Burgundy is not just about wine. Surprise!
The world is descending into a hideous spiral; vile invasions, endless covid, 40 degree heat in England(!), supply chain disruptions, lack of workers, airport chaos, not to mention the execrable quality of the seemingly non-stop supply of populist egomaniac politicians.
Which is why it is such a pleasure to live just three and a half hours drive from Beaune. Hop onto the A6 (if you can avoid the morning rush hour) and before you know it the road curves and descends through the vineyards of Savigny, the picturesque walled town of Beaune to your right.
The streets of Beaune offer endless surprises, a medieval courtyard here, a tiled roof there, a glimpse of a hillside layered in vines. There is so much historical architecture to take in. Plus a joyous market and, of course, endless wine shops, wine bars and restaurants. I love the place.
But last month I was there on a mission, and a short one at that. To drop off some wines for sale now that sadly too many great burgundies are not just unaffordable to buy, but to drink. In the good old days, if you had a direct contact or just got lucky, you could buy a big label and a few years later, close your eyes and pull the cork without too much of a guilt trip. Now you could buy your adolescent a second-hand car for the resale price of the bottle and who seriously is going to drink wine at hundreds of euros a glass? In the plural. Stupid and depressing.
Anyway, other than that, I had the far more pleasurable task of stopping by Domaine des Croix to have a quick chat with David and to collect wines that do not require a second mortgage, but elevate terroir, quality and purity. A privilege. Perhaps because he is as modest as he is skilled, and that his vineyards are in the Cote de Beaune, he has not (thankfully for us consumers) become a market icon with spiralling prices and everything translated into Chinese.
But in between these two slots, I had an hour. Time for a quick walk through my favourite streets and a chance to grab some of the non-vinous treasures of Burgundy. Because Beaune, hard though it may be to believe, is not just about wine.
First of all, the cheese shop. It was at Ma Cuisine (one of the places to eat) that we first discovered the real epoisses. No, not the little circular, orange-skinned ones in a wooden box, but a slice off the full round. Whereas the little round ones can be delicious, they can also stink of ammonia and be pretty rotten, or simply too unripe and rubbery. A slice off the full cheese, is, well, one of the great cheese delights of France. Yes, it smells awful, but it tastes fabulous, creamy and tangy. And actually goes quite well with red wine, which is unusual.
Go to Alain Hess and the epoisses is always great. But I also had another, even more critical, reason to be there.
Now you may not realise this, but in our current, disfunctional world there is a shortage of real Dijon mustard. And the best, stone ground stuff comes from Fallot. People had muttered to me about the failure of the Canadian mustard crop which apparently is the source of much commercial mustard, hence the literally empty supermarket shelves, but this was the real stuff made here, not with transatlantic seeds.
Epoisses in the bag, I looked at the shelves. They had plenty of the little bottles of the flavoured mustards (tarragon, nuts, basil and two favourites: madras curry and the extravagant local black truffle). But of the straight moutarde de Dijon, not a single jar.
Allow Fallot to take up the story:
‘The Burgundians and the Dijon folk in particular, have had the well merited reputation of being fine gourmets. A land of vineyards, Burgundy was always well located to furnish the increasingly numerous mustard makers in and around Dijon with new wines and vinegar.
A limestone region with dense woodlands, erstwhile the domain of the charcoal burners, the terrain is ideal for the cultivation of particularly strong and biting seeds. Little by little, the cultivation of mustard therefore developed in the region, that was thus assured of a long term self-sufficiency in terms of raw material supplies. ‘Up to the Second World War, in Burgundy, mustard was cultivated in woodland, in the charcoal burner clearings where the charcoal kilns, a large number of which existed in Burgundy at that time, were located.
The discarded "ashes" from charcoal burning were rich in potash and encouraged the growth of mustard, the seed for which was sown by the charcoal makers. When the plant reached maturity and the seed was gathered, the collectors bought the seed from the charcoal makers and then sold it to the Dijon region's mustard makers.
It did not take very long for mustard to become a real tradition in Dijon, where its manufacture was governed by a decree dating from the 10th August 1390. In 1634, the first official articles of association of the City of Dijon Corporation of Vinegar and Mustard Makers came to regulate the craft.
In the eighteenth century, the discovery of verjuice (grape juice harvested in Burgundy), put the finishing touch to this noble product. Verjuice (added to brown mustard seed) coupled with the milling of this mixture using millstones (thus avoiding heating of this highly sensitive paste) were to finally render the World-renowned high quality Dijon mustard.’
It’s a rather charming story, and it always adds an extra lick of flavour if you know where your food comes from, how and why? But the story then has a major blip:
‘Due to the large number of charcoal producers and a smaller population level, this form of mustard seed cultivation was largely sufficient to supply the Burgundy mustard producers. However, due to the falling off in the demand for charcoal for industrial use, and the subsequent reduction in the number of charcoal burners, the drop in mustard cultivation forced the mustard manufacturers to look to other regions (mainly Marne, Somme, Seine-et-Oise, Loiret and Indre), for their supplies. Here also, cultivation also grew less and less profitable until it was finally abandoned, leaving the mustard makers no choice but to go outside of France, especially to Canada and the United States, where mustard is a more profitable crop for Canadian and American farmers.’
So, most of your mustard is indeed from far far away, but there are still some real old school mustards like Fallot, milled and grown in Burgundy.
But not today…
Anyway, I grabbed my little bottles and cheese and headed back to the car, with a small detour. The market was not on today, but in the marketplace there were a couple of stalls. One was selling summer truffles. Oh yes, limestone soil is not just good for chardonnay and pinot (and Nebbiolo in Barolo) it also gives birth to truffles, tuber uncinatum, truffes de Bourgogne. There is even a truffle festival in Noyers-sur-Serein (very near Chablis on the same river) in November/December, though when we went it was cancelled due to lack of rain and consequently a dearth of the little black funghi. They gave us a cup of coffee and as we looked around the charming medieval village with its ancient wooden gables, house martin nests and archways, a rather mysterious looking chap in a hoodie sidled up to me surreptitiously clutching a plastic bag under his coat.
Snobbishly I stepped back in alarm thinking he wanted to sell drugs, but no, he had a few small, but in fact rather tasty, black morsels from the forest…
The summer truffles look from the outside like the more famous truffes de perigord (tuber melansporum) but the inside is a tan colour. They are pungent (the car smells delicious), but less flavoursome than big brother, but also much cheaper. And they fit easily in your pocket in a small brown paper bag!
If that were not enough, on walking back to the car I passed a wine shop I used to buy from years ago under I think a different management. It is now called Divin (it used to be Magnum). Anyway, for nostalgia’s sake I popped in. Maybe I’d pick up something to go with the truffles if they had something mature enough to drink?
They did. But not at all what I had expected. A 1990 Meursault Narvaux from a negociant I had not heard of, Armand Vincenot.
Hmm, nice vintage, but 32 year old village white? Given the ubiquitous problems of premature oxidation in the Cote de Beaune, it seemed insane, but some of the best whites I’ve ever drunk were from 1990 and 1992 from growers who subsequently had severe oxidation problems, and the whole disaster did not rear its ugly head until the mid-1990s. And the lady swore to me it was good, and given its age, ridiculously good value.
I motored home, grated the truffle over some pasta and opened the Narvaux, a vineyard that sits just above Genevrieres, one of the top 3 premier crus in Meursault.
Was it good? Alive even?
Next day I rang her up and told her to ship me 4 more…
Burgundy is full of nice surprises, if you look.