes because I never liked macarons. Kang gives me a macaron to try. Amazing. I now love them.



11.00: Coffee and Patisseries at Meert: set in a beautiful 18th century tearoom with high ceilings and an enormous chandelier. Some of us order the speciality 'gauffres' or waffles. But these are not the large waffles you might imagine, they are tiny, slim wafers filled with Madagascan flavoured butter cream. Nice. Up the other end, they'd ordered 'Merveilleux' cakes which were like giant Ferrero Rocher. They were about 1o cms high and 6cms in circumference. Eventually they were passed down for the rest to taste, the summit of gluttony only partially reached.







13.00: Cooking course at L'Atelier des Chefs. We were divided into groups and asked to cook Northern French specialities: Pavé de cabillaud au miel de fleur de bière, palette colorée de légumes de saison: cod sautéed with honey and beer eau de vie/a fricasée of finely cut seasonal typically Northern vegetables and Ch'tiramisu, a ch'timi version of the classic dessert.
I learnt things:
  • start with a cold pan and the skin of your fish doesn't burn
  • you can cook radishes (treat them like little turnips)
  • Not all food bloggers can cook. Some of them are more gifted at going to restaurants and eating other people's food.
I signed my fish plate with my own signature in balsamic glaze. We all sat down and ate together, family style. This was my first ever cooking lesson, very enjoyable and even though this was pitched at beginners, you can always learn more.
I bought a flat pastry brush and some fizz bomb sprinkles at the shop. Eatlikeagirl's bag was getting heavier, she can shop like a champ.




16.00:Beer and Cheese Tasting at La Capsule. Entering into the damp dark cavern of this typical corner bar, which also has a specialist beer shop, even the greediest of us were flagging a little by now. The owner, Aymeric, prodded us through the beer tasting.

Beer is roughly divided into three categories:
Belgian: syrupy, sweet, round
German: lagery, light, refreshing, clear
British: bitter, warm, hard minerally water

Aymeric jokes:
"we have a phrase in French about English food ...'if it's cold it's probably soup, if it's warm, it's beer'"
The beers of Northern France are Belgian in style. For this tasting I sat next to Liz Upton and Andrew of Spittoon. A good idea because I know sod all about beers and they were slurping and sniffing knowledgeably and saying stuff like "coriander!'"and "hoppy!" I tried to join in with words like "aspirin" and "horlicks" but I don't think they were fooled.
Andrew doesn't really look like a wine blogger because he has facial hair, doesn't wear a neckerchief/cravat and isn't gay. Beer bloggers look like Bill Bailey, I imagine.
This joint reminded me of Garlic and Shots, that goth restaurant in Soho. I once had a date there. The bloke had waist length black hair, was dressed head to toe in black leather and kept biting my lips to the point of drawing blood! Nice guy but didn't want to join the undead.
The Lilleputan Aymeric giving us the tasting asked if any of us are members of CAMRA, the campaign for real ale. Liz put up her hand. He is trying to start a French version. Beers are rather swamped in France by wine. Many of the beers we tasted not only could not be bought in England, but wouldn't be available in the rest of France either. The beers were local and distributed within a 20km radius.
1) Page 24: rhubarb, coriander, made 'à la chicorée' which doesn't mean it was made with chicory. It's a 'faux ami' between French and English: chicorée is endive and endive is chicory.
2) La Bavaisienne: darker, caramel, oldest beer, made in 19th century copper tank.
3) Etoile du Nord: a bit like Jenlain, hoppy, bitter, 60 IBU. For comparison Stella is 3/4 IBU.
4) Kaouet pronounced [cowet]: made 20 kms from Lille. Blackcurrant. The owner says the name comes from a village festival which celebrates a Giant in the shape of a cat called Kaou. It all sounds a bit Wickerman.

Goths at the bar


The Batcave

Marcus of Big Brother beer mat
The beer was accompanied by some local cheeses which matched well.
1) Cremet du cap-blanc-nez..ok but bland compared to the others...
2) Maroilles ...really strong, like two day old socks, but my favourite. There is also Vieux Lille also known as Lille Stinker which we didn't get a chance to try.
3) Mimolette Francais, Extra Vieille, dark orange, a bit like Edam
4) Crayeux de Roncq, creamy pungent, strong
These cheeses are available from Phillipe Olivier's cheese shop.

17.45: Shopping and leave for Eurostar. We go to a beer shop which also sells sweets, violet liqueur and gauffres from the region.


Les gauffres/waffles

I adore French sweet packaging



Eatlikeagirl and me get a bit distracted whilst shopping. She is now carrying so many bags, one of which appears to contain a tree trunk, that she is limping. We get a bit lost. We discuss the fact that we don't actually want to go back but then we imagine the poor PR girl, Sarah Oliver, who organised this, getting in trouble for losing food bloggers. Eventually we find the station. Sarah is looking worried. Eatlikeagirl and me feel like the naughty kids at the back of the coach on a school trip.
18.35 Eurostar departs: we are given dinner with champagne. I'm dead full. But order the dinner anyway. The menu sounds fab:
Tortellini farci aux epinards et a la ricotta avec aubergines, pesto et coulis de tomates.
Which turned out to be: luke warm, been sitting there for hours, tortellini, topped with tinned black olives, under-seasoned vegetables with a rusty salad. I taste it, put down my fork and sigh out loud
"Why is the food so bad?"
Foodstories, the Julie Christie of food blogging, with her heavy blonde fringe and big blue eyes, looks round and agrees. I continue...
"I mean you can understand it on a plane but on a train. How hard can it be to do tasty food?"
Suddenly the people that work on the train come over looking concerned
"You don't like it? Normally coming from the Brussels end it's pretty good"
I feel a bit guilty. Sometimes my own food fascism irritates me.
"I know I'm not paying for this, it's a press trip, but why tinned olives?"
"We will pass your comments on..." he says nicely "have some more champagne"
I turn round and notice the other food bloggers such as Cheesenbiscuits haven't even bothered with dinner, they are guzzling champagne, free mini bottles of wine and the contents of their beer shopping from Lille.
Once at St Pancras they all go on to the champagne bar...


I'm really tired. But it's been a great day. Lille is pretty, has plenty of activities, is fantastic for shopping and well worth a visit. Although by the time I arrived home, I realised I had a blister on each foot, nappy rash and two squashed cakes.



Information about @little_break:
Lille:

Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Lille with return fares from £55. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08705 186 186. Fastest London-Lille journey time is 1 hour 20 minutes.

Brussels:

Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £59. All Eurostar tickets to Brussels are valid to/from any Belgian station at no extra cost. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08705 186 186. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 1h51 minutes.

Paris:

Eurostar operates up to 20 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare de Nord with return fares from £59.

Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08705 186 186. Fastest London-Paris journey time is 2hr 15 minutes. Since 11 August there has not been any extra fee for telephone bookings.


Competition alert!!! Win a pair of Eurostar tickets to Lille... take your own ‘Little Break to Lille’


Eurostar have kindly offered this prize to the reader that writes the funniest or most interesting comment replying to this post. If you are on Twitter, tweet a link to this post and you get extra points!


Small print: make your own way to St Pancras. Replies and comments in by end of September 2009. Winner will be tweeted and posted here first day of October!



24 comments:

  1. Wow, this sounds like it was such a great laugh! Your posts never fail to make me either nod my head in agreement or laugh my head off! Brilliant, wish I'd been there.

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  2. Loving your intro to the post, you always have your own slant on things, which I really enjoy.

    Sounds like a lovely day.

    I visited Lille by Eurostar several years ago and enjoyed it. Perhaps time to go again.

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  3. ooh thanks for comparing me to Julie Christie! I pulled that beer mat out of my bag last night - God that place was SO Marcus.

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  4. Sounds like a great day out - sad to have missed it, though I'd have definitely had to waddle home by the looks of all that was consumed...!

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  5. I will be uploading the pix later, complete with Marcus beer mat!

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  6. 'You can spot a food blogger a mile off: they aren't slim (bar the Asian food bloggers)'

    I beg to differ. Only one food blogger I have ever eaten with is not enviably slim.

    Actually, two.

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  7. I've given the Marcus Mat pride of place on my desk.

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  8. Food snob: you haven't met me yet!
    Mind, I've got the opposite of anorexia nervosa. I look in the mirror and think "looking good". It's only other people that think I need to be slimmer.

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  9. I'd love to do it again. And I'm not *that* fat - anyway. Thin women have no boobs.

    Lovely day, at any rate, and it was fantastic to meet you at last!

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  10. gauffres totally rock.. I love lille. its cool for a day and great oysters (in season). Go to Bruxelles.. way better, cooler and the choc is divine!

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  11. PS how does one get invited to one of these blogger events?

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  12. I guess they invite the bloggers that have a high profile/lots of hits/perceived influence?
    I dunno to be honest but it was a lovely treat!

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  13. Came back to your post to look up some of the places you visited (a friend asked) and enjoyed it all over again.

    I had a strange little day-dream half way through: One day, instead of meeting under a romantic bronze statue of couples kissing, a group of foodies shall start such a day off meeting under a statue of an immense, utterly fabulous model of cheese!

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  14. As a native of the place I regret you have not tried the local cuisine in places such as le Rijsel or la Vieille. And have you tried Mussel and french Fries? Le coq Hardi on the main square is my favourite!

    Plus going there in August does not do justice to the town as it is very quite in summer time.

    You have to get back there ASAP!!

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  15. My body fat is pretty much 70% cupcake, 30% cheese...does that help me qualify? :)

    Sounds like you had an amazing time and the macaroons in particular look delicious.

    I found your blog after reading about your event for the Domestic Sluts, and I adore it!

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  16. What a fabulous trip, you've left me wanting to visit Lille for sure.

    Those huge chocolate covered stack thingies are calling my name - and I'd like to think of myself as 'cuddly'!

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  17. I had a lovely trip to Lille last october with mrs gltton. indulged in some ttrue glttony at Meert. Bought some hilariously un PC sweets in a boulangerie called 'les tetons de negresse'. good old fashioned family racism! Also had a vivid meal at la huiterie (wrong spelling?), one michelin star, equivalent I think to an easy 2 in London. Should in obligato plug of sourced market i st pancras if you're going on th eurostar anyway, well worth a visit!

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  18. Bonjuor MsMarmiteLover,

    Je Voudrais deux bille pour Lille Eurostar sil vous plait.

    Merci beaucoup,

    Siany

    PS - If I win, I promise my French will get better. It's rubbish.

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  19. First of all, this is certainly the most entertaining post written by any of the food bloggers who attended the Lille trip (Think I've read them all).
    You certainly have a way with words, dropping in some interesting facts to start, a bit of political comment, the foodie bit and then peppered throughout with a few casual backhanded insults.
    Very funny indeed.

    As to why I should have the Lille tickets, first of all - my name is 'Dan' and in fact, I'm actually the only one eligible to win, apart from FoodUrchin, and he hasn't entered...yet. (see the other competition) and secondly, I wasn't frigging invited on the trip to Lille, quite possibly due to some stereotypical view of Essex folk....no I wouldn't have turned up in a shell suit, wearing a baseball cap sporting a massive gold earring and carrying a plastic bag of cheap lager to consume on the journey....


    It would have been cider.

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  20. I love that you dig the war-ravaged bleakness of the Nord that still pervades today. A town I know well, not far from Lille, has a tank as the centrepiece in its town square. Even those old belfries hark back to more bellicose times. While I enjoy the local cuisine, to be honest it's not among my favourite things about the area.

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  21. I'd recreate my own carnage trip to Lille with flowing champagne, wine, beer and mariolles. It's a winning combination!

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  22. Glutton boy wins:
    He works all day at the sourced food market at St Pancras, this is his opportunity to actually get on a train!

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  23. Thank goodness some bloggers can write. Thank you for this writing..

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  24. At least some bloggers can write. Thanks for this piece!

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