Beaune, La Joie et La Vineuse

Beaune has been at the heart of Burgundian culture since the days of the druids. During the Middle Ages, Beaune was a city of drapers, and cloth merchants made their fortunes there. Over the centuries, generations of Dukes waged wars, created courts of fame and beauty, and commissioned some of the most exquisite illuminated manuscripts ever produced. English Kings married into the Burgundian courts and helped to secure Beaune’s fame as a place of refinement and culture.

Today, the commoners come for the wine. Grape culture is tantamount to a religion, and I’m an adherent.

We travelled to Beaune (population 22,000) with our cousins Peta and Bryan and friends Annie, Suzanne and Christian. Suzanne and Christian had introduced us to many flavours of the local terroir on our previous visit to France, and so when Christian proposed a day of wine tasting in Beaune, we jumped at the opportunity.

The vineyards of Cote D'Or
The vineyards of Cote D’Or

We drove along the Route des Grands Crus and into the Côte d’Or, fields of placidly graving Charolaise cattle giving way to thousands of acres of densely planted vines. We skirted the edges of Mercurey, Saint-Aubin, Meursault, Pommard – names of the towns are synonymous with varietals. We entered Beaune through the welcoming gate of Saint Nicholas and headed to Cave Patriarache Père et Fils.

The St. Nicholas Gate into Beaune
The St. Nicholas Gate into Beaune

Cave Patriarache was started by Jean-Baptiste Patriarche in the eighteenth century. In 1796, he purchased the Ancient Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation, which had been confiscated during the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste had outgrown his original building in Savigny-les-Beaune and saw that the convent’s extensive cellars would give him the room he needed for his growing business. Cave Patriarche now has the largest cellars in Burgundy.

Upon entry, we were each given a small, flat silver cup, a “coupelles tastevin” to use for our tasting. The bumpy surface of the tastevin is designed to catch and refract the light to best show off the wine colour.

tastevin
coupelles tastevin

We descended deep under the streets of the town, through 5 kilometers of dark paths created by rows and rows of dusty bottles. Sections of the cellars date back to the fourteenth century, when they were used by the Monks of Chatreux to age their wines. There are literally millions of bottles in the cave and the walkways stretched out to dark corners far beyond our vision.

Wines for tasting were set up along our route, designated by candles and open bottles placed on barrels. Three whites, twelve reds. Our enthusiasm grew as we wended our way deeper into the cave.

Tim tasting in the cellars at Cave Petriarche
Tim tasting in the cellars at Cave Petriarche

In 1995, 350 bottles of an exclusive and promising vintage were put aside to be donated to an annual auction to raise funds for L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune. The bottles are under lock and key, quietly waiting for future discerning oenophiles, to open them as specified – in 2020, 2050, and 2094. We stopped to pay due homage.

The special cellar in Cave Patriarche
The special cellar in Cave Patriarche

Unfortunately, most of the Patriarche wines were out of our price range. We fell in love with a 2000 Pommard, 1st Cru but resisted purchasing a bottle. Instead, we topped up our tastevin just a bit and savoured every drop, before reemerging into the daylight and wended our way to lunch.

Christian had selected L’Air du Temps, for our repas of Burgundian flavours. Our prix fixe was a 3-course meal of local gastronome. I chose the Véritable Persillé de Bourgogne (a wonderful pork and ham pate, marbled with parsley), avec compotée d’éschalotes aux cassis; Bourguignon de Joue de Boeuf et Roseval (a Beef Bourguignon as I have never tasted, with tender morsels of beef slow-baked on thinly sliced potatoes); and Financier aux baies de cassis, sorbet cassis (a soft cake with blackberries and fresh blackberry sorbet). Every mouthful was a masterpiece. I felt like a spoiled Burgundian duchess.

Lunch at L'Air du Temps
Lunch at L’Air du Temps

Our last stop in Beaune was to visit L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune, the shining star of the city.

In 1443, Nicholas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins established the Hôtel Dieu as a “palace for the poor”. Nicholas gave a vast amount of his fortune to create and maintain the hospice. It is a stunningly beautiful building, famed for its remarkable roofs of coloured slate.

 

L'Hôtel Dieu de Beaune
L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune

Nicholas also commissioned artwork and tapestries to give comfort to the patients, including a huge triptych of the last judgment that was kept closed, only to be revealed to dying patients as part of their last rites.

Inside the hospice, thirty beds lined the walls of the “Great Hall of the Poors”. It was a respectful environment – the beds were designed to be private, yet accessible to the nuns who cared for the sick. Along with the nursing sisters, Hôtel Dieu housed doctors and scientists who worked in the laboratory. In the pharmacy, a resident apothecary created medicines from herbs, spices and tinctures. The busy kitchen cooked for everyone and baked 100 loaves a day to give away to the poor in the town.

Hôtel Dieu was like a city all unto itself and since the fifteenth century, it has been the pride of Beaune. Apparently King Louis XIV said, “This hospital is the glory of my kingdom.”

The hospice is still going strong. In 1971 it moved to new facilities, leaving the original building as a museum. Funds raised from the annual 450,000 visitors, and from the exclusive wine auction to which Cave Patriarache contributes, go to the hospital’s charitable works.

We’ve only touched the surface of Beaune when it’s time to leave. “Beaune la Jolie and Beaune la Vineuse conspire to take you up in their adorned and perfumed arms,” wrote Pierre Poupon, a great Burgundian man of letters. As we got into the car I wondered if he might be related to Poupon of the mustard fame? I looked longingly at a flyer for a mustard tasting in Beaune. I definitely need more time in those adorned and perfumed arms…

The gate at Cave Patriarche
The gate at Cave Patriarche

Encore Une Fois, part deux

After a morning exploring the treasures at the Marche des Puces in Restigne, Bryan, Peta, Tim and I drove to Bel-Air. Our task for the week was to wash all of the inside beams, and to put everything away for the winter. Although we arrived to a cold house, we got the wood stove burning and it was soon it toasty and warm.

Of course the best part of being in France is market day. Mondays are market days in Marcigny, a little village of about 2,000 people, about 20 minutes away. The town has beautiful architecture that is well looked after.

The market in Marcigny

The Marcigny market is my favourite thus far. It was small, yet filled with stalls of delicious foods. Huge lettuces, about the size of the largest platter in my kitchen. Every vegetable imaginable – incredibly fresh and healthy-looking. A cheese vendor who sold the most remarkable Cantal Entre Deux (my new favourite – it’s a semi-hard cheese that is savory and earthy), a chèvre, aged, dry and nutty, and a runny, creamy something covered in ash that we didn’t get the name of but which we fought over with a passion. We bought some saucissons (dried sausage), selecting one with wild boar and one with Myrtille berries, and some delicious, dense whole wheat baguettes. Clothes, CDs, handbags mixed with food stalls wafting the delicious smells of paella, roast pork and cooked potatoes. Bryan decided to splurge on a treat that he has always wanted to try – Calamari Farci, calamari stuffed with vermicelli, mushrooms and spices. (Good, but not great. An unusual choice for a French market, but reflecting a Vietnamese influence perhaps). We walked by rabbits, pigeons, chickens and budgies in cages. Peta and I found cute winter hats, 2 for 10€ (about $12), perfect for the cool fall air.

It was about 11:00 in the morning when we finished, and we popped into a café for coffee to warm us up. Most of the people at the other tables were drinking small tumblers of white wine. By the time we left at mid-day, the market stalls had been packed up, and people had vanished from the streets.

Marcigny and Peta. Everyone has gone home to have lunch.

Our days at Bel-Air were spent scrubbing and cleaning, except for the day we were invited to lunch at Suzanne and Christian’s. Their friends Monique and Jean Michel were also visiting, and the meal certainly stretched our meager French to the limit. Both Tim and I feel constantly embarrassed by our lack of French, and are very shy in social settings. However, along about the third bottle of wine, both we began to understand far more of what was being said, and were able to contribute with more enthusiasm (but with just as many faults!).

Suzanne served us appetizers (salted cashews, spicy crackers, slices of a bread, like a brioche, with ham and cheese) while Christian served Crémant. First course was a delicious seafood tarte, with a dollop of mayonnaise, olive and an Auxerrois wine (Vin des Fossils, 2010) from the Loire. Everyone we have visited in France is proud to share local produce with us, and  it is one of the great pleasures of the trip to be able to try so many new foods and tastes. Suzanne and Christian had just returned from the town of Charlieu with a specialty from the Loire – Andouille. Andouille is an aged sausage, made from, as far as I can tell, the neck and lungs of pork, and possibly beef as well. It is a very old recipe, carefully guarded. “Une recette tirée des grandes traditions gastronomiques Charliendines qui date de la nuit des temps, des hommes fidèles et rigoureux de cette douce alliance vous garantit ce résultat exceptionnel.” (which translates roughly as: “A recipe drawn from the Charliendines culinary traditions, which date from the dawn of time. Add to this men faithful and rigorous, and the combination guarantees this exceptional result.” The translation is rough, but so is the original!) Suzanne served the Andouille with the traditional boiled potatoes, and sauerkraut cabbage casserole. The Andouille had a dark, extraordinary flavor. Deep, slightly smokey and aged. Like nothing I have ever tasted. Served with a special Macon-Cruzille, 2008.

The entre was followed by the cheese platter (another new favourite – Délice de Bourgueil –  an amazing creamy cheese, somewhat similar to the St. Andre that we get at home). The meal was topped off with chocolates and coffee. There were other wines, other tastes. Too much for my already struggling brain to remember. Local foods, local wines, new friends who are very much of the terroir. A lunch from which we rolled home around 5:00 p.m.

Understandably, we needed a good walk the next day. The weather was lovely, and Christian offered to take us mushrooming in the nearby woods. Finding mushrooms is akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack – at this time of year they are buried beneath mounds of fallen leaves, often camouflaged the same colour. The day started promisingly, with a large Chanterelle – a mushroom that Christian knows well.

Christian shows Tim a Chantarelle

But although we found many mushrooms after this first, they were mostly inedible and potentially poisonous. However, they were very beautiful and unusual (I never knew that there were mauve mushrooms!) and after a while we developed a “catch and release” attitude. The joy of being out and tramping directionless in a fresh wood made the adventure rich in every detail.

The next day, the last of our week’s visit, the weather went from nice to spectacular. Unbelievably for late November, we took the big kitchen table out into the sunshine and had a lunch of Frisée salad and white wine, basking in the hot sunshine and overlooking the fields of Burgundy. The grey skies of London seemed a very long way away.

A November lunch in France

Parlez-vous Français?

Suzanne has been very patient with me. Since our return from Switzerland, I have been walking down the hill to her house in the mornings, to try and grapple with passé compose, impératif, et futur.

The Road to Suzanne's. The biggest predator for the chickens is the occasional car

Because I did not have English grammar drilled into me at school, French has always been a nightmare. My great frustration is that I have no subtlety. No kindness. « Would you mind looking over my homework » becomes “Look at my homework”, which is abrasive of course. So we work on:« Est-ce que tu pourrais regarder mon devoirs ? » and I vow to try and remember (je me souviens) the verb pouvoir in its many forms. To find a kinder, gentler approach.

Suzanne has been giving me exercises from books for children. I know that her grandson Baptiste finds this hilarious. Baptiste is 7, with a lovely toothless grin. He tells me that he gets about 2 Euros for each tooth from la Petite Souris (the equivalent of the tooth fairy). On Monday he gave me a recipe for chocolate cookies. Not sure why, but perhaps he wanted me to improve upon the brownies I had made for the family (see « Une opération bilingue »). The recipe was from a children’s magazine, similar to “Highlight Magazine” in the US, with fun drawings of child chefs carrying mounds of chocolate, and smashing it with a hammer.

The gauntlet is thrown, and I decide to make a batch of cookies before heading over. This means I begin my day clattering around in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. Measurements for recipes in the UK and Europe are all in weights. Unfortunately, there is not a set of kitchen scales here, and, being used to volume measurements, my approximations are pretty wonky. As I start to melt the butter, I can’t believe how good it smells. It is local, of course, and fills the kitchen with an irresistible, sweet, warmth. And the eggs! The yolks are orange.

I chop up the hunks of chocolate (I’ve been told that no one here uses chocolate chips, and I can see why – chocolate chunks are so much better!) The recipe is dead simple and scrumptious. I’ve included an English translation for “Baptiste’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies”, but you’ll have to figure out the weight measurements if that is the way you cook. That’s a translation I can’t do.

The lesson with Suzanne goes well, perhaps because of the cookies which are much appreciated by Baptiste and his sister. We get into a conversation about school lunches and Suzanne tells me that schools in France have cafeterias so that children can have a proper, 3-course lunch. She bemoans the fact that lunch is only an hour long for the children. Not nearly a long enough lunch for a Frenchman! When I try to explain that Canadian children have about 25 minutes, sitting at their desks, to eat whatever they have brought from home, she is justifiably appalled. She tells me that when she was at school, they regularly had 5-course lunches. And that for holiday lunches she was given Crémant! (Champagne). Have I mentioned that this is a civilized country?

On my way back from Suzanne’s Claudette stops me to give me 4 lovely courgettes. Claudette always greets me with a smile that melts my heart. I tell her that the lettuce that she gave me the day before (she calls it “salade”) became a wonderful Nicoise salad, and she and Robert are excited that I am able to rhyme off the ingredients in French. Les olives, les haricots verts, le thon, les pommes de terre, les tomates. That, at least, is easy from years of reading bilingual labels in Canada.

We manage a conversation about gardens, and I try to explain how my garden has very little earth, mostly rock, but that I live in a beautiful wood. She has barbed wire around her garden to protect it from les vaches. I try to explain the problem of deer, for which I have no word, and she teaches me “le cerf” et “la biche”. She speaks beautifully, explains how hard the garden and farm work is, how large the house is with just the two of them in it now. But as we look over the fields beyond, and breathe in the deep quiet of the countryside, we both know that we are standing in a privileged place. She asks if I will be back again and all I can say is j’espère. I hope.

Robert, Claudette and Albertino (from Portugal, he helps on the farm)

Une opération bilingue

King Charles VIII of France died in April 1498 at the lavish Château d’Amboise, after hitting his head on a low beam.  We learn this little bit of history on the day that Tim is to have his stitches removed, from the wound incurred from banging his head on a low beam in France.

Karine arrived at Bel-Air in the late morning, with a bag of supplies in hand. When we were at the hospital last week, Tim was told to make an appointment with a nurse (l’infirmier) to have the stitches removed. But we weren’t told how or where to make this appointment. Fortunately neighbor Suzanne’s daughter Karine is a nurse and she volunteered to come to the house to do the deed.

I make a pot of coffee, and we sit out on the patio, sheltering ourselves from the heat with a large blue umbrella. Karine speaks some English, and the visit is conducted in a mixture of languages. She is barely given a chance to sip her coffee because Bryan is very excited. Camera in hand he wants to record the “operation”, and has spent the previous night thinking through an appropriate script and commentary. Tim is positioned in the chair at the head of the table and we are ready to go.

Karine washes her hands and then lays her tools out on the table — 2 vials of antiseptic, 1 vial of antibiotic (just in case), plastic tweezers, scissors, scalpel, sterile gauze and wads of cotton — all carefully packaged in sterile plastic sleeves. She cleanses the wound (la blessure) and deftly slices through the blue thread de chaque point. Each one is quickly removed, held aloft and applauded. The operation is a success. Tim’s head is in tact.

“Karine, Je fait des “brownies” pour ta famille”. I send her home with a large plate, freshly made and still warm. We ask if we should be paying for the supplies, to which she replies, “Sarkozy va payer”. Thank you, again, French health care!

Working on my French is an uphill battle. There are a surprising number of words in my memory banks, but the verbs are a nightmare. Other than in high school, my French studies have been half-hearted attempts at self improvement: a series of classes with my dear neighbor Pauline, a dreadful evening college class, and forays into ancient French school text books. Suzanne has agreed to take me on for a few conversational classes, and I have met her down at her house several times. Elle est très gentille and accepts payment in Crémant (the local sparkling wine). After an hour I have managed to tell her I love her (instead of that I love my son). And I leave telling her that I am bad feet. It seems my default is always Je suis, which gives me a frustratingly arrogant air.

But Suzanne and her husband Christian are patient. I am given homework to gently steer me toward a past tense.  I pour through the back of the Robert Collins Super Senior français/anglais dictionnaire, scratching around the edges of comprehension.

Dave’s Magical Mystery Tour

Bryan’s friend Dave is a history teacher and avid bird watcher. Dave likes nothing more than to be a tour guide for the area and when he offered to take us on a “Magical Mystery Tour” we readily accepted. We met up with Dave at his tiny holiday house in Crecoux. As far as I could tell there are only 3 houses that belong to Crecow – Dave’s, a farmer’s and a house belonging to the Mayor of Les Guerraux, a small village of approximately 300. Dave and his wife purchased their house at the end of this very secluded rural road in Burgundy 12 years ago. With a broad smile, he refused to tell us our itinerary for the day, insisting that it be a surprise even for Bryan. We piled into his car and were off.

Our first stop was “Signal du Mont”. A wooden observatory, built upon the ruins of a Gallic fort, at 472 metres high it affords an amazing panorama of Burgundy.

View of Burgundy from Signal du Mont

There is no way that my camera is able to do it justice. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think that this was the first time that I realized just how vast France is. Beautifully kept fields, tiny villages, small towns as far as the eye can see. And in the far distance, the mountains of Massif Centrale.  An auspicious start to the day.

Tim & Dave on Signal du Mont

Dave then takes us on to the town of Bourbon Lancy. Bourbon Lancy is known primarily as a spa town (les Thermes – as in the thermal waters), and there is a thriving tourism dedicated to taking the waters. However, we are there to walk through the Medieval Quarter, which is a stunningly well-preserved part of town.

Houses of Bourbon Lancy

There is a clock in the stone gateway in which a manikin pulls a chain to chime the hour.  Immaculate gardens, cobbled streets and wooden beamed homes within the walled boundaries.

Detail on House in Bourbon Lancy
The Medieval Quarter

A vision of old France. The rest of the town is equally beautiful, with cafés and boulangeries that beg to be explored.

From Bourbon Lancy, Dave takes us to a small wilderness preserve on the Loire called La Fleurie. Here you can see how drastically the Loire has changed its course over the last 100 years. The river’s curves have lessoned and farmers must battle the changing flood plans.

Farm on the cliffs of the Loire

A farm sits atop the last remaining cliff on the Loire, and the cliff edge comes closer every year. The changing flow has created a small island that is preserved as a nature habitat, although Dave admits he has never seen any wildlife other than birds on it.

We are getting hungry and decide to head to Cronat for lunch. Cronat (population approximately 600) is a town that people mostly go through to get to the highway. Pretty, very quiet, Dave says it is a “one horse town”, but I can’t figure out what the horse might be. We lunch sitting outside at a small restaurant, and although the meal is disappointing, the company and the circumstances are not. And everything tastes better after a glass of Kir and a carafe of wine.

From Cronat we go to Port Thareau, near St. Hilaire-Fontaine (population less than 200). This is a very out of the way section of the Loire that Dave tells us used to be the docking point for the Royal Court of the Bourbons. They came down the river (against the current) from Paris, and were met at the dock to proceed by carriage to their country chateau. It is a magical spot, with 4 houses that face the river and a verge that is a perfect picnic spot.

Across the Loire at Port Thareau

It also has a more recent history that I find mesmerizing. The side of the river that we stand on was, during the Second World War, in occupied France. The other side, literally a stone’s throw, was Vichy, so called “free France”. It would have been a fairly easy place to slip across, as many Jews did, hoping to escape the Nazis in occupied France. Although not the best solution, as Vichy also rounded up Jews to send to the camps, being in free France could buy a little time. Today, the river is so shallow, one could easily walk across. A possible gateway to freedom. Tim falls in love with a house that is a complete ruin. Trees shield the house almost completely from view. Vines grow through the windows.

Briar Rose's House?

It is a vision from Briar Rose and I am afraid that Tim will, any moment, try to make his way inside this magical story.

What lies beyond the wall?

Bryan and Dave, both of a far more practical mind set, are confused by Tim’s passion and eloquence on the subject of a dilapidated house. We eventually pry him loose and head on to Decize. With 7000 inhabitants, we are seemingly thrust into a booming metropolis.

Across the Bridge to Decize

Dave navigates us toward the centre of town, which is accessed across a bridge. Where once there was water from the Loire, the bridge now crosses a field of wildflowers. The bridge and the town beyond are filled with a small town bustle of energy. It is becoming blisteringly hot, so we head to the city centre for a cooling drink. Dave suggests I try Perrier Menthe – Perrier with mint syrup. It is the perfect refreshing drink on such a day. We walk though Decize, through the fortress walls, and back along a canal toward the Loire. We come across a fabulous photographic exhibit “Des Forets et des Hommes” (check the link) set up outside amongst the tress of a small wood beside the river. The photographs are amazing and show everything from deforestation in the Amazon, to tree frogs in France. We slow down to take it all in and are moved by the beauty and the horror. One of the most startling pictures was a show down between a hummingbird and a viper. (check the link)

Sunburnt and weary, we head back to Bel-Air. Thankfully Bryan had made his famous Ratatouille the night before so although we settle into one of our fabulous 5 course meals, we do so with little effort. I throw in a few potatoes to roast and make crudités and a light salad. The Ratatouille is incredible (the inclusion of braised endives is an amazing innovation) and is complemented by quickly fried pork chops. Our cheese supply is in good stead and for dessert we have wild blackberries, picked the previous morning.

All in all, the day has been a wonderful window into this corner of the world. I am beginning to see life in a very different way. This is not like rural Canada, where all roads lead to a mid sized city and where everyone shops at chain stores. Although there are cars and conveniences like washing machines, computers and cell phones, people are leading quiet lives. Small villages still have several boulangeries and cafés. Small towns have grace and people who are open and friendly. I have yet to see anyone rushing.

Nursing a Perrier Menthe with the guys in Decize