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Cow in St. Pere, Burgundy, France. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Cow in St. Pere, Burgundy, France. photos by Max Hartshorne.

Blogging from Burgundy

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

April 9, 2007

Burgundy and Alsace Await--But First, the Anxiety

My flight tonight will take me to Paris, and then I will board a TGV fast train for a 90-minute ride to Montbard, in Burgundy. I will have a day there alone to explore Auxerre, then to the Lion D'Or hotel in Vezelay. The other journos will arrive on Wednesday, and together we will visit some wine cellars and enjoy lunch on a farm, then explore Dijon.

Later in the trip we head up to Strasbourg, in eastern France near the German border. We will see the Neuf Brisch, built by Louis XIV, which is an impenetrable octagonal fortress in the shape of a star. In the middle, there is a market, and the whole place is surrounded by five-meter ramparts. You'll see photos of this place next week, I look forward to sharing details of the trip with all of you as the week unfolds.

Now I am working on breathing, relaxing, and just trying to enjoy and not worry about my businesses while I am abroad.

Dans le Gare De Lyon, Attendez pour le TGV a Montbard

I'm sitting in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, waiting for an 11:45 am TGV train. I arrived after a pleasant flight, watching a silly movie about a plague in Paris that was spread by fleas shaken off of dead rats by a misunderstood lad who watched his father plunge to his death in Africa. I always love that feeling of traveling solo; arriving at the gate, waiting in line, having time to think and then doing things like taking cabs and getting to the train station all by myself.

My hosts didn't realize that the 8:44 am train they suggested I take to Montbard doesn't run on Tuesdays, only during the weekends. So I am here waiting in this chilly station. Every so often an amusing little song plays, it is the TGV themesong, announcing a departure. I've paid for 10 hours of wireless, giving up the idea of getting on line for free in Europe, and I am happy to say it's working. But the blogger instructions are in French, and I am surprised that I can read them.

Cat in the sun in St. Pere, Burgundy.
Cat in the sun in St. Pere, Burgundy.

Also surprising, the cafe au lait at this L'express Bleu was watery and weak-assed, so I ordered an espresso to wake me up. Now I've gotta find a SIM card so that my phone will work here in France, so I can call my hosts and tell them I'm on the later train.

It's greener here than in New England, still chilly but the trees are far advanced and there was green on the sides of the crowded highway as we battled traffic trying to get here for that elusive 8:44 departure.

Sipping The Real Chablis on a Boat in Auxerre

I arrived at Montbard and met my driver--he knew the train schedule so I wasn't stranded--and we began our trip to Auxerre. This town of about 45,000 is rich with architectural history; there are three hills and two famous cathedrals here. We toured the cool dark world of the crypts in the St-Germaine Abbey, where a cat lives among the ninth century paintings depicting the lives of saints.

The hills on the way to Auxerre were verdant; green rolling waves of grass, and then yellow topped plants called Colza in French, which are used to make salad oils. The season here is way ahead of us, people's gardens are already tilled and trees show their buds, unlike in New England where we are still ensconced in depressing brown.

Lunch was atop a barge on the Yonne river, served by the chipper Quillan David, who first brought me a glass of Chablis. Yes Chablis, that wine we know as a crappy jug wine by Gallo. Here it is crisp and dry, the village with this name is just ten miles away. As Quillan brought me my petite filet with gratin potatoes, I tried to clear the table, and I bobbled my tiny tape recorder and watched it topple in slow motion, over the side and into the river. No worries. The chef stripped down to his skivvies and jumped in to rescue the soggy device!

This boat is called Le Coche D'O, meaning the coach of the water, and at night it's a cool funky water bar--they have waters from all over the world, including Glenlivet, in addition to the Burgundian wines.

Touring the local roads you could see the stones that litter the soil. Limestone too, is in this soil and it was once barged down the Yonne to build Paris long ago. It is this tough soil that makes the wines here so memorable--the harder it is for the vines the better the end result, a geologist once told me.

Jarry Truffles: Auxerre's Signature Treat

I asked my guide if there was a signature food that symbolized the town of Auxerre. She didn't hesitate, and brought me inside a yellow awning, into a chocolate shop by the name of Jarry, on the main square. Madame Jarry gave us her famous 'Bourguignottes' rum and raisin flavored chocolate truffles. You bite down and taste the rum and then the chocolate takes over.

She handed me an elegant red and white bag with one of the cute little boxes all done up with ribbons to take with me.

The Straight Roads of Burgundy

France to me has always been symbolized by that classic Life magazine photo of the kid looking back from the bike holding the giant baguette. He is bicyling on a road like this, straight, and bordered by rows of trees.

Here we head toward our next stop in Burgundy. Today I kick back with no appointments until the other journalists arrive tonight for a meal at Marc Meneau's l'Esperance, a three-star restaurant in Sainte Pere-sous-Vezelay.

I'm going to borrow a bike and see some of the country lanes close up.

My Pedaling is Punctuated by the Sound of Birds

After breakfast at Marc Meneau, I borrowed a bike to go out and see the countryside. I pedaled around a bend and into the small village of St. Pere, where trucks carefully navigated the narrow streets and forced pedestrians up onto the sidewalk.

I rode over a bridge and out onto a slight upgrade, beside the river Cure. My pedaling at nine am was punctuated by birds, all around me I could hear their cries. In the distance cows lazily munched on grass up on the hillsides, and as I climbed a steeper hill a sweeping panorama of Burgundy unfolded before me. Ahead a farmer was fixing his fence, his little white truck parked beside the road. We exchanged murmured 'bonjours' and I pedaled on, in this glorious countryside nothing could have been more wonderful.

I reached the top and came across sheep with tiny babies suckling, and as I shot their photos they ran away. I made my way down and then up another hill and found a sign for "Les Fontaines Salees," the site of an ancient Roman thermal bath and salt
springs. Here were diagrams that showed the hot, tepid and cold baths, and the foundations of what were once beauty treatment rooms for women.

In the village there is a museum where the treasures from the site are on view. In one glass case were hundreds of Roman and later era coins retrieved from the bottom of the sacred fountain.

There were coins for Commodus, Augustus, and Hadrian, and for all of the emperors throughout the Roman eras, and then for kings, all cast in metal. It was a trip through ancient history seeing these coins all lined up for the different rulers, each tossed into the well for good luck.

Like on the road, the only sound here as I opened a door in the back of the small museum was the birds chirping, the only thing to see in the distance were rolling fields and trees with curious round bunches of leaves. Burgundy is a beautifully preserved part of the world--you can see why this is the world's number place to visit, with more than 75 million visitors each year.

Marc Meneau, Hero Chef of St. Pere

We met a hometown hero tonight...Marc Meneau, who left his little town of St. Pere but came back and has spent the last 25 years developing vineyards and his Relais and Chateaux Inn and restaurant called L'Esperance. He wanted to show us his vineyards, and we were sitting on the patio of his elegant restaurant. Who were we to say no? So after enjoying his 'amuse de buche," a slender glass of whipped cream, caviar and beets, we jumped in our van and headed to the slopes. He showed us some little shoots that were encased in plastic. These were US vines that had been grafted to French vines to produce disease-resistant vines to grow Chardonnay.

We learned that in Burgundy, they only have two kinds of grapes. No blending here, no way, just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Then we headed to a tiny cave where he opened up some of his recent vintages...crisp, refreshing chards, and then we were surprised when uniformed waiters showed up in the cave with plates of cheese puffs and long cheesy pretzels. Nice!

Dinner at his three-star establishment was, of course lavish. Among the most memorable dishes was "Les 4 Variants de Pomme de Terre." One whipped with lots of butter, another cooked in a clay pot opened tableside, one that was tiny puffs that melted in your mouth and the last was a gratinee...potatoes of course, done in innovative ways. Dessert, oh god no, but yes, a huge plate of pastries was the pre-dessert. The main event was lighter, raspberries with whipped cream.

We staggered into the salon to enjoy our post prandial decaf, and a few of us faded away to our rooms. I stayed chatting with Shonda, a writer from Houston who had never been to Europe before. I assured her that yes, they always eat this way, then a cute little Labrador puppy bounded into the dining room and we gave it sugar cubes and it sat down, sated.

M. Perrier's Charolais bull in Burgundy, France.
M. Perrier's Charolais bull in Burgundy, France

Meeting Perrier's Pigs in Bazoches

I've settled into the Sofitel in Dijon, and after another classy meal, and all the email read, it's time once again to share some slices of La France. I haven't been in France since 1989, and it's still got that same je ne sais quois--is it the narrow streets? The little details in the meals like the 'amuse bouche' a surprise they present every time before you even get started? Is it the rolling fields of yellow-topped rapeseed, or the castle in the distance that we glimpsed out the window of a farm b&b we visited?

It's all of this--the physical unspoiled beauty, the graciousness of people we meet (bonjour monsieur! avoir monsieur!), it's the appreciation, not snobbery, for the finest wines. With the weather in the mid 70s, a spring starved Yankee like me is in heaven. The vines are just a few feet high, and the shoots are just barely coming up soon they will be wrapping themselves around their wires.

Today we had lunch with the Perriers. They own a farm/agritourism b&b right across from le Chateau de Bazoches, an elegant castle once owned by the famous French military architect and writer Vauban. It's privately owned now but we got to see the elegant insides and then drive out the long tree-lined driveway to the Ferme Auberge de Bazoches, where the Perriers raise pigs and white Charlerois cows.

Rooms here are just 42 Euros a night and one chamber looks out over the chateau which is lit up at night. Lunch was pork from the farm and a local Chardonnay. After coffee, we walked to the barn to meet the excited pigs, who all came running.

Later M. Perrier introduced us to his giant white bull. As to be expected all body parts were intact, and the beast scarfed grain from a bucket while his master smiled.

We took a long drive through the beautiful fields and small villages of Burgundy and got on the famous Routes des Grand Crus. Our driver pointed out the most famous and expensive grapes in the world. The small plot where Romanee Conti comes from, and ends up on shelves for $1000 a bottle. In a cozy cave, the cellarmaster Bernard Pennecot poured some Nuits St. Georges, Pommard and Fixin reds. Kent would have loved it!

He assured us that no matter how much we begged, nobody gets poured the Grand Cru. Even journalists like us couldn't get him to do it, without plunking down a pile of Euros for the privilege.

Alex Miles Brings Dijon's Secrets to Life

Alex Miles is a man I won't soon forget. We met this fascinating, articulate and curious fellow in Dijon, he was with the tourism board rep and took us around the city on our tour.

Alex Miles in Dijon's les Halles market.
Alex Miles in Dijon's les Halles market.

With a short stature, a shaved bald head, and a penchant for details, he was a perfect guide to take us around this wonderful compact city that he's come to love. He doesn't act like he knows it all...but he sure did educate us about food, wine, France and the way cooks think.

He learned to cook in Paris restaurants. He never studied French, but now speaks it like a champ. He married his French wife and they moved to Dijon several years ago, he took a gig running a chain of croissant shops. But that didn't work out, and he got into teaching, lecturing and consulting on his favorite subject--the sociology of food.

In the sprawling and spotless Dijon market, Alex was in his element. We met his favorite baker, who presented us with the perfect crusty baguette. We met his fishmonger, and the startling gleam on every fish and the absolute clarity of their eyes convinced me these were the freshest I'd ever seen. Throughout the market, we met his friends, he comes here every day to stock up and they know him well.

"It's a human-sized city," he told us, biting into a piece of crusty walnut bread. "There is something hidden behind each wall." This we found out when a non descript door lead us to a back alley that opened up into a gloriously ornate wood and limestone carved inner sanctum, that was once a chapel.

Alex is a non-practicing Jew, who said the notion that France is full of anti-semites doesn't ring true to him. He said he just does not see it, and that people here are no different than in the US in this regard. The press tells a distorted story, he said.

He said that in France, the cooking comes from the top down, and in Italy, it's from the peasants on up. "Nearly all the best American chefs use French techniques," he said. "In the US, we talk about health all the time but are unhealthy. Instead of how we eat, it's what we eat...but it should be the other way around. Dijon, he said, is a good place to think about food.

I left him with a compliment: "You are smart, yet still very curious...and you are as interested as you are interesting." He said thanks, and we shuffled into our van for our drive to Strasbourg.

Read more about Max's adventures in travel and in running GoNOMAD and the GoNOMAD Cafe on the Readuponit blog.


A skilled horseman in Hungary Visit our Max Hartshorne Page with links to all his stories.


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Tags: storySection: Features
Location: Europe,France
author: Max Hartshorne
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