With Hauts-de-France being labelled as 2023’s European Region for Gastronomy, now is the time to take a mouth-watering trip down the Côte d’Opale and taste your way around local specialties, dine in style at the area’s hippest restaurants and shop ‘produits du terroir’ until you drop.
I love travel that turns expectations topsy turvy. It’s all too easy to assume that the best seafood and cheese, surely two of the most alluring of all French food treats, are to be found in the South of France. I was somewhat guilty as charged, yet a recent slow drive along the D940 Opal Coast road from Calais’ port to Le Touquet and Montreuil in the Pas-de-Calais department in Hauts-de-France had me speedily back-pedaling.
This is the Route 66 of northern France, a tranquil winding road that hugs the shoreline past vast white sand beaches and towering cliffs, through quaint and charming fishing villages, seaside resorts with old style glamour and historic towns.
It is no wonder the singular light of the Côte d’Opale was captivating for painters such as Turner, Boudin and Le Sidaner who expressed the depth and infinite nuances of colour that almost seem to vibrate in the vast sky and sea. There are plenty of invigorating, iodine-heady nature walks along the way and keeping, mostly, to the D940 is the perfect route to meander, discover and indulge in authentic local food.
The kings of cheese in northern France
The soaring cliffs of the Deux Caps mark the first stop. The Hotel-Restaurant L’Escale in Escalles restores faith in the French table d’hôte. Here for 26 € was the kind of honest menu one longs to find, even including a homemade terrine of pork and endives.
Mussels, rope grown by a rearing technique known as Moules de Bouchot, are everywhere in Northern France, most often cooked in a herb or wine broth. This classic dish, always served in a marmite, is given a fresh twist by Chef Vincent Brignoli of L’Escale who has run the inn for many years. He offers the mussels in a creamy sauce of Maroilles cheese. Maroilles is the most renowned cheese from Northern France, reputedly the favourite of many French kings. A cow’s cheese, known colloquially as vieux puant or old stinker. It is square, a golden colour with a rich, oily soft texture and salty, lemony taste.
Evidently, Brignoli is a cheese lover, the cheese course is well worth exploring as it showcases an impressive range of micro local cheeses and serves as an introduction to the next quaint villages on the road too. Fruité du Cap Gris Nez is a creamy, sweet and fruity washed-rind soft cheese brushed with the blonde beer from 2 Caps (a local brewery created by Christophe Noyon named after the wild cliff headland). Fort d’Ambleteuse (named after the 17th-century Vauban-built fort at Ambleteuse, close to the dramatic Dunes de la Slack) is a soft washed-rind cheese brushed with Brunembert cider which gives it an appealing fruity taste.
Another soft cheese with a washed crust, Fleur d’Audresselles is rubbed with sea salt to give it a thicker and tastier crust. This cheese comes from Audresselles, an active fishing village with fishermen selling directly from their garages as well as a whole row of tiny restaurants. Just don’t turn up on market day after a table at La Marie Galante for their renowned plateau de fruits de mer (seafood platter), they are booked solidly. We were turned away with the merest of Gallic shrugs.
Made from raw cow’s milk, Sablé de Wissant is a washed rind semi-soft cheese with a supple, creamy texture similar to Reblochon, that is strong in character. It is aged for seven weeks. Its crust is washed with local white Wissant beer, and, at the end of maturing, it is coated with breadcrumbs which add to its texture. Its flavour is yeasty and slightly sweet (because of the beer), with a pungent and barnyardy finish. I find it irresistible. The seaside commune it is named after is captivating too. Wissant, which has miles of unspoiled, uncrowded beach, had its own artists colony between 1189 and 1914 with artists including Paul-Emile Boutigny and Leon Augustin Lhermitte.
For picnicking or stocking up, divert briefly to Les Frères Bernard where they produce and age the cheeses as well as stocking local cider and beer.
Seafood heaven on the Côte d’Opale
The Belle Epoque style villas at Wimereux with their whimsical ice cream colours hark back to a time when this was the seaside resort of choice and discerning Parisians are rediscovering it now. It has the most spectacular beaches best enjoyed from the balcony of the newly renovated Hôtel L’Atlantic, the best address in town, where you can watch the balletics of kite surfers and some serious foraging of rock pools for crabs.
The Opal Coast is seafood heaven from bulots (whelks), to crevettes grises (tiny grey shrimps), to superb lobster. At L’Atlantic for a double whammy, lobster is served with squid risotto whilst at Le Homard Gourmand in Fort-Mahon-Plage I was easily persuaded to indulge in a half lobster with garlic cream sauce, as a starter!
Saint-Valery-sur-Somme is steeped in history with cobbled streets and medieval ramparts and a long fishing tradition. Between the old fisherman’s cottages with brightly painted shutters, there’s a maze of tiny lanes for bringing in the catch.
Le Mathurin boasts rightly of being a boat-to-table restaurant. Chef Pierre-Alain Delaby comes from eight generations of fishermen and his older brother still delivers the catch of the day to the restaurant and his parent’s fish stall. The scallop ceviche is a dish of beauty. For a proper promenade, saunter along the seaside boardwalk from the marina to the Baie de Somme, lined with spectacular villas. Jules Verne, Victor Hugo and impressionist painter Edward Degas all had homes here. Stay at Echappée en Baie, a beautiful mansion, and timetable a ride on the narrow gauge, steam train along the Chemin de Fer de la Baie to Le Crotoy, past bucolic meadows with salt marsh lamb grazing on little hills known as mollières.
For the ultimate in fish soup, a stop at Pérard in Le Touquet, a mecca for top-end food shopping, is a must. Their famous fish soup is sold worldwide now, yet is best tasted at the source. The menu offers a huge choice of oysters, lobster bouillabaisse and a seafood sauerkraut in recognition of their close Flemish neighbours.
Flemish dishes pop up on menus throughout Hauts-de-France. I seized the chance to try Potjevleesch, a traditional Flemish terrine of pork, rabbit, chicken and veal served cold with fries on top to melt the jelly at Le Homard Gourmand in Fort-Mahon.
Pas-de-Calais: a seaside restaurants’ idyll
Le Touquet’s covered market with an art deco archway symbolizing sea and forest is stellar. According to Judy Gifford of family-run Tea Together, who supply the best hotels in France with truly artisanal gastronomic jam, the cognoscenti buy their fruit there. The store is also home to Philippe Olivier’s cheese shop, offering up the largest choice of regional cheeses I came across on all my travels and all perfectly affinés. The Gifford’s son, Eli, runs Tea Together from its Le Touquet HQ. Whilst Judy and her husband Nick Gifford welcome guests at their enticingly bohemian café Le tea room, at their fermette, just outside Montreuil. Here, towering scones are served with recherché jams including apricot and angelica at tables dressed with vintage linen.
Walking the grassy ramparts is de rigueur in Montreuil-sur-Mer. It was an important cloth town reflected in the grandeur of its mansions including Loysel le Gaucher, a new boutique hotel with a jasmine-filled courtyard. Montreuil is excellent for food lovers. Seek out Fromagerie Caseus specialising in locally produced cheeses impeccably kept and La Cave de Montreuil, a wine shop/grocery with wine bar and immensely knowledgeable staff. Dinner at La Table de Château, Montreuil’s most beautiful hotel and garden with a vibrant new dining room, is a must. Regional produce is given heady treatments from salt marsh lamb and pigeon with rhubarb and beetroot to saffron crême brulée using saffron produced on a small farmstead in the Baie de Somme.
Local poster boy, Alexandre Gauthier is known globally for his two-star ultra sustainable, avant-garde La Grenouillère and recently opened the neo-bistro Grand’Place Café in Montreuil, serving a daily workers menu which could be a giant vol-au-vent or Welsh washed down with northern beers (Cadette, Castelain served by the galopin or chope). His newest opening is Sur Mer at Merlimont which exudes seaside retro glamour and is the hottest ticket on the Côte d’Opale this season. It is simply really good seafood, cooked mostly over wood fire. Sur Mer epitomizes that seaside idyll we all crave with a ravishing view of icing sugar sand and sky all colours blue.
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Lead photo credit : Jean-Etienne Valle, a mussel cultivator specialising in Moules de Bouchot © Anne-Sophie Flament
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