Chef Poirrot
Celebrity Chef Poirrot

Thierry Landron
Carol Pastor with Thierry Landron (no it's not Harry Hill) Director of Meert Patisserie

by Carol Pastor

The wonderful city of Lille with its art gallery second only to the Louvre, its buzzy restaurants and flamboyant flemish architecture from the bustling hub of the main Place de Charles de Gaulle to the historic old town is slow to awaken, and on my first morning here (fresh from Eurostar) I'm dying for a cup of coffee. As you might expect, many of the sleekest joe - to - go bars cluster Place Charles De Gaulle and, if you're a real coffee lover like me, Meo, a modern state of the art coffee house and coffee roaster which sells almost three hundred different types of coffee, cannot fail to please. Once inside I no longer feel that just off the train sense of lassitude. Meo invites you to indulge your palate with various styles of coffee or to try the nine fresh blendings prepared every day (which you can try first from the small sample cups in themselves almost enough to satisfy your craving). I choose a medium Santos Ipanema from Brazil and a strong Tarrazzu from Costa Rica accompanied by a sugar scented waffle (gaufre), more about these later. For a fun place that is full of beans you can't do better than Meo.

Where: Meo - cafe, 5 Place du General de Gaulle, (Grand' Place) Lille

Next I seek out breakfast: something very French, cosy and traditional. The Pauls Bakery (the chain is international) which started life in Lille in 1898 seems to be the perfect place. The cafe at the rear of the bread shop offers a choice of golden fresh brioche, flaky croissants and escargot raisin as well as salmon or bacon served Benedict - style with toast, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. I choose the latter washed down with a cafe creme and accompanied by the delectable smells of irresistible fresh-baked crusty baguettes flecked with poppy seed or rosemary and sour doughs bursting with hazelnuts. It's well worth a visit for its decadent interior with ornate guilt carvings reminiscent of the 19th century Lille. There is a tea room upstairs.

Where: Paul, 19 Place du Gal de Gaulle (close to the Grand' Place)

The Place du General de Charles (commonly known as La Grand' Place) is the hub of many little shopping streets that radiate like the spokes of a wheel out from it and on my first morning here it's the ideal place to begin to get my bearings. The tourist office is just a stone's throw away from here at Place Rihour and I make my way there for a good town map and directions to my first appointment in the Place Bethune where I am to lunch with Nord's most famous T.V. chef and restaurateur, Poirrot. The Place Bethune, is a wide pedestrianised street which is old but feels new with so many clothes boutiques and young people as alive and bustling as the city itself in casual smart designer gear and dark glasses. There are also many bars filling with early lunchers which offer anything from Lille's famous mussels and chips to Italian pizzas.
My meeting with the famous Poirrot is at 12.30 and he arrives 30 minutes late bustling through the restaurant with a white apron over his generous proportions. He is a big personality mimicking mock anger at his waiters for not letting him know that I have arrived and at the same time sharing a joke with his guests who smile in recognition. Even the most jaded diner can't fail to be charmed by Poirrot. He poses for our camera and after a brief conversation in "not very good Engleeesh" on his part and hopeless French on mine, he invites us to eat lunch on the restaurant's sunny terrace. The food speaks for itself: filet de boeuf au poivre (a fillet of beef with pepper sauce) a classic but top notch steak - so succulent that it melts on the tongue. For the puddings (which are also traditional to the region) there's a choice between Tart au sucre (a dieter's undoing of brioche tart with vergeoise sugar) or gateau Carpeau, creamed chestnuts and marron glace on a macaroon base, or sorbets. We settle for a light pudding of lemon sorbet doused in genievre (juniper gin) as I am soon to visit the most famous patisserie in Lille.
(Mr Pierrot sells non perishable foods to take away, like potjev leesch (cooked pork, veal, chicken and rabbit served cold in an aromatic jelly) - , under his own label. For excellent Flemish fare with a celebrity frisson go to Le Bistrot Pierrot restaurant.

Where: Le Bistrot de Pierrot, 6 place de Bethune, Lille.

You'll have no trouble experiencing traditional pastries and confectionery here in Lille, but for a taste of culinary heaven I have been told you must head for Meert in the fashionable rue Esquermoise. Meert first opened in 1761 as just a sweet shop but things change and it is now the most famous patisserie in Lille.
Crisp and creamy mille feuille, honey and orange scented financiers, Paris Brest with pistachio pastry cream, sorbets and chocolates made from the best French couverture, not forgetting the little crumpled tin of boiled bon bons hidden under the counter (a special treat for Meert's favourite customers and a reminder of the its modest beginnings). Everything is made on the premises by twenty chefs who each specialise in a separate discipline, all measuring up to the luxurious surroundings of this baroque style candy palace with filigree glass and pretty cherubs which peep from the wrought iron balcony above. On the counters below pretty fruit confits - (little coloured jellies sprinkled in sugar traditionally made as a way to store fruit through winter) fill elegant glass jars and as I inspect further there are marshmallows flavoured with rose, violet, coconut and chicory all far removed from the questionable delights of the corner sweet shop in my past.
The man behind this superb venue and one of the directors is Thierry Landron (who has a soft spot for English cheesecake and christmas pudding: ah well, the grass is always greener). He regales me with the histories of many of the cakes with pride. The most famous is the Meert 'gaufre' or waffle. These crisp sweet wafers imprinted with the Meert signature like a seal of approval and filled with thin layers of fruit scented sugar (there are also juniper and vanilla flavours) are enjoyed by both the many loyal customers with more traditional tastes and of course the many tourists who visit each year. He tells me that Charles de Gaulle so loved Meert's waffles that he had them sent to Paris weekly. Meert were also the official suppliers to King Leopold of Belgium: note the paintings of both dignitaries in the shop if you visit.

Our only disapointment comes from not being able to sample everything we are shown but to our delight Theirry Landron invites us to have tea in the Salon de the, an elegant mirrored tea room with crisp white cloths and cream draperies. Mouth watering sorbets and too many different cakes to mention are served with a choice of teas at our table by a smart aproned waiter who knows his biz. This exquisite place makes me want to move here permanently.

Where: Meert, 27, rue Esquermoise - Lille.

The antithesis in style is just around the corner in a state of the art tea boutique Le Palais de Thes where sleek orange caddies which feature over two hundred and fifty varieties of teas from all corners of the globe with such names as Japon Fleur de Geisha and Big Ben tea make the imagination run riot. Pretty iron japanese and chinese tea pots as well as tea scented jams and candles spell a haven for tea lovers. (Alas no `Salon de the to sample the flavours) but the delightful Fabienne Tetu helps us choose.

Where: Le Palais des Thes, 6-8, rue du Cure Saint - Etienne, Lille.