In Thrall of the G-Words

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Gourmet, gourmand, gastronome, goofball, call those tucker wankers what you will, but after a week’s jolly junket through the tucker temples of Burgundy I’ve reached the inescapable conclusion, with apologies to Gordon Gekko, that gluttony is good.

In a country where reverence for elegant food and wine is almost a religion it could be stretching it a bit to describe Burgundy as the epicurean epicentre of France. But there is evidence.

There are 25 Michelin-starred restaurants, three of them with three stars, Lameloise in Chagny, La Côte St-Jacques in Joigny and Le Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu. It may be that the maestros here have an unassailable advantage.

They have ready seasonal access to prime beef from Charolais cattle, the best escargots in the country, lamb from Charollais sheep, the unique Bresse poultry (the essence of coq au vin) which, like Burgundian wine, is quality regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.

There are also truffles, mushrooms and cheeses; Mâconnais, Epoisses and the creamy Bouton de Culotte, an exquisite goat cheese from Mâcon.

There are game birds like pheasant, partridge and quail and lurking in the rivers and bubbly streams are crayfish, trout, pike and eels. Add to that the region’s aforesaid breathtaking wines and every alimentary disorder known to medicine seemed worth the risk.

I was in Dijon in the heart of Burgundy armed with a rental car and a five-day plan to eat my way to Nevers absorbing the best the Land of Great Art and Good Living could toss up, all expenses paid.

Dijon is about 90 minutes from Paris’ Gare de Lyon via a “ballistic missile” known as the TGV, a very fast train, sans seatbelts, that scuds across the undulating landscape like an F/A-18 Hornet on a low-level bombing run.

It was Sunday morning in the world headquarters of mustard and the few signs of activity seemed confined to the 13th century Notre Dame church, a towering Gothic edifice defended by regiments of villainous gargoyles.

A busker ground out a melancholy classical melody on a violin in a cobbled medieval alley while, around the corner in Rue Verrerie, sagging 16th century half-timbered houses accommodated 21st century shops and restaurants.

Around another corner was the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. For more than 400 years solid fellows with names like Philip the Bold, Philip the Good and John the Fearless ruled a region that included much of northern France and the now Benelux countries, a duchy wealthier and more influential than the French kingdom itself.

I shuffled through the pretty Place François-Rude with a rude statue of François in a fountain and into Place de la Libération, an architectural gem much loved by Burgundians, for lunch at a culinary gem in a lovely old 18th century house, Jean-Pierre Billoux’s Restaurant le Pré aux Clercs.

Covered tables were set up outside on the square right opposite the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy and the ensuing slap-up degustation spread which had helped earn Billoux one Michelin star included yummies like egg casserole with sea urchins, roasted catfish with chestnut cream and oyster dressing, calf sweetbread casserole with asparagus cream truffles and Brussels sprouts, warm jellied pigeon with crayfish, fried mushrooms and herb salad and roasted rack of lamb with kumquat compote and hibiscus.

Further fortified with an excess of Burgundian cheeses I headed south through the Côte de Nuits down the Route des Grands Crus toward Beaune winding past gently sloping farmland and 580 hectares of vineyards.

Tiny villages shared the names of the renowned wines they produced: Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Nuits Saint Georges and Vougeot whose vineyard is so esteemed that passing elements of the French Army are required to stop and salute. Well, that’s the story anyway.

Beaune was a cute looking town and a monument to refined gluttony that has never quite emerged from the Middle Ages. Beneath the cobbled streets of the old town millions of bottles of wine were maturing in dank cellars that hadn’t seen daylight for centuries.

I turned up, front and centre, for a Taste of the Five Senses experience at Bouchard Aîné & Fils sampling Grand Cru Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays at their headquarters in the Hôtel du Conseiller du Roy in Beaune built 1743.

The Pinot, I learnt, was vivid blackcurrant dominating over truffle and leather while the “nose’ of the Chardy revealed nuances of fresh fruit and white flowers. Whatever arcane secrets they held, all I knew was they were top drops and all were under $40.

Five minutes walk away was the remarkable Hôtel-Dieu, which was once a hospice built in the mid-15th century. The old wards and authentic furnishings were still there, almost exactly as they were when medieval nuns delivered God and bedpans to the dying.

With the multi-coloured glazed tiles of its traditional Burgundy roof, it is probably the most exquisite example of Flemish Renaissance design still standing. Inside were a perfectly preserved apothecary’s dispensary, a huge kitchen and a collection of medical instruments, sharp testimony to the scary business of staying alive in the Middle Ages.

In the spirit of the region, not even the hospice was immune from a dose of hedonism.  On the third weekend of November it hosts the largest charity wine auction in the world when there are more wine snobs per square metre than you’d find at a Grange Hermitage happy hour, if only there were such a thing. But it’s a serious event that apparently sets the wine prices for the year’s vintage.

I checked in at the 16th century, four-star Hôtel le Cep which was rated the best in town. It surrounded a Renaissance courtyard so lovely the Historical Monuments Society of France has had it classified. But a bigger attraction there was the elegant Loiseau des Vignes, a Michelin one-star restaurant with quiet, understated ambience and classic Burgundy cuisine.

Surrounded by crisp linen and fine bone china with a fire crackling across the intimate dining room, my cockles in aspic took on a special glow. Then the real food arrived; foie gras de canard, pigeon de la ferme, filet of duck with young turnips, muscovado sugar and Auger gingerbread and the devastating white chocolate with black chocolate sauce.

There was a staggering choice of 70 wines by the glass and in Beaune it’s a pretty safe bet that if you close your eyes and run a finger down a wine list you’re unlikely to pick anything but a blockbuster. The result in this case, a 1997 Pinot Noir La Chapelle Notre-Dame, was divine proof.

At the next table a middle-aged couple who appeared to be regulars tucked into an agreeable looking chateaubriand assisted by a terrier cradled in the lady’s lap, paws spread elegantly on the linen and waiting with astonishing patience for its share. Try that in Australia; it’s a quality I truly admire in the French.

Semur-en-Auxois was another medieval town perched on a pink granite outcrop above a loop in the Armançon River with a 13th century church, fortified gates, picturesque streets and so downright attractive jaded Parisians were snapping up properties there for weekenders as quickly as they came on the market.

Southwest was Saulieu, formerly an overnight stop on the Paris-Lyon mail run with a long history as a centre of gluttony. I found a carpark, cruised into the Café du Nord and bought a Kronenbourg beer. An old geezer in braces nursed a red wine next to a bloke with a ratty face sipping pastis who could have stepped out of a Fellini film.

Ratface lit up a smelly Gauloises and watched with envy as the under-employed bartender, Valerie, a heavy-set proletarian type, kept winning scratch cards and reinvesting in more.

I noted the blackboard menu of hamburgers, hot dogs and pommes frites as the lights came on across the street at the century old Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, formerly the Hôtel de la Côte-d’Or where the old mail coaches used to stop and where the late Bernard Loiseau had turned traditional Burgundian cuisine on its head earning three stars from Michelin for his efforts.

Loiseau had invested his all in a new “cuisine de jus” aimed firmly at the fitness brigade creating menus all but free of cream, butter and flour and using vegetable purees to thicken sauces. When press reports in 2003 hinted he might lose his three stars, Loiseau shot himself.

His legacy, Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, still with three stars, had been taken over by his protege, Patrick Bertron, whose disgustingly gorgeous spread started with crunchy breaded snails in an unidentifiable green jus followed by cold rock melon soup with Tio Pepe and the predictable frogs’ legs with a dob of garlic puree atop a velvety parsley sauce.

The waiters stayed busy changing the starched linen napkins after every course, even when they were spotlessly clean and pouring the Pinot Noir, a 1979 Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru.

Vegetables and a delicately deep fried zucchini flower decorated the crispiest langoustine, remarkable because in landlocked Burgundy it had retained the unmistakable taste of the ocean but after the pike-perch and salmon in red wine sauce I lost track of the rest of the 14 courses.

Next morning I loosened the seatbelt and aimed for the next binge at a noble chateau called the Vault de Lugny cruising through a beautiful green valley carved by the River Cousin and little flower-filled villages like Tharoiseau, Pontaubert and the bucolic charm and simplicity of Saint-Père.

Surrounded by a moat full of catchable trout and legions of peacocks, ducks and geese, the 11 rooms of the beautiful 16th century chateau had been restored by its beautiful owner, Elisabeth Matherat-Audan.

“I always wanted to run a fine hotel with a few rooms, a cat and good wines,” she said with a disarming smile delivering aperitifs in the salon, a plate of gougères, cheese filled chou-pastry puffs. She had clearly achieved her dream, although I didn’t see any cats.

The table d’hôte was a huge oaken bench in a stone room with a fireplace and a gaggle of Americans ordering Charolais boeuf bourguignon. I tend to avoid chooks but they raved about Bresse poultry so much I opted for what turned out to be a dreamy coq au vin and there was a bottle of 1982 Chassagne-Montrachet Pillot nearby that scarcely got a chance to breathe. It was all so très, très bien.

There was time next day for a cursory glance at Vézelay. It was medieval, it was on a steep hill and it had the 12th century Basilica of St Madeleine perched at the top where pilgrims once trekked to gaze at the alleged belongings of Mary Magdalene.

I stopped at a riverside cafe for coffee in Apremont-sur-Allier, a tiny village near Nevers beneath the sumptuous Château d’Apremont. There was fresh fish on the menu and the kind of wine list I had come to expect but I finally succumbed to palate fatigue and waved it all away. Hang on…

“Non, non, la carte,” I yelled after the willowy waitress. What the hell, this was still free and this was still Burgundy where too much excess was simply never enough.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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