17 11 2008

Whenever I travel somewhere new, the first question I ask before going is, “What are the local food specialties?”  I guess that makes me some kind of culinary tourist.  In preparing for our recent trip to Lille, I searched three or four different libraries for guidebooks to Lille or at least the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.  No dice.  So apart from a few recommendations from a friend, Nick and I were pretty much flying blind.  Which turned out to be cool.  We found a great restaurant in the paper, we had Google Maps running constantly on our phones (what an age we live in!), and we chatted with the very friendly locals.  In one café, the owner found out that I was a pâtissier, and said that I should really pay a visit to Meert.  He explained that it was one of the oldest pâtisseries in France, and that they were the official pastry suppliers for the royal family of Belgium.

Meert's grandiose storefront

Situated on a very posh street (the smallest bill dispensed by the nearby ATM was a 50!) just off the Place du Général de Gaulle (which everyone insists on calling the Grand Place, just to confuse you), Meert’s gorgeous storefront invites you in to ogle the tempting treats.  The shop is split into three parts: on the left is the pastry boutique, the right side houses the chocolate shop, and a salon de thé sits cozily tucked away in the back.

We arrived late in the afternoon on a Sunday, and the pastry selection was dwindling.  We chose a beautiful tarte au chocolat, and then went next door to pick out some chocolates.  (Since I’ve started learning the art of chocolaterie, I have become much more interested in the chocolate selections at the pâtisseries I visit.)

A very sexy chocolate tart

That piece of crisp nougatine on top of the chocolate tart was the reason I had to try it.  Crushed hazelnuts and cacao nibs were bound by a thin layer of crunchy caramel.  But that may have been the best part.  The chocolate tart shell was tasty, but too thick.  It left very little room for the smooth dark chocolate ganache filling, which was a shame.  More filling and less crust would have let the chocolate flavor shine.  Still, I appreciate that Meert uses chocolate disks to display their logo, as opposed to cardboard tags.

I failed to get any photos of the chocolates, but let me assure you that they were beautiful.  The raspberry ganache had bits of fresh raspberry mixed in, which was a nice touch.  My favorite was probably the semi-liquid passionfruit gelée enrobed in dark chocolate, but I was impressed by how incredibly smooth their ganaches and pralinés were.

We retuned to the same café later that evening for an apéritif, and the owner was pleased to see we had a Meert bag in tow.  I thanked him for the suggestion and then Nick and I settled in with pints of Affligem Noël – an absolutely delicious winter beer scented with cinnamon and other spices.  With all the beer and chocolate (not to mention the mussels and gaufres) Lille feels a lot more like Belgium than France.  Which is great, because after only an hour on the train from Paris, it really felt like we’d gone somewhere.  And that’s the whole point of a weekend getaway, is it not?

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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