A taste of Lille, from crunchy frites to bold beers
Old and new: estaminet cuisine
Au Vieux de la Vieille in the old town of Lille is a curious spectacle. Step inside and you’ll find a space that feels like a cross between a sitting room and a rustic pub. Shelves are crammed with knick-knacks and knick-knacks, the ceiling is littered with dried hops, and patrons perch on and around wooden chairs and tables that have likely served generations of visitors.
This is an estaminet, a traditional tavern found in north east France. And the menu is almost as quaint as the decor. Estaminet classics include potjevleesch, a terrine-like dish of four meats suspended in a cold aspic jelly (better than it sounds); Carbonnades de Boeuf, also known as Carbonnade Flamande, a rich beef stew made with beer and brown sugar; and le Welsh, the regional version of cheese and ham on toast.
When I visit there is a ramming. Although the city has numerous modern and international restaurants, the demand for traditional regional dishes is still high. “They started out more like a bar,” explains my server Marion. “When mining was a big industry here, miners left their jobs and went to an Estaminet for a pint. The tables were big, so everyone sat together and discussed life, society, everything.”
I order chicken in Maroilles cheese sauce and while I wait I enjoy the lively atmosphere with friends and family having lunch together. When the piping-hot dish comes out of the kitchen it’s rich, creamy and a great introduction to Maroilles, or ‘cheese of the north’ as Marion helpfully describes it.
One of northern France’s most renowned chefs, Florent Ladeyn, knows the typical Estaminet menu well, having grown up at the family restaurant L’Auberge du Vert Mont in Boeschepe, about half an hour’s drive north of Lille. “I learned to do all the classics,” he says. “Potjevleesch and other meat terrines, Waterzooi [a fish or chicken stew], beer cakes, chicory root cakes. The traditional dishes reflect the passage of the various European armies through the region. The Carbonnade Flamande is derived from a Spanish bull stew; the potjevleesch is found in Scandinavian cuisine; the Waterzooi fish stew is Belgian.”
In 2007, Florent took over the management of his family’s restaurant, keeping part of the estaminet spirit but adding a hyper-local fine dining approach. He has also expanded and opened two innovative canteen-style restaurants, Bierbuik and Bloempot, both in Lille.
“I get my inspiration from nature, the rhythm of the seasons, the work of fishermen and gardeners,” he says. “Although cuisine is rooted in history, respecting tradition also means evolving it. We work with 100% local produce, so the canteen stays vibrant and adaptable with its simple menu.”
Later, I eat at Bierbuik, which couldn’t be more different from Au Vieux de la Vieille in terms of decor: it’s all neon lights and subway tiles, but I love its style. The menu is also an intriguing contrast, with a lot less cheese and meat. I order a red cabbage skewer, as dense as a piece of beef and just as tasty; the pak choi, shiitake oil, buckwheat seed and blackberry salad is a delicious symphony of flavors and textures; And then of course there are the fries. Served on a large tray with a mustard-colored homemade mayonnaise, too many for one, but I make it good. After all, they are traditional.