This Part I will deal with the French Nord (north) generally. In a second part, I will discuss the distinctive fish and beer cuisine of this region.
One of the least known, from a foreign standpoint, French regions is Nord-Pas-de-Calais. This was, until very recently, the administrative name for the northern corner of the country directly across the Channel from Dover, England. It excluded Picardie, just to the south and which formed its own region. However, from a cultural and historical standpoint, Picardie shared much in common with Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Earlier this year, these regions were combined under the name Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie.
The English knew these areas mainly as a destination for day trips to Calais or Boulogne on the coast, or weekends in larger centres such as Lille and Amiens. War tourism has always brought visitors to the Somme Valley in particular, but also Vimy Ridge and other parts of the north – “Flanders Fields” – where the First World War in particular left deep physical and other marks.
With these exceptions, the region was and is not considered a typical tourist destination for the British, Americans or other non-French. Many English-language guidebooks to France simply omit reference to the north, which is as unjust as it is undeniable. Tourists prefer generally to visit other parts of France, especially in the centre and south where the weather is better and the culture and cuisine more French as they conceive it. Some small changes have been noted in this pattern recently, which is a positive sign, as this Lonely Planet article suggests.
The French themselves have tended to overlook the far north too for tourism and cuisine. The image tends to be of a provincial backwater, with mining and other industry too often blighting the landscape, and an uninspired cuisine based on french fries, beer, and steak. This is a vast simplification. The hit movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) went a certain way towards reducing these perceptions. Still, the Ch’tis, as the northerners are often called after a trait of their pronunciation, and their north tend to be considered nowheresville.
Before the administrative designations were devised, France was a loose collection of almost countless “pays“, or provinces. The historic regions of the north were Picardie, Artois, Flanders, and Hainaut. These subdivided further, into e.g., Pas-de-Calais (the coastal region also called Côte d’Opale), the Boulonnais (the green tract just east of Boulogne), Mont-des-Cats (the mildly hilly area east of Lille on the Belgian frontier), the Avesnois and Thiérache (charming, bucolic areas just west of Champagne-Ardenne), the Somme of Picardie, famous for war history, and numerous others.
Much of this area was under Flemish rule at one time with numerous other lands (Burgundy, Austria, Spain) vying for power there until the French consolidated control in the 1500s and 1600s. The Gallic culture and Picard language, a romance tongue connected to French, tended to prevail in Picardie, Artois and Hainaut. But Flanders was culturally Flemish and indeed still is, in part: I heard Flemish spoken by French farmers around Mont-des-Cats on a visit to the area over 20 years ago. While parts of the north were more Gallic, in time a mixed French and Flemish character emerged, particularly the further north you went toward the border with Belgium. Today, all these areas are “le Nord“, and manifest broad similarities in their food and drink certainly.
The north is a rich agricultural area and cereal culture gave rise to brewing. Hops, to flavour the beer, were also grown. Grapes do not grow well in the north, but some cider is made and the old drink of mead, or honey wine, survives as well. Hard liquors exist too, notably genièvre, a form of the old Dutch gin. Vegetables are raised with high volume and skill, many in the hortillonnages system. Parts of the north were famous for coal mining, and also textile manufacturing, an outgrowth of the earlier lace and weaving trades in the area. Chantilly is a town in the north…
The old-industrial base started to wither with the adoption of cleaner forms of energy and the relocation of textile production off-shore. The area suffered for a long time from disproportionate unemployment and social problems, as did analogous areas over the border in Belgium. New industries, mostly in services – call centres are the stereotypical example – have replaced the old ones, but the area is still in transition.
Despite the wars, much of the old Flemish and Picard architecture survived, or were rebuilt. It is remarkable how Flemish or Dutch some parts still look. The city centre of Lille is the premier example, but numerous towns in French Flanders have a Flemish aspect. Some churches of renown somehow escaped destruction, the cathedrals at Amiens and Laon are examples.
In earlier posts, I have discussed a number of beer dishes characteristic of this north country. While the historical record, at least in the 1800s, doesn’t suggest there was a rich history of beer cuisine, countless books published since 1960 contain a long list of beer cuisine dishes. As I have explained with regard to Belgium, there is reason to think much of this was invented by creative chefs to contrast with, and possibly even rival, the ancient wine cookery of France. But I think some parts of this repertoire were in fact of considerable age, and had been overlooked or weren’t known to those who compiled recipe books and food dictionaries in the 1800s.
I think this is probably the case with the fish and beer dishes of the French north, and the same would go for similar recipes in Belgian collections. Part II will deal of this aspect.
Note re images: the first image above, of Montreuil-sur-Mer, is in the public domain and was sourced here. The other images, believed in public domain, were sourced here, here and here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.