To get to the gastronomic heart of any region, the best place to start is the market. Not only can you enjoy the life-affirming bustle, the chattering and the cackles of laughter, but you can see, smell, touch and taste the local produce so lovingly displayed in all its box-fresh finery.
It’s a late-May morning at Les Halles in Dijon, in a rare sunny respite from the torrential rain that has blighted Burgundy all spring, and which is worrying grape growers throughout the region. Gustave Eiffel’s imposing metal hub for producers and vendors of everything from pristine white asparagus to plump, red-crested Bresse chickens, from charcuterie to purveyors of pain d’épices (a moreish cake), is buzzing as punters stock up for the week.
As I wander about, nibbling on samples and marvelling at the passion with which these suppliers present and promote their wares, I rub my hands at the prospect of a five-day stay exploring the gastronomy and wine of Burgundy.
The trip promises much: some mustard-making, a meeting with a man known only as Dr Wine and a strange encounter with a ferret in a mustard factory. Actually, this part was not planned.
But first, it’s to Bresse, a former province that stretches across southern Burgundy and into parts of Rhône-Alps and Franche-Comté. I’ve heard so much about the quality of its big-breasted, flavour-packed poulardes, knowing that top chefs such as Heston Blumenthal will only use these AOC beauties for their chicken dishes. After a quick visit to Louhans – a small, unassuming town where images of the majestic coqs adorn aprons, placemats, shop windows and menu boards all along France’s longest arcaded high street – I finally get to try the famous fowl for myself.
Lunch is booked at Nathalie and Pascal Touvrey’s restaurant in Varennes St-Sauveur. Chef Pascal knows his chickens and roasts them to perfection, with just a little seasoning and herbs sprinkled on the skin, served with reduced stock jus and seasonal vegetables. The skin is thin, crisp, golden and unfatty, the meat succulent, firm and packing a flavour punch way above its weight. Utterly delicious and rightfully at the top of the pecking order.
After lunch I head to the nearby farm that supplies Pascal. Charming farmer and superfan of all things Bresse, Alain Magne lives and breathes his clucking white charges, caring meticulously for them and speaking in reverential tones of their gastronomic valeur. Through the drizzle he points to the vast spaces in which they enjoy foraging en plein air for protein to boost their already decent diet, then leads me to the barn where he plays them rock music during their final days. This is the morally sound face of modern chicken farming (unless you dislike Iron Maiden), and perhaps it’s no coincidence that the meat tastes so splendid.
Next, I learn some vital lessons about matching food and wine at the new Cave des Vignerons in Tournus. This modern wine shop provides interactive fun for those learning the basics of wine ‘reading’ and has plenty of samples to taste and buy. Graphs and charts detailing what to drink with what prove very useful (yes it’s true, you really should have white wine with soft, creamy cheeses). I’ve never been to a region of France where so much thought and dedication is given to selecting the right wine for lunch or dinner but after all, this is a prestigious wine producing region, the home of luminary tipples like Gevrey-Chambertin, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.
After a heady day of scoffing and sipping, Marie-Paule of the Bresse promotion board sends me on my boozy, woozy way with an AOC Bresse umbrella under my arm and a jolly ‘see you again’. It’s back to Dijon for a check-up with the mysterious Dr Wine… after a short snooze on the train.
Gorgeous, freshly scrubbed up Dijon with her slick trams, majestic museums and pretty roof tiles, is inextricably linked to the gastronomic arts, thanks in part to the synonymous condiment (look, there’s the Maille shop) but also its vast range of restaurants, vintage wine shops, cookery schools and speciality stores selling a vast range of regional goodies.
As for Dr Wine, this is rather disappointingly not a man randomly dispensing vintage Côtes de Nuits to help with your blood pressure, but a chichi eatery in the city centre run by the affable sommelier François Orisé – who has worked at Joël Robuchon, no less.
Simple, elegant platters, many meant for sharing à deux, are presented alongside carefully chosen glasses of French and international wines. It’s a simple formula and mightily effective – the business of food and wine matching is not about pretension, it’s about maximising the enjoyment of both elements. My enormous platter of cheese and charcuterie was perhaps the best (only) supper starter for two that I have ever polished off by my greedy self. I was at once elated at the range of artfully arranged gooey cheeses and rich meats… and appalled at my gluttony. François advised me to end on the strongly flavoured wild boar ham and some bleu d’Auvergne, washed down with a muscular Nuits St Georges. Inevitably, cheese dreams ensued.
Next day, after visiting some of Dijon’s prime spots, including a quickfire tour of the wonderful Fine Arts Museum, I rocked up for a cookery course at La Cuisine de Madeleine. In our friendly class of four, resplendent in plastic pinnies we chopped and mashed, fried and stirred before sitting down to a rather fine dish of pork medallions with a mustard crust, served alongside a mustard cream sauce and pommes purées. Delicious! Beside us a group of bank workers enjoyed their weekly work lunch outing. The French can be so civilised…
The best of Beaune
The designated capital of Burgundy wine is Beaune, just a short train ride from Dijon. Notable for its spectacular Hôtel-Dieu (a former charitable almshouse) it is, like Dijon, rammed with places to eat and drink amongst its charming squares and narrow streets. I found myself sipping a chilled Meursault at 10am on a Saturday morning in the company of Cristina Otel, a powerball of wine knowledge and passion for her subject. She runs the Taste Burgundy Wine School from her small office in the charmingly titled rue du Paradis. There’s nothing she can’t tell you about Burgundy winemaking and is a huge fan of taking her guests to visit producers in situ, in order to present the terroir in all its glory.
After a quick stroll around the lovely market (organic produce everywhere) my Burgundy swansong took place at the Fallot moutarderie on rue du Faubourg Bretonnière. After witnessing the sight of a ferret on a lead arriving for a guided tour of a mustard factory (don’t worry, production was closed for the day), and learning all about the history of this fiery condiment, my time was up.
I concluded that for anyone with a passion for great food and wine, Burgundy is perhaps the most inspirational place to visit in all of France.
This article first appeared in Issue 99 of FrenchEntrée Magazine.