March 26, 2014

Montbard Market

France can make the simple complicated. What could be easier, one asks, than buying food? A steak is a steak, strawberries are strawberries, right?


In a culture where food is more important than income, centuries of infatuation have made selection and preparation of victuals a complex endeavor. This market, featuring 60 +/- vendors in a warehouse-type building in the center of Montbard, is a prime place to learn the importance of quality products and artisanal work in the culinary world.

Taste-tested, Frenchwoman-approved
At the produce stand, there are three types of strawberries on offer: one from Spain that seems affordable, and two French varieties, from around $8 a pound to $16 a pound. A rapport qualité-prix battle rages (loosely, the relationship between price and quality, a national obsession).

Up go the antennae: a woman is flattering the stand operator about the quality of her strawberries. They are amazing. You ask the difference between those and the Spanish ones (which look tempting themselves, at a third the price). The customer wonders if perhaps the curious gentleman could have a taste? Sadly, no, counters the shopkeeper, because they are already weighed and sold by weight. So the customer reaches into her own container and proffers one to the neophyte. Juice, sugar, and aroma explode simultaneously (this is sexy food), and the choice is made. “Achetons français,” the woman says. “We should buy French.”

Now to the steak, which will surely be easier. But, lo! What are these cuts? And what does one do with them? Onglet. Jarret. Paleron. Collier. Roasts tied with lard in perfect cylinders. 

In the adjacent case, dozens of terrines reside: duck, liver, rabbit, country, and “grandmother’s.” Hesitation in front of such choice is normal, but not always appreciated at busy times. Stand back a couple feet and let the locals shop. Eavesdrop. 
Rabbit, rabbit
The woman behind the counter delivers the gem of the day: pork cheeks. Cook them in just-bubbling water, broth, or wine, flavored with aromatics, for at least 2 ½ hours. “Vous allez voir,” she tells her customer. You will see just how good it is. You can have the leftovers, cold with mustard. Your hesitation is gone, and you take some, too.

The artisan explains that everything is made in house. Her husband, who deals with the meat while she focuses primarily on the terrines, explains that they are there to protect a certain quality of local products. When a tuberculosis outbreak affected Charolais cattle, some producers moved to the Limousin race. He continues to obtain the former, believing it is a true gem of the region, and worth celebrating. As his pride shines, one cannot help but get a little collier for some boeuf Bourgignon. A fine Sunday meal in the making, from two people who rise each morning at 4 and work 14 hours to bring pleasure to their clients. 

Even though it is Burgundy, you can find rascasse, essential for a bouillabaisse
What: Market
Where: Place Gambetta, Montbard, Côte d’Or, Burgundy
When: Friday mornings year-round
How Much: Your choice

March 21, 2014


In a place where thousand-year-old churches dominate villages, where there are theme parks dedicated to Gallo-Roman history, where towers are labeled “12th Century,” and people still discuss the Dukes of Burgundy, finding something “new” isn’t always easy.

In Dijon, however, a new food festival has taken root. Délissime marked its second year in the capital of Burgundy in March 2014. Housed in the Parc des Expositions, right off the tram line, it is a celebration of all things culinary.

Taking place over three days, visitors can dip their toes into the warm waters of French gastronomy and viniculture. Armed with a tasting glass, the entrant can voyage around more than 80 stalls offering food delights from Burgundy and other parts of France. There are specialties of the southwest (duck legs, duck breasts, duck in duck fat, duck bolognese, the inside bits of duck, including duck hearts, duck gizzards, duck liver) and the sea (ocean beans, fish soups with their accompanying jars of bright orange rouille). A woman hawks spices from around the world, from Hawaiian black salt to smoky paprika. The Provencal vendor offers forth bites of Camargue beef.

Duck fifty ways
The assault on the palate inevitably leads to a craving for drink. Happily, event organizers have anticipated your need and invited winemakers from Provence, Alsace, the Loire Valley, and, of course, Burgundy to help slack your thirst.

The organizers have also taken a few chances. In the middle of prideful Dijon, a gastronomic city, an Italian vendor is peddling his specialties. Here is mortadella big around as a telephone pole. There is porchetta cut straight from a pig laid out on the table, golden and delicious, with a knife standing at attention in its back.

Italians love pig as much as the French do
Though obviously still getting its legs (the festival was poorly advertised and far from "crowded"), and despite some small concerns that the group managing the festival is organizing them around the country (will it become cookie-cutter? Or will it remain unique, region-by-region?), this festival is worth the price of admission. Spend the Friday morning at the best market in the Côte d’Or (perhaps all of Burgundy) under les Halles de Dijon, treat yourself to a nice lunch, and head to Délissime in the late afternoon as people begin to get off work and start their weekend. Inside, raise a glass to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy from 1467-1477, and celebrate the new.

What: Food festival Délissime
Where: Parc des Expositions (Tram: Auditorium), Dijon, Côte d’Or, Burgundy
When: March
How Much: Entry is 5 euros but the website offers reductions to 3 euros including a wine tasting glass.

March 20, 2014

An Introduction to Food Festivals in France

In a culture where food is part of countless idioms, pet names, political aspirations, and media coverage, food fairs, festivals, and competitions naturally occur. Sometimes, they are seemingly ubiquitous. (A recent weekend saw four prominent food festivals within an hour’s drive of each other.)

So how is the traveler to decide which one to visit? What should he expect? How much will she pay? And, most importantly, what will the traveler eat?

Music and Meat, together at last
First, embrace regionality. Festivals tend to focus on the specialties of the host region. If you tell a French person that you are traveling to a part of France, the odds are excellent that his first reaction will be, “You will eat well there.” He then ticks off several regional specialties you should be sure not to miss. The more pious among them may direct you to the cathedral. The amateur art historian may steer you towards the tapestry. But food recommendations are always part of the discussion. Because this is so ingrained in the French soul, it would be awkward indeed to find a food festival that didn’t brag about its own delicacies. So, in Burgundy, expect snails, cheese, wine, hams, and honey, among other victuals.

Second, prepare for some surprises from outside the host region. As proud as the French are of their own local grub, they are, above all else, insatiably curious when it comes to food. They crave new tastes, whether the briny zing of a Brittany oyster, the delicate flavor of Basque ham, or the odeur prononcée of Munster cheese from the eastern part of the country. Because food is a marvelous way to travel without a suitcase, food festivals will invariably showcase products from other areas of the country (and sometimes beyond). Vendors from elsewhere provide new tastes, different accents, and a range of personality traits too numerous to count.

Third, know the price of admission before going. One vendor recently complained that the entry fee of 3 euros was leading to fewer visitors. Imagine a group of four, she said. Already, they are at 12 euros before tasting a thing! Generally, expect a 2-3 euro entry. Sometimes, this includes a glass for tasting wine, sometimes that is a supplement. There are many festivals that are free, so do a little homework.

Fourth, a festival and a market differ in one critical way. At the latter, one can basically grocery shop. At the former, there is a paucity of fresh produce and meats. Rightfully or not, organizers have decided that processed meats, canned goods, vacuum-sealed products, and the like should fill the festival space. If the objective is to stock a picnic basket, one has no worries. If one wants to buy fruit and vegetables for that evening’s dinner, go elsewhere.

Fifth, booze flows everywhere. Taste the winemaker’s own nectars in dainty sips from a special glass and work on different ways to say, “Damn, that’s good.” Or just chug beer at the bar. Every festival has one. Don’t be shy.

Sixth, where there is food, there will be politics. The mayor will speak at one point, guaranteed. Media will be present. It has no effect on the consumer’s enjoyment of the festival, but it is worth knowing.

Seventh, salty or sweet, one can satisfy every craving at any reasonable festival. One without the other is a bit of a national tragedy in France.

Eighth, there will be cured meats: hams, sausages, even horsemeat.

Ninth, one can easily find a meal on the premises…provided one is dining at the nationally mandated (at least is seems that way) hours of 12:00-2:00 or 7:00-10:00pm. Maybe it will be seared foie gras. Perhaps it will be frog legs. Could that be tête de veau with the famous aligot potatoes? It could be and it is.

Tenth, and finally, go with gusto. Sample everything on offer. Engage the producers directly. This is their life’s work, and they are happy to discuss their methods and their philosophy. If one tries to upsell you, go on to the next stall without giving it another thought. Life is too short for petty crooks and pressuring salesmen.

Overall, food festivals allow the traveler to explore and experience new flavors in a convivial ambiance. (Yes, that is a direct translation from the brochure…)

March 18, 2014

Dijon Shopping Part 1

La Rose de Vergy

Sometimes, France wants to show you elegance and grace in their natural state. Such is the experience at La Rose de Vergy, where the in-house products appeal to every sense. They smell wonderful. The samples are tasty. Give the breads a gentle squeeze and reconsider your notions of “soft.” The hushed conversation in the adjacent tea room is the sound of dignity and discretion. But your eyes are the most dazzled. Look at the perfect, individualized wrapping for the nonettes de Dijon. See the line-up of bonbons in funky flavors, like bergamot and rose, which are made downstairs, in the cellar, on a machine from 1850. Each plastic bag of homemade cookies has its own little ribbon in a perfect bow. This is a classy but accessible and friendly place.

What: Food store
Where: 1, rue de la Chouette, Dijon, Côte d’Or, Burgundy

How Much: Bonbons are affordable

Grain de Cassis

This little store, bright and bouncy, is something different on the food landscape. The products marry modernity and tradition, like teenagers doing the waltz.

Surprising vinegars with pulps from passion fruit, tomato, or mango and cardamom claim shelf space. There is an impressive display of specialty lemonades in striking colors and flavors: pink grapefruit, shimmering green pistachio, lemon cinnamon. On the label it says, “Artisan Limonadier Depuis 1930.” (“Nice to meet you, Madame. What do you do for work?” “Lemonader. Been in the family nearly a hundred years now.”)

Products change frequently, a sign that the young owner is committed to keep her clientele interested and coming back. Lemon candies from England, artisanal chocolates, fine coffees, and even Arizona Iced Tea (“it sells well here in France,” the shopkeeper says) are all on display. On a recent visit, she was selling bugs: grasshoppers, pepper and sun dried tomato crickets, sesame cumin mealworms and the like. To eat. As a cocktail snack.

What: Food store
Where: 14, rue Rameau, Dijon, Côte d'Or, Burgundy
How Much: Priced to fit any budget. Lemonades are about 4 euros.

Au Duché de Bourgogne

On this beautiful plaza in the middle of Dijon, this little-bit-of-everything store beckons with those familiar but seductive words: produits régionaux. And regional products there are: wines (duh), anis candies, mustards, pain d’épices, liquers, snails, honey. All good things.

The store also has a wonderful selection of specialty wine glasses, decanters, corkscrews, and books about the wines and cuisine of Burgundy. There is also an excellent selection of food and wine-themed postcards, fun for every traveler.

What: Food, book, and wine store
Where: 1, Place de la Libération, Dijon, Côte d’Or, Burgundy
How Much: Spend three euros or three hundred

March 12, 2014

Food Museum

Sometimes, it is tempting to say that people here love food. But really it is gastronomy they love. The difference between the two is important to understand. The former is something we all eat; there is very little remarkable about food. Gastronomy, on the other hand, carries hints of good living, an appreciation of quality, a sensibility to subtlety, and an ability to discern. Most of all, it is a word that conveys one’s ability to enjoy the pleasures of the table.

Medals for beef lovers
The town of Saulieu is an undisputed champion of gastronomy. So it is only natural that the town’s museum, dedicated to the sculptor François Pompon, contains an entire room focused on gastronomy.

Even a bad iPhone photo can show that Saulieu is serious about food
The star of the show, as is the case throughout the town, is Bernard Loiseau, a 3-starred Michelin chef who brought the town and region much renown from the 1980s-2000s. When he killed himself with a shotgun in 2003, a great part of French culinary expertise died with him. There was an enormous amount of speculation about what drove him to suicide (debt, clinical depression, and, most of all, the thought that he might lose a Michelin star). It is, by all accounts, a grave tragedy in the history of French food.

But that story is for another time. At the museum, you can see Chef Loiseau smiling on the cover of cookbooks, grinning as he accepts various awards, and exuding a gentle and kind warmth as he cradles a knife.

The room is most remarkable for its old school menus, where chefs before Loiseau, like Alexandre Dumaine, "the cook for kings and the king of cooks," had already made Saulieu and Burgundy a dining destination.

Rotarians don't eat like this in Kalamazoo
For the modest entry price, the gastronomy room is worth a trip in itself. Throw in some amazing animal sculptures from M. Pompon, and this museum is a quick, easy, fun visit when passing through or staying in Saulieu.

Where: Saulieu, Côte d’Or, Burgundy
When: Open from March-December. Call ahead to double-check as hours vary.

How Much: Entry is 3 euros

March 5, 2014

Burgundy in the Mouth

With its quasi-kinky title, the 15th annual “Salon des Spécialités: Bourgogne en Bouche,” sees the town of Autun on its finest behavior. In conjunction with a commercial and agricultural fair and amusement park rides (sign from one: “Parents are solely responsible for placing their children in the ride. Parents are solely responsible for fastening the seatbelt.” Imagine that in the Land of the Lawsuit.), about 30 local and semi-local producers gather in the town’s social space to offer visitors a taste of their product. From Burgundy, wines, cheeses, beef (little cubes on a toothpick, offered hot off the grill), and crème caramel; from Alsace, foie gras and Reisling; from Champagne, well, guess.

Cheese is love
Garlic and pig...nobody loses
A bargain
It is little events like this that make being in France such a marvel. Outside of Autun, the event received no publicity, other than a small ad in the local newspaper. It is a worthwhile trip.

Get some snail slime is Burgundy
The fifth generation oil producers lighten the wallet with ease, offering tastes of pistachio, walnut, and sesame oils. Colorful macarons beg for a taste. By the sixth taste of wine, one cannot help but feel a little obligated to buy at least one bottle of crémant. The charcutier counters your suggestion that his specialty ham would be excellent with “some spicy mustard in the land of mustard” by saying, “Personnellement, when I have quality products like this, I don’t like to use something as strong as mustard. Try some salted butter.” Noted. On the "to try" list.

Five generations
There is nary a word of foreign tongue, but, happily, food competes ably with love as the international language. Go taste with gusto, stay for lunch (duck or beef?), and feel good about your little secret discovery.

Dozens of varieties of saucission

What: Food fair
Where: Autun, Saône et Loire, Burgundy
When: First weekend of March (check with the Office de Tourisme for final details)

How Much: Entry is 2 euros; tastings are free; lunch and direct purchase are supplementary

March 4, 2014

Paris Agriculture Salon

Ham: The taste of FREEDOM
Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors descend on Paris to see one of France’s greatest passions on full display. It is the Salon International de l’Agriculture, a multi-day celebration of agriculture. This is France, however, so it is really a love letter to food.

At the Paris Expo at the Porte de Versailles in southwest Paris, chickens, pigs, cows, sheep and horses, among others, are on display. The French president makes an annual pilgrimage, along with countless other dignitaries and elected officials. Brass bands play. Talk of employment, pesticide use, European regulations, and farm technology mingle with the unmistakable smells and sights of food.

It means "pig with a black ass"
And the food expo is where the best action occurs.

On the second floor of an immense convention hall, France brags about its culinary tradition and diversity. Every region rents space, showing off their local specialties, oftentimes accompanied by cooking demonstrations. Foie gras from the Dordogne, fish from Brittany, wines from Burgundy, rosés from Provence, bananas from Guadeloupe, pork from the Basque country, apples and butter from Normandy, the Confrérie du Brie de Meaux…as is normally the case when the matter is food, the Gauls come to play.

Provence in the house
There are ample opportunities to déguster, from sips of wine to snitches of ham. Toothpicks adorned with cheeses and bread slathered in rillettes make for nice little snacks as one wanders the vast terrain. And full meals are available in every region, from Alsatian choucroute to cheese fondue from the Alps. 

The glory comes in the variety. Any Frenchman will tell you that the best thing about France is that it offers everything in such a small country: canyons, mountains, waterfalls, skiing, farmland, forests, seashore, lakes. Once these geopgraphic marvels are listed, the Frenchman finds it only too easy and too natural to recount all the different culinary delights that accompany such richness. 

Unlike anything ever seen in a wok
Snack. Snack. Snack.
Every Paris trip needs a tower
There are few greater pleasures than hearing two French women in conversation, meandering the aisles of the food expo. Suddenly, they stop short in front of a display of goat cheese. As one raises her eyebrows in obvious excitement, the other whispers reverentially, “Ah, ça c’est trop bon, ça.” She’s right. It is too good. 

Get your goat on
Go see for yourself…and be prepared for crowds unlike any you have ever seen. Nearly ¾ of a million people visit every year. It’s busy, but for good reason.

Microphone + TV + sheep butts
Women are not afraid of saucissons
What: Agriculture Expo
Where: Paris Expo Center
When: Annually in mid-winter
How Much: 2014 admission was 13 euros with discounted rates for students, groups, and children

March 3, 2014

Andiamo ragazzi!

On Wednesdays and Fridays in Autun, a market happens. Friday is better by a lot, with more vendors and greater diversity of product. It is tempting to focus on the pork in all its glory, the local cheeses, fish that seem to have jumped out of the ocean, colorful produce, tasty wines, and excellent bread. French food is not world-renowned by accident.

Revere the pig
Sometimes, however, it’s refreshing to discover some different cultures when you’re in a different culture. So, to Autun on Friday for some diversity.

Shall we go east a little bit, to the Boot, and see some Italians? We shall.

Here, in a cold room under the Hôtel de Ville, there is a booth manned by some gentlemen who are better versed in Dante and Chianti than Molière and Champagne. 

Pasta to placate Pacino
The star of the show is pasta. Pillowy gnocchi, tagliatelle, raviolis, rigatoni…it’s all there under their glass display case. And wait…what is this? Parmesan and pecorino in the land of De Gaulle? Quelle horreur? Mais non! Quelle excellence. Pick your noodles, nibble the cheese, and revel in the Italian’s hesitation as he searches for the right words to tell you 7 euros 67 centimes…although he speaks great French, he, like you, sometimes has trouble navigating the waters away from his native tongue.

It's OK to look beyond France every once in a while
What: Market
When: Wednesdays and Fridays, year-round
Where: Autun, Saône et Loire, Burgundy
How Much: Your choice

March 1, 2014


Time for some wine talk. In Chaumont-le-Bois, in northern Côte d’Or, a stone’s throw from Champagne, Anne and Sylvain Bouhélier are making crémant de Bourgogne, a tasty sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Right next to the tasting room is the Musée du Vigneron, the Winemaker’s Museum.

Tools of the trade...back in the day
First a little history. Throughout the 19th century and before, seemingly everyone in this region had vines. They made wine for their own consumption or sold the grapes to winemakers in the area. Phylloxera devastated the region, as it did everywhere in France, destroying an economy and a tradition of a proud people. The government, of course, was concerned not only for the enjoyment of its people at the table, but also for its tax receipts. The state and the winemakers in the different regions came together to experiment, research, and find solutions to the problem. Eventually, grafting American vines to French ones and hybridization yielded a solution. But, as Mme B. was quick to point out, Phylloxera is still in the soil in France. The sap-sucking little pests have not been killed off, but the growing techniques have made the vines impervious to the assaulting offender.

Not a prop from Seven...this is a plow purchased by the first assoication of winemakers in the region
 Once that plague had been conquered, vines reappeared on the land…until around 1911, when the law of appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) affected the area. (You see this label on many bottles of French wine, a sign of quality and regional purity.) Unfortunately for the people of the Châtillonais, their region, shoulder to shoulder with -- but not part of -- our old friend Champagne, found themselves in a bad situation. Normalement, they sold the bulk of their harvest of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to Champagne producers. Once the AOC became the law of the land, the Châtillonais was no longer eligible to sell grapes to make Champagne because their grapes were on the wrong side of the border. Armed with old maps showing that the Châtillonais used to be part of Champagne, not Bourgogne, where it is currently, those with vineyards prepared to protest vehemently this artificial border, a line on a map.  Just as their efforts were ready to amaze Paris and others with their acute knowledge of cartography and righteousness, 1914 arrived.

Now, when in Europe, one must remember that the First World War is a landmark in a way that it just is not in the U.S. Suffice to say that this little band of winemakers had other worries from 1914 on, and the wine world went away. The land no longer had vines, and people turned to more important matters, like surviving and grieving and coping.

Fast forward to the 1980s. The Châtillonais is designated as part of a territory where one can create crémant de Bourgogne. M. et Mme. B. started their vineyard in the 1990s and bought an old house from a grand-mère. In the attic, they found, amidst piles of junk, a trove of vintage winemaker’s tools. They decided, in true French fashion, that these gems couldn’t be relegated to obscurity. At their own expense, they placed the artifacts in a display space on the property.

The diploma makes another appearance...respect the diploma
It is a great place to visit if you are interested in how people used to harvest grapes and turn them into wine. Mme. B. gave a comprehensive tour, explaining how Burgundy is the cradle of wine in many ways, including a description of the 2500-year-old Cratère de Vix; the correct way to cut oak to make a barrel; and how the pressoir works.

While not next to a lot, this little museum is worth a trip. Plus, one gets to taste some delicious sparkling wines from soil that once produced grapes that ended up as bubbles in Champagne. As Mme B. pointed out, “if we don’t make quality wine, we fail.” They are not failing.

What: Wine Museum
When: September-June, Saturdays from 3-6pm; July-August, Monday-Saturday 3-6pm
Where: 1, Place Saint Martin, Chaumont-le-Bois, Côte d’Or, Burgundy

How Much: Wine museum is free; crémant is 7-13 euros a bottle