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How I love French markets – if you have been reading my blogs you may realise by now that I love to browse these wonderful cultural shopping places whenever I am in France. This time of year is no exception, in fact it is the time when we have an excuse (who needs an excuse!) to take a trip over the channel to France just to experience the Christmas markets. For centuries French housewives have spent time preparing festive foods and baking Christmas treats and this was the start of the Christmas markets, to supply all their needs. Of course nowadays the Christmas markets are even bigger and better and they draw people to the regions just for this alone.

Northern France is so near to the United Kingdom and it has become in some ways a seasonal treat for us to pop over the channel just to spend some time browsing these markets and fairs and taking in the atmosphere which to me is like no other at this time of year. They offer a Christmas experience so different to the usual high street shops and you have the opportunity to buy unusual foodstuffs or regional specialities that are utterly intoxicating. This is France after all and their foodstuffs are just divine. Shopping for Christmas presents is so easy – you have so much choice from beautifully packaged sweets; chocolates – so yummy; French cakes – like no other; traditional Christmas decorations and local crafts which are often much better quality than you would buy in the high street. There is something for everyone.

Lille is a good choice if going from the United Kingdom as it is easy to get to by Euro star through the Channel tunnel and you can arrive fresh and ready to have a good day shopping or browsing and taking in the cultural experience. Lille used to be known at one time as the Manchester of France, mainly due to its history with the textile industry which was heavy and dirty. Nowadays Lille has much to offer, enjoying its colourful past with street life, markets and carnivals. However, just like Manchester, Lille is often wet at this time of year as the weather can be unpredictable so if you do plan a visit, make sure you take a warm, waterproof coat with you. Apart from that you will have a great time and experience the flavour of this part of France. It has become a top destination from all over France as well at the United Kingdom as there are about 4000 shops in Lille! Lille is the capital of the Nord – Pas de Calais region of France and is near to the border with Belgium; in fact it Brussels about thirty five minutes away; it is also just one hour from Paris on the TVG line and since the opening of the Euro star tunnel it is now so very easy to connect with London taking about one hour twenty minutes. This has made Lille even more accessible from other regions

In the central square or the Grand Place, you will see a beautiful eighteen foot Christmas tree and hear the sound of Christmas carols being sung. The famous Christmas market in Lille is in the Place Rihour and here you will find the traditional wooden chalets, the stalls where you can browse the gourmet products and of course taste the wonderful mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. They have the most wonderful gourmet cheeses which you can enjoy with a glass of wine or a local beer and you can taste other regional specialities or choose some to take home with you. For chocolate lovers you will have to watch those calories as you will not be able to resist the temptation to indulge yourself with this heavenly confectionary. There will be so many choices when it comes to food – from street snacks such as gorgeous little crepes, to sea-food and beef carbonade. The local bistros and restaurants are renowned for serving the very best of local foods and you may be forgiven if you simply choose to sit and watch the world go by as you enjoy your French food, a beer or two and a cup of wonderful French coffee.

Lille has strong Flemish influences and this can be seen in much of the food here. Cider and beer are often drunk with the many traditional dishes so after a busy day exploring the sites and the market places it time to sample the local fare and one of our favourites dishes is the famous moules-frites with a glass of beer – you will find them everywhere.

Mussels are not everyone’s cup of tea and many people are frightened of making a dish with them. They are very easy to cook – it is the preparation that is the most important part so that you don’t eat any that would make you ill.

Mussels and crispy French fries – they go together so well and if you are really hungry, a piece of crispy French bread will add just a little more contentment. The fries are really to soak up the cooking juices and the French bread will serve this purpose really well. With this in mind I thought you would like a recipe for making moules-frites as it really is a great dish for a treat or to entertain your family and friends.

The dish is easy to make but it is the preparation that is important, the mussels need to be cleaned well under running water and scrubbed to remove the little gritty bits – you don’t want the grit between your teeth when eating them. Then remove the beards which are the long string like bits attached to the shells.

You can either buy ready to cook French fries – the oven baked ones are very good, or you can make your own which are so tasty. Again, it is the preparation and the planning that is the key here. You need to prepare your fries in advance as the mussels will cook in a few minutes. So to do this I usually cook French fries twice – that is I fry them the first time to get them ready and when the mussels are cooked I then plunge the fries back in the hot fat for a few minutes. This makes them nice and crispy.

You can use your deep fat fryer but if you don’t have one, a deep heavy bottomed pan will be fine. Just use whatever oil you prefer to fry your frites, a good vegetable oil is all you need.

Prepare your French Fries

You will need about 4 – 6 potatoes but you can make more if want. There is no need to peel them but again it is up to you. Simply cut the potatoes into ¼ inch slices, cut the slices into strips – rather like matchsticks although I prefer them a little thicker.

Put them in a bowl of salted water for about an hour or so, this removes some of the starch. If you don’t have time you can omit this part.

Rinse the potato strips and dry well on a tea cloth or kitchen towel. Then fry in hot oil until they are golden brown. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. The next stage will be done when the mussels are ready.

Last Stage – reheat the oil and fry the potatoes for a few minutes then drain on kitchen paper before serving.

Moules-Frites (Mussels and Chips/Fries)

Ingredients

  • 2kg mussels, cleaned and beard removed – scrub with a brush under running water
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 shallots or 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 – 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 250ls white wine or beer – pale not dark
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Method

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan over a medium heat.

Add the chopped shallots/onion, garlic and cook gently for a few minutes until soft.

Add the wine or beer, bring to the boil and immediately simmer with lid on the pan for about eight minutes.

Add the herbs and season with coarse salt and pepper as required – taste to see if you need any first.

Keep warm as you finish the last stage of your fries.

Serve in small bowls with a little of the cooking juices along with a bowl of French fries.