With its mix of history, architecture, food and bracing-good air, Picardy in Northern France ticks all the boxes for an easy week near Paris
WORDS PRIMROSE MONTEIRO-D’SOUZA
PHOTOGRAPHS MAHESH SAGARI
For me, France used to be about food, wine, Champagne, impressive architecture, Haussmann buildings. People with wardrobes in a palette of three colours – black, white and grey.
For me, France used to be Paris.
Me, I’ve changed my idea of France.
All it took was driving straight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport to Picardy. Located in Northern France, just over an hour’s drive from the city whose name we will not mention again right now, the départment of Picardy has chefs who demystify French food, Champagne out of medieval cellars, cathedrals that rival the capital’s Notre Dame, and stories of more than one Napoleon with romance and heartbreak thrown in. The famous French je ne sais quoi is approachable here – people in Picardy smile at strangers; they’re likely to add a lime green scarf to that black-white-grey palette. They can afford both the laughter and the colour – they live in an area dotted with medieval châteaux, cute-as- a-button villages, seaside towns that invite you to strip off and wade into the sea, and gorgeous gardens where the artful but wild profusion of greenery means it’s prudent to keep your clothes on – if you don’t want to be scratched!
I like my new France rather a lot.
DAYS 1 & 2: AMIENS
The River Somme is the heart of the capital of Picardy. And wait, there’s a gorgeous Gothic cathedral and great food too
Charming and handsome, Chef Philippe Vermesse is the perfect ambassador for Picardy. We’re at the Saturday market in the St Leu Quarter. Beside the Somme, the stalls are aflame with colour. There’s fresh fruit and veg, cheese, confitures, all the breads the French do so well, apple cider, rotisserie-d chicken, seafood, even seaweed, picked from the Bay of Somme when the tide recedes, to be used in delicate fish dishes. More surprisingly, there’s laughter, much discussion about the lettuce and how to use it, hugs for Philippe. It’s a whole world apart from the much-vaunted Parisian standoffishness – here is unabashed friendliness, a camaraderie that crosses the barrier of our lack of fluent French.
At a cooking class in nearby Allonville that follows as part of an initiative by Picardie’s Secrets, Chef Philippe demonstrates the cooking of a ficelle Picarde, a savoury crepe he learned from Monsieur Le Fevre, who invented it in 1956 with other restaurateurs for a grand exposition to promote the region. Like all great Picardian dishes, it’s easy to make. The secret lies in the goodness of the ingredients – a duxelle of shallots and mushrooms, the best ham, an enrobing of cream and Emmental.
Lunch is in Jacques Fauquembergue’s garden, attached to the Les 3 Plumes B&B in Allonville: bisteux – cream, potatoes and bacon in pastry – from the morning market as the first course, then the ficelle Picarde, its cream and cheese gently browned and still bubbling from the oven, and a salad of lettuce lightly kissed with French dressing. Four cheeses, one of them a rollot from Picardy, and finally, an exquisite charlotte au fraise, a sponge loaf layered with strawberries and cream. The table is crowded with bottles of Champagne and wine, the air is loud with laughter. I leave with gifts from Chef Philippe: strawberry jam, a flower picked surreptiously from mine host’s garden, and a proposal of marriage (only slightly spoiled by the presence of his smiling wife Isabelle) – obviously, I don’t do too badly as a chef’s assistant.
By afternoon, we peer upwards at Amiens’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame, the biggest Gothic-style cathedral in France, dating back to 1220. Famous for having the highest nave in the world, and for being the last resting place of what is believed to be the head of St John the Baptist, it was declared a World Heritage site in 1981. The rose window in the main facade is 13 metres in diameter – as large as your average circus ring.
Away from the cathedral, we wander along streets rebuilt after the wars to the pedestrianised city centre. Typical of 19th-century architecture, the Palais de Justice is a little bit of Versailles in Amiens. The shopping is frantic in the area near Rue Ernest Curvin, and a local orchestra is playing the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean on the Square Gambetta. There are little girls with arms outstretched, ‘flying’ to the music, women nursing babies within kangaroo pouches – music is a very democratic affair here. Farther on, dating back to the 19th century when Amiens was declared capital of the Picardy region, the Town Hall stands proud.
Down an alley, the Beffroi d’Amiens, a medieval tower and belfry, holds its own amid modern market stalls; it was a prison in the Middle Ages and, later, the mayoral seat. Nearby, a clock, a replica of the 19th-century original, tops a sculpture of a naked woman, locally called Mary sans Chemise.
Back in the St Leu Quarter, there are chairs and tables under awnings outside Le Retroviseur, but we retreat into the cosy interior dotted with an eclectic collection of memorabilia from the past – mirrors, maps, black- and-white photos of Hollywood stars, old wooden radios. The food is excellent, especially our lamb cooked for seven hours. All around us, the air is loud with animated conversation. This is a great place for people- watching; the people of Amiens combine the effortless chic of the French with a quirkiness that sets them apart.
We stroll back to the cathedral after dinner – for the sound-and-light show. The commentary is in French – and French way above what was taught in our high school classes – but the special effects leave us speechless.