While Burgundy is world-famous for its wine and its three-star restaurants, it rarely comes up as a top travel destination: if heading to France, one seems more likely to go to Paris, the Riviera, Normandy, or perhaps the Loire Valley. Burgundy comes as an afterthought. Maybe the reason lies in the geography: Burgundy has always been "on the way to somewhere". It was on the ancient tin routes, the main Roman road from Lyon to Trier (Trèves), the route from Italy to Flanders, and it is right on the corridor connecting Paris and the North to Southern France. With the advent of freeways and fast TGV trains, Burgundy has become more accessible than ever but hurried crowds of sun-worshipers usually bypass the region on their way to the Mediterranean... Even to the French, Burgundy is not well known.
A cultural crossroads. The name Burgundy has covered many areas at different times: during Charlemagne's reign, it extended as far South as the Mediterranean; in the 15th century, it included a large part of Picardy. After Vercingétorix was defeated by Caesar in 52 BC at Alésia, near Semur-en-Auxois, the Romans occupied the region. Many Gallo-Roman sites have been excavated and several museums exhibit sculptures and objects used by these first century inhabitants. The name Burgundy is derived from the Burgondes, a nomadic people originally from Scandinavia, who settled in the area around 430 BC. Through centuries of disruption caused by successive Barbarian and Viking invasions, the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries provided a stable, organized and civilizing force. The monks' quiet industry and attention to agriculture transformed the region: they cleared the forest, cultivated the land, and planted crops of various kinds, including grapes. They became experts in stockbreeding, fisheries, forestry and winemaking, innovators of mining and smelting. By the early 12th century, the Benedictine abbey of Cluny exerted enormous political, artistic and religious influence. Crusades were launched from Vézelay, not from Paris or other great capitals. During the 14th and 15th century, the Dukes of Burgundy became more powerful than the Kings of France. With dominions extending to present-day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, Burgundy formed the biggest "country" in Europe. In 1477, after Louis XI finally defeated Duke Charles the Bold, Burgundy was annexed to the French crown. As a result of the French Revolution, the huge church holdings and the estates of the nobility were dismantled but the legacy of Burgundy's greatest years remains in the Romanesque and Gothic architecture of its buildings, the charm of its Renaissance castles and the treasures of its museums.
Burgundy's other liquid. Before superlative wines, one of Burgundy's major assets may well have been water! Because of its unique geography, Burgundy is sometimes referred to "the roof of the Western World". The Seine finds its source in the Côte d'Or; the Loire closely follows the western boundaries of the Nièvre and Saône-et-Loire; the later départment is crossed by the Saône, which flows into the Rhône in Lyon. In effect, whatever rain falls in Burgundy may end up in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic or the English Channel. In the past, commerce was facilitated by these navigable rivers and a network of canals linking them all together: wood was floated down the rivers from the Morvan forests to provide Paris with burning fuel; stone was sent by barge from quarries near Auxerre to the capital when the city was "redesigned" by Baron Haussman. These waterways are now often used by pleasure boaters and barge companies that offer a relaxing way to visit the region. The rivers also provide abundant freshwater fish that usually end up in stews cooked in wine. Wine and water reunited...
World-class reds and whites. Even more than water, wine is the product that permeates every part of Burgundy, and the life of every Burgundian. In the Bordeaux area, wine producers own large estates; in Burgundy, the wine area is mostly made of small, family-owned plots. In fact, many of these plots only provide enough wine for personal consumption. In some villages, almost every family grows and produces wine. The wine-growing area in Burgundy represents only 5% of the total wine-growing area in France! Essentially, three grape types are found (Pinot Noir for red Burgundies, Chardonnay for white Burgundies, and Gamay for Beaujolais) but the unique chemical combinations of the soils give each wine a distinctive personality. About 100 Appellations Contrôlées are divided into 4 categories:
_Regional appellations (wines made with grapes from throughout Burgundy).
Communal appellations (wines produced within the limits of the village whose name they bear).
Premiers Crus (a "name" vineyard, or climat; the name vineyard is attached to the village's name on the label).
Grands Crus (rare and produced in just a few Burgundy villages; on the label, only the vineyard's name appears).
As always, the proof is in the glass and the only way to learn about Burgundies is to submit oneself to the rigors of extensive tasting sessions...
Culinary delights. Good wine is even more enjoyable when paired with good food and Burgundy offers a bounty of prime ingredients to work with. In the Morvan forests, pigs roam freely and feed on acorns. The result: wonderful, air-dried Morvan ham and Jambon persillé, a local dish of jellied ham with parsley, thyme, tarragon and white wine. The poulet de Bresse may well be the ultimate free-range chicken: this semi-wild breed, with white feathers and blue feet, is free to roam by day and housed in huts at night. The chickens are intentionally given insufficient feed so that they have to supplement their diet on their own by scrabbling around for insects, worms or snails. Their flavorful meat is a good match to morel mushrooms (these, other wild mushrooms, and even truffles can be found in the forests) The Charolais cattle, developed in the 17th century, was originally raised as milking cows and later bred for their lean and tender meat. Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin, the classic stews in red wine, reach new heights when prepared with these exceptional meats. Escargots, frogs and crayfish, along with eel, pike and trout, have inspired creative chefs who bring new twists to traditional recipes. The climate also allows Burgundian farmers to grow a wide variety of vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers (and gherkins), peas, Coco beans from Cheu, white asparagus from Vergigny... Mustard is always associated with Dijon, the regional capital: it is believed that the Romans introduced the mustard seed to Burgundy. It is still a big activity but most mustard seed is now imported from Canada, as Burgundy simply does not grow enough of it. Cheeses are not absent from the Burgundian table: many different varieties of cow and goat cheeses are made locally but two cheeses can claim irrefutable Burgundy heritage: the Epoisses, a soft cow's milk cheese that has been washed in Marc de Bourgogne (the fermented and distilled spirit from crushed grapes) and the Citeaux which has an orange rind and resembles a very creamy and mild Reblochon. For dessert, fresh fruits are abundant: cherries, mirabelle plums, strawberries, raspberries, red and black currant. Black currant is also used to make syrup, liqueur and crême de cassis: mix it with white wine and you obtain a Kir, the regional apéritif. A culinary tour of Burgundy would not be complete without visiting the pastry shops and sampling pain d'épices: the dark, moist, golden loaves made with honey and spices bear no resemblance to American gingerbread!
The warm hospitality and simplicity of the Burgundians is as legendary as their wines. Next time your travel plans take you through this region, stop! Stay for a few days. You may not want to leave...
Our recipes from Burgundy:
Cheese Puffs-Gougères Bourguignonnes
Mustard Tart-Tarte à la Moutarde
Snail and Mushroom Casserole-Cassolette d'Escargots aux Champignons
Chicken with Mustard-Poulet à la Moutarde
Chicken with Tarragon-Poulet de Bresse Cocotte à l'Estragon
Lamb Shoulder à la Bourguignonne-Epaule d'Agneau à la Bourguignonne
Pork Chops with Mustard-Côtes de Porc à la Moutarde
Green Lentils à la Bourguignonne-Lentilles à la Bourguignonne