France is known for its gastronomy, for its flavours and heritage cuisine, for making good food such an important part of daily life that it’s been given a UNESCO label: “World Intangible Heritage” status.
Anyone who has been to France will know that there’s nothing quite like a boulangerie in the morning. The smell of fresh baked croissants, of baguettes being pulled out of a wood oven stays with you…
There are authentic bistros, charming cafés, grand gastronomic restaurants galore. And, then there are those unique places that live in your memory forever, they are just so special.
Le Chateau de Beaulieu hotel near Bethune
When my friend Benoit asked me if I wanted to join him for a cookery lesson with a very famous chef I warned him my friends call me Flop Chef not Top Chef. “Don’t worry” he said, “this chef is special, really special”.
We set off towards Bethune in the north of Pas de Calais, around an hour from Calais town. It’s an area of idyllic countryside peppered with tiny hamlets that look as if time has stood still. We arrived at Chef Marc Meurin’s stunning hotel the Chateau de Beaulieu in Busnes, and I have to say I think I did actually squeal when I saw my room. Toile wall paper and furnishings, chandeliers, huge picture windows over a private park – it’s so French and so elegant.
Then it was down to the kitchens to meet the 2 Michelin Starred chef Marc Meurin. I’d mentioned to another great chef I know, Stellio Lestienne of Michelin starred La Matelote in Boulogne-sur-Mer, that I was going to meet Chef Meurin. “He’s quite possibly the best chef in France” said Stellio. “Pretty much everyone who works in his kitchen comes away with the knowledge and the ability to run their own kitchen, open their own restaurant. He is superb and a great teacher”. No pressure then for a wannabe cook who can just about make cheese on toast! Although he also did also say “genuine, nice guy”!
Cookery lesson in Marc Meurin’s kitchen
You can book a lesson with Chef Meurin online (details here) and though his English is limited, several of his team speak very good English. You’ll spend four hours in the kitchen with the chef and his team making the most amazing dishes. Then you get to enjoy what you’ve created for lunch with chef, in his gorgeous restaurant Le Jardin d’Alice.
The kitchen is of course stunning, and the ingredients are the finest in the world. There’s no ordinary olive oil here, no common or garden salt or pepper – everything, and I mean everything, is the best it can possibly be. This, explains Chef Meurin to my wide eyed group, is essential to Michelin starred cuisine. He shops local where ever possible, scallops from nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer featured on our menu. And, he pays “well beyond what people would normally pay but to be the best, to make the best, you must use the best”.
The best of the best
As our lesson progressed, this renowned chef shared tips, anecdotes, advice. We made a Champagne sauce for our scallops, added white truffles to a dish that turned it into something extraordinary. We used citrus caviar from New Zealand at £150/kg in a simple dish that transformed it into a heavenly plate. Chef Meurin teased out tiny citrus balls with a pair of tweezers – talk about attention to detail! We made a beetroot cream, added a little gingerbread powder to it and made something I’ll never forget. I’ve never cooked like this before in my life.
“I never rest on my laurels” Chef Meurin says. “Always I have to be innovating, looking for inspiration. I test the recipes on my wife first”.
Nothing in this kitchen is wasted and so much details goes into the ingredients, the recipes, the plating up, it’s like no cookery lesson I’ve ever had. On this course you’ll discover an array of seasonal recipes and learn the tips and tricks of the top of the trade to make your meals an unforgettable experience. From the basics of traditional French cuisine, necessary kitchen utensils, professional cooking techniques and methods, key characteristics of foods and the best seasonal foods to use. But the best bit? You get to taste what you have made with Marc himself.
Le Meurin restaurant
If you don’t want to take a lesson but you do want to indulge in the most delicious dishes, there are two restaurants here. The Jardin d’Alice and Le Meurin. The former is Marc Meurin’s fabulous bistro where the three course menu starts €33. If you can, book in advance as it’s really popular.
Le Meurin is the Michelin starred restaurant set in what was the ball room of the castle. The décor is simple yet stunning and graceful. The food is sublime. Seriously, you have to try it for yourself.
I couldn’t help noticing as we drove into the carpark of the hotel that there was a sweet shop opposite the hotel. And not just any old sweet shop. Chef Meurin it turns out, has rather a sweet tooth. He absolutely loves to make bonbons, aerated chocolate (above left) and cakes! Stock up on your macarons here because they are out of this world.
I was delighted that at the end of our gastronomic dinner, the waiter wheeled over a sweet trolley packed with lollipops and little plant pots filled with chocolate soil and sugar flowers, with macarons and all manner of sweet things. Your inner Willy Wonka will do cartwheels at this one!
Note: Updated April 2021: The hotel and restaurant are now run by three Michelin starred chef Christophe Dufossé following Chef Meurin’s retirement.
Details here: www.lechateaudebeaulieu.fr
Discover more to do in the area: www.tourisme-bethune-bruay.fr