In Offin, in the Seven Valleys, Pas de Calais tucked down one of the side streets of this tranquil little village is an extraordinary secret. There are no shops or bars and not many signs of life except on a Sunday, when the auberge of a local vegetable grower opens for lunch…
Offin is about an hour from Calais port, it nestles in the valleys of a green and lush part of rural northern France whose earth is rich and nourishing.
It is, says Francois Delepierre, a local artisan producer, just about perfect soil for nurturing and feeding the heirloom vegetables he grows organically year round on his little farm. Drive down the somewhat misleadingly named Grande Rue where the farm is located and if you blink, you’ll miss the sign for Aux Legumes d’Antan. And that would be a great loss for you because this little place is a treasure trove of fabulous vegetables and fruit from days gone by (d’antan in French), sold in the ancient shed that serves as a shop.
The best day to visit is certainly a Sunday as that is the day that Francois and his mother open up their little auberge and serve a traditional, authentic French country Sunday lunch. Using produce from their farm they have become one of the most sought out little eateries in the area by both locals and visiting tourists.
Tour the few acres at the back of the restaurant and you will discover an amazing array of vegetables which reflect eight years of hard work by horticulturist Francois. At first when I saw it I thought it was a little overgrown and ever so slightly messy. But I looked closer and found that in fact everything here is in harmony, sure the weeds are high but they are beneficial to the plants and wildlife and that is precisely what Francois wants. It is 100% organic and 100% wildlife friendly.
Somehow, despite the often wet weather of this part of northern France (nicknamed “The French North Pole” by southern neighbours), Francois manages to grow thousands of different types of fruit and veg. What is more he does it all with only the help of his mother Dominique who is just as passionate as he is about this little farm.
Francois explains that he spends several hours a day tending to the gardens as well as having a stall at seven local markets, making jams, soups, chutneys and other fabulous products to sell. He also helps in the restaurant kitchen and runs workshops on a variety of themes at the farm. I ask him when he sleeps and he smiles and says “not very often, usually I go to bed about midnight but I’m up at around 4 in the morning to start again”.
Like all great artisans, for Francois it’s all about heritage and passion for the produce. As we wander round the garden he stoops to pick carrots – purple, white, yellow. He cuts vegetables straight from the stalk and offers them up to be admired, seven varieties of aubergine, beans that make your eyes spin “these are sweet, these have a strong flavour, perfect for soups”. Francois knows the history, the tastes and the uses for all of the vegetables and loves to share the knowledge.
In the herb garden I’m astonished when Francois gives me a “menthe chocolat” stem to sniff and taste. It is amazing, it absolutely is chocolate and mint, and then he offers me pear and apple mint and shows me the aromatic tunnel, 120 different herbs and I’m hooked. I look at his mother Dominique and make a mental note to eat more veg, she looks so young and also survives on four hours a night and confides “it’s the vegetables”. As we walk around Dominique and Francois fill a wheelbarrow with fresh veg which is at it most perfect point of picking, ready to take to the kitchen to prepare for the Sunday lunch. I ask them if they can squeeze me in. “Not this week” says Francois “Every chair is filled” and I make a note to book to for the next week; if you want to join the foodies who are beating a track to this place, book in advance (details are on the website below).
In the auberge is a big fireplace and a piano, it feels like you’re in the front room of the house I say to Francois. “You are” he agrees“ you are chez nous, comme en famille; you will feel at home, like a friend”. The menu varies according to the season and for 18 Euros (2014) you will be served an aperitif, starter, main course and desert plus Dominique’s famous home made bread, cooked in her hundred year old wood oven. You will be assured of the most truly organic and cherished food, produced locally in a most convivial atmosphere in the heart of real France.
Find out more about the regular workshops (in French and English) held every month, markets, on site farm shop and auberge at the ferme Aux Legumes d’Antan website.