I first saw France's oldest patisserie, Meert (pronounced as 'mare'), while sticking my head out from a roofless, vintage Citroen 2CV convertible – the quick way to explore the cobbled streets and Flemish baroque brick-facades of Lille, the capital of Hauts-de-France (erstwhile Flanders). After the tour, I'm recommended a lunch of baked cheese croquets and beef broth at an estaminet (cafes that serve dishes with a strong influence of the neighbouring Belgium and beer brewed by the original inhabitants called Ch'tis). "And for desserts, always head to Meert," my guide advises.
The huge window displays and counters of this 1677 establishment tempts with its neat rows of viennoiseries (dough-delights of brioche, pain au lait, croissant, fruity tarts) and pÃ¢tisseries (egg and cream-based desserts of fruity tartlets, jellies iced in a riot of colours, marzipan cakes, five varieties of chocolate Ã©clairs, meringues, glazed berlingots, etc). Meert, I'm told, not only makes pastries that locals can easily hold and eat while walking on the streets, but also takes custom orders. Christmas is the busiest for the 120-staffed bakery, much in demand for its special bÃ»che (Yule-log), and heart-shape chocolates for Valentine's Day.
Within seconds, upon entering, from a culture hawk I became a drooling child. The place, I'm told, had the same effect on French nobility, generals (including Belgium's King Leopold I), statesman Charles de Gaulle and novelist Marguerite Yourcenar. It was here that ex-President of France, Francois Hollande lunched with the Mayor of Lille and socialist party supporter Martine Aubry, when he visited the northern France region in 2014. Frequenting Meert has become a family tradition for generations of French families, and often clients walk in, filling in the staff on how their grandparents got them here for tea and sweets after school.
While its vaulted ceiling, wooden panels, wrought iron railings and gold filigree give Meert a royal touch, the wooden counters inside brimming with sweetmeats in glass jars and chocolates wrapped in Meert's packaging is a feast for the eyes. Meert also has an indoor gourmet restaurant, two tea rooms, an outdoor corridor and a patio area. We settle in the larger tearoom that smacks of warmth with its fireplace, larger-than-life paintings, round center table with vases of single roses under an opulent chandelier. Two glass cases hold souvenirs like a special Meert packaging for the Louvre. It gets cosier, when after much deliberation over their long list of teas, I get to sip my choice: a steaming cup of Lapsang Souchang Crocodile Taiwanese black tea. Its strong smoky flavour and aroma evoke the fragmented leathery skin of the reptile and the taste complements the buttery-soft milk chocolate cake we ordered.
Move over macaroons. It's the classic Meert gaufres (waffles) that steal the show in this part of France. This slim, oblong waffle is hand-pressed and holds in- between a creamy Madagascar vanilla filling created by confectioner Micheal Meert in 1849.
Handpressed by a tiny lattice pattern and Meert logo, it resembles the good ol' Pikwik biscuits, though not as crisp. It has a surprising long lifespan of 10 days and must never be refrigerated. Too stuffed, I wished to, but couldn't try the non-traditional flavours – blackcurrant and lime, pistachio and cherry, citrus and lemon. Want more? Meert's ice-cream trolley right outside is for ones with a sweeter tooth.
Oozing old world charm and creamy desserts, it's not surprising that the Meert is still preferred for business meets and quiet tea breaks by prominent French personalities.