Moules & Masses: The Lille Braderie

Lille Braderie Moules

May the man with the most mussels win…

The first weekend of every September, the city of Lille turns into a citywide flea market/garage sale/sidewalk sale/street party. September in Lille means one word : Braderie. Everything seems to revolve around the age old tradition of buying and selling junk, drinking too much beer and eating too many moules-frites. And let’s not forget the 8938 who ran the half-marathon and 10k in 2010!

According to an article that appeared in the Voix du Nord in 2008, the word braderie comes from the Dutch word braaden meaning to roast harking back to the Dutch past of the Capitale des Flandres. The Lille Braderie most likely goes back to the 12th century when peddlers could sell their products during the Foire de Lille, just after Assumption. In 1446, two chicken peddlers were allowed to sell herrings and roasted chicken. Then, in the 16th century, the Foire was turned into a flea market. According to legend, the predecessor of the current braderie began when the domestic servants of the rich inhabitants of Lille were given permission to sell their bosses’ cast offs and old belongings the last Saturday in August from sun up to sun down.

The modern day braderie begins on the first Saturday of September after the half-marathon and ends Sunday night. In between, there is haggling, bargaining, and lots of crowds (over 100 kilometers of stalls and 10,000 sellers were expected in 2011!).

The braderie is in the air for weeks before the festivities actually begin, a bit like the calm before the storm. People mark their “territory” with chalk or tape or spray paint on the sidewalks. In the days leading up to the the big event, you can find sellers sleeping on the dividers of the main boulevards or in tents around the Champs de Mars (the park to the north of the city) in order to guard their emplacement (spot). Braderie spots are free for people living along the braderie route. According to rumor, official spots are often sold off to the highest bidder.

One of the highlights is the moules-frites. According to popular legend (passed down to me by my lillois husband), mussels should only be eaten in months with the letter “r”. This means that no self-respecting lillois will eat mussels during the summer months. The braderie marks the first weekend of moules-frites season. In 2008, the Lille restaurants served approximately 500 tons of mussels over the course of the weekend. But rather than throw out the shells, they pile them high in front of their restaurants. The restaurant with the highest montagne de moules at the end of the weekend wins glory and fame. Admittedly, the city’s post-braderie odor befits the festivities.

The Lille braderie typifies the city in that it brings together people, history and food. Over 2 million people visited the braderie in 2010. Over 1000 police officies are on duty during  the weekend and over 700 people collect the 500 tons of garbage after the braderie.

The traditional Lille mussels (over which I met my husband!) are moules-marinieres, cooked with white wine, onion, bouquet garni and perhaps some cream.  My favorite mussels are inspired by  my sister’s description of a meal she had in Ireland, adapted to this recipe that appeared in Gourmet in 1996 to which I’ve added my own twist (extra wine and curry). Like us Franco-Americans, it’s a mix of cultures and spices and traditions.

So what are some of the annual traditions where you live?  And what do you eat?

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