A Foody in the Hauts de France

It’s taken 13 centuries, or thereabouts, to transform a swampy area of marsh close to Saint-Omer into one of the most fertile areas of land imaginable.

Anna Hyman set out to learn more about this picturesque food producing area known as the Marais Audomarois whilst discovering several other tasty foody destinations in the Hauts-de-France as well.

A vast network of shallow rivers and canals

Today the Audomarois marsh (named after Bishop Audomar who founded Saint-Omer in the 7th century) covers some 3700 hectares.

It’s home to 15 communities, plus a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve teaming with wildlife and protected plants. It was created by gradually diverting the course of the River Aa into a vast network of small and shallow rivers and drainage canals criss-crossing the marsh, thereby creating market gardens so fertile that they are capable of producing enormous quantities of fruit, vegetables and other crops as well as providing rich pasture land for grazing animals.

Cauliflowers, plus

It’s especially famous for its splendid crop of cauliflowers, supported and promoted by the hard work of the Confrérie du chou-fleur de Saint-Omer.

I recall their enthusiasm when a few years ago I was invited to a ceremony when an honorary member was being inducted into the Chapter, and I rather coveted their green robes and cauliflower style headdress.

In the winter endives take over from cauliflowers and they too are supported by their own confrerie. The region takes its veg growing very seriously – much to our delight.

A less stressful life style

Today one of the market gardens is owned by Loïc Boulier. Once a Paris chef Boulier realised that he had to escape from the rat race of city life so headed for the Audomarois to grow organic fruit and vegetables – some 40 different varieties of them.

Adam Toombs

‘It’s a hard life, and all year,’ he says, as he showed us round his large, neat and productive plot – whilst adding that it was much more rewarding and less stressful than his previous work. Would he go back to Paris? Most definitely not.

The last traditional boat builders

His neighbours include Les Faiseurs de Bateaux, the last of the Saint-Omer traditional oak Escutes and Bacôves boat builders whose shallow-draft flat bottom boats were used to transport produce through the Audomarois. Their boats are renowned for their craftsmanship, and it is nothing for one boat to take 80 -100 hours to construct.

Today, as well as produce, the boats also carry tourists on idyllic cruises through the reed fringed waterways beneath tree branches hanging low over the water as if to admire their reflection.

The cry of ‘duck’ was frequently heard – sometimes because there really were interesting looking water fowl – many coots plus a greater crested grebe or two, but more often because of those dangerous low hanging branches.

Elegant Château de Beaulieu

The Audomarois had been an easy drive from our overnight hotel in Busnes – the fabulous Le Château de Beaulieu – a mere 50 minute or so from the DFDS ferry port at Dunkirk, owned by renowned chef Christophe Dufosse and his charming wife Delphine.

The five star Le Château de Beaulieu, is famed for its luxurious elegant accommodation, charming staff and superb kitchen, the latter manned by a staff of 28 under the direction of Dufosse who insists on using organic sustainable locally grown produce.

The hotel is set in extensive grounds capable of supplying about half of the produce needed to feed guests in both the main two Michelin star fine dining restaurant, and the relaxed style bistro.

Seven course menu

Other produce like meat, and certainly the delicious, meltingly tender lamb we were to eat later at dinner, comes from carefully sourced and trusted local suppliers.

And of course the seasonal vegetables for our evening’s impeccably served delicious seven course menu came from the gardens.

You can eat and sup seriously well at the Château. Lookout for its two incredible wine cellars. And do make a point of choosing a treat or two from the spectacular Sweet Trolley.

Orchards and beehives

It was a joy to wander round the grounds between rows of fruit trees punctuated with beehives admiring the neat rows of fruit and vegetables as well as the potager stuffed with herbs, before visiting the chickens, ducks and animals in the little farm yard – much loved by adults and children.

The next morning before breakfast with its fresh in-house breads and pastries I looked out of my bedroom window and watched a white cat saunter through the grounds beside the moat that supplies the water for the crops.

Later, over a light lunch in the bistro, we rather enviously watched a helicopter fly overhead, and then land – new guests were calling in for lunch or maybe longer.

Beer and the ancient Abbaye de Clairmarais

But for us it was car wheels up as we headed off to learn a little more about this interesting and tasty area of northern France.

The day before we had called in at the ancient Ferme de l’Abbaye, now part restored and home to the Abbaye de Clairmarais brewery. We joined up with small group of young men from Belgium as they toured the brewery learning more about its history and sampling the four special and very good brews made by Laurent Delafosse one of the owners.

It all started, he told us, because of a home brewing kit which gradually grew into the commercial enterprise with its delicious beers which we were enjoying.

My favourite, though it was a close call, the Tripple, with its hints of chocolate/caramel and coffee.

Persyn distillery and Houlle genever

This time however, we were heading towards Saint-Omer and another brewery. More accurately to close-by Houlle to visit the Houlle distillery, a family-run business producing award-winning triple-distilled genever (jenever) and gin.

Owned by Lionel Persyn it is now one of the last French distilleries producing genever, and is also the oldest active grain distillery in France.

The two copper stills incidentally, were made in Saint-Omer. The procedure to make the genever from locally grown cereal grains including malted barley is long and skilled and can involve several distillations to build up the subtle and complex flavours. Be warned – these famous genevers pack a powerful mouthful.

Cheese please

We are also cheese lovers, and as we headed along the Côte d’Opale towards Boulogne we realised that a modest diversion to Les Freres Bernard artisan cheese makers was essential.

I had been on a previous visit to the Fromagerie Sainte Godeleine and had very much enjoyed the tour, but this was Saturday so no tours.

Nevertheless, there are good graphics on the walls explaining the procedure for turning milk into cheese. And in the centre of the unit – the shop – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of cheese for sale and sampling.

We spent a happy hour tasting various regional cheeses and learning more about them. Needless to say, several pieces of cheese made their way back to the UK.

Wimereux and the splendid Hotel Atlantic

Our last night was spent at the welcoming and exceedingly comfortable family run four-star Hotel Atlantic in Wimereux just along the coast. In charge of the kitchen Benjamin Delpierre whilst his delightful wife Aurélie looks after front of house.

It’s in a splendid location and all of its well-equipped bedrooms look out over the beach and Channel providing guests with wonderful sea views. Evidently the hotel also has access to a sun terrace and a private beach, but unfortunately we weren’t staying long enough to try them out – or indeed the Atlantic spa. We made a note for a return visit.

A gastronomic restaurant

We had heard good things about the restaurants at the Atlantic. There are two of them – L’ Aloze brasserie and La Liégeoise gastronomic restaurant.

We dined in the stylish blue and gold La Liégeoise watching the sun dip low over the sea. Our six course Signature Menu worth every cent of the €125 was charmingly and impeccably served – truly ‘gastronomic’ so not surprising that the restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star.

Bearing in mind how close the hotel is to Boulogne and its fish market, it is perhaps no wonder thatfish and sea food figure large on the menu.

The flavours and textures of the dishes were skilfully blended into an exquisitely delicious work of art on a plate – stunning, simply stunning. But if fish is not for you – panic not, the meat dishes melted in the mouth, whilst Benjamin Delpierre and his colleagues also worked their magic on perfectly cooked vegetables. I am not a dessert lover but the chocolate dessert cried out to be sampled – and it was divine.

And the massive breakfast buffet the next morning was another gastronomic feast. The staff at The Atlantic were a delight, frequently checking that we had everything we needed – nothing was too much trouble and we didn’t want to leave. In fact that pretty well sums up the Atlantic Hotel – nothing was too much trouble. Definitely a ‘must go back’ to hotel.

Boulogne Fish Market

After breakfast we were back on the road making for the fish market in Boulogne on the Quai Gambetta, always a fun experience chatting to the entertaining and knowledgeable stall holdersdisplaying the amazing array of the freshest fish and sea food on offer.

I suffered pangs of envy, nothing like it for us at home.…and a cliff top walk.

There was just time to take a walk and enjoy some bracing sea air on that gloriously sunny autumn morning along one of the headlands and cliffs of the Côte d’Opale whilst taking in the views out to sea and across to Blighty before we headed for Calais, a light lunch and our ferry home.

Meet the dragon

Whilst it was not fine dining, lunch for me was made extra special by the sound of roars emanating from the large glass structure next door to the café – the lair of the magnificent and massive Calais dragon. It stands about 10 -12m high, about 25m long and is capable of breathing out fire, smoke and water.

Gradually, accompanied by its team of dragoneers, it emerged from its lair pausing every now and again to rear up its head, swing round and survey the bystanders. It was obviously not very impressed.

However, it eventually did spot a likely victim. It lifted up and swung its massive head around, opened its huge mouth, took aim and shot out a jet of water before commencing its stately promenade along Calais seafront. And yes, I did get very wet!

As we made our dash to get to port in time to check the car onto our DFDS ferry I turned back and saw the Dragon now much further along the sea front flexing its 5 to 17.5m wings and once again breathing out flames, smoke and drenching any other bystander that caught its menacing, bloodshot red eyes!

More information

Pas-de-Calais : 


DFDS offers up to 30 crossings per day on its Dover to Calais service and up to 24 daily sailings from Dover to Dunkirk. Fares start at £84 one way for a car and up to four people, with day trip and short break fares also available throughout the year starting at £39 return.

On board relax in the exclusive Premium Lounge where there are complimentary hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and snacks from £18 per person. Add Priority Boarding to be one of the first to board and disembark the ferry from £10 per car each way. DFDS duty-free shops onboard and at the ports offer a selection of fragrances, electronics and cosmetics with savings up to 50 per cent off UK high-street prices, on favourite brands including LEGO, Yankee Candle, and Rituals.

Special thanks to Adam Toombs for his kind permission for us to reproduce his allotment pictures.