Summer Whitford's Burgundy

The Tastiest Region in France: Burgundy





 After visiting Vézelay, your next destinations should be Dijon and Beaune along N74 which is the scenic wine route. Southward from Dijon, this famous wine road is always a thrill as you glance from left to right and back again. Posted along the roadway are signs that bear the names of villages and vineyards steeped in greatness: Chambertin, Romanée-Conti, Pommard, Volnay, Aloxe-Corton, Musigny, the list goes on. These names adorn some of the world’s rarest and most sought after wines and, for a wine lover, hearing them read aloud is like hearing St. Peter read the names of saints and heroes at the Pearly Gates.
 
To begin a tasting regimen in the Beaune area, start in the tiny village of Puligny-Montrachet at Table d’Olivier, the tasting salon of winery owner Olivier Leflaive. Based on its popularity, you’d be wise to make a reservation early because this unique experience is perfect for lunch. The chef offers light dishes created to pair perfectly with the wines and happily the meal is perfectly portioned so you can visit one or two more wineries before dinner.
 
One of the best times to visit is during late fall and water. While it may be colder, these months are slower for winemakers and it’s a good time to visit because Monsieur Leflaive is more likely to pop in for a visit, chat with his guests, take you on a tour of the cellar, or lead you on a tromp through the dormant vineyard.
 
Olivier Leflaive wines have made a name for themselves and are respected in Burgundy and around the world. When Olivier Leflaive decided to acquire the land necessary to create his own domaine in 1984, he didn’t make the decision lightly, he knew he already had the necessary experience to be a success. At the time, he had a thriving négociant business at the time, but it was his previous experience sharing the helm with his cousin Anne-Claude at world renowned Domaine Leflaive which gave him the confidence he needed to have a domaine that could rival other Côte d’Or winemakers.  
 
Now, after thirty years, the quality of his wines has put him in the ranks of other top producers. Luckily, he had a bit of the family magic to help him along and Monsieur Leflaive, like so many in Burgundy, has assembled a team that includes other dedicated family members. He runs his domaine and other properties with his brother Patrick and his Uncle Vincent. While his négociant business has always thrived, what drives this energetic winery owner is his love of the land and his constant attention to improving the quality of his wines.
 
There are twelve hectares in his domaine and many more hectares under vine in his négociant business. For Olivier Leflaive, all of his wines, whether they are a Grand Cru in Puligny-Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne, a Premier Cru in Volnay, or an A.O.C. Bourgogne Blanc, are made with the utmost care. Like most Burgundians, he is obsessed with the notion of letting the wine express the terroir.
 
After you have lunched with the charming Leflaive people you will want to revive yourself and shake the cobwebs loose, and the best way to do that is with some walking in the scenic countryside. A short drive away is the village of Baubigny, which sits in the shadow your destination, one of the most exquisite dreamlike castles you will ever see. It’s called Château de la Rochepot and this tiny treasure from the 13th century rises up above deeply wooded hillsides with a panoramic view of the Côte d’Or at its feet. It rises up from a hill and looks as if it’s magically floating among the trees. Its steep, colorfully tiled spires and roofline are a beacon to visitors that seem to sparkle in the sunshine.

Full days of tasting, walking, and sightseeing can be exhausting, so when you need fortifying you should make dinner plans. When in the Beaune area, you will want to do as the locals do and make a reservation at La Ciboulette. It’s where everyone, winemakers, local business people, and townspeople go for a meal prepared by a fantastic chef. To get there, head for the outer ring of the city right across from the Porte Saint Nicolas. This is the walled part of town and you must look carefully for the restaurant because from the outside, this inconspicuous restaurant almost disappears into the scenery.

For classic French cuisine, a fabulous selection of wines, and reasonable prices, this is the place to try. The chef was trained in the classics, but has the skill and creativity to create dishes that are variations on a theme. Chef Alban Demougeot owns the restaurant with his wife Isabel and once she greets you at the door and leads you to your seat, you will see why La Ciboulette is so popular.

The atmosphere is calm and refreshing and the décor is simple and understated, which leaves all of your senses free to enjoy your meal. Even when it’s busy, the chef comes to the table to take your order, which makes everyone feel as if they are special guests. You know when chef Alban disappears into the kitchen to see to your order your meal will be lovingly prepared. Meanwhile, Isabel flits from one table to the other, making sure her guests feel at home and explaining the details of each dish. This couple is a charming team that doesn’t stint on the food or service. The chef buys only the highest quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients and shops at the farmers market each morning. Dishes like the roasted Bresse chicken stuffed with sorrel are prepared with a light hand and arrive adorned with a beautiful array of colorful vegetables and an aromatic sauce.

As much as Beaune and the Côte d’Or can beguile, Burgundy is much more. Its southern region may not have the same reputation for wine as its cousins to the north, but Lyon, not Dijon is the city in Burgundy that’s considered France’s culinary capital, and its reputation is well deserved. The food of Lyon is distinct and renowned, so if you love tasty salamis, cured hams, delectable cheese, mouthwatering chicken, and cooking that speaks of the land and the person who prepared the meal, you will love this city. Excellent food is the norm here, whether it’s in Michelin-starred restaurants where chefs scurry around in tall toques and pristine white jackets, or little, homey places where the locals eat every day.
 
To get a sense of what Lyon, its people, its food, and the incredibly drinkable, local Beaujolais wines are really like, head to one of the local haunts, what are called bouchons. It’s in these little rustic bistros where you learn what the food of the people is like, what the French call cuisine de la bonne femme. This robust, boldly flavored, comfort food is what has kept generations of French people fortified during wars, famines, and political instability.
 
Don’t be surprised by the appearance of these little holes in the wall. Bouchons are famous for being almost monastic in their approach to décor and service. When you find one, you will forget the pretense of fine dining after you smell the heavenly aromas coming from the kitchen. Bouchons are almost always family-run operations with a tradition of rosy-cheeked, stalwart women at the stove. What bouchons lack in design, they make up for with ambiance, welcome, and scrumptious food. They are the place to experience Lyonnais cuisine in a visceral, personal way that you won’t get in a high-end restaurant.
 
It’s always been the women of France who have kept her culinary traditions alive, and Lyon has a history of celebrated women cooking simple food that tastes spectacular. Despite their matter-of-fact approach, these women and their skill in the kitchen have inspired some of France’s greatest chefs, Paul Bocuse and Jacques Pépin are just two famous examples.
 
These women, often affectionately referred to as Tante or Mère, offer fantastic food at reasonable prices. But there are a few bouchons where men are the cooks. One of the more memorable and respected bouchons is owned by chef Jean-Louis Gelin and his wife Françoise. They own La Meunière and take turns warmly greeting guests and inviting them to taste a slice of Bayonne ham or a bit of salami.
 
Jean Louis’ garrulous personality reigns supreme in this tiny kingdom and despite his short stature, his presence fills the small dining room which only seats forty. Mustachioed like a tiny version of a walrus and always dressed in a long apron, he has a huge personality which keeps you from noticing the faded, stained, and worn plaid oilcloth covering on the wall. All around you are old family photos and art deco posters, and in the front windows are, of course, white lace curtains. From the moment you cross the threshold, the Gelins are happy, hospitable hosts who love teaching people about their cuisine, encourage guests to taste regional specialties, and pour pitchers of Beaujolais. The room is full of chatter, guests speak to each other across little tables tightly squeezed in together, and it’s all good natured camaraderie.

A good bottle of Beaujolais is actually a smart choice for wine if you plan to taste your way through the menu. The wine will not overpower the food with big tannins and alcohol, the fruitiness will be in line with the robust flavors, and, as most bouchons serve Beaujolais at a cool 55 degrees F, the wine will be refreshing and won’t tire your palate. When choosing the wine, choose a Brouilly in honor of our host who was born and raised there. The 2008 Joseph Drouhin Brouilly is the perfect choice for a meal with many courses. This one is especially suited since 2008 was a great year in Beaujolais and the wine has soft, supple tannins, with floral hints of violet and deep blackberry and wild blueberry. Its brisk acidity will do well throughout the meal and won’t interfere with the cheese course either.
 
Two of the best starters are the selection of dried salamis and homemade country pâté and traditional frisée aux lardons, a perennial favorite of perfectly poached eggs with smoky, diced lardons tossed with a light mustard vinaigrette and curly endive. The main dish selections are as extensive as the starters, but a must try is the local chicken cooked in vinegar. The meat is tender and juicy with a deeply rich, chicken flavor free from any industrial farming that would water down its tastiness. The brisk acidity in the vinegar sauce is the perfect foil to the richness of the chicken and lighter than a creamy wine reduction sauce would be.
 
When dining in bouchons, never, ever miss the cheese course, it will give you yet another chance to explore the wonders of French regional cheese. One that appears on almost every cheese plate is Saint-Marcellin, from the Rhône-Alpes part of France (administratively Lyon is part of Rhône-Alpes; it’s associated with Burgundy as a wine sub region). This creamy cow’s milk cheese is meant to be eaten young when it’s between one and two months old, which is when it’s earthy, nutty, mushroomy flavors are at their peak. The cheese literally oozes when its rind is first cut and conveniently comes in a little brown or blue ceramic crock, which of course makes eating it less messy.
 
Now that you have been given a food lover’s itinerary to Burgundy, it’s up to you to pack your fork and knife and make your reservations. The stops and sights included are just the tip of the wonderful things you can experience.
 
Au revoir ma chérie et bon appétit.

Thank you for your time.

Summer Whitford, The Food & Wine Diva
Author, Join Us At The Embassy
Blog: Delicious Prose
Email: foodandwinediva@usa.net

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