Sample some fine cuisine and shop for fantastic local produce on this gastronomic driving tour of northern France. Delicieux!
Discovering French food on holiday isn’t all about gourmet restaurants and rare wine - normal families eat and drink very well here too. Local farm produce is fabulously fresh, and local restaurants and shops take immense pride in their wares. Here’s my two-day driving tour of some of the finest food producers and best-value regional restaurants in northern France. It’s a great way to discover the unspoilt countryside too.
Drive south straight from the P&O ferry in Calais into the fertile countryside to start your food holiday in France. Take the canalside N43 to the quaint market town of Ardres. Next to the church is an excellent wine shop: Boursot’s (Tel: +33 3 21 36 81 46. You can taste before buying and bottles start at around €4. Then head east on the D224 to visit Agriculture Biologique's interesting farm shop (Tel: +33 3 21 35 38 86). Tour the farm and orchards, or browse homemade produce, including chicory lemonade.
A mile down the lane is the old town of Audriucq, with the region’s best farmers’ market every Wednesday. Place des Marronniers resounds to a cacophony of live hens, chickens, geese and ducks. On the edge of town, visitors are welcome to look around a farm selling its own goats’ cheese. Specialities at Le Chevremarie (Tel: +33 3 21 82 58 34) include pepper, garlic and chive cheese. Look out too for ‘Sebastien’s’ patisserie on Rue du Général Leclerc (Tel: +33 3 21 35 30 19). It’s known locally for homemade cakes and chocolate, some made with local chicory.
It’s only a few miles from Calais, but by now you’ll feel totally surrounded by the country landscape - the natural larder of the Pas de Calais. Explore the quiet D218 southwest towards Tournehem-sur-la-Hem for another French delicacy: snails. At Les Escargots d’Helene (Tel: +33 3 21 35 63 67) discover how snails are farmed and buy Helene’s ready-prepared snails in parsley butter if you dare…
Back on the scenic N43, head down to St Omer for dinner. Recommended local restaurants include: Les Frangins (Tel: +33 3 21 38 12 47) where the speciality is chicken cooked in the famous St Omer beer and Le Bretagne (Tel: +33 3 21 38 25 78) which is rightly proud of its turbot in Hollandaise. Dress up for the elegant restaurant at Chateau Tilques, (Tel: +33 3 21 88 99 99) but it isn’t as pricey as it looks. Three courses start from €35 and specialities include foie gras with gingerbread biscuits. Close by is the more affordable Rallye d’Artois (Tel: +33 3 21 39 55 94) where they fry scallops in local juniper gin. Menus start at just €21.
Did you enjoy that juniper gin last night? You can buy some at the distillery nearby. "Genièvre de Houlle" has been made here since 1812 (Tel: +33 3 21 93 01 71). But don’t drink it now! It’s time to concentrate on driving. Pick your way through country lanes heading north to Watten’s riverside abbey ruins and Merckeghem’s distant views across farmland. Then take the D11 southeast to the historic fortified hill town Cassel.
If you’re heading back today, try to fit in a quick meal in this lovely old town first. Menus start at just €13 at the traditional Le Foch on the main square (Tel: +33 3 28 42 47 73) and include spicy chicken with local Maroilles cheese. Estaminet T’Kasteelhof (+33 3 28 40 59 29) is a small bar near the windmill at top of the town. Try the owner’s homemade pork and apple pie with his home-grown courgettes.
If you’re staying another day, Cassel is a charming spot to spend the night. Now that you’ve parked the car why not try some local Flemish beers? Het Kerelshof on the main square serves 50 different varieties.
The ruler-straight D916 whisks you north to spectacular walled town of Bergues. If you’ve time, stop at Brasserie Thiriez (Tel: +33 3 28 62 88 44) near Wormhout to visit a picturesque traditional Flemish brewery. You can taste the produce, of course, and stock up with bottles to take home. At Bergues stroll the old cobbled streets and discover its claim to food fame: cheese. Bergues cheese is doused in beer daily while maturing, giving it a very distinct flavour. The Monday market is a good place to buy it.
The D17, D11 and D940 take you back to Calais the scenic way and via another foodie hotspot. Visit the traditional Chicoree de Nord chicory roasting farm at Oye-Plage (+33 3 21 82 17 67). To find it, just follow the sweet smell. And just down the road are Daubelcour’s mussel beds, where they harvest 300 tons of moules a year growing on 30,000 posts standing in the shallows. Buy them fresh at their farm shop (Tel: +33 3 21 85 55 36).
If you’ve any time before the ferry, Calais has dozens of good restaurants and food shops. On Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday browse open markets for produce from the farmland you’ve been driving through, including strings of smoked garlic, chicory, honey, fish soup, foie gras and speciality sausages. And look out for the shop ‘A la Ferme’ in Boulevard Gambetta (Tel: +33 3 21 96 92 42) - it’s owned by local farmers who sell their meat, cheese, veg and fruit inside.
Planning a weekend away with someone special? Try driving our romantic weekend break in Northern France
P&Os drivng holiday expert
When former taxi-driver and garage-manager Simon switched to journalism he was soon described by Private Eye as "a miserable little squirt". Luckily he's grown a bit since then and cheered up slightly (so only the "squirt" part applies). Since then he's helped launch BBC Top Gear magaine, worked for Autocar and AutoExpress to name but a few. Simon has also been an editorial consultant for Toyota, Peugeot, Lexus and BMW. And he once broke the world record for motoring madness by driving to 12 countries...in one day.