by Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph, May 24, 2018
Vespers, in Vézelay, in the best-known basilica in Burgundy; the nuns, once kneeling, now stood to sing, their voices re-primed the purity of the vast space. A few rows back, I couldn’t help worrying. I’ve encountered nuns mainly through movies, in which their soft-pitched innocence invariably heralds the arrival of galloping barbarians on the pillage.
But no. The only annoyance this evening was a smart fellow taking photos directly under the “No Photos” sign. Otherwise, this was 40 minutes of enhanced tranquillity. Then it was over. So that was purity sorted. Now I needed wine and food – ideally, quite a lot.
That’s OK in Burgundy, where the spiritual and the fleshly are rarely antinomic. Religious orders have been so crucial to the development of Burgundian gastronomy – notably wine and cheese – that both come with God’s approval. Dinner is a divine duty. That’s why I was there.
After trying times, I’d needed reviving. “Wellness”, if you like, except my kind of wellness comes not from hammams and herbal tea but expansive meals with wine and cheese, well-rooted in a plump, pleasant land sanctioned by the saintly. In other words, “Burgundy”.
The region’s food and extraordinary wines have done more for historical wellness than almost anything else on earth. They still do (and if you truly hesitate between a body wrap and a bottle of volnay with époisses, it’s no wonder we’ve never met).
Now, the wonderful thing about the pursuit of this brand of wellness is that, in going for the region’s stomach, you get under its skin. I set off. Given only a few days, I couldn’t pursue the whole Burgundy food range – charolais beef, snails, marbled ham, bresse poultry – so stuck to tracking down cheese and wine, at both of which Burgundy excels. I could feel wellness welling up already.
I started around Mâcon, the Deep South of the region. I needed cheese. I often do. La Trufière goat farm at Chissey-lès-Mâcon, near Cluny, had it in abundance, once I’d tracked down cheesemaker Marie-Emilie Robin to a nearby barn. I can’t tell you how good her riper cheese was with a Mâcon white, so won’t try.
The hardest part of the job? “Seeing the goats leave,” said Marie-Emilie. “They’ve provided milk for five or six years, and now we’re sending them to the abattoir. I used to give them names, but don’t any more.”
“I can understand that,” I said. We were in the farm shop. I pointed to shelves bearing jars of goat pâté and goat stew. “You’d not want to think it was Fluffy in there.”
Mâcon white is terrific, but you can’t be round here without tackling pouilly-fuissé. I moved slightly further south. Hills rolled up and around, pulling vineyards with them. They rose to the rocky outcrop of Solutré, which oversees the whole like a gigantic pulpit. Flanked by flunkeys, François Mitterrand used to climb it every Whit weekend, in homage to wartime resistance.
It was a stark trek for an old man. And still is, so I wound down into the dell containing the stone village of Fuissé, one of five villages producing the great unpronounceable white wine of southern Burgundy.
From the village’s château, the Vincent family have been vignerons for five generations, so are largely on top of the job. Bénédicte Vincent effervesced about wine, grapes, the vineyards unravelling down to her door, her granddad. And climats.
Ah, climats. These are the stretches of land, around 1,500, into which the great Burgundy vineyards have been divided on the grounds of different soil types and that sort of thing. They push the concept of terroir to extremes, and bagged Burgundy a Unesco world heritage listing in 2015.
Burgundians have been analysing them for a millennium, and they’re not stopping now, so appear interested and hold out your glass. When Bénédicte poured pouilly-fuissé le clos, I forgave everyone everything. Then I left, north along the Grand Cru route by way of villages – Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Aloxe-Corton – so legendary that it was a surprise that they actually existed.
Throughout, hand-stitched vineyards swept up hillsides with a sense of superiority unusual in a cash crop. That’s a thing about Burgundy: the horny-handedly agricultural meets Hermès-scarfed elegance on equal terms. Both are vital.
In Nuits-Saint-Georges, I bobbed to see the Dufouleurs. They’ve been making wine since the 16th century. Xavier, the patriarch, was ebullient. “Compared to the Bordelais, we’re gardeners,” he cried. Bordeaux estates may come in dozens, hundreds, of acres; Burgundian ones average around 20.
On the Côte de Nuit and Côte de Beaune, where wine prices soar, you might feed a family from 10. Then we were again talking climats and “the totally different tastes” that may be found in wines made from vines only a handful of metres apart.
This is wine person’s talk. “Totally different tastes” for most of us are as between a sausage and a kipper, not between two versions of chardonnay grown 6ft apart. As ever, I wondered whether wine, like soccer, wasn’t ill-equipped to bear the weight of comment and analysis loaded on its back. Then Xavier handed me his house’s premier cru fixin, and I shut up.
By now, I’d heard a lot about monks so I went to meet them – on the flatlands just east, at Cîteaux abbey. Though the 12th-century birthplace of the Cistercian order, the set-up wasn’t that impressive. Wrecked after the revolution, it had been put back together like an Sixties campus. But this, and other religious houses, had been largely responsible for Burgundy agriculture. As young Brother Benoît explained: “We’ve always spent a lot of time reading and praying; we need to work with our hands for balance, or we’d go mad.”
Back in the day, that meant wine, first for Mass, then for everyman. Monks studied the land, defined the climats, developed techniques, and established estates like Clos Vougeot. It all went pear-shaped post-revolution. Dispossessed, they fled. Subsequently, Trappists – strict observance Cistercians – returned to Cîteaux and, deprived of vineyards, have been making cheese for around a century. It’s vital to their finances.
Brother Benoît was monk-in-charge of production until recently, a challenging placement for a political science graduate who neither knew nor cared much about cheese. “I made mistakes; training me cost us plenty!” he said, his grin as wide as a reblochon – which, as chance would have it, is what the abbey’s cheeses most resemble. They’re stamped “Prayer & Work”, so your gluttony is godly, which is good.
All this way, and I’d still not encountered the Burgundian cheese glory that is époisses. Happily, they had a cracking version chez Gaugry, a large-scale cheesery back on the Grand Cru route at Brochon. Visitors could survey cheese workers in action from a glassed-in gallery – the sort from which one generally studies sharks or giant pandas – before tackling a £5 tasting of five greatest cheese hits, plus wine.A mild brillat-savarin gave way to a mellow soumaintrain and onwards to époisses, a soft item with orangey-red skin and aromas best described as “intrusive”. It tastes less strong than it smells, but only just.
It was 10.30am. I was seated by a picture window, époisses on the plate, pinot noir in the glass and, beyond, Côte de Nuits vineyards running to Gevrey-Chambertin and then up the hill. Wellness overwhelmed. “This is the way forward,” I murmured. The people on the next table were Japanese. We smiled, then clinked glasses. The way forward, indeed.
Over coming days, I dodged north-west, leaving vineyards for the granite Morvan uplands of tougher farming and forest. Down the remotest wooded valley, the Pierre-qui-Vire abbey had been producing cheese for decades. Cheese-making was now run by layman Philippe Abrahamse, a wildly organic fellow. “We’ve the finest job in the world,” said Philippe. “We’re here to feed people. What’s better?” Once again, spiritual and fleshly advanced together, fuelled by a ripe cow’s milk cheese of which I ate far too much in my hotel bedroom.
Morvan lanes snaked ultimately to Vézelay. The great basilica – kick-off point of the second and third crusades – topped its hill, beaming and beckoning across time and space. The best views were from Tharoiseau, a village clinging to the other side of the valley, and notably from the old stone Croix Montjoie winery. The Vézelay wine district, far from other Burgundian vineyards, is tiny, just now reviving after decades of neglect. Sophie and Matthieu Woillez established the Croix Montjoie domain in 2009. They had the best-value white wines of my trip.
So to Vespers, and then dinner across the way at La Terrasse: eggs meurette, venison, époisses and half a litre of irancy red. Next morning, I left Burgundy. I had to. Any more Burgundian meals, and they’d have been carting me home on a flatbed truck.
Around the French cheeseboard
1. Roquefort, Aveyron, Larzac Plateau
The king of blue cheeses may be made only in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, south of Millau. Riddled with caves, the Combalou rock overseeing the village produces just the right atmosphere to decorate the maturing ewe’s milk cheese with blue mould. Or so it’s said. They also inject it with pencillium roqueforti, which suggests the cave claim is folklore. Get the story by touring the Société caves (roquefort-societe.com; £5). Stay and eat in Saint-Rome-de-Tarn at the Hotel Les Raspes (lesraspes12.com, doubles from £67). The Millau viaduct and Tarn gorges are to hand.
2. Maroilles, near Maubeuge
If the strength of a cheese represents the character of a region, then don’t tangle with the far northern French. They’d likely fight back with maroilles; you’d never recover. This is the second-smelliest cheese in France (the first, vieux-Boulogne, is a near neighbour), yet our northern French friends spread it on bread and dip it in coffee for breakfast. They put it in sauces and tarts and treat it as if it were a normal foodstuff. To see how wonderful, or otherwise, this might be, make for the Ferme du Pont des Loups at Saint-Aubin (between Maubeuge and the town of Maroilles itself), where they know more than most about the soft, orange-skinned item. Dinner and bed are at nearby Liessies, at the Chateau de la Motte (chateaudelamotte.fr; doubles from £77, menus from £25).
3. Comté, Jura Mountains
Fruity, firm and honest, Comté speaks of the rude health of a bountiful life hard won in the Jura mountains, near the Swiss border. Horizons are forever, mountain meadows ripe with russet and white Montbéliard cows. Their milk goes to cheese-making co-operatives. The consequent comté is aged by specialist outfits, notably in the fort 3,800ft up at Les Rousses. This wasn’t much use as a fort (the Swiss never attacked) but is terrific for maturing 140,000 rounds of comté at a time. There’s a permeating pong, but the visit’s worth £6. Check into the Manoir des Montagnes (manoirdesmontagnes.com; doubles from £93). Eat there, too. Then explore the mountains.
4. Munster, Alsace
Open a ripe munster and you will clear the neighbourhood. Fortunate, then, that eastern France’s most penetrating cheese is created on the Vosges uplands. Its invasive aromas may then waft over forest, lakes, pastures and wide-open spaces of the Munster valley and Schlucht pass. Munster’s taste is less assertive than its bouquet, but not much, as you’ll learn visiting the Lau family’s Ferme du Versant du Soleil at Hohrod just outside Munster town (ferme-versant-du-soleil.fr; free). The walking is wonderful – try the Sentier des Roches for a challenge – as is the copious eating in mountain farm inns such as Glasborn Linge, near the Linge Great War site (ferme-auberge-glasborn.fr; menus from £15). Stay at the Hotel Panorama, also at Hohrod (hotel-panorama-alsace.com; doubles from £64).
5. Camembert, Normandy
Lush, hedged, undulating and speckled with apple trees and half-timbered farmsteads, Camembert country administers wellness for sybarites. But be careful what you’re eating. The real AOP cheese, made from untreated milk has “Camembert de Normandie” on the box. “Fabriqué en Normandie” betokens industrial production with pasteurised milk. (This will change in 2020; I’ll give details nearer the time.) The only farmhouse producer of genuine camembert in the village of Camembert is Nicolas Durand at La Héronnière (camembertdurand.fr). The Domaine de St Loup dairy at Saint-Loup-de-Fribois (fromage-normandie.com) merits a visit, as does the Camembert Museum at Vimoutiers (museeducamembert.fr; £2.60). Eat at the neighbouring Herisson (restaurant-leherisson.fr; mains from £10.50) and sleep at the Vieux Chateau Le Renouard (levieuxchateaulerenouard.com; B&B doubles from £145).
6. Crottin de Chavignol, Sancerre
Cylindrical, and from soft to firm in taste and texture depending on maturity, this is the best Loire valley goat’s cheese. Head for hill-topping Sancerre, then wind down through the vines to the hamlet of Chavignol, where Dubois Boulay are masters of the cheese business (dubois-boulay.fr). The family also runs the nearby Au P’tit Goûter restaurant, serving cheese, wine and other local produce in simple fashion; allow £12. Later, hop across the street to the Hôtel La Côte des Monts Damnés for dinner and to spend the night (montsdamnes.com, doubles from £88; menu from £20).
7. Ossau-Iraty, French Basque Country
There are 100 ways of dining well in the mountains of the Pyrenean Pays Basque but most include ossau-iraty ewe’s milk cheese. It’s nutty and nuanced, rustic and unyielding, like the Basques themselves. A sliver goes well with both black cherry jam and irouléguy red, also like the Basques. The loveliest of cheese trails leads up and down green hills and should end at the Larraldea farm, near Saint- Jean-Pied-de-Port. Here, the Reca sisters, Oihana and Intza, work the family farm, creating a farmhouse ossau-iraty unlikely to disappoint. Subsequently, retire to the four-star Hotel Arcé at Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorry for dinner and bed (hotel-arce.com; doubles from £88, menus £24).
8. Saint Nectaire, Auvergne
Produce of the rounded Mont-Dore hills near Clermont-Ferrand, Saint Nectaire is mild, nutty and fits firmly into a farmer’s palm. You may ascertain this yourself, in the remote hillside hamlet of Farges above Saint-Nectaire village. The Ferme Bellonte has been producing saint nectaire for eight generations but also, now, furnishes a whole cheeseboard of related activities: milking and cheese-making, farm visits, and magic lantern shows in the caves and troglo-houses. A good cheese time will be had by all, before dinner at Le Rivalet at Montaigut-le-Blanc (hotel-rivalet.com, menus from £24) and bed at Saint Nectaire’s Mercure (hotel-bains-romains.com; doubles from £58).
9. Pélar-don, Cévennes
Goat-raising in the Cévennes hills was a favoured refuge of soixante-huitards (Sixties radicals) disappointed that the May 1968 riots hadn’t ushered in a revolutionary dawn. Surprisingly, some stuck at it, slotting into a tradition spanning centuries. And, whoever’s making it, the pélardon – small and round like an ice-hockey puck – talks of these tough, forested mountains and their many stories with mild piquancy. Head for Les chèvres du Salaves in Sauve (leschevresdusalaves.wordpress.com) or Mathieu Rio at the Mas de la Courme, St Bénézet (mas-courme.com) – both north of Nîmes – for confirmation. Drink an IGP Cévennes red alongside, then repair to the Hôtel Porte des Cévennes to eat and sleep (hotel-restaurant-porte-cevennes.com; doubles from £83, menus from £26).
10. Banon, Provence
Banon is quite simply the finest Provençal cheese (OK, competition is not intense), found where the region starts rising towards the Alps. Upland peasants needed sustenance through the winter, so dipped their goat’s cheese in eau de vie before wrapping it in brown chestnut leaves tied with raffia. That kept it mellow, and still does, as you’ll note when you swing by La Pourcine farm at Limans, just south of the village of Banon itself. The young couple receive visitors, between 5pm-7pm, bar Sundays. You might strike out thither from the Hôtel Charembeau outside Forcalquier (charembeau.com, doubles from £79). Dine nearby at the Auberge du Bois, Niozelles (0033 492 766156; menus £25).
In Pouilly-Fuissé, Château de Pierreclos rises from 12th-century cellars with nobility. Chambres-d’hôtes are sumptuous, the château wines wonderful (0033 385 357373, chateaudepierreclos.com; B&B doubles £138). Best in Nuits-Saint-Georges is the Gentilhommière (0033 385 357373, lagentilhommiere.fr; room-only doubles from £102). At the top of the Vézelay, SY-Les Glycines is a little town house recently restored with warmth and taste (0033 386 472981, vezelay-laterrasse.com; room-only doubles from £65).