Travel: Dijon On A Plate
We picked Dijon because it was en route, and it is the heart of the Bourgogne, Burgundy, with its richness of cheeses and wines, red and white, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — 70,500 acres of vineyards
Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. “Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.” A.A. Milne
Pooh said it more tellingly than I can, and who doesn’t enjoy the anticipation of travel for pleasure. But excitement starts well before setting foot in CDG or JFK or Denpasar or even Reykjavik or Saint Lucia-Hewanorra. It starts the moment one of us says, So… where should we go for a holiday? Last summer we chose a driving holiday in France and planning it, with the advice of friends and the invaluably helpful Keshwar at Atout France, was almost as much fun as being there. We were most interested in a holiday centred around eating, trying out restaurants, bistros and street-side cafés while watching the world walk by, a world chattering in French. If all this was in view of an old Duke’s castle or in the shadow of a dark forest, so much the better. Because although we took a while to finalise our itinerary, one thing was certain: we wanted to stay in places that were not replicas of others anywhere in the world. Looking at pictures and descriptions was like the journey had already begun and a kind of intimacy was established before we set foot there.
The limitation is always time, so we Google-mapped and parceled out our 17 days. We wanted the “scenic route”, we wanted a more-than-comfortable place to stay with rooms larger than the tiny standard European, we wanted a spot that represented something typical of the region — wine, cheese, foie gras, ceps or any seasonal produce, a river or two, a forest, a château. It was a round trip starting and ending in Paris and we drove south to Dijon, Lyon, Aix en Provence, and then northwards back to Paris via Carcassonne and Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Perigord Noir. The hired car waiting at Charles de Gaulle was a roomy SUV into which we could throw our bags without care and long drives were easy on the back.
We picked Dijon because it was en route, and it is the heart of the Bourgogne, Burgundy, with its richness of cheeses and wines, red and white, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — 70,500 acres of vineyards. I drove one leg on the fast but uncluttered highway, too fast to read signposts, but when I wasn’t driving, the signs were a teaser of the food and wines of the Côte-d’Or. Marsannay, Chablis, Époisses, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet… the very iteration brings on a frisson.
The culinary journey was kicked off in Dijon. The first was So, a bistro where the chef, So Takahashi — who has trained with Joel Robuchon in Tokyo — combines clean simplicity with French techniques and local ingredients. Though the menu was not enormous, the problem was still choosing. Most restaurants did offer either a formule, a fixed-price menu, or a menudegustation and that made life simpler. I remember in particular the plat: carré de veau, veal, with légumessaisons, seasonal vegetables, in jus de viande au cumin, cumin-flavoured pan juices. The meat was tender, brown and juicy, the vegetables crisp-tender and the sauce a concentration of the meat flavours.
We were two nights in Dijon and could walk around the old city. The ancient, golden Duke’s palace presides at its heart and is lit up delicately in the evening. Its walls give on to an open plaza edged by dozens of bars and bistros. The must-try drink is Kir or Kir Royale, crème de cassis with white wine or champagne. At lunch one day we had Époisses, a cow’s milk cheese from the eponymous village nearby, baked and served with salad and warm, fragrant bread. Baking creates an outer layer, too fine to be called a crust, and the inside remains soft, almost gooey. The flavour is memorable though mild and the texture creamy. Then we walked to Fallot, the oldest manufacturer of mustard in Dijon. On one side a shiny old brass grinder as large as a cement mixer grinds the mustard, and shelves and counters are stocked with jars — mustard prepared with unexpected flavours: green peppercorns, basil, chillies, raspberries.
We had a dinner reservation at La Maison des Cariatides. A caryatide is a carved stone column of a draped female figure on the façade of a Greek-style building and this restaurant has perhaps the only ones surviving in Dijon. Inside was a large cool room, calm and quiet, with white linen and the barely audible sound of other guests. Our waiter’s English was better than my French and he explained the provenance of each dish. We plumped for the menudégustation, which listed seven courses, but, including the amuse-bouches, there were more. Everything was local; the cheese from Époisses, an hour away; the strawberries from Jacqueline’s farm just outside the city; the vegetables summer-seasonal; the wine… well, we were in Burgundy.
The amuse-bouches were little baby-fingers of fish in a crisp, golden batter, with a dipping sauce of yoghurt, mayonnaise and lemon zest; and the other, tiny “flower pots” with red radishes. The “earth” was a mixture of dry black olives, the radishes, leaves intact, were real and had been dipped in a piquant white sauce to which the crushed olives adhered. Small, savoury and light, I began to understand the name of this “non-course”: amusing the mouth.
Then came a vegetable dish of very lightly grilled courgettes; firm red tomato wedges; brittle, crunchy cheese “crisps”; and a barely-there sprinkling of fresh herbs and flowers. The next dish was possibly my favourite in all of France, foie gras poêlé, pulpe de citron rôti, chou-rave: fattened goose liver gently sautéed a delicate brown, topped with grated pale green kohlrabi and a splash of roasted citrus pulp. The liver was tender, creamily coating the palate, with a hint of its defining flavour. The crunchy greens were a contrasting texture, firm and crisp, complementing the sensuous creaminess of the foie. The sweet-sourness of the “marmalade” brought the savouriness of the foie into relief. The next course, maquereau de petit bateau, ail noir et broccoli: mackerel from a small boat, roast garlic and broccoli. The portion, seen alone, was miniscule. But I knew there were courses to follow. The fish was fresh, flaky, and just cooked, the broccoli florets cut like miniature heads, the garlic sweet and fragrant. And a sprinkling of three or four lavender blooms. It was simple, it was beautiful. And desserts did follow: cerise confite, sureau et brioche en pain perdu, dark, plump, sweet cherries, lightly stewed, with real “French toast” of warm, soft brioche, with ice cream and a scattering of elderberry flowers. The other was a mélange of whole red strawberries and rhubarb sorbet topped with a soft meringue dusted with raspberry powder, fraise de Jacqueline, framboise, sorbet rhubarbe et meringue légère.
We met the chef, 22-year-old Angelo Ferrigno. The Michelin inspectors had just visited, the verdict was awaited. Now I read that one star has been awarded.
The author is a Delhi-based food and travel writer
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