After 25 years in the gourmet food business, my wife Cindi decided on a career change. Yet, in the short week between the end of her first year in law school and the beginning of her summer job, we were both happy to return to her first love, and were looking for a food and wine vacation.
We decided on Côte-d’Or, in France’s Burgundy region. One reason was that it’s the central area for growing and bottling Burgundy wines. Another is that the local cuisine is considered some of the best in France.
Our first stop was Saulieu. O.k., technically it’s not in Côte-d’Or, but almost there on the way, and it would be a shame not to stop here. With a population of only 3,000, Saulieu is all but unknown in the U.S. And yet, in France, it’s known as a culinary crossroads, one of the prime places for gastronomes over the centuries to stop en route between the haute cuisine capitals Paris and Lyon.
Each year Saulieu has a festival celebrating regional food. Dozens of food and wine producers converge on this tiny town to show off their wares. The festivals, which have been held since 1990, are currently held each year in mid-October.
The annual festival is just a recent addition to Saulieu’s reputation. More important is its array of restaurants. Most of these are along the road leading into town, Rue d’Argentine, and a continuation of the road called Rue Grillot. This road is dominated by restaurants, most of them with hotels. Several are cited in the Michelin Guide and one, La Côte d’Or, was awarded three Michelin stars.
My journey through Saulieu with my wife consisted of walking around the beautiful medieval streets and wandering in and out of the local food shops.
Cindi would stop in every patisserie. That’s a pastry shop, often combined with a boulangerie (bakery). After all her years in in gourmet foods, she was still impressed and delighted with the range of pastries, and the attention to detail that went into both the taste and appearance of each one.
We’d go into the patisseries for my wife, but the charcuteries for me. The word charcuterie applies both to the name of the store and the products sold in it. Basically, it’s a store where they make and sell specialty meat products, such as sausages, cured meats, pâtés, and terrines (technically a terrine is a pâté without a pastry crust, but the words are now often used interchangeably).
One pride of the region is jambon persillé. This is a terrine made with pieces of ham in an aspic of gelatin, parsley, and garlic. In addition to being incredibly delicious, this was also beautiful to look at with its dark green and red mosaic pattern.
Saulieu and the rest of Côte-d’Or have an intense local tourist following, but they’re less popular among Americans. In fact, there was only one person at the Saulieu Tourist Office who could speak any English, and she could speak only a few words.
Although Beaune is southeast of Saulieu, you can go directly south or even swing west a little before going east if you want to do some country touring. Our trip passed through Autun, a town with interesting Roman ruins. In fact, a Roman ampitheatre overlooking a lake provided us with a lovely place to sit down in the early evening and eat some of the charcuterie and pastry we’d bought in Saulieu. There are also vineyards on the way to Beaune, as well as the Château Rochepot right outside of Beaune.
Beaune is the heart of the wine country. If you’ve never heard of it, start reading the fine print on the label the next time you buy a bottle a burgundy there’s a good chance the wine was bottled or distributed there. It’s a lovely, busy, delightfully old town that revolves around wine. There’s even a wine museum with exhibitions showing how the grape-growing and wine-making work, as well as information about the history and the people of the region.
The two main tourist attractions of Beaune, both next to the tourist office, are a charity hospital built in the fifteenth century called the Hospices de Beaune, which conducts a charity wine auction the third Sunday of November, and the Marché aux Vins, the Wine Market.
If you’re interested in tasting wines, Beaune is the center of the universe, and the Marché aux Vins is a good place to start seeing it. For under $10 at recent exchange rates, you can taste featured wines (when we visited there were 18 wines to sample), and keep your tasting cup as a souvenir. There’s a sign that says you can only stay an hour, but we were there for an hour and a half and no one seemed to mind.
After Marché aux Vins in the morning, we took a break in our wine tasting for lunch. Beaune contains numerous cafés and restaurants with outdoor tables on pedestrian plazas, and at one of those plazas I found out what beef bourguignon means in Burgundy. The beef comes from the prized local Charolais cows, all-white cows we could see along the roads in our travels. The stew is based on a true stock, not just drippings, and it was made with quality local wine. There was a wealth of pearl onions, carrots, and thick pieces of bacon, to make the entire stew incredibly delicious. The amount of time that went into the development of the stock and the stew was clear by the wonderfully deep, rich flavor of the dish. That, with some escargot and the ubiquitous cheese course, and we were back to wine tasting.
The Marché aux Vins is the most prominent wine tasting spot in Beaune, but there’s actually another one on the edge of town that we liked more, Patriarche Père et Fils. Unlike the Marché aux Vins, which featured numerous labels, this was all from one distributor. However, the variety was just as great.
We liked Patriarche Père et Fils better because they had actual caves, wine cellars, to walk through while tasting. Quiet, cool, and as dark as a scene from The X-Files, the caves seemed to go on forever, with every inch of wall space covered with bottles. In fact, we walked by over two million bottles. Some of the batches were labeled with a year, sometimes decades into the future, when they were to be taken out. A few were marked with an actual date, to celebrate a particular occasion.
Patriarche Père et Fils didn’t have any posted sign about how much time to spend, only a sign admonishing us to drink responsibly. In fact, no one disturbed us while we lingered, chatted with a Canadian couple we met, taking several “tastes” from some of the particularly good bottles.
Although every day seems to be a wine festival in Beaune, there actually are three days in November when special wine festivities occur. This is the weekend that ends with the auction at the Hospices de Beaune, and it’s filled with special programs, exhibitions, and additional opportunities to taste and shop for wine.
As delightful as Beaune was, the wine growing itself was of course outside the town. Beaune is surrounded by vineyards, with varying levels of tasting. What’s more, the 22-mile route north to Dijon is full of opportunities to see vineyards and taste wines.
There are basically two different ways to see the vineyards surrounding Beaune and en route to Dijon. You can do your own tour, by car or even bicycle. Or, you can book a vineyard “safari” bus tour from Beaune. It is the north-south strip of vineyard land starting a few miles south of Beaune, north through Beaune and ending a few miles south of Dijon, that literally comprises the “slope” from which Côte d’Or gets its name. Here, “côte” means slope or hillside, not the more usual translation “coast.” “D’Or,” golden, refers to the color of the slopes or the beauty of the region, depending on who you ask. Often you’ll see “Côte-D’Or” meaning the French department, and “the Côte d’Or” (no hyphen) meaning the physical slope, a much smaller area within the department.
Tasting and buying wines in the Côte d’Or outside of Beaune is yet another activity that’s best in the fall. The selection is better in the fall, and you also get to taste the current vintage.
At the northern end of the wine route is the city of Dijon. With a population of about 150,000, it’s a real city. The old city is somewhat separate. It retains a lot of the charm of the towns we drove through, and has some truly beautiful medieval buildings and courtyards. Unfortunately, it still had a city feel about it that made it not quite as attractive a place as the other medieval towns in Côte-d’Or. There was even the kind of tacky souvenir shop so delightfully absent from the rest of our trip.
But there’s the food. Besides the legendary restaurants, Dijon has its market on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings (best on Friday and Sunday). A massive area occupying the entire center of the old town is covered with tables and booths for food venders, large and small. A large portion of the market is inside a giant shell the size of a convention hall, and the rest sprawls around outside for blocks. The market isn’t limited to food, as there are some clothes, leather goods, and other similar type items. But clearly the food is the primary purpose of the market.
I remember reading years ago about women from the old Soviet Union being shown a U.S. supermarket and starting to cry when the saw the amount, the variety, and the quality of the foods. That’s how I felt at the Dijon market. There was such a variety of foods, all perfectly fresh and beautiful, and I knew I couldn’t take it with me. I had a slice of rabbit pâté and some goat cheese to eat while walking, but most of it I could only take in with my eyes. If you’re not staying at a place with kitchen facilities, plan on having picnics in the country, and load up on ready-to-eat foods like cheese, fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries, and charcuterie.
Dijon is especially known for its pain d’épice (spice bread) and a virtually infinite variety of mustards. As a veteran of years of gourmet food trade shows I can attest that there’s a difference between mustards developed over years in Dijon and the fad mustards that became so popular in the U.S. over the last decade.
Each fall Dijon has an international gastronomic fair, usually starting at the end of October and going into November. In addition to featuring the full range of French foods, each year there’s a guest country, with special exhibits and goods from that country.
Both Beaune and Dijon (but not Saulieu) participate in a French tourist program called Bon Weekend en Villes from November to March. This is a package program that lets you get two nights in a hotel for the price of one, as well as discounts on local admissions prices and a present on arrival. Beaune and Dijon are close enough that either could be your home base, but I’d recommend using Beaune. It’s a prettier place, and besides, it’s where you’ll do more of your wine drinking.