February 17, 2014


The first time you drink a Kir in Burgundy will probably be more memorable than your First Time.

Named after Canon Félix Kir, a resistance fighter and longtime mayor of Dijon, it consists of 1/5 crème de cassis de Dijon mixed with 4/5 white wine (aligoté de Bourgogne, if you wish to be authentic).

What is the secret of that purple liquor? Cue the Confrérie du cassis.

The Cassis Brotherhood, founded in 1964, works to defend and protect la véritable crème de cassis de Dijon. My guide is the Vice-President, Madame Decossin, who has been affiliated for more than 30 years. We meet in the center of Dijon and walk to one of the four producers of the sublime nectar. She regales me with stories of the city, cassis, and life. She is the perfect guide.

We arrive at La Maison Briottet, founded in 1836. Upon sitting down with Monsieur Gérard Briottet, I said I wanted to learn about la crème de cassis de Bourgogne.

Horrible mistake!

“Ah, NON!,” he exclaims. “It is la crème de cassis de DIJON.”

The education continues. There are two types of cassis grown in France, le noir de Bourgogne and le blackdown. Objectively, they both sound kind of sexy, but from a taste standpoint, Monsieur B. is quite quick to point out that le blackdown “smells like nothing and tastes like nothing.” That is why he only uses le noir de Bourgogne in his products. “C’est le ‘top.’” His eight-employee business sells la crème de cassis as its hallmark product. It is high-quality stuff, good for presents and every day use.

Serve yourself
M. Briottet gives a quick clinic in his product. Cassis is a berry growing on bushes, harvested by machine in early summer. Decades ago, the harvest of cassis was always around Bastille Day, July 14, but last year’s harvest was completed on June 30. Climate change? Peut être.

Now, the berries are frozen so that crème de cassis can be made year-round. Before refrigeration, M. Briotet explains, the crème become oxidized, and turn brownish. People waited with great excitement for le cassis de septembre, which had its fresh, violet color.

Since 2012, la crème de cassis de Dijon has benefitted from an indication géographique. Madame Decossin celebrates the work of the confrérie in this achievement. Producers determined that their cassis needed protection from imposters outside of Dijon, and even outside of France, including Brazil. As M. Briottet put it, “One does not have the right to steal our history.”

One might wonder what the difference is between indication géographique (IG) and appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOP). The latter uses ingredients exclusively from the region of production (wines only use grapes from a specific terroir; cheeses use only milk produced in a specific region), whereas an IG may use products from elsewhere (crème de cassis de Dijon is made with sugar and beet alcohol from elsewhere [and sometimes cassis from elsewhere, although M. Briottet uses berries harvested exclusively in Côte d’Or]). The IG in this instance means that if the label on the bottle says “crème de cassis de Dijon” the final product was made within the city limits of Dijon.

A brochure appears, detailing the incredible density of vitamins and other nutrients in cassis (twice as much vitamin C as a kiwi, four times as much as an orange; loads of zinc; wheelbarrows of antioxidants); its benefits to fight aging; and its strength as an antiviral. M. Briottet warns me that, of course, we need to be careful talking about the health benefits of the alcoholic crème de cassis de Dijon…no government likes to hear a company bragging about how drinking booze makes you healthy. Nonetheless, the little berry presents a compelling résumé.

Cassis is also used in perfumes, syrups, and countless recipes, from chutneys to sauces to crumbles.

M. Briottet gave a wonderful tour of his facilities, and concluded with some tastings of cassis as well as his many other products, from pêche de vigne to marc de Bourgogne. The maison offers more than a dozen bottle shapes and volumes, and one can place special orders for any of their products by calling ahead.

Labels for the different products chez Briottet
But there is no need to go to the “factory.” Crème de cassis de Dijon is widely available in wine stores, supermarkets, and bistros throughout the region and the country. Aside from M. Briottet, the maisons Lejay-Lagoute, L’Heritier Guyot, and Gabriel Boudier all make the authentic product. And as M. Briottet pointed out, “every person has his own tastes.” There is no “best,” just what you like.

As the marvelous Madame Decossin walked with me back to the center of town, she confessed that even she had learned some things during our visit. Membership in the brotherhood does not necessarily mean omniscience. 

So what is the key to finding and enjoying good crème de cassis de Dijon?

First, it needs to be 20 proof. Bam. None of that 16 proof, OK?

Second, while it is wonderful in a Kir or a Cardinal (sub red wine for white), it can surprise even the most astute gourmand as a digestif, enjoyed with an ice cube.

When the head of a business that is nearly 180 years old that has been in the family for five generations tells you to drink his product with an ice cube at the conclusion of a meal, do it.

It will be a new First Time, and those are worth collecting.

What: Cassis
Where: Burgundy
When: Always
How Much: A good bottle costs around 13 euros; a kir is 4-5 euros

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