FRANCE is well known for excellent food – it is a way of life.
Every meal in a café or restaurant starts with a discussion about the items on the menu. In one modest café I ordered a cheese sandwich, and even this involved a discussion about which cheeses, salad, butter, and gherkins to go in it.
The Burgundy region in the centre of France, with Dijon as its capital, is probably the very best area for fine dining. The recent horse meat scandal hit France too. Even though horse meat is available for sale in butchers, and eating horses is not the horror that it is here, contaminating meat products with cheap, unspecified, bits of horse was to attack the sanctity of the food culture, and was as big a scandal as it was in the UK.
One beneficial side effect of all that is that it tipped the balance in favour of local, traceable, good quality food, which people are demanding more and more. This has given a great boost to small producers, usually family firms, who cannot compete with the cheap mass produced supermarket world-sourced low quality products. They produce top quality food, using local ingredients wherever possible, and you can actually go and see it being made.
Dijon is a great place to visit with lots to interest anyone – including a Scottish connection from the past – but I want to tell you about that in another article later, this time it is all about food – food tourism!
Starting in the centre of Dijon itself, in the Place Bossuet, you cannot miss an ancient building, 15th century, criss-crossed with red wood on white plaster. This is the home of Mulot & Petitjean. (www.mulotpetitjean.fr) The old fashioned windows are small compared to modern plate glass ones, and make you peer inside, just like in the good old days. Go inside and it is like stepping back in time.
Facing you is an ornate desk with a little balustrade around it – the cash desk. Assistants did not handle money, they wrapped up your chosen items and you paid at this cash desk, usually ruled over by a dragon who knew her position in society. The business is run today by Madame Catherine Petitjohn – the 9th generation to maintain the tradition started in 1796. They make varieties of spiced bread (pain d’épices) which come in many shapes and sizes. Huge slabs of dark brown cake-looking “pain” (French for bread and pronounced “pan”) is in great demand today by discerning chefs who grill it and let goat’s cheese melt over it as a delicacy. This “pain” is heavy and hard – it lasts a long time as it has honey in it as the liquid – not water or milk, so it is dry but not crumbly, and needs no preservatives.
“Les Nonnettes de Dijon” have been made since the start. These are small cake shaped “pains” filled traditionally with orange, and today also with apricot, cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) caramel, lemon curd etc. You can buy miniature ones covered in chocolate – absolutely delicious. “Petits Mulots” are individually wrapped bite sized glazed cakes, ideal to carry around with you.
All the products are unique, pure, irresistible, and available in a variety of tins and packets traditional and modern. The company employs 46 people in total, and encourages you to go into the back shop where demonstrations of making the “pain” are given – with sampling, of course! It is good that you can see how and where it is made; it gives you confidence in what you are eating.
The area around Dijon is the best red wine producing region ever (OK that’s my opinion, but few would argue!) but it does not produce such good white wines. Just to the north side of Dijon is Lac Kir. This lake and the surrounding park land is extremely popular with the locals. It is named after a famous priest, Canon Kir. He lived modestly, and rather than drink the costly but superb red wine, would drink the lowest quality cheap white wine, the Aligoté, and would make it palatable by adding a little syrup of blackcurrant, called Cassis, to make a “Kir”. Today a “Kir” is well known everywhere.
Just to the south of Dijon is the famous small town of Nuits St George, home to the very best of red wine. Here there is the “Cassisium” (www.cassissium.fr). The blackcurrants are harvested in the Hautes–Côtes–de-Nuits area, and processed at the Védrenne distillery. There are guided tours showing the process and the oak barrels and familiar copper stills, ending in the fascinating museum and shop, with tastings of the crème de cassis, and their other liqueurs and eaux-de-vie (water of life – sounds familiar?!) The tours are available in many languages thanks to an audio guide, cost 8.50 Euros per adult, and the Cassisium is open for tours from 1st April to mid November, every day.
A worldwide speciality of Dijon is mustard, and one of the well known brands is Maille, founded here in 1747. See www.maille.com
There is an amazing variety of mustards and recipe books as well. A shop on the Rue de la Liberté in Dijon will fill jars for you from a pump. Today Maille is part of the giant Unilever company.
There is another manufacturer of mustard – Edmund Fallot, in Beaune, just south of Dijon. This family company (www.fallot.com) produce the most exquisite mustards of many varieties, including walnut, blackcurrant, provençale, mild, and Burgundy mustard. There is also one made with pain d’épices de Dijon – another example of these small producers working together.
A tour of the small factory shows that it is a quite simple process, but needs their skill to make a special product. In the exhibition and shop area, you can taste the different varieties, and buy mustard in small 25 grams pots up to massive 5 kg buckets – so don’t get carried away!
I must admit that it opened my eyes to what is possible – mustard is a long way from the coarse tongue burning stuff of old! It is also an excellent ingredient for many sauces and dishes. I learned that the majority of mustard seed comes from Canada. Fallot have encouraged the planting of mustard in Burgundy, and now 60% of their seed comes from the region – another example of good quality, local food, produced with care by a small family business.
They still use huge flat stone grinding wheels to mill the seed, and this gives a quality that mass produced techniques cannot. Also produced is a range of vinegars, such as with walnuts, raspberries, apple cider and even red wine. Tours are available from mid March to mid November, cost 10 Euros per adult, and are well worth it.
Beaune itself is also well worth a visit – but that is another story.
Of course France is the land of cheeses. Just a dozen kilometres from Dijon is the village of Brochon, where the Gaugry family make their cheeses. (www.fromageriegaugry.com)
You cannot miss the striking facade of the cheese factory Gaugry, started in 1946 when Raymond and Odette Gaugry collected milk from the local farms and delivered it round about. Any surplus was made into cheese. Today, the third generation of the family and 30 employees make superb cheeses.
The factory is set out for tourists, and you can view through windows the production process, which is all stainless steel machinery, apart from the hand washing of the cheeses. This is their speciality. The crusts of their flat round cheeses are soft because of this process. It is fascinating to watch the workers handling the cheeses, which are washed several times until they are fully mature. Demand keeps growing as they are becoming better known; last year around 850,000 individual cheeses were produced.
In the shop many types of cheese are for sale, not just theirs, as well as pain d’épice, Fallot mustard, cassis, and other regional products – all working together. If you take the tour, you end up in a cafébar where at rustic tables you get a plate of several samples of the different cheeses, delicious local bread, and of course local red wine. You can also call in here and order a meal – superb!
The shop and café are open six days a week. Gaugry’s main cheese is the Époisse, strong, soft and unpasteurised. The “L’Ami du Chambertin” is matured with Marc de Bourgogne, a strong, yellow wine produced from the residues from making white wine which is then matured in oak barrels. This gives the cheese a subtle, fruity taste. Others include Cendré de Vergy, which has a crust of wood ash. The cheeses are not pasteurised, but there are pasteurised versions especially for export. The shop will vacuum pack purchases so that you can bring some home without fear.
In so much of the world today it is difficult to find something “different” – the fast food chains are everywhere selling exactly the same product, and you will also find them in Dijon. However, it is so refreshing to discover interesting, fresh, wholesome, tasty regional food from enthusiastic dedicated innovative local producers. They work together to promote each other’s products, have joint marketing and events, and are doing very well, and they deserve to!
Their association is found at www.vivelabourgogne.com
There are 23 members ,all producing excellent food, and it would be a wonderful experience to visit them all. It would certainly be a holiday with a difference.
Dijon is fairly easy for us to get to, with plenty of choices. You can drive there using the channel tunnel shuttle service, or the Dover to Calais ferry. You can go by train with Eurostar through the tunnel from London direct to Paris Gare du Nord and cross Paris to the Gare de Lyon. Dijon is just 90 minutes away from there by TGV.
You can fly with Air France from Aberdeen to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. From here a taxi, or Air France bus, or RER (metro train line C and change at Gare du Nord across the platform to line D) to Gare De Lyon. There are three return flights a day between Aberdeen and Paris, taking two hours, and flights are available if booked in advance for around £320 return. See www.airfrance.co.uk
To book your French railway tickets you can go to www.raileurope.co.uk who are official agents for French Railways and will supply everything including reservations.
The regional tourist department has some very good organised tours and can provide a lot of help and information; go to www.bourgogne-tourism.com