Amazed in the Meuse, from dragées to dragons

June 23rd, 2008

A week in Lorraine – the Meuse and Moselle region of northeastern France – isn’t enough. What I had planned as a jaunt to visit Verdun, to taste and learn more about fine, artisanal sugared almonds turned out to be a revelation beyond candy-making. Wedged between Alsace and Champagne-Ardennes on the northern route to Luxembourg, the Lorraine region doesn’t get much ink in travelogues – or even in foodologues. The fact that Jeanne d’Arc lived here is an item tossed into guides and tourist pamphlets, as an aside to the glories of the Isle de France and the Loire valley. Since pre-Roman times, this cross roads has carried its history well, surviving invasions and changing rulers. In fact, it is amazing that so much remains after centuries of warfare.

After a day in Verdun, where Dragées Braquier have made sugared almonds since the eighteenth century (this is another, sweeter story!), we took a regional bus back to Metz, rolling through tranquil landscapes of pastures and river valleys from the Meuse to the Moselle. The city’s enormous central train station has a hulking stone presence, reflecting the neo-roman style popular in early twentieth century Germanic architcture (Metz was at the time under German rule).  I looked up at the modern fingers of light ringing the station plaza, and thought: these look like talons – or claws of a beast. We would meet the monster later, in the crypt of Cathedral St-Etienne.

We ambled up and down walking streets lined with shops on the way to the city’s central market. The best of Metz’ shopping streets is Rue Tête d’Or, where pastries and confections decorate windows, enticing me inside to inspect and to catch a whiff of raspberries and vanilla. I stopped to admire fanciful pastries as we passed Claude Bourguinon’s chocolate shop and tea room, just as a case of artisanal ice creams was temptingly rolled onto the street. We found the U-shaped Metz market hall facing the grand cathedral, which is still the hub of this vibrant city. Longer than the cathedrals of Bourges or Strasbourg, and nicknamed “God’s Lantern”, Metz’ cathedral is illuminated by 6,500 square meters of stained glass. Like many buildings in this historic center, St-Etienne is built of a luminous golden stone, pierre de Jaumont. With or without exterior illumination, these plazas and surrounding façades seem to glow from within. After a pause to study the cathedral looming over a café on the plaza, I was ready to scout for regional specialties in the market hall. June brings the melon season, berries and rhubarb for tartes, along with early green cabbage and flats of chantarelle mushrooms. Jars of Mirabelle plums are everywhere, but fresh Mirabelles will not be in the market until August. Then, the sweet, golden plum is cause for celebration in Metz, attracting thousands to its annual Mirabelle Fest.

Well past noon, a mounting hunger sent us in search of lunch à la Lorraine. The Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is a short walk, across two bridges, from the cathedral. We luckily found a table on their shaded terrace, an ideal spot to watch swans dipping into the river. I sipped a fruity white Moselle wine and awaited the arrival of a Tarte aux poireaux (Leek tart), then a Pintade au choux (Guinea fowl braised with cabbage) before tackling a Tarte aux groseilles à la crème d’amandes. The waitress, dressed in peasant skirt, cap and bodice, smiled when I rolled my eyes and took the last bite of the dark berry (currants and raspberries) tart with almond cream. My husband, Michel, didn’t look surprised and asked: More cream, eh? Well, a two-tart lunch doesn’t happen every day – only in Lorraine.

The crypt below St-Etienne cathedral holds artifacts of the city as well as religious documents and sculpture. And that is where I encountered a replica of the city’s legendary monster, the Graoully, suspended from the ceiling. St-Clement, the first bishop of Metz, was credited with destroying the menacing beast who was said to live in the old Roman arenas. It is a story reminiscent of St-George and the dragon, a familiar metaphor of Christian force crushing pagan beasts. In the third century, St-Clement founded the first chapel on the site of the Roman forum’s ruins. But tales of the Graoully are still told, in fact a literary award for science fiction writing, Le Graoully d’or (The golden Graoully) is awarded annually in Metz.

The famous Dragées de Verdun drew me to the Moselle, but there are many other reasons to return. The Mirabelle Festival in August, the huge monthly flea market – perhaps to find Madeleine molds or oval earthenware terrines – a gathering of brocante dealers second only in size to Paris’ noteworthy Marché St-Ouen, and the Marché de Noël would all be fun. Imagine stepping out of the monumental railway station into a frosty plaza filled with cabin-stalls chuck full of jams, pâtés, wines, novelties and preserved Mirabelles – all well lit by designer Philippe Starck’s narrow, pointed street lights. In any season, Metz is well worth the detour.

To view more images of Metz, tap the photo above. Then tap category “Bites of History” to return to the story.

Note: Take the TGV Est from Paris’ Gare de l’Est, about one hour’s train ride to Metz, via Nancy.

Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is at 1, rue du Pont St-Marcel in Metz. Open year round, reserving a table for dinner is advised : tel. 03 87 30 1229. Claude Bourguignon’s chocolate and pastry shop at 31, rue Tête d’Or, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:15 to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 8:30 to 12:30.

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