In a past life, before I moved to Korea to teach English, I studied and then interned at the Université Catholique de Lille in Lille, France, a city on the Belgian border located about an hour north of Paris via train.
The year I spent in Lille was my first time living abroad, and my first real, deep immersion into French food. When I first moved there, I was expecting delicate little plates of quiche and croissants and crème brûlée, but that was not the case. Lille has a gastronomie which is quite different from its southern counterpart. The food is rich here, bold and heavy in its flavors, and rich enough that rolling away from the table may be easier than walking. As in much of the rest of France, Lille is neither very vegetarian or vegan friendly, though I did hear a rumor that they sell salads in at least one convenience store.
I gained seven kilos during the year I lived here, which, on what had previously been a forty-five kilo frame, is quite impressive.
Without any further ado, here are ten things that you absolutely must try if you are ever fortunate enough to visit Lille. (Not doing so is highly illegal and you will be shunned by all for at least seven years.)
Plats principaux (Main Dishes)
This meaty dish is made by slowly cooking chunks of beef, onions, and pain d’epice (a French quick bread made of rye flour, honey and spices), with thyme, bay, and mustard, in strong beer until the meat is as fragile as certain politicians’ morals. Vinegar and either brown sugar or red currant jam are swirled in at the end of cooking, which adds a complex sweet and sour note, which sits delicately on top of the beefy flavor. Variations including mushrooms and/or potatoes exist (which are, needless to say, even more delicious), although frites (fries) are often served on the side. Though, as my father always said, one never knows when one might step outside and immediately be hit by a bus, so you might as well make the most of your life.
This is one of the scarier-looking dishes traditional to the North, as it looks like something straight out of a vintage 1950s cookbook, when things encased in gelatin that should not be encased in gelatin were all the rage. Potjevleesch consists of three or four types of meat (normally rotating between pork belly, rabbit, chicken, and veal) seasoned with onion, thyme, and bay, then – wait for it – encased in geletin (or natural fats). After cooking, it’s refrigerated, sliced, and served cold.
This stew typically contains a base consisting carrots, onion, leeks, potatoes, celery, and either chicken or fish (fish being traditional, and chicken new-wave and hip.) It’s flavored with parsley, thyme, bay, and sage, and the broth is thickened with egg yolk and cream, both of which are known for being good for your soul if not particularly good for your cholesterol.
Mussels and fries. It’s simple, but then again, sometimes the simplest things in life are among the best. In Lille, moules-frites are an absolute must. The city’s biggest festival, La braderie de Lille, even annually seeks to break the world record for largest pile of mussel shells, made possible by the sheer number of moules-frites consumed by those visiting. You can choose how you want your mussels prepared, ranging from fresh sweet cream to a spicy (for France, which means a slight tingle) chorizo sausage. The mussles are served steaming hot in an enormous pot accompanied by fresh, salty fries, which are perfect for mopping up any juices.
These are not the typical waffles you buy frostbitten at the supermarket. As Lille is the little spoon to its neighbor Belgium, it also has really, really good waffles that you can everywhere from fancy restaurants to questionably-hygienic carts selling them for a euro off the street. They typically have a thick, crisp crust protecting the light center, which guards them from getting too soggy when you slather on toppings such as Nutella, Speculoos, whipped cream (chantilly, en français), and/or fresh fruit.
Speculoos is Nutella’s slightly grown-up cousin. It’s roughtly the same consistency, but instead of chocolate, it tastes like a liquefied graham cracker – buttery, with a hint of cinnamon. It’s perfect on crepes, waffles, or eating it off a spoon while binge-watching Netflix and wondering why you’ve gained so much weight while in France.
For those of you not in a diabetic coma from Speculoos and waffles yet, there’s vergeoise: a dark-colored syrup made from sugar-beet sugar. It’s used in everything from crème caramel to waffles, and even has its own toffees you can suck on while exploring the city.
This is a cow milk cheese made in the north of France. It has a bit of a bad rep for being quite smelly. However, it’s much more powerful to the nose than the tongue, so don’t be too afraid to try it! The flavor is surprisingly mild, and you’ll give off an air of sophistication from having eaten one of France’s stinkiest cheeses.
Another cheese from the north of France, Vieux Lille gets its name from the oldest part of our city. It’s made in the same way as Maroilles (cow’s milk, salted twice), but is aged much longer, which means it’s even smellier than its younger counterpart. Mise en garde: this cheese is powerful. Very powerful. Do not eat if you are planning on kissing someone on the mouth anytime soon.
And, what to pair with all of these delicacies?
A good, stout pint (or three).
Unlike the rest of France, Lille has a strong beer culture instead of wine. They produce tons of beers, which are very dangerous as they are both cheap and delicious. Local brews such as 3 Monts or Ch’tis are strong and full-bodied, a fruity, sweet rouge go perfectly in place of soda.
If you like beer, Lille is the city for you.
If you don’t like beer, Lille will show you why you should.