IN the capacious Art Nouveau dining room of Valenciennes’ Grand Hotel, in the northernmost tip of France, three bemused reporters are gazing at a sword and a Frenchman in robes who is wielding it enthusiastically.

On a table to the right of the group lies a sample of the local speciality, which sounds like it might be a species of fungus (it’s called Lucullus) and contains mostly beef tongue.

Each of the three is ordered to perform a sort of initiation ritual, which involves being “knighted”, reciting a strand of French, and tasting - and approving - the local delicacy.

“You are now part of the brotherhood of the Lucullus!” they are informed. “You must promise to promote the Lucullus wherever you go.”

That part of my job being attempted, I should add that this unique dish was actually named after a gourmand Roman emperor and not a mushroom, and in the wonderfully eccentric surroundings it was delicious.

In fact, the Nord Pas de Calais region, from Valenciennes in the east to Arras in the south and the Flemish border in the north, has an abundance of affordable, good food, fine wine and real beer. Consumption ranges from hands-on rustic eating with cheeseboards, pies and stews in Flanders to Michelin-starred oysters and waffles filled with vanilla from Madagascar in Lille.

Every one of the restauranteurs we met seemed to be utterly devoted to what they do and had made it part of their way of life. Jacques Verbaere, head chef and co-proprietor of the Grand Hotel, Valenciennes, said: “For nothing in the world would I do anything else. You sell pleasure and dreams to people and if you don’t enjoy these things yourself how can you transmit that to other people?”

For those wanting to sample produce in the raw, head to Arras, where the extensive food market, in the place de la Vacquerie, is stocked with several varieties of, well, everything really – you can select your own fluffy gosling from a wicker basket or visit a stall entirely dedicated to tomatoes.

You can even taste the food cooked with Michelin stars, as local chef Jean-Pierre Dargent, buys his ingredients there and gives cooking lessons in the Boyaval cookware shop in the rue Emile Legrelle.

Arras is also a jewel in the region’s historical crown. The town has three imposing Flemish-baroque squares, a belfry which has been classed a world heritage site by UNESCO, and a garden created in a former limestone quarry which stretches across 20km underground and was used by soldiers and locals in the world wars.

The vast majority of the town was destroyed in the First World War and the baroque facades of the three ‘places’ were rebuilt brick for brick using original materials.

For culture though, the region’s capital Lille is hard to beat, with its Musee de Beaux Arts which has one of the most extensive collections of art in France outside the Louvre in Paris. There is also an imposing theatre, the celebrated teashop Meert, and the popular bakery Paul was founded here.

For sumptuous seafood go to A L’Huitriere, in rue des Chats-Bossus, which was founded in 1882 as a shop selling exclusively oysters and snails.

Now though, a mind-boggling array of seafood arrives from ports around France every morning. It is available for sale in the ornate shop at the front of the building, which stays open until 9.30pm when the last orders are taken in the restaurant at the rear.

The dedication of fourth generation owner Antoine Proye has paid off: the restaurant has been featured in the Michelin guide with one or two stars every year since 1930.

For a taste of something different, head to Flanders. According to Emmanuel de Quillacq, who created the area’s first shop and restaurant dedicated only to locally produced regional food, Flemish cooking should be “local and fresh and convivial”. His L’Estaminet restaurant, in Cassel, serves a delicious range of beers, ciders and lemonades, with attention to detail even stretching as far as cooking with Medieval herbs such as Sweet Cicely. M. de Quillaq says “The idea is that the visitor feels at peace and at home here in Flanders, and can feel, taste, hear and see his country.”

His Flemish garden, in Wouwenberghof, was created with the same philosophy. It contains several themed “rooms” – a weaving snakelike hedge and apple form part of the temptation room, for example, while there is also a lake with tiny island and a medieval chicken house copied lovingly from a design in a book.

On a misty morning, when we saw it, the romance and atmosphere of the place was rather intoxicating. But somehow, after another helping of good flemish food and alcohol, we got over it.

Where we stayed: Auberge de Bon Fermier, Rue de Famars, Valenciennes. A 17th century inn with medieval flourishes, including suits of armour, a wooden staircase from a local church and restaurant in the old stables, but still retaining four star luxury.

Double rooms from 85 euros Domaine des Araucarias, 35 bouelvard de Paris, Lillers. Beautiful, copiously decorated 19th century villa run by husband and wife couple, who make their own chocolates.

Guests all eat together as is the French custom. Rooms from 50 euros Chatellerie de Schoebeque, 32 rue de Marachal Foch, Cassel. Every room in this amazing contemporary hotel is themed, while there is a pool, restaurant and a lovely view of the flemish hills. Double rooms from 155 euros.

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