Lille is a city with many charms - great beer, friendly people, a freshly restored historic center - but these are not necessarily obvious on a Sunday, when shops and restaurants pull down their shutters so that families can gather round a steaming pot of carbonnade flamande, beef cooked in beer until caramelized, or share a potjevleesch, an assortment of jellied meats.
An exception is the neighborhood of Wazemmes, where one of the biggest markets in northern France takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and especially Sundays. Once a week the whole city seems to descend on Place de la Nouvelle Aventure to stock up on fresh foods, find bargains among the bric-a-brac, and snack on the mostly Asian and North African fare sold from food trucks. Attached to Lille in 1858, Wazemmes was once a separate village whose name means "homes in the marsh," like the Marais in Paris.
With a few hours to spare, I took the Métro four stops from the Lille Flandres station to Wazemmes (I could also have got off at Gambetta). Coming out of the station, I turned right, then took the first right down a street lined with boisterous North African vendors, couscous joints populated entirely by men, a few Asian restaurants, and pastry shops with almond and honey confections piled high in the windows. It felt a lot like the rue d'Aligre in Paris, though the inevitable process of gentrification is only just beginning in Wazemmes. I made one stop to stock up on Medjoul dates, which have become a bit of an obsession lately, before continuing on to Place de la Nouvelle Aventure, teeming with shoppers torn between filling up their bags or their stomachs.
Because it was lunchtime, my first concern was finding somewhere to eat once I had ruled out snacking on something deep-fried. Suspecting that none of the lively cafés lining the square would be gastronomic gems, I decided to base my decision on atmosphere. That's how I found myself in Les P'tits Lous, with its heart-shaped light fixtures and snapshots of parties lining the wood-panelled walls. The jovial owner greeted me with a warm "ravi de vous recevoir" (delighted to welcome you) and I took a seat next to the kitchen, where I could keep an eye on the plates coming out.
Though I was tempted by the carbonnade, I also wanted to see whether the dish referred to simply as le Welsh and described as containing cheddar would be the same as the Welsh rarebit found in England. Indeed, this turned out to be one of those rare dishes that has crossed the Channel in the direction of France, even if it hasn't gone further south than Lille. The cheese is melted in beer (an idea that I do find inspired) before being poured over a slice of toast. My version turned out to be the "complet," with a thick slice of ham between the bread and cheese. It came with unmemorable frites and a couple of shredded lettuce leaves, but I was happy enough with my dish washed down with a glass of the local beer, Pelforth. (For some reason, good French fries are hard to find in Lille and the locals will often drive across the border for their fix of frites.)
Fortified by this meal I headed into the covered market, which felt suprisingly chic and serene compared to the chaotic scene outside. I was quickly drawn to the market's biggest cheese stand, La Fromagerie au Coeur de Lille, where a cheese the color of Oscar the Grouch caught my eye. Though a bit of a green tinge is not uncommon in moldy cheese, I had never seen one that was lurid green all the way through. "It's pesto flavored," explained the cheerful cheese vendor. "People like to use it in pasta."
By this time I had whipped out my Nikon, only to find that I had left the memory card in Paris. Seeing me taking a picture with my iPhone, she beckoned me to the other side of the stall. "We have another one that's just as strange." Here, among the selection of Irish cheeses - where else in France would you find a selection of Irish cheeses? - I saw the Irish Porter cheese, marbled with Guinness. The "Welsh" had already proved to me that beer and cheese can make a great match, and I bought a wedge of this one just to be sure: the dark beer brings an earthy note to this tangy cheddar.
Nearby, I couldn't help but notice a stall selling one of my favorite northern French specialties, the gaufre. Meert, which recently opened a Paris outpost, is the most celebrated purveyor of these thin waffles with a sugary filling, but Halle Gaufres du Ch'ti makes them right in front of you with a choice of fillings. I chose the most unusual one, chicory, and paid 70 cents for a waffle that was so good I nearly went back for seconds: what I appreciated was that neither the waffle nor the filling was overly sweet. Chicory is a popular flavor in northern France and many older people still mix it with their coffee, a holdover from World War II when coffee beans were scarce.
By the time I emerged from the market the stalls were packing up, but I did find a few stands selling local produce and picked up a bag of imperfect but juicy-looking apples for 80 cents. The people of Lille have a reputation for being especially kind and the vendors upheld that with gusto, making me hope that my next visit to the city lasts a little longer.
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Rosa: I'm glad you have returned to observing and writing. I always send your postings to a friend in New Mexico, a francophile, who immediately responds, "I've got to go to France. Now!" and I think your writing has something to do with her response. And mine. As for rarebit, I lived on the poor man's version when in college: a can of Campbell's tomato soup, a can of Campbell's cheddar cheese soup, and a loaf of three day-old bread. If I was in the money, I'd add a slice or two of bacon. I'm guessing that which you sampled in Lille was much more sublime. Next time you are dining in Lille, order a local beer for me and if I don't show up, please, help yourself.
Jim, your improvised rarebit makes me remember the things I did with canned mushroom soup, cheddar and bread when I was a teenager - best forgotten! Happy to drink a local beer on your behalf.
BOY, THAT CAMPBELL SOUP IS A PART OF AMERICANA. AT 16 I WAS DOING THE SLICED EGGS OVER TOAST WITH CR. OF MUSHROOM SOUP.
HOW DID ANYONE EVER SURVIVE THE WORLD WITHOUT CAMPBELL'S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP??
I CAN ONLY IMAGINE IT MUST HAVE BEEN 10 CENTS THEN. A POLISH MUSHROOM LOVER SINCE 2.
Your post brought back memories, as I lived just by the Marché de Wazemmes for two years, and it can certainly liven up a Sunday! I have to say though that I would go there more for the atmosphere than to buy food: though it's cheap, the majority of the produce sold at this market is not local or sourced from quality producers. Instead, you have sub-standard imported vegetables that are often tasteless or rotting in the centre below their chemically maintained shiny surface. Of course there are exceptions, but you really need to know your stands and choose carefully here. As for a selection of Irish cheeses, I discovered today that my local cheese shop in Paris has one, and what's more, the owner had just come back from a visit into Ireland to bring back other ones... including the Irish Porter you have pictured here! In Lille, there is also a very good (if relatively pricey) cheese shop in the Vieux Lille, rue Esquermoise - but it's name escapes me. It shouldn't be too difficult to find though. They have a wide range of cheese from Le Nord and Picardie that you don't often find in other regions of France, in addition to the more well known maroilles, boulette d'Avesne... etc. Happy travels!