Hauts-de-France, or ‘the Heights of France’, has long been known as a land of revival following its war-torn history.
Yet now, Kent’s neighbour across the Channel has been recognised as a culinary tour de force after being named this year’s European Region of Gastronomy.
Situated on the Belgian border, thousands of brasseries serve exquisite homemade Flemish and French fusions at modest prices, whether you’re in Lille, Beauvais, or beyond.
But the region also has 17 Michelin-starred restaurants, where some of the country’s best chefs execute world-class menus.
By some stroke of luck, I was tasked to gorge on the region’s most luxurious offerings, starting with a two-hour ferry hop from Dover to Dunkirk.
A 50-minute drive south in Busnes is Le Chateau de Beaulieu which, thanks to head chef Christophe Dufossé and wife Delphine, enjoys two Michelin stars and a Michelin Green for sustainability.
Sweeping across eight hectares, the 17th-century castle’s grounds are peppered with produce bursting from the soil destined for its restaurants.
As we walked along the castle’s moat, through orchards, past beehives, vegetable and herb plots, the chef, a softly spoken barrel of a man, explained they are creating a biosphere, where plant and animal life flourish to help produce the finest ingredients.
"It's a very peaceful and quiet place in the world, and if you want an extraordinary experience it's here,” Dufossé explained.
“We wanted to create a self-sufficient ecosystem - for us, walking through here now is a paradise.”
Water from the grounds’ moat and fertilizer from its livestock feed the rich soil, and bees from ten hives pollinate the land while producing 200kg of honey a year, Dufossé explained.
Bizarrely, a perhaps over-excited Dufossé began pelting his pigs’ house with stones to coax out the largest hog Boris for us to see who, unsurprisingly, stayed put.
Half of the food grown supplies the restaurant and bistro, while the rest comes from an intricate network of more than 30 nearby suppliers to help cut greenhouse gases.
The lion’s share of cooking happens inside the chateaux’s 250-metre square kitchen, where some of its 28 chefs could be seen preparing for the evening service, though it is worth noting the hotel has its own boulangerie.
Originally from the Calais region, Dufossé says his ever-evolving creations reimagine food specific to northern France’s unique landscape.
During dinner, an infinite number of waiters glided around the table laying out the chef’s 340€ seven-course ‘All Seasons’ vision with wine pairings, presented by a sommelier.
It begins with Cote d’Opale crab suspended in foam, caviar, grilled tuna belly, duck foie gras, and pan-roasted, seaweed-quince apple crust.
While the individual plates were small and distinct, the delicate flavours sutbtely flowed into each other and were enhanced with large glasses of tart Champagne Jacquesson Cuvée number 746.
“This is just the beginning,” Delphine quipped before a further six courses emerged.
John Dory came candied in ginger, lemongrass and verbena, eel smoked on site was presented with green cabbage embers, baked leek with coeur coulant oignons.
A standout dish would be the fillet of Boulonnais lamb, accompanied with a layered garden celeriac slice, poached pear from the orchard, and finished with a remarkably rich jus.
Yet the cauliflower dessert, with its raw and cooked iterations, also needs a mention.
Vanilla meringue was finished with a subtle sorrel sauce, alongside vanilla ice cream smoked in-house and paired with a sparkling glass of Cremant du Jura, a zippy dessert wine with apple and ginger notes, made by Domaine Tissot.
That evening, I stayed in one of the five-star rooms overlooking the stunning grounds, costing 340€ for a traditional suite.
Guests in the morning can dine in the chateaux’s Cote Jardin brasserie, where freshly cooked pastries and breads are unveiled, alongside an array of cheese, meats, preserves, fruit, and juice freshly squeezed from the garden’s harvest.
Designed for a more relaxing dining experience, the airy and elegant bistro flows onto a large terrace where old decor is mixed with new, and it was here we were to have lunch.
I had some of the tastiest bread and a thick farmhouse pork chop cooked over coals on the barbecue which, somehow, was charred on the outside and succulent within, a notoriously tricky feat.
The generous portion came accompanied by a sweet and smoky homemade barbecue sauce.
With seasonal dishes starting from about 30€ guests can expect simpler, but equally finessed food, but with less of the fine dining fanfare.
Yet, as a helicopter dropped diners off on the hotel’s helipad during lunch, I was reminded how unimaginable luxury is never far away.
This is, after all, a complex where guests for room service can order wine costing 20,000€ a bottle.
If you’ve visited Northern France via Calais chances are you’ve passed the enchanting wetlands and market gardens of Saint-Omer marshes without noticing.
Dug by monks in the 7th century to help cultivate the peat-rich soil, the road-free wetlands today host 170 kilometers of waterways surrounded by floating market gardens, which can only be explored by boat.
During an hour-long tour through the reed-lined canals in a flat-bottom handmade oak craft, my guide explained the Unesco heritage site stretches thousands of hectares.
Home to incredible fauna and flora, a hundred plant varieties can be found alongside more than 200 bird species, among them the rare aquatic warbler.
As we floated past dozens of historic homes, my guide explained families use the marsh to grow dozens of vegetable varieties year-round, including the famous summer cauliflower, to supply markets in nearby Saint-Omer and beyond.
And it is here, a 40-minute drive from Calais, where Les Faiseurs de Bateaux, the region’s last traditional oak boat makers ply their ancient trade, building the Escute and Bacoves which market gardeners used centuries ago.
Later on, dinner would be served at one Michelin star-rated La Liégeoise based at Hotel Atlantic in the coastal resort town of Wimereux.
About a 40-minute drive West of Calais along the striking Opal Coast, the family-run hotel’s restaurant, terrace, and rooms offer panoramic views over the English Channel, with accommodation starting from about 200€.
Served inside a blue and golden spacious dining room overlooking the sea, the 125€ ‘Signature Menu’ comes with six courses, consisting of fresh seafood served in subtle and complex combinations, accompanied by wine pairings for a further 65€ or 85€ depending on how many glasses you want.
From marinated mackerel carefully burnt with a blowtorch served with lettuce, chicory, and black garlic to ravioli with smoked egg yolk spinach, and hazelnuts, each dish looked like a picture from a ritzy lifestyle magazine.
A fusion of fish, shellfish and fresh vegetables runs the show here, enhanced with sauces I’d never before tasted with layers of creaminess, tang, spice, sweet, and umami in a celebration of classic French cookery.
The Atlantic Hotel is beautiful, fancy, tasty, and incredibly well situated with its sea views. And although quite pricey, guests will receive the opulent experience they pay for.
The Michelin star whistle-stop tour ended with a 40-minute drive along the sparkling northern coast towards Calais, not only for lunch at L'Antre du Dragon, but to meet the city’s mythical beast.
Towering as high as a four-storey building with a 25m wingspan, the fire-breathing mechanical Calais Dragon stalks the city’s waterfront with 50 guests on its back.
Children and adults could be seen stopping in their tracks as the 72 tonnes mystical reptile, forged of steel and wood, flapped its wings and swung its tale while roaring and soaking onlookers with vapour.
Having bellowed its first flames in 2021, the street art was built by François Delarozière, artistic director of La Machine
Based in Nantes, the art group is famous for La Princesse, a 50-foot mechanical spider installed on the side of a building in Liverpool, before she woke to explore the city in 2008.
Situated next door to the dragon’s imposing glass-fronted lair is L'Antre du Dragon, a basic and buzzy bistro serving breakfast, lunch, cocktails and crisp glasses of Affligem beer.
My dining partners’ salads were sumptuous and generous but I was served a rather sad-looking 7€ croque monsieur.
Distinctly lacking in cheese, ham, or any flavour, the lukewarm sandwich was a welcome treat after three days of wildly sophisticated meals.
Since awarding its first stars in 1926, the Michelin Guide remains the gold standard throughout the world.
In fact, earning a star can put a restaurant on the culinary map, catapulting a decent and consistent spot to unimaginable success.
Underpinning all of this in Hauts-de-France is a collective of unsung market gardeners and local producers, who, between them, know a dish is only as good as its ingredients.
But for those wanting a deeper understanding of the region’s food and drink scores of artisans are keen to give talks about their trade and techniques.
Arques-based farmer Patrick Vaniet introduced us to his rare, organic boulonnais lamb originating from Montreuil.
Inside the barn dozens of the animals could be seen feeding on a specialist mix of grass, blissfully unaware of their fate, as Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive" blasted from a radio with cheery but hollow optimism.
Salt from the marshes and the delicate diet lends the meat a more tender texture and sweeter flavour - not dissimilar to Kent’s Romney Marsh lamb.
Lionel Persyn at the family-run Houlle distillery told how his methods have been in the family since 1812.
The award-winning manufacturer blends combinations of cereals, rye, malt and mountain barley to make Genievre, a French-style gin.
During an hour-long tour and tasting session, Persyn took me through the grinding, brewing, fermentation and distillation processes.
"It is, effectively, fair to say, my work is like a chef, it is the same, only I have to be more patient," he quipped.
Cheesemakers at Les Freres Bernard Fromagerie in Sainte Godeleine took me through the process of making General de Gaulle’s once-favourite cheese.
Made from the raw milk of cows on the Côte d'Opale, the orange Mimolette is typical of Nord Pas de Calais.
They gave taster samples showing how the less mature subtle variety becomes harder, nuttier and slightly spicy after just a few months of maturation - essentially a different cheese.
“Because we use cheese mites to make holes in the rind to allow in air for refinement, we can’t export it to the USA,” my guide explains.
Beermaker Laurent Delafosse explained how, when his wife gifted him a homebrew kit a few years ago she unwittingly triggered a fascinating chain of events.
Obsessed with improving his potions, the hobby would eventually see the former marketeer building a brewery in a farmhouse on the grounds of Abbaye de Clairmarais ruins, near Saint-Omer.
During a tour of the site’s rustic rooms, he described how monks brewed there for hundreds of years, adding: “I am continuing the tradition.
“Back then the monks said the (strongest beer) brought them closer to god.”
Pointing to his weakest offerings, Delafosse added: "This is four percent beer, it is what people would drink hundreds of years ago because it was safer than water.”
A special mention must be given to Loïc Boulier.
In search of a frugal and slower pace of life, Boulier dropped Parisian bar work to become a market gardener on St-Omer’s marshes, where he toils the land for 14 hours a day six months a year, earning just five euros an hour.
Farming only by hand to keep fuel and fertilizer prices to a minimum, Boulier cultivates about 40 organic vegetables to sell at the town’s Saturday market.
He explained variety is key to making a living because climate change means crops are more prone to fail - unpredictable weather brings grim uncertainty.
Describing how he feels the seasons are becoming less pronounced, he said: “It is hard for us all, we’ve really noticed the change over the past years.
“We hear people talk about temperatures rising, but there is not enough discussion about the wind.
“The winds are becoming more unpredictable, you cannot see on forecasts how the winds will change.
“If we see these changes continue it will be catastrophic.”
To find out more information about the region, visit hautsdefrancetourism.com.
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 £68 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.