France: Burgundy Lives Up to Its Reputation
Screw the Freedom Fries: France Was Right!
By Max Hartshorne
An April trip to France’s Burgundy region made it clear why more people want to visit France than any other destination in the world. Quite simply, France has been luring visitors from around the world for centuries because this country knows how to make visitors feel welcome.
There is a sentiment in the US that the French don't want us to visit. The ridiculous spectacle of the "Freedom Fries" and the rancor of uninformed Americans at the French opposition to the Iraq War gave some people the impression that it was unpatriotic to visit France -- the country that helped win the American Revolution and gave us the Statue of Liberty
I love France. I love the hillsides that shine with the yellow tops of the rapeseed, and the endless rolling fields of rye grass, and the wonderful smell of a baguette just out of the oven. On this trip we visited Burgundy, once a great power on its own, now a bustling, prosperous province famous for wine, foie gras, and the beauty of its villages.
More than 75 million travelers from around the world make France their destination of choice each year. Though that might mean big crowds and no vacancy signs during July and August, it is still easy to find affordable accommodations during the warm months of April, May, June and September. Our weather in April was marvelous, the perfect temperature and climate for walking and picnicking in the country.
Our trip began in the ancient town of Auxerre, where canal boats meander, and two famous churches are built on three hills. The city of 45,000 residents has been inhabited since 800 years after the time of Christ, a waiter explained to me. Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d’Auxerre built in the 1200s is the main attraction here for pilgrims who want to see the crypts below and the ancient wall paintings in the gloom.
Boats line its shores of the canal on the Quai de la Republique. We had lunch on the top deck of a permanently moored boat owned by David Quillen, called Le Coche D’O. First he brought wine… a Chablis, of course, and it was dry and delicious.
His meal, a little filet with hash brown potatoes, was a delectable way to begin our gastronomic voyage to the land where fine cooking got its start. Like all meals in France, meals begin with the local wine, in this case the Chardonnay, or White Burgundy, and then to the first course, a meat course and a lavish dessert.
Eating like this makes one wonder just how that “French paradox” could possibly work. How can French people not blow up like balloons eating like this every day? Remarkably, somehow, they just don’t get fat here. I saw for myself a nation of thin and trim people. It is startling to see!
Asparagus Season in April
The asparagus is in full season here in April. These white shoots do not have the strong flavor of the green variety that is grown with sunlight, and these larger, thicker shoots are protected from the sunlight when they grow but still have that delicate flavor, especially when napped with buttery sauces.
We found them on the menus throughout Burgundy, as an appetizer -- often one of two choices that included duck liver, or foie gras.
We toured Auxerre and learned about the crypt below the famous church. Today this is a working monastery and down below it is cool and dark. Here we could see the famous relics of the 9th century; paintings on the wall provided a glimpse of life in the Middle Ages. You can tour these crypts daily.
I asked my guide, Didier, what is Auxerre’s most famous food? She didn’t hesitate, and took me to J. Parry Chocolatier, where the proprietress showed me the famous truffles her husband bakes. They’ve been here since 1910.
The truffles were redolent with the taste of liquor prepared with raisin-drenched rum, and she gave me a small box wrapped in ornate red paper as a souvenir of this charming town.
A Local Legend
We headed south to our next stop….the Michelin three-star restaurant and inn owned by local legend Marc Meneau.Meneau earned his three Michelin stars the hard way. He went away as a youth but returned and for twenty-five years he has welcomed guests into his starred Relais and Chateaux inn in the little village of St. Pere.
You can stay in the main inn, with a glassed-in dining area overlooking their extensive gardens or stay across the street in the Villas de Margaritas. There are 35 rooms in all. WiFi is free in all of the rooms, a rarity in France, and a nice amenity.
At dinner Mrs. Meneau makes the rounds of the tables, greeting guests, and Meneau himself spends a lot of time in his kitchens. He rents some land to grow grapes near the famous Basilica of Notre Dame in Velezay, perched on a hill overlooking the farm fields.
His sommelier took us out to his plots and we saw the small shoots that will soon yield a crop of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. He took us to a little cave to sample his chardonnays which were first rate.
Dinner that night at Marc Meneau was a show-stopper. It is truly remarkable to dine where the stakes are high in a place like this. Michelin stars are not thrown around easily in France; you know you’re in for something special.
Like so many fine restaurants here in Burgundy, the meals always begin with an ‘amuse bouche.’ This is a small whimsical bite of something to get you ready. It’s usually amusing, and Marc’s choice was an oyster in aspic of seawater, covering a basil leaf…then a plump raw oyster waiting below.Spuds Four Ways
On tonight’s menu was America’s favorite vegetable... the lowly pomme de terre, potatoes, done four ways. First, tiny one-inch puffs that we later found out were cooked twice to provide a pop when you eat them, second a champagne class filled with the most buttery whipped spuds you can imagine, and then a potato cooked in a clay covering, that was cracked tableside, and finally, a simple au gratin morsel to round out the dish.
The charm of this whole presentation was that everything was small… no giant plates of anything, just delectable small bites designed to excite the palate and bring out the inherent flavors of each vegetable, starch or meat.
That night we stayed across the road in the Villas de Margaritas. These are lovely one-story buildings and each one has a back patio surrounded on each side by a high hedge. Walking outside, there is a huge grass field that adjoins a lovely flowing stream.
A path runs alongside, and as I strolled the path in the evening as the sun was setting, I saw neighbors conversing about their gardens over the fence with one another.
The Glory of the Morning
The next morning I borrowed a bike and got a chance to view the beautiful country roads leading out of St. Pere. At nine a.m. it was peaceful; I pedaled up and along the river Mur and passed kayak rental stalls, and made my way up a hill.
There I had the full glory of the morning to myself, shared with some cows that munched grass as one young bull made growling noises at me.
Bikes can be rented along the river here in St. Pere. It’s the best way to really smell and see the countryside that is so lovely up close.
You could see for miles up on the hill above St. Pere. The weather was unexpectedly mild and the ground had already been tilled in preparation for the spring planting. I pedaled on and enjoyed the feel of the sun on my New England pale skin, and came across a brown sign that designated a historic area.
Here were the ruins of the Salon thermal, a Roman bath that had treated the locals to the pleasures of thermal waters since Roman times. You can still see the effects of the sulfur in the wells; little bubbles remind you that once this was a place for relaxation, and had separate changing rooms and beauty treatment areas for women. Men enjoyed wrestling matches on tiled courtyards.
Now it was just low stone walls, but you can still make out the channels once used to heat the floors of the spa
The ticket to this ancient site also allowed entry into the small museum in the village of St. Pere.
Here the most fascinating thing you can see are row upon row of coins, with the engraved images of each Roman emperor, tossed in thousands of years ago to the spring and retrieved by archeologists.
Coins tell stories, and seeing Hadrian, Commodus, Augustus and dozens of other emperors represented on the money of the day is quite a sight.
And, Of Course, The Vineyards
In Burgundy’s vineyards, which surround a corridor extending up from Beaune to Dijon, there are only two kinds of grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. No blending of varieties, and they pick each grape by hand: Burgundy's standards are different from their bigger cousin in Bordeaux.
Reading the signs is like touring a high class wine store. The familiar labels like Nuits St. Georges, Vosne Romanee, and Romanee Conti, perhaps the pinnacle of wine excellence, are all here. Our van idled right next to the plot of land on a hillside where these cherished and most expensive of grapes are grown to become the $1000 bottles that are only available in lots of six.
While no visitor gets to taste these Grand Crus, we did get some tastes of less rarified vintages in the cellar of Dufouleur Pere & Fils, a firm that grows 41 hectares of vines. Cellarmaster Bernard Pennecot said that one of the best years for wine was the worst for humans. That would be 2003, when more than 15,000 people died of heat exposure in France.But the oppressive summer heat that tortured humans shriveled grapes and resulted in one of the best, albeit smallest, vintages on record. They had to harvest the grapes quickly, in the middle of August, instead of September, but today 2003 is one of the best years they’ve ever had for Burgundy wines.
Dijon’s Hidden Places
Our trip into the wineries led us to the capital city of Burgundy, Dijon. Today this is a prosperous, bustling city of 460,000. Any large French city has a market where people meet. The perfect person to introduce us to Dijon was Alex Miles.
Miles is originally from Queens, New York. He has some of the accent left over, and today he sports a shaved head and makes his way among the market vendors like an old pro. He teaches gastronomy and the sociology of food… apt subjects for our trip to the city market.
He led us into the clean, bustling Dijon market and from the start it was clear this was a world-class place to buy anything edible. It is easy to navigate and the produce, meats, bread and cheeses were beyond superb. The fish, for example, was absolutely gleaming; this kind of shine means it is as fresh as you can get.Alex introduced us to his baker, who had reserved a baguette for him, (everything he bakes is sold out every day) and handed out samples of a crusty walnut loaf.
So Much Behind the Walls
He brought us to his favorite cheese stall and we sampled the pungent white Cantal cheese cut from a massive wheel. Alex comes here every day to get his bread and to catch up on the local gossip, as do most of the citizens of Dijon.
We also discovered what the name Dijon brings to mind for most Americans--great mustard! At the Maille Mustard shop, 36 varieties of mustard can be purchased in little bottles, and some, out of a sort beer tap. Talk about fresh mustard!
Touring this market made me yearn for a kitchen and more time in Dijon in which to prepare some of these delectable products found here.
“Dijon is a livable city, and a hidden city. There is so much behind the walls,” he told us, as we strolled a side street. Then he ducked into a nondescript doorway and down a hall that opened up into a high ceilinged courtyard.
“This was once a chapel,” he said, and we admired the wood carvings on the wall and the figures made of limestone that graced the tops of the ceiling. He was right; there are so many places in this city where you can look behind a wall or inside a courtyard and be amazed by striking architectural achievement.
We walked along and came up to a large open square, where a long series of fountains shot water into the air and people relaxed on benches. “This was once a parking lot,” he said. “First it was blocked off from traffic and just last year it was closed to cars.”
To me that’s real progress… promoting large pedestrian squares and keeping the cars out. I only wish I could impress leaders in the US to think the same way.
Dijon was the urban tip of Burgundy’s incredible iceberg of top notch chefs, charming sidewalk cafes, bucolic scenes and peaceful places to relax.
There is no sense resisting its charms. You just have to join the herd and find out why this is the world’s favorite travel destination. Seventy-five million travelers can't be wrong.