Since Emmanuel Macron, a native of Amiens who summers in Le Touquet, became president of France, the North is suddenly getting a second look from the rest of France, where an outdated but enduring stereotype would have it as a rainy region of dark chimneys rising from closed factories and mills; of slag heaps and defunct mines. The truth is that not only have many of its cities, most famously Lille but also others, experienced a renaissance from their industrial past, but that there remains great natural beauty in the region too.
The particular zone I have in my mind as I write this is the Côte d’Opale, a spectacularly beautiful littoral that runs between the English Channel port towns of Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais. One of my favourite places here is the charming little seaside town of Wimereux, with its fly-in-amber atmosphere that comes from the many fanciful villas built here as holiday homes by wealthy, mostly Northern, French industrialists from the turn of the 19th century up to the First World War.
The most recent pride of Wimereux is La Liégeoise, the restaurant where chef Benjamin Delpierre won his first Michelin star this year. Open only for dinner, it’s an excellent table that showcases the overlooked and little-known gastronomic bounty of the North. Nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer is France’s largest fishing port, so Delpierre works with a spectacularly fresh catch of the day in his kitchen, which also highlights the excellent seasonal produce of small farms in the surrounding area. The wonderful cheese trolley from Philippe Olivier, one of the best cheesemongers in France, also based in Boulogne-sur-Mer, presents an array of Northern French cheeses including favourites like Maroilles and Mimolette but also others that are rarely found outside of their home turf. Benjamin Delpierre comes from a family of chefs; his father, Alain, is also a cook and works at L’Aloze, the family’s other restaurant and very good brasserie that serves fish soup, oysters, sole meunière and other dishes.
La Liégeoise occupies a rather dramatically decorated modern dining room that also has another distinction: its sommelier, Valéry Deceuninck, was dubbed the best in the North of France by the Gault Millau guide this year. The menu follows the seasons, but dining here recently with a friend who was on his way back to the UK by car, we began with sea bass carpaccio with rhubarb and smoked codfish eggs – a brilliant dish for the way the astringency and smoke made the iodine-rich fish more vivid – and a giant langoustine with a stuffed baby aubergine, Lucques olives (the big fleshy green ones from the Languedoc-Roussillon), another delightful and effortlessly sophisticated dish.
Our mains were even better. Turbot with sautéed shallots and buckwheat ‘risotto’ with radishes and a pesto made with radish leaves, was bright, fresh and vivid without overwhelming the natural taste of the fish. Sautéed baby squid came with herb blinis, rougail – a racy condiment of tomatoes, ginger, onions and bird’s-eye chillies from Mauritius and Réunion – and lime; this composition was as original as it was delicious. Then we ravaged the cheese trolley, and shared a portion of excellent orange mousse with a crispy crêpe and red cabbage – another offbeat surprise that worked surprisingly well. All told, an excellent meal with a lot of charm.
6 rue Notre Dame, 62930 Wimereux. Tel. +33 (0)3 21 32 41 01. Menu Découverte €49.50, Grand Menu Alain & Benjamin Delpierre €90. www.atlantic-delpierre.com
From France Today magazine