Becoming Audomaroise

Coucou, mes amis!!

We’re starting our last week in beautiful Saint-Omer, just as I was beginning to become a true “Audomaroise” – what they call people from Saint-Omer. We are accustoming to local habits, including those concerning retail shopping (see below) and will attend the upcoming Grande Braderie-Brocante de Saint-Omer on Sunday, where 200-300 merchants will display their wares all along rue de Dunkerque, rue des Clouteries and Place Victor Hugo.

Some customs are rather strange to us. Last week, every merchant had signs in their window announcing “Ventes Privées” and this week, those signs have been replaced by “Soldes”. Ventes Privées are sales for regular customers or those who receive an invitation from the retailer. In contrast the regular “Soldes” can only take place by law twice a year, on dates stipulated by government decree. The summer sales this year take place during a four week period, from June 22 to July 19.


Last weekend, we took a short excursion to the coastal city of Calais, just 30 kilometres from here. It was a quick 30 minute train ride from Gare to Gare. It was a super hot day, so we took shelter in a cool Brasserie, where we enjoyed a lovely seafood lunch.

Next day, we visited the Calais open market where fish and seafood of all kinds took the premier spot.


We took a walk down Rue Royale, where we were sure we visited over 30 years ago when we travelled on a day trip to France for the very first time from London, via train and Hovercraft. Still, we remembered little from that first trip, in part I think due to considerable redevelopment in the harbour area since.

We walked down to and through the port, where we could see the ferries plying their way to and fro, to Dover and beyond, carrying both vehicular traffic and now, we understand, foot passengers as well. Next time, maybe a ferry ride to Kent and Canterbury?

We were impressed by Calais, a lot of which (not all) was rebuilt after the World Wars. The town is now recovering from the effects of Covid and is hoping to see the return of some 60,000 visitors that used to frequent the beaches and other attractions.

We loved the city hall with its magnificent belfry, and the humorous spectacle of the beachside dragon attraction.

 

Two final pictures before I sign off this post. The first is a Flemish-style building in Saint-Omer, currently housing a hairdresser, built in 1614.

The second is a refreshing, pink, not-so-strong beer with its accompanying signature glass, brewed by Goudale, the local brewery. Gary tells me raspberry figures in the recipe. Do you find such things in Toronto?


So, off next Thursday to Arras for a few days and then Paris for a couple more. Until then!

Libby

Coucou

Coucou, mes amis,

Its Libby again with the second instalment of my travel blog. Gary is tweeting his beer experiences, so you will have to follow him on Twitter to benefit from those pensees.

I heard “coucou” on the French-only tv here and discovered that it means  “hello” or “hey there”, in an informal way. So, while you shouldn’t use it to greet people in a professional setting, you can use it to say hi to your friends and family. I thought it was sort of cute, so I am sharing it with you. No hugs are given in France, but plenty of air kisses on each cheek, including between men friends.

One of the true joys of travel is discovering what the locals do, say and eat and what is different from what we are used to. For instance, going to the supermarkets is an experience in and of itself. You might think that is ho-hum, but virtually everything is different here, the brands, packaging and their contents. For example, eggs and milk are not refrigerated but are piled up, just like the paper towels, on the shelves, (although they keep the temperature in the stores so cold, you are encouraged not to linger). Missing, however, from their extensive line-up of foods are crackers; all they have are toasts – an opportunity to fill the gap, in my mind, for an enterprising businessperson.

A favourite from our last trip is “fromage blanc”, a delicious creamy soft cheese made from milk with a consistency similar to yogurt, but less acidic. I bought some which is fat free and use it on cereal with honey. Honey in this area is sold mostly in a solid form.

We visited several open air markets, two in Saint-Omer itself and also one in nearby Arques. Open air markets are a delightful facet of daily French life; there are 62 weekly markets in the Nord Pas-de-Calais region alone! The markets are filled with the freshest of produce farmed by the local fermiers. I have never seen strawberries so glistening, leeks so tempting and cauliflower (a local abundant crop) so large and fresh, still with their leaves attached to their stalks.

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We used the leeks, carrots, mushrooms, and onions we bought in the market to make “carbonnade a la flamande”, a traditional Nord Pas-de-Calais dish and cooked it chez nous. It turned out great. Here is the recipe we used:

2 leeks (white part only) sliced

2 small onions (sliced)

fresh mushrooms (sliced)

1-2 cloves of chopped garlic

2 pounds of beef (chunks)

2-3 cups of beer of your choice

fresh thyme, salt and pepper to taste

2 pieces of bread slathered with mustard

We sautéed the meat in extra virgin oil to brown it and separately, the veggies and spices. We then combined the two in a pan with high sides and added the beer and placed the bread, mustard side down on the top and covered the pan. We let it simmer on low for about 1 and a half hours et voila, a meal fit for a king!

We visited a open air market in nearby Arques yesterday. We took the local inter-urban bus which leaves from the St.-Omer Gare to get there. Cost: a reasonable 1 Euro, 10 centimes.

Arques is a small town of about 10,000 people, adjacent to Saint-Omer. The market was small, by comparison to others we have visited, but charming nevertheless. An itinerant cheese vendor sold us one of the best cheeses of the trip, a young Maroilles and we stopped for lunch at a stand, serving local fast food – clearly, a favourite of the residents of Arques who lined up well outside its doors. Not our fast food, however. I had a (the freshest) fish sandwich on a bun called a “falouche”, a local specialty which looks like a small deflated rugby ball, while Gary had a chicken kebab also on the same bun. We sat outside on the lovely sunny day and thought life could not get any better.

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Arc International is headquartered in Arques and produces glass tableware such as Cristal d’Arques and Luminarc, names that are sure to be recognized by most. I was fortunate to be able to visit their factory and to see how glass tableware is made. It is a “hot” business with kilns operating 24/7 at 1500 Celsius degree temperatures. I saw the molten paste drop into moulds corresponding to the shapes of the glass. Fascinating stuff. Half the town of Arques is employed by Arc and the other half by the local brewery called Goudale.

Last week, we visited the “Maison du Marais”, recognized by UNESCO for its cohabitation of man and nature and designated a biosphere reserve. We took a flat-bottomed barge called a “Bacove” boat ride through the Audomarois marshes, a wetlands, riven by waterways, painstakingly created by man over centuries.  It supports more than 450 species of wild and cultivated plants, 232 species of birds and 26 species of fish. It is a tranquil experience, floating amongst the flora and fauna and connecting with nature all around you. People live on its banks and farm the verdant land around it. Although it produces many different vegetables, it is particularly known for its delicious cauliflowers and succulent endives. As they say in France, c’est incontournable!

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Today, we had a picnic lunch at the lovely public gardens of Saint-Omer. There are well-tended flower beds, good walkways, a carousel and a kiosk selling Italian-style gelato for big and little kids alike. As municipal gardens go, welcome to paradise.

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So, a bientot, for now from the land of the (almost) midnight sun, where sunset today is a very late 10:06 p.m. and sunrise was at 5:39 a.m. resulting in a very lengthy 16.11 hours of daylight.

We’re off to coastal Calais on Friday/Saturday to see how the people of Calais live. We’ll keep you posted!

France Revisited

To friends, family, and followers of Gary’s Beeretseq posts:

It’s Libby. Gary is taking a break from his blog posting and is once again allowing me the privilege to guest blog at Beeretseq.

After a too-long hiatus from travelling anywhere, we are back in France and I am reborn.

This time in the North again, headquartered in a small town of 18,000 souls called Saint-Omer, in the Pas de Calais region (detail follows from a local truck delivering drinks).

It is a town we visited briefly three years and a lifetime ago and promised ourselves we would return to. We loved it then and love it more now. It is 30 kilometres south of Calais and 68 kilometres west-northwest of Lille.

It is known for having one of the best outdoor markets anywhere in Europe, thanks no doubt to the more than 13,000 market gardeners in the vicinity. It burst to life this past Saturday morning in the elegant, cobbled grand square in front of the town hall with fabulous vegetables, grown in the nearby marshes known as the Audomarais, delectable roast chickens turning on their spits in front of us, and a stand selling cous-cous, paella and cassoulet. In addition, the market hosts a wide variety of vendors selling everything from jewelry to clothing, kitchen gadgets to bicycles, cheese to olives.

We are lucky to have found the perfect place in Saint Omer. We rented an apartment for the month of June via Booking.Com not too far from the Saint Omer train station. Our apartment has all the amenities: a new convection oven, a new induction stovetop, good dishwasher, fridge etc. It has a large living room/dining area, a separate kitchen, a bedroom with mock fireplace fittings and even a large back yard with picnic table. We call it “Chateau Gillman”.

The ruins of 12th century St. Bertin Abbey are located just behind our flat. Some neighbourhood!

After the vicissitudes of the pandemic, Gary and I were eager to resume our travels. We had been in the south of France in February, 2020, but we were unprepared for the post-pandemic procedures we had to endure. No laughing matter. Since our flight to Paris connected through Chicago, American regulations required us to produce a negative Antigen test taken the day prior to departure. This we did and then attempted to check-in online with our airline. No could do. The airline had engaged a third party service provider to verify that all identification, tests, attestations and other documents for each leg of the journey (separately) were in order before online check-in was available to us.

The completion of this process took the better part of 6 hours as one had to wait for the third party to process the documents before subsequent steps were permitted. Once checked-in online, however, the airport process was a breeze. Just an FYI for those contemplating travel through the U.S.

Once in Paris, the pandemic seems to have been all but forgotten. Hardly any masks despite the requirement to wear one on public transportation.

So the plan is to use Saint Omer as a base over the next several weeks to take a barge ride in the Marais, visit Arques (known for its glassware), and side trips to Le Touquet, Arras, Calais and maybe one or two other northern towns of interest (of which there are many). There’s lots to see and do and I know that the next few weeks will blow by. Pictured below are photos Gary took on one of his walks, of the barge ride in the marshes. We haven’t done that yet but it looks idyllic, n’est-ce pas?

Still trying to exercise and not gain a ton of weight. That may be easier said than done with tempting croissant aux amandes, pate de fois and a host of other culinary pleasures. Pictured below is a pate de fois fait a la maison with, what else, beer.

I’ll keep you posted on our trip exploits and hope you enjoy following our travels.

A bientot!