Just as the military sites of The Western Front 14-18 are unique in world history, so too is the ‘terroir’ of the five regions – Northern France, Picardy, Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace.
This evocative French word – from the word terre meaning ‘land’ – encapsulates the combination of soil, climate and geography that together create the perfect environmental conditions for a wide variety of produce, including wine and cheese. These conditions strongly influence the flavour and characteristics of the produce, and terroir is the fundamental principle governing the French wine classification system of AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – which has spread across the world.
The Western Front includes two of the worlds’ best known wine trails, the Champagne Route and the Alsace Wine Route, where visitors can meander amongst the vineyards and villages to visit producers large and small. The Champagne Route starts in the department of Aisne in Picardy and carries on through the vineyards of the Aube, the Marne and the Haute-Marne in Champagne-Ardenne.
Drop off at any local Tourist Office for details of winemakers in their area who offer tours and tastings. Many are small family businesses, so it’s wise to book ahead to ensure that someone is there to meet you, but the big brand champagne houses of Reims and Epernay offer cellar tours on a commercial scale. Travel through Aisne and you’ll also find producers of cider, apple juice and a delicious red-fruit aperitif.
French restaurateurs pride themselves on supporting local producers and serving fresh seasonal produce. Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France, for instance, is the country’s leading fishing port, so for a real taste of the region, sit down to Catch of the Day or a plate of delicious seafood, perhaps served with the locally grown vegetables for which the Nord is famous.
You can judge a good restaurant by its cheese board, especially if you like to sample local artisan cheeses. Fancy something a little different? Then try Maroilles, a square cheese with a red rind from Northern France and Picardy; creamy Chaource from a small village in the Champagne region; or the strong flavour of traditional Munster from Alsace.
Many towns have also developed a speciality pastry or sweet, often sold exclusively in that small area.Verdun, for instance, is the capital of sugared almonds, traditionally given away at French weddings, whilst Commercy, also in the Meuse, is the home of bite-sized madeleine cakes.
And Reims isn’t only famous for champagne – try the famous Biscuits Roses or pink biscuits as an accompaniment. Visiting the Remembrance sites of Artois? Then buy a traditional gingerbread heart from Arras or some curious, but irresistible chocolate rats. And for a sweet treat with coffee, there’s nothing to beat a traditional vanilla-filled waffle from Lille. Bon appetit!