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BURGUNDY


"Every Bit is Edible"

V
ous êtes en Bourgogne, ("You are in Burgundy") announces the sign on the A6 Autoroute linking Paris to the South of France, as if to say that you are entering a realm of earthly delights. Indeed, you are; for Burgundy is the heartland of rural France, a deeply civilized region where a spiritual, monastic tradition goes hand in hand with a robust joie de vivre, and where wine is the lifeblood of the land.

Burgundy bristles with history. Celts, Gauls, and Romans occupied the area before the advent of the Burgundi in 443 AD, who settled along the banks of the River Saône and gave their name to the region. Embattled throughout the Middle Ages, Burgundy became an independent dukedom in 1015 under Robert Capet, a member of the French royal family. Capetians held the duchy until their line died out in the late fourteenth century. Burgundy then reverted to the Valois branch of the royal family, known for their opulence and love of art. The reign of the Valois Grand Dukes—Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Bold—straddled a century, producing a golden age during which their capital, Dijon, was transformed into a flourishing, cosmopolitan center of art and culture. Upon the death of Charles the Bold in 1476, the vast territories attached to the cities of Mâcon, Auxerre, and Charolles were annexed by the Crown. The era of power and independence was ended: henceforth, Burgundy belonged to France.

Today Burgundy takes pride in its provincial character. Most Burgundians would agree that the region has acquired that mystical and almost untranslatable status of France profonde. Though some industry thrives, compared to the rest of the country Burgundy has a higher proportion of farmers, winegrowers, craftspeople, traders, and small family businesses.

In its Valois heyday, Burgundy extended south to Provence and included most of Belgium, as well as parts of Holland and Switerland. Considerably smaller, modern Burgundy is made up of four départements: Yonne, Nièvre, Côte-d'Or, and Saône-et-Loire. Dijon, with its fabulous artistic legacy from the days of the Grand Dukes, is the official capital of Burgundy. Yet its influence cannot be said to extend up to the Yonne or Nièvre, which look Parisward for inspiration, while Saône-et-Loire lives under the thrall of Lyon. In truth, Burgundy straddles North and South in a huge swath of largely rural landscapes, a mellow patchwork of vineyards, pastures, rivers, and woods.

All Roads Lead to Cluny

The French writer Colette, herself Burgundy-born, once said of her homeland that “Burgundy is like a pig: some parts are more memorable than others, but every bit is edible.” She was right. Burgundy is enchanting, austere, sensual, and spiritual by turns. The wooded hills and lakes of the romantic Morvan Forest exude mysticism and Celtic lore, while the gentle slopes of the Côte-d'Or are an intoxicating plunge into some of the world's most illustrious vineyards. Though history tells us that all roads lead to Rome, in the Middle Ages they led to Cluny, the site of a Benedictine abbey—long the largest church in Christendom—founded in 910 on the banks of the River Grosne. Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, the monastic movement fostered an ecclesiastical building boom that endowed Burgundy with some of the crown jewels of Romanesque architecture. The cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun, the basilica of Sainte-Madeleine in Vézelay, and the abbey of Saint-Philibert in Tournus are consummate masterpieces; the Brionnais and Mâconnais districts in southern Burgundy offer humbler but equally moving examples of Romanesque country churches.

The towns of Sens, Auxerre, Avallon, Saulieu, Beaune, and Dijon long served as staging posts on the main southbound road from Paris to Geneva, Lyon, and Marseille. Today, the TGV—France's state-of-the-art bullet train—streaks through the countryside a great deal faster than the stage coaches of yore, bringing visitors to a part of France which has always given top priority to matters culinary. Burgundy's reputation for fine eating is said to date back to Gallo-Roman times. Certainly the Grand Dukes were renowned for their table: Philip the Good is credited with introducing the first menu at a banquet in 1457. So unabashed were the appetites of the Bishop Princes of Sens that they had indentations carved in their dining tables to accommodate their considerable girths!

Fine wine and food go naturally together. Thanks to well-tended soil and a cooperative climate, Burgundian produce is renowned for its excellence. Plump snails, Charollais beef Bresse chicken (the only poultry in France to have its own appellation contrôlée), fish from river and lake, wild mushrooms and game, cherries, blackcurrants, and a variety of cheeses (pungent Époisses, legendary Cîteaux, tangy chèvres) make the region a gastronomic galaxy for gourmets and gourmands, a veritable pilgrimage route of fine tables with a prodigious number of multi-toque tables. And while Burgundy's chefs have developed and refined their own personal cooking styles, many remain staunchly loyal to local ingredients and traditions.

“Good wine,” said Henry James, “is an inward emotion.” Sipping a glass of crisp, green-tinged Chablis in the quaint town that gave its name to this famous cru, you might well agree. Just a few miles away, in the ancient town of Tonnerre, visit the imposing Château de Tanlay. At Joigny, not far from Sens with its great Gothic cathedral, chef Jean-Michel Lorain draws discriminating diners at La Côte Saint-Jacques. Further south, Marc Meneau works his magic under the shadow of Sainte-Madeleine in Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay, while Le Relais Bernard Loiseau (the late Bernard Loiseau’s restaurant) in Saulieu affords an ideal stopover en route to the Morvan Regional Park. A tour of the ducal palace and superb museums of Dijon (the mustard—and gingerbread—capital of France) could be a prelude to a remarkable repast chez Jean-Paul Thibert. A halt at Autun to admire the cathedral could be followed by a lingering lunch at the excellent Lameloise in Chagny. Not far distant is Beaune, the wine-trading center of Burgundy and one of France's prettiest towns; do stop to admire the Hôtel-Dieu, a masterpiece of Burgundian-Flemish architecture (inside is Roger Van der Weyden's awe-inspiring "Last Judgment").

As you meander the vineyards of the Côte-d'Or and Côte de Beaune (Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Vougeot, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Montrachet, etc.), and perhaps purchase cheese from the monks at the ancient abbey of Cîteaux, keep in mind a local dictum: “Bordeaux is for the sick, our wines are for the healthy."


(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

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