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October 5 Who says you can’t get good white wine in Perigord? Not me, not after visiting Chateau Tour des Gendres in Ribegnac, in Perigord. We drank the wine at Restaurant l’Imaginaire in Terrasson and were so taken with it we decided to track down the Chateau. For the record, this has been noted as a good place for white wine since the 11th century.
The De Conti family took it over three generations ago. What’s being done now is extraordinary: M. De Conti works makes sauvignon blanc, semillon, and muscadelle – separately and together – as no one else. He likes ripe fruit and dry wines – so the wines are mouth-filling, textured, full of interesting flavours. The Moulin des Dames (semillon and sauvignon blanc only) has lovely ginger and citrus characters; the muscadelle is brilliant with foie gras.
The reds are pretty good, too. We tasted the fermenting or just-finished-fermenting cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec. It’s a difficult thing to do, tasting wines in that state, but these tasted so clean, and so obviously varietal, I think the wines will be excellent. I said that I though with good fruit it was hard to make bad wine. His response is that it’s hard to get good fruit.
We have finished the day in Saint-Emilion, and had dinner at L’Envers du Décor. I first had a meal here about 12 years ago, and it was bright and young and lively when all the other restaurants seemed stuffy. Since then the restaurant has won all manner of awards, has featured in every known guide book, and has expanded into a huge gift shop.
It was still warm enough to eat outside in the garden.
So what’s not to like? The food, actually, which seemed just slung together. Foie gras was fine (SO rich, could have done with another couple of figs), but the fish with polenta and zucchini gratin was really messy in its flavours and presentation. White fish (merlu) with an undefined sauce, a landscape feature of polenta, and a too-salty zucchini timbale. I made the mistake of ordering the delice with walnut and chestnut pieces. That turned out to be a frozen dessert with chunks of chestnut, topped with a charry chocolatey nutty clum. The tarte tatin was chopped cooked apple with a pastry hat. Unworthy. Disappointing. And the huge award winning wine list is difficult to manage – no half bottles, only bottles with some age and wines by the glass. And did I mention the waiters? No need to.
October 4 Dinner in Bergerac, about 100kms east of Bordeaux. It’s an uneasy but attractive town that’s been around since Roman times (and probably earlier) and has survived the Hundred Year War and the Wars of Religion. We had dinner at L’Imparfait (“imperfect”, usually applied to a verb tense). It’s the second time I’ve been there (I loved it in May), and I plan to go later in the week, too. Three visits is a really good test of any restaurant. This is housed in a building of some centuries, to judge from the big stones of the walls, and the vast fireplace. The food is a pleasing combination of traditional and contemporary - mercifully not on the one plate.
Everyone gets a little something when they are seated. Tonight it was tapenade with toasted bread. The amuse-bouche was a coffee-cup of frothy cauliflower soup (really delicious). My entrée was seared tuna slices, served with a passionfruit vinaigrette on the side, and little balls of canteloup and watermelon perched on a kind of bruschetta. In theory it didn’t work, but in practice it did. It was light and refreshing, perfect for an Indian summer night. Then I had a mixed seafood dish: fish and seafood, all cooked separately, and lots of baby vegetables, all in a saffron sauce. Extremely good: imaginative, satisfying, carefully prepared. Alex started with a slice of foie gras served with a fig and toasted bread with dried figs, and followed it with a hanger steak (SO tender) with fat chips cooked in goose fat, and a roasted shallot. All it needed was a few watercress leaves, I thought. Dessert was an Armagnac soufflé served with an orange sorbet. It tasted like a dish out of early medical theory: the soufflé was hot and moist, the sorbet was cold and dry – and there was a tuile for crunch. We had two local half-bottles. The bill was 105 euros, which was great value.
October 3 Dinner at La Roseraie (The Rose Garden), an attractive small hotel in Montignac. There were two English couples, a French couple, and an American couple. The owners both spoke some English. From our table we watched a kind of pantomime, as one of the Englishwomen called over the owner and pointed something out to him on her plate. He peered forward, said a few words (we didn't catch). She pushed at something on her plate and spoke again (we didn't quite catch what she said). Then we heard the owner saying: "Yes, yes, an insect. It's a fly. I didn't understand you at first. Yes, it's a fly." And he walked away....
October 2 A visit to nearby Terrasson provided an afternoon for all the senses. Firstly, lunch at L’Imaginaire, a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s an old stone building, and the restaurant in set in a vaulted space. It’s contemporary food, imaginative but still based on traditional cooking. We began with a few ‘lollypops’ – a chilled peeled tomato, rounds of cantaloupe, rounds of biscuits, all on skewers inserted into a wooden board. Cute. Then came a small glass of chilled lobster cappuccino. Clever. Highlight was steamed john dory fillets on baby broad beans, with a green tomato (seeded) and a sauce made of green tomato juice and oil, dotted with flecks of black olive. The other highlight was veal sweetbreads on green peas and baby beans. This chef uses vegetables extremely well; the cooking is full of flavour, easy to eat, and the presentation elegant. We drank an excellent Bergerac white, a blend of sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle.
After lunch we headed for Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire, the gardens of the imagination. They were designed by US-born landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, who won a competition for gardens established by the mayor of Terrasson, a keen gardener who wanted to give the town a major tourist attraction.
What Gustafson has done is to create a series on meditations on the garden in history, and to create spaces that always reflect Terrasson itself. The central features of the old town, which dates back to the Middle Ages, are its white stone buildings and the river Vezere. That’s one reason the water is so important to the gardens; the other (I think) being the importance of water to all gardens. The sounds of the water are as important here as the sound of birds in many domestic gardens.
These are, it need hardly be said, not conventional gardens. You cannot wander through on your own, you must wait for a guided tour. (If you do not understand French, you will be given a booklet in English – and it’s important to read it.) The different gardens are, for me, all reflections of the ways in which people have organised and reorganised plants over the millennia.
The water garden – a series of jets of water splashing on to the ground, with a pathway through them – is the most auditory experience of all. “What does the sound make you think of?” asked the guide. She told the group that a small boy who had run through the water jets had said the sound was like people clapping. A girl said the water crackled like fire. A woman (of a very practical bent) said it was the sound of meat sizzling in a hot pan.
There’s also the theatre garden, a space with slate-topped curved benches, banked by the blue flowers of catmint and white roses. That recalls the festivities that Louis XIV used to hold in the gardens; the colours reflect the blue slate roofs and the white stones of the town. And perhaps most importantly, its location provides a theatrical view of the old and the new cities, the river running through them, in their own landscape.
It may sound like a theoretical pleasure. But the gardens also provide sensual pleasures, appealing equally to the senses of touch, smell, sight, and hearing, and – not least – to the imagination.
They open from April to October. We got the last tour of the year. What luck!
October 1 Now in Montignac, in the Perigord, one of those shamelessly pretty golden stone villages that ticks all the boxes. Hanging baskets, half-timbered houses, historic buildings, decorative tiles on roofs, bridges over a river (the Vezere here), ducks on the water, cats sunning themselves on high window sills…but no wonderful restaurant. Not yet, anyway.
Before we left Beaujolais, a visit to Chateau Thivin – and it’s clear the half-bottle at lunch a few days earlier was an aberration. These are exceptional wines. It’s been a family estate for generations; the Geoffray family acquired the vineyards in 1877, when they were devasated by phylloxera. Mostly, vines and vineyards are old – average age, I think, is around 80 years. But there are new plantings, as at Chateau Thivin.
The rules are changing in Beaujolais, so it’s now possible to plant 7000 vines to the hectare (instead of 10,000 bush vines) and use cordon pruning instead of the old gobelet. The rules are unthinkable to Australians – that everything should be prescribed, from the varieties to be planted to the number of vines and the way things are pruned. Not to forgot the yield per hectare.
Claude Geoffray said the yield was about the same from the new vineyard. The wine from that vineyard is under the label of Clos Bertrand. There’s a range of wines, from a particularly nice white (chardonnay) under the label of Marguerite to a spectacularly good red called Zaccharie, both named for ancestors. All the wines are good here, whether aged in foudres (larger wood barrels) or futs (barriques). They’re imported by Randall Pollard, from Heart and Soil. The 2009 vintage is one to look for – and the 2010 and 2011 will also be fine.
We came to Montignac via Macon, which is only 30 kilometres from Belleville (if that) but seemed a world away. It felt depressed, and rather edgy – or perhaps that’s the way towns are near the railway stations. We stayed in the All Seasons hotel because it was close to the station, in a tiny room with a bathroom so artfully designed it was like using an origami bathroom. Dinner at L’EthymSel (a play on words, sounds like l'entincelle, which is a spark or sparkle), a contemporary-looking restaurant with contemporary ideas and good humour. We had one of the simpler menus. I began with a salad of lettuces, duck foie gras, a kind of duck prosciutto, walnuts, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, with some hard-boiled egg. Could have done without the egg, but it was both rich and fresh at the same time. Main course was a mixture of steamed fish in a bouillabaisse-style broth, with rouille and croutons served on the side. Wonderful to eat a dish that was full-flavoured and low-fat. Dessert was a pear cooked in local red wine – very clever dish. It appeared to be a whole pear, but it had been sliced through horizontally, and layered with a light cream.
L’Ethym’Sel, 10 rue Gambetta, Macon 71000. Tel. 03 85 39 48 84.
September 28 It had to happen. We have had so many delicious meals at moderate prices that sooner or later we had to find a dud. The treat the other day was lunch at Les Maritonnes, in Romaneche-Thorins, near the Duboeuf Hameau du Vin. The restaurant is part of a hotel with a lovely garden and a swimming pool. The lunch special menu is 20 euros, and began with a gougere, as most meals do there. Then we chose salmon with vegetables in a kind of aspic (light, fresh, delicious), followed by a simple poached chicken dusted with spices on a potato puree and some carrots. Roasted apple quarters finished the meal – the least of the meal for me, because I thought the apples needed more cooking. Coffee was included (with chocolates), and there was a choice of half a bottle of mineral water or a glass of wine. We had the mineral water and ordered a half bottle of old vines Chiroubles. The total was 58.80 – and when we came to sign the credit card chit, we were offered the pen as well. It was all so nice, and the hotel looked so appealing, that I'd think of staying there if I come back here.
In contrast, and for the same price, was lunch today at Villie-Morgon. Again a hotel restaurant, this one called Villon. Again, lunch at 20 euros. No extras, indifferent bread (we should have walked out at that point, really), and a salad to start of warm pot-au-feu meat of no distinction, with the pot au feu vegetables, shredded, lettuce, and unripe tomato quarters. Main courses were chicken cooked in red wine, burgundy-style, and the fish of the day, cod with sorrel sauce. The chicken was re-heated; the fish was dreary, covered with a creamy sauce of no particular flavour, with a few speckles of chopped sorrel. We had ordered a half-bottle of Chateau Thivin Brouilly 2008, which was spoiled by brettanomyces. When my barely touched plate was cleared, I was asked if it wasn’t good, or if I had no appetite. “Not so good,” I said, “and I’m not really hungry.” Quite true, I had lost my appetite.
We went there because I have a soft spot for the old poet Francois Villon. Literature, however good, can lead you astray.
Les Maritonnes, 513 route de Fleurie, 71570 Romaneche-Thorins.
September 27 Yesterday we visited the Hameau of Georges Duboeuf, the village of Georges Dubeouf, the Beaujolais producer. It’s a kind of wine theme park, part of it at the old railway station, and the entry area is set up as if for a long train journey. There are various sections: the first, a look at all aspects of wine from the earliest historial records through to bottles and glasses, ends with an explosion of buying possibilities. It ought to be hideous.
Surprisingly, it’s not. Surprisingly, it’s funny (wax figures of a farmer and a vine in conversation), it's informative and it’s full of interesting things. Alex, who is fonder of wine equipment than I am, is fascinated by early spray rigs and pruning knives. I’m just interested in the array of equipment, and keep wondering what the early wines tasted like. The nineteenth century was the bad one for disease, bringing downy and powdery mildew as well as phylloxera. But there were all kinds of vine diseases before that – the cure for one of them being to pour hot water over the trunk of the vine.
I loved all the wine glasses. Riedel’s fascination with glass shapes did not come out of the blue – the French crystal manufacturers (Baccarat, St Louis, and all the others) were playing around with shapes some time before. Red burgundy glasses have always been big.
The whole thing works because someone (or a whole team) has been concerned to put wine in context – and one of those contexts is Beaujolais. The whole enterprise is like a silly loud engaging song to Beaujolais. We’re going back today, to see the winery and do all the tasting and do all the things we missed yesterday. We’d allowed two hours, and needed lots more.
When we went back we tasted through about a dozen wines. It is fashionable to knock big producers, but Georges Duboeuf makes some excellent wines. My favourites were the Chateau des Capitaines 2009, and the Saint-Amour 2009. The Morgon 2009 was good, too.
September 26 Here’s the strange thing: our perceptions of Beaujolais are of a light fruity red. Gamay’s a second-rate grape, Beaujolais is fun (at its best). But here we’re finding that gamay is to be taken seriously, and that the crus of Beaujolais are really good wines – lots of tannin, good structure, but quite approachable. We’re been tasting Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly, and Fleurie in the last two days. Today, in Fleurie, which is a small place with a couple of restaurants and a good wine centre. Florence Cohn is the winemaker for Chante-Terre, a small domain; her husband Jacques works in the vineyard. The 2009 Fleurie is perfumed and round, lots of fine tannins, very approachable.
Beaujolais is a friendly wine, we agreed. She said that young people speak to her about what food might go with the Chante-Terre and other Beaujolais and her response is: “Whatever you like. Pizza is good. Pasta is good. Roast veal is good.” It’s versatile, a wine for friends and good times, in her opinion. It’s not a big like Bordeaux: “You don’t joke with Bordeaux,” we agreed.
In the afternoon we visited Cedric Chignard, fourth-generation to work on the domaine. The vineyards are on a high point, pretty much a 360 degree views of the plains and the mountains. “It’s the same grape, the same site. What we taste is the year.”
Look out for 2011. It’s just finished fermenting, and it’s going to be an excellent year. “The grapes were so good, if the wine isn’t good, it’s our fault,” said Cedric. That’s three in a row for them. It was a good year in 2010, and in 2009 as well. Conditions meant the grapes ripened very well, and they were in very good conditions. The wines balance fruit and tannin beautifully. There are two wines, the second being the old vines blend. Like 100 year old vines. Rich, concentrated, lovely wines.
The Chignard wines are imported into Australia, Cedric told us. He spent some time in Australia a few years ago, working with McWilliam’s in the Hunter and at Brands in Coonawarra.
Like Chante-Terre, the Domaine Chignard wines are approachable. And affordable – at least here.
So we’re going to explore further: Julienas, Chenas, Romaneche-Thorins, Ville-Morgon. They’re all in a very small distance of one another. Moulin-a-Vent is right next to Fleurie, and yes, there is a moulin a vent, a windmill.
September 25 We’re doing some serious chocolate work here in France. Today, lunching at Le Beaujolais in Belleville (an extremely good lunch of a snail and leek pastry with a little herb cream, and duck breast with blueberries, garlicky spinach and a wonderful rose-shaped assembly of poached apple slices), Alex finished with the three versions of chocolate for dessert. There was a chocolate cream, chocolate icecream and a chocolate and hazelnut soft pudding – wonderfully clear flavours and a lovely assembly of flavours.
Belleville has some seriously good patissiers. If you can judge the health of a regional town by its patisseries and bakeries, Belleville is remarkably healthy. It's probably not a bad index of the prosperity of local life, sinceit's mainly locals who buy bread and cakes. They are available in supermarkets (not nearly so good), but if a town can support lots of independent boulangers and patissiers, things aren't too bad at all. On the chocolate trail, we chose cakes from Amedro, and from J.P.Emorine. Amedro’s chocolate cakes were winners: elegant and stylish confections. But Emorine’s were remarkably good, too – a simple chocolate éclair and a little lemon tart.
It seems to me that the French have a different taste in chocolate. That is, they like different flavours – intense, fruity, spicy, without much sugar but with little bitterness.
Le Beaujolais, 40 rue Marechal Foch, 69220 Belleville. Tel. 0474 66 05 31.
Amedro, Artisan Patissier Chocolatier, 6 rue Victor Hugo, 60220 Belleville.
J.P.Emorine, 32 rue de la Republique, 69220 Belleville.
September 24 Heading towards Beaujolais on the back roads, thinking about lunch. There’s nothing much, it appears. And then there’s Cuisery, a small town that says it is a town of books. A good sign. And then there’s an old church with traces of wall paintings, showing King David and unknown others. Another sign this is a place to take seriously. The Hostellerie Bressane is open for lunch on Saturday. There’s no one in the pleasant and gently formal dining room, but there are people lunching in the garden, under an awning shaded by one of the biggest plane trees I’ve ever seen.
A nice welcome that extended to the food. The little amuse-bouche was a little glass of cold potato and leek soup with some tarragon from the garden. The bread rolls were wonderfully crusty and full of yeasty-wheaty flavour. The wine list was predominantly local with a good selection of halves. We had a half bottle of Macon Lugny 2009 (Ferrere), which was uncomplicated and delicious with the food.
We went for the simplest menu option, 23 euros for two courses, 26 for three. A choice of entrees: jambon persille cooked with Macon white wine, or cured salmon and avocado.That was followed by a kind of rabbit sausage on polenta, or a “grosse quenelle de brochet” – a huge pike dumpling in seafood sauce. The cured salmon was outstanding – very simple, but great flavours, dressed with a thread of olive oil, a little lemon. It doesn’t sound exciting, but it was wonderful to eat. So was the jambon persille, which came with a little celeriac remoulade, some salad leaves straight from the garden, and a few little extra flavours – a cornichons, some new wild mushrooms, a pickled baby onion and pickled cherry. Main courses weren’t quite as good: one huge fish dumpling, however light, doesn’t look as good as two. I had fromage blanc with local cream and a red fruit coulis, served in a little jug so I could serve myself as much as I wanted. We finished with excellent coffee and petits fours.
The setting was simpler than Le Montrachet, but the food was as good – better in some ways, although the main courses weren’t quite as good, and the choice of desserts not so exciting, the entrees were better, so was the coffee and the petits fours.
There’s a little hotel attached. The owners speak some English, and probably some Vietnamese as well since they lived and worked there for a couple of years. They spent 10 years in south-East Asia before returning to France to take over the hotel and restaurant.
It’s reassuring to find such places. I have a sense through Burgundy that traditional eating is under some threat. There are too many villages without bakers, without butchers or charcutiers, without little groceries selling fruit and vegetables as well. There are lots of huge supermarkets on the edge of moderate and large towns. The Carrefour in Belleville, for example, was vast (so were the other two supermarkets), and the quality of the food simply wasn’t there. Yes, there was a butcher cutting up meat, yes, there was a small cheese selection cut as required. Yes, there was an apparent huge choice. But the potatoes were greening, the pears over-ripe or underripe, the lettuce a bit ragged, and so on.
Technically, Belleville isn’t in Burgundy, I don’t think. It’s Beaujolais country, about half way between Macon and Lyon. But the point remains.
September 23 Visits to a couple of the great Burgundian chateaux – at Lantilly and at Sully – showed great but neglected vegetables gardens full of produce that appears to go to waste. At Lantilly, apple trees dropped fruit on to the ground. At Sully, apples and pears dropped on to the ground, zucchini grew to the size of truncheons. It was sad to see. So was the absence of identification of plants. At Sully, owned by the Scottish-born Duchess of Magenta (Amelie MacMahon) identification is limited to the plants that were planted by local schoolchildren.
At the chateau of Rochepot, a quite lovely medieval chateau that is actually a 19th view of a medieval chateau – it was savaged after the Revolution, and restored late in the 19th century over 25 years by the son of the French Prime Minister Carnot – I saw a four banal. That’s an oven that was owned by the local seigneur, or duke. Anyone wanting to use the oven (like locals) had to pay a tax. La Rochepot is not the only place where this occurred. It was common, or so I was told. It made me think of the often-quoted exchange between Marie Antoinette and advisors. “The people are revolting because they have no bread.” If they had to pay a tax in many areas in order to bake bread, it’s no surprise they had no bread. It also makes more sense to me of the savagery of the destruction of chateaux after the Revolution.
The reconstruction of Rochepot did not include the rebuilding of the dungeons. And the kitchen was is relatively modern, built at the time of reconstruction. It includes a vast array of copper pans, a old viver for keeping fish, and a vast oven with all kinds of tanks for boiling and storing hot water. It was last used when during the Second World War, when it was occupied by the Germans.
Lunch at Puligny-Montrachet, in the restaurant called Le Montrachet (attached to the hotel of the same name). Lunch is especially good here if you choose the menu of 28Euros50 for three courses, supplemented by four additional dishes. The restaurant itself is very attractive, with old stone walls, pink tablecloths, specially designed cover plates, and French doors opening on to a terrace that fades into the garden.
September 22 The dessert I planned yesterday was a great hit: a layering of fromage frais, poached quetsch plums, creme fraiche, figs tossed with a little brown sugar in a pan (because they weren’t as ripe as I wanted) then cooled, with a scattering of toasted flaked almonds on top. Today’s wine tastings at Joseph Drouhin, where we stood in a 10th century building that housed the first Burgundy parliament. The wines were very good, starting with a simple Saint-Veran (always an attractive wine if it is well made) and finishing with Clos des Mouches, white and red, wines of most delicious complexity. It’s hard to describe these wines, because their flavours are not obvious. There’s no single flavour hit, but a complicated web of perfumes, and a balance of fruit, oak, tannin and acid. The best wines are a bit like drinking a string quartet.
September 21 Our side of Burgundy is very different from the vines side. Chivres, the small village where we are staying, is 20kms east of Beaune. On the main road from Beaune to Dijon, the heart of the Cote d’Or, there are hills, towns, and vines to the west of the road. Head east, and it’s flat as the Geelong Road. Not a vine in sight. Here we have fields of corn, cattle grazing (stocky white Charolais), open country and hills faintly on the horizon. There’s nothing very touristy here. Seurre, five kilometres away, offers the relics of an hospice. Curious about all the hospices and hotels de Dieu here: were the people sicker than in other regions? Or was there greater charity?
Seurre also offers three bakeries (one we particularly like, and a different couple each morning drive to collect morning croissants), and three supermarkets. Big supermarkets, which looks awfully ominous for small local stores. We’ve shopped at one of them, the ATAC, where there is a butcher’s counter, and a very nice range of local produce, cheese in particular. I bought a roast of veal one night,, someone else bought some very good beef the following night, and then came a leg of lamb, a gigot raccourci, a shortened leg. There’s no casserole in the house, but there are two ovens, so we roast meat.
Yesterday we went wine tasting in Nuits St George – to a negociant/producer called Moillard-Grivot, whose own wines are sold under the name of Charles Thomas. A particularly nice white from St-Aubin, murgers des dents de chien, 2009, under the label of Chartron & Trebuchet, and a very fine Nuits St George village wine from 2005 under the Charles Thomas label.
Burgundy is seriously confusing. Last year I thought I finally had a handle on it all, but the combination of local, village, premier and grand cru, combined with individual vineyard site names (such as murgers des dents de chien or Clos des Porret) and the flurry of producers, some of whom are merchants with their own holdings under separate names. My advice to the beginner: find and producer you like and stick with it for a bit. And then find an area you like.
We also went to the Maison de Vin in Beaune, which is essentially a grand wine store where they always offer a choice of four wines for tasting. They can change daily, or every couple of days, and they are always chosen to reveal something about the wines and the producers. We tried a 2008 Paul Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet 2008 (perfumed, quite lean, mineral notes) and a 2009 Domaine S Javouhey Puuligny-Montrachet (rich, complex, elegant). S. Javouhey turned out to be the Maison’s own label.
Today we went to the market at Dijon, which is held under cover and in the open areas surrounding the covered market building. The highlights were the cheeses, the figs and the raspberries, with the breads and the plums (purple quetsch) coming second. For dessert tomorrow night, when it’s our turn to cook, I’m thinking of stoning and poaching the plums, flavouring them with orange, and layering them with a combination of fromage frais and crème fraiche in little glasses. Let me know if you’re coming.
September 19 Sunday lunch in Burgundy, in a small town called Seurre, that has no vines. The only restaurant open is an ugly building on a roundabout, a grill and pizzeria. Half the sign is missing. We look doubtfully at the menus by the entry: no pizzas on Sunday. But wait! There’s a blackboard with the day’s specials, including an entrée of fillets of red mullet with eggplant ‘caviar’ and a salad. Maybe… we go in and the place is packed. There’s the muted roar of people enjoying a solid lunch, and we ask if there’s a table for five. We are not alone in the queue for a table. We get that look (“are you out of your mind?”) and then the owner goes to check. Yes, the round table has just been vacated, it’s being reset, we can come through. No, she says to the French couple. “We have a table for five, but not for two.” They’re cross, we’re delighted.
The Grillardin is modern, decorated in shades of grey and white, with a red feature wall. It looks rather Japanese. A little platter of amuse-bouches arrives: some tiny gougeres, a small cheese biscuit, a minuscule pancake topped with a herb cream and a doll-sized prawn. Nice: just enough to take the edge off the appetite and to give us confidence is what’s to come. The chefs are dressed in black with red aprons. The kitchen is open, so we see them, and the food coming out. This looks serious. It was. Very simple, and good. The red mullet fillets came with a shard of something unknown on top – as thin as fillo or brik pastry, but tasting of fish skin. The salad was a lively mixture of lettuces.
Someone else has the tarte au citeaux, a large delicious crisp pastry filled with runny rich local cheese, with a green salad. Two others had the more substantial dish of the day: turbot with a champagne cream, accompanied by rice (very nice, rare in France), some vegetables and a salad. The champagne cream was presented in a little pot, so it could poured over the fish all at once, or a little at a time.
We’ve ordered a bottle of rose, and decide to stay for dessert. The verrine is big all through France. (That’s a glass serving container). The floating island comes in a broad low glass jar (and very good and you dig down into the crème anglaise through the insubstantiality of the poached meringue). The chef’s selection of four turns out to be four little glasses, one with chocolate mousse, another with mint, a third with strawberry, and the fourth with a frozen nougat. The bill came for 126 Euros.
We’re all going back for dinner. Will report again.
Le Grillardin, 5 Faubourg St-Georges, 21250 Seurre. Tel. 03 80 21 17 62.
September 15 The sun shines, car horns blare as individual teams of pickers finish their work. A visit to Christian Moreau, to taste another range of extraordinary Chablis. Christian’s son Fabien is responsible for the wines now. There’s more oak used in these wines, but mostly old oak, and it adds spice and complexity. Christian Moreau prefers not to let the wines age too long – unlike some others, he thinks 10 years is the maximum, and preferably less, so the freshness is still apparent. The Christian Moreau petit Chablis is available in Austalia: only a small quantity is made, and it goes to Australia and Norway. Of the wonderful grand crus, I especially liked Les Clos (2009 and 2010), the Vaumur 2009 (old vines), and the Clos des Hospices (2009), a rare wine made from a small parcel.
The food here is slightly at odds with the wine, to my taste. Andouillettes are the sausage of the area, and ham cooked on the bone. I can see both would suit the fresh acidity of Chablis. Restaurants seem to have little interest in anything other than Chablis: Syracuse, a pleasant and modestly priced restaurant with menus at 18 and 25 Euros, has a pretty smart list of premier and grand crus.
In nearby Noyers, one of the almost intact medieval villages, regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in France, the local charcutier turned out to be a baker as well. We bought some goat’s cheese and herb tarts, a slice of terrine, and asked if there were any baguettes, since there were round loaves of bread behind the counter. The man raised his eyebrows. “Baguettes are industrialised bread, we have only real bread here,” he said.
September 14 A visit to Corinne and Jean-Pierre Grossot, tasting through a range of excellent wines, while outside tractors and trucks groaned backwards and forwards. It’s nearly the end of vintage now, and the weather is threatening, with some rain, so everyone is hurrying.
We went to Tonnerre in the morning, where the Hotel-Dieu (a kind of hostel in the name of God) was established to care for the sick by Margaret of Burgundy late in the 13th century. It was still in use in the 1950s, which shows that good works last for centuries. It’s in nothing like the shape of the great Hospices of Beaune, which have been stunningly renewed, but the Hotel Dieu is a grand building with a scrappy and rather nice museum that includes the charter by which the Hotel was established, and Margaret’s will, and a little model of the roof.
Tonnerre is an attractive place. Not a huge amount of tourism, but a good tourist office. This is for winelovers and for people who like cycling and walking, in the main. The only modestly grand restaurant in Tonnerre was closed for a bit. We lunched instead for 11 euros – yes, 11 euros – which gave us the choice of the buffet of hors d’oeuvres (mainly salads, hurray!) and a local freshwater fish called saumonette with a wine sauce, properly cooked rice, and a stack of little green beans. I had the fresh white cheese mousse with a berry coulis, Alex had a tiramisu, which lost a bit in translation, but was acceptable. With 500mls of a named Chablis, the bill came to 30 euros. Nice to find that we can still eat very cheaply and moderately well in rural France.
September 13 Chablis Small grey town, rather pretty along the Serein river, and with some good food stores – none of which opens on Monday. The area is distinguished by its wines; we spent the afternoon tasting the wines of Louis Michel, a family-run company that is now into its documented 6th generation. Guillaume runs the show, with his uncle, who took over from this grandfather. He lives in a tower that was built in the 17th century of recycled materials. An earlier tower nearby had collapsed, so whoever was doing the building gathered them up and built another tower. His grandmother lives next door, the office and winery and next to that, the underground cellars now all connected up.
We tasted a dozen wines (in the cellar under his living room in the tower), remarkable for their consistent quality, from the petit Chablis right up to the grand crus. Favourites? The Montee de Tonnerre grand cru 2009, the Butteaux grand cru 2009, and Le Clos gtand cru 2009. Everyone loves Le Clos. It’s always such a wonderfully complete round wine. But even the petit Chablis is a lovely drinkable fresh wine.
Guillaume says he makes all the wines the same way: natural yeasts, small ferments, no oak.
We’re staying for two nights in a hotel-restaurant that’s part of the Logis de France group, and the only disappointment we have ever had in a Logis. Our room is large, that’s true, and the bathroom is spotlessly clean, but the attached restaurant serves very dull food. So dull – let’s think re-heated vegetables, undercooked ham – that we will not eat here again. Le Moulin is about 10 kms from Chablis, in a place so remote it ought to be charming, but manages to feel claustrophic.
September 12 Last night we ate at Le Violon d’Ingres, one of Christian Constant’s eating places. It’s got a Michelin star; next door is Les Cocottes, and there’s a café as well, all in the rue Saint-Dominique, in the 7th arrondissement. The previous night we’d eaten in a small place (Bistro et Terroir, in the rue du Cherche-Midi) near the hotel, one of the few to be open on a Saturday night, and the people were pleasant. But the food was pretty ordinary. It was time for something grander. As the Violon d’Ingres certainly is – and has the advantage of being open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. (The name? the painter Ingres came from the same town as the chef, and also played the violin, as Constant was encouraged to do as a child. But the phrase means something else – something more like second fiddle, something you do as an extra.)
Modern elegant: bare tables with fine linen runners, a bar with a display of magnums. Toasted and fresh bread appeared on the table, with a pot of salt, and a bit chunk of absolutely delicious butter. Service here is formal, with clear distinctions between those who bring plates or clear them, those who take food orders, and those who take wine orders. There are two sides to the menu – the signatures dishes, and the others. We ate from both sides.
I had a brilliant first course of slices of sashimi-like salmon topped with a scattering of caviar, on long strands of cucumber (seeded, of course), with an arrangement of sliced potato and almost-pickled carrot slices, and a thread of horseradish cream. A little potato of extra cream was served. It was all the things I want from an entrée: attractive, light but with enough flavours to stimulate the appetite. Then came sea-bass cooked so the skin was crisp, served on a bed of raw spinach leaves, topped with flaked almonds, and surrounded by sauce ravigote. How they cooked fish so it was overcooked on a hot plate is a little beyond me – but I was delighted. So was Alex, who ate poached beef cheek, sliced, served with bone marrow slices and a tumble of fresh green vegetables (peas, broad beans, artichokes, herbs). Really clever dishes, wonderful to eat. As was the dessert we shared, pain perdu (French toast) with honey-roasted figs and hazelnut icecream, all late summer/early autumn flavours.
We drank glasses of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume to start (poured from magnums), and then a bottle of B. Dubois & fils Savigny-les-Beaune 1er cru. Very light, quite attractive, and what was interesting was that its flavours filled out in time. If it had been decanted, it would have been a better wine.
What let the restaurant down was the service towards the end. The restaurant was full, waiters were busy, and lost interest in us. Finally we ordered dessert, and it was very nicely plated up between us. But after that we were, as it were, abandoned.
The bill for the two of us was 206 euros, which was low for a place like this. The man dining on his own beside us (who ordered two glasses of rose champagne to go with his dessert) left 150 euros for his meal.
September 10: First afternoon, and a visit to Le Bon Marche, the department store with a separate food hall of exceptional quality. All the usual wonderful things – fish counters, cheese counters, hams, vegetables, groceries…..but the vegetables were outstanding in every way. The selection including a whole range of heirloom vegetables, with the growers’ names. And salt! I’ve heard it said that salt is the current foodie fixation. This is the place for that. Salt from England, Cyrus, Italy, Spain, Himalaya, Australia…. And then some. Along with a range of teas that made my eyes widen. And for those who are homesick, even some coffee beans from Australia.
Heirloom tomatoes (at least five varieties of) showed up for dinner, at Le Bien Decide in rue du Cherche Midi, which is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Friday. Their wine list comes from a considerable Gerard Depardieu selection, including an excellent rose d’Anjou. We ate tomato salad, and marinated sardines with zucchini a la grecque, then roast chicken from the Gers with lots of vegetables. Finished with cheeses (my choice was cantal, St-Nectaire, and morbier), and Alex had a chocolate tart with vanilla icecream (so good it has set him on quest to find something even better).
The bill, including a bottle of St-Joseph, was around 120 Euros. With the added pleasure of seeing Depardieu himself diing with friends.
Contrast that value with the two beers on the hot Saturday afternoon for 18 euros.
September 10: First afternoon, and a visit to Le Bon Marche, the department store with a separate food hall of exceptional quality. All the usual wonderful things – fish counters, cheese counters, ha
ms, vegetables, groceries…..but the vegetables were outstanding in every way. The selection including a whole range of heirloom vegetables, with the growers’ names. And salt! I’ve heard it said that salt is the current foodie fixation. This is the place for th
hat. Salt from England, Cyrus, Italy, Spain, Himalaya, Australia…. And then some
The tomatoes (at least five varieties of) showed up for dinner, at Le Bien Decide in rue du Cherche Midi, which is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Friday. Their wine list comes from a considerable Gerard Depardieu selection, including an excellent rose d’Anjou. We ate tomato salad, and marinated sardines with zucchini a la grecque, then roast chicken from the Gers with lots of vegetables. Finished with cheeses (my choice was cantal, St-Nectaire, and morbier), and Alex had a chocolate tart with vanilla icecream (so good it has set him on quest to find something even better).
The bill, including a bottle of St-Joseph, was around 120 Euros. With the added pleasure of seeing Depardieu himself diing with friends.
Contrast that value with the two beers on the hot Saturday afternoon for 18 euros.
September 9: On board I read a surprising piece about the fashion industry in the Emirates magazine Open Skies. Surprising because it was a scathing attack, written by an Australian fashion writer under another name, and I didn’t expect anything so outspoken in an airline magazine. Among other things, the writer talks about the youth and extreme thinness of models, and refers to Karl Lagerfeld, who said that less than one per cent of the French are too skinny, but 30 per cent are too fat. “So let’s take care of the zillions of the too-fat because we talk about the percentage that’s left,” Lagerfeld is quoted as saying. Her response: “What he fails to mention is how extreme skinniness is what his industry runs on.”
Put that against the look of actresses such as Audrey Tautou (whom I watched in a movie called True Lies) and most other French actresses. Or Keira Knightly.
And then put it against a piece in the current issue of Time magazine, where there’s a feature on eating well. Basically, the message seems to be to forget diets and diet products, and eat pretty well everything, but in moderation. And moderate quantities, too. There’s an image of “healthy” foods, most of which were featured in Color Me Healthy, which Alice Murkies and I wrote.
The total picture is perplexing. Our attitudes to food seem more and more confused, with the contradictory pulls of health and fashion.
Another thought on the plane: does altitude heighten the perception of brettanomyces in wine? Certainly the French reds – Amiral de Beychevelle 2005 and Jean Claude Boisset Nuit St Georges 2008 showed problems. I sAtuck to the Pouilly Fuisse Chanson Pere et Fils 2009.
September 8, Tullamarine: Café Vue at Tullamarine promised so much when it was opened. As if Alain Ducasse was running an outlet at an airport. The lunch/dinner packs might be fine, but the sandwiches certainly aren’t. I ordered a salad sandwich a couple of months ago when a small group of us was flying to New Zealand to look at king salmon – and it was really dreary. Fat slices of rather stale bread, too little filling. If anything, they look worse this time round. Huge fat slices, tuna (or thereabouts) filling.
I actually hadn’t fully appreciated before how important the ratio of bread to filling is for a good sandwich. Too thin slices of bread, and the sandwiches are unsatisfying – which may be the point of English-style cucumber sandwiches, that they are not meant to be filling, or even satisfying, just a kind of culinary flirtation. But I usually want a sandwich to be solid, but not daunting. Not a flirtation, but a good handshake. The Vue sandwiches are more than daunting - they’re a bit like someone shoving your shoulder.
On the other hand, the first glass of champagne on a flight is a great reassurance. We’ve made it to the airport, we’ve made it on to the plane, and there’s not much that can be done for the next 24 hours or so, except eating and drinking and sleeping (and maybe catching a move or reading).