No Bones About The Wonders Of Vézelay

Once upon a time, in the days of gluttonous yore – the 1980s – the celebrated Burgundian hill town of Vézelay, crowned by the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, was known as “a site of gastronomic pilgrimage.” Rarely did anyone evoke Magdalene’s relics or her UNESCO World Heritage Site shrine. Rarely did gastronomes notice the strangely attired pilgrims trudging up the looping, lichen-frosted lanes to venerate the longhaired, wild-woman saint.

In the 1980s, pilgrimage wasn’t in fashion. Hedonism seemed the thing. The Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant in crusty Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay at the saint’s feet was the shrine. Thousands offered up wallets on the altar of haute cuisine. Only zealots spoke of the moldering bones inside the basilica’s gilt reliquary.

Now nearly 2 million visitors climb the cobbled streets of upper Vézelay. This medieval aerie hovers above vineyards and those emerald-green pastures where romantic writers writhe in ecstasy. Legions of the pious brandish staffs, scallop shells and other tokens of religiosity. They besiege the ramparts, starting at Easter, the kick-off date for pilgrimages in France. Culture vultures, busloads of package tourists and brightly attired trekkers join the scrum.

Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay on Easter day, 1146. It happened on March 31, like this year, a reason for numerological pilgrims to rejoice. It might also explain the numbers of visitors in Vézelay when I was there a few days ago.

Confession time: I’m not religious and am only partly reformed. I admit Vézelay was where my wife Alison and I started our trek: it lasted nearly three months and took us across France and over the Pyrenees. Vézelay surprised me then for the changes that have transformed it. This time around the upper part of town looked like a cross between Mont Saint Michel-France’s most visited site – and Montmartre. The formula is familiar: elephant trains, souvenirs, iffy food and parking lots packed with garishly painted buses.

What to do? Montmartre is wondrous at dawn. At Mont Saint Michel and Vézelay the trick is to spend the night. When the buses roll away, the magic steals back. It lasts until mid-morning.

We did not stay up all night. Arriving at dusk, we checked into an old favorite: the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or. Then we strolled up the storied streets. The crowds were headed out.

Spit-polished for the trade, the village still has a “real” side. We followed locals to a street paralleling the main drag, Grande Rue. The last day-trippers filled the wine bars, cafés and crêperies sampling the Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, the cappuccinos and Burgundy treats.

The residents roosted in the PMU-tobacco shop, knocking back an 80-proof distillate called marc de Bourgogne. They also wagered on pari-mutuel horse races, and watched with puzzlement as the neo-pilgrims vanished into the night.

Vézelay’s tourist office calls the basilica of Mary Magdalene “an extraordinary book of stone and light.” Beyond the troubled translation, the Romanesque shrine does seem to have been rewritten by ten centuries of heavy weather, lightning and strife. The façade definitely looks better when spotlit at night.

Over the doors three tympanums crawled with figures. The almond-shaped center one showed Christ surrounded by Apostles and strange beings ready for induction into the Universal Church. Giants and pygmies, dog-headed men and others with huge ears: the message was clear. All are welcome-sinners, miscreants like me, pagans, heathens and creatures only part human. This is Mary Magdalene’s basilica. She had been a prostitute.

It dawned on me why Vézelay’s central tympanum should resemble an almond or vulva. Hadn’t Mary’s first profession depended on the forbidden fruit? The cult of the Virgin, virginity, chastity and abstinence had come late to the church, ditto the rule against married priests, and women in the clergy. The reformed party boy Saint Francis of Assisi had come to Vézelay in its heyday. Maybe it was time for jocular Pope Francis to make a pilgrimage into the future by rediscovering the past?

Miracles happen, we’re assured.

The nave, daubed with dusky light, stretched a football field long. Having walked 750 miles, seeing a thousand churches en route, I now thought the nave looked vaguely Moorish. Its vaults and arches are rimmed by alternating pale and reddish stone, as in better mosques in Spain. Blasphemy?

The demons and monsters torturing sinners on the basilica’s carved capitals seemed to me to prove that progress is possible after all. In some places, notably France, the grin has overwhelmed the grim.

We were overdue for hedonistic relief. A girl in the hotel’s dining room was dressed like an Easter egg, lost in her Louis XV-style chair. She rose up and announced that the snails were “good and garlicky.” This prodigy then consumed a large pork jowl and several potatoes – as did I – savored ripe, smelly Epoisse cheese and gobbled a giant chocolate dessert. The child was a French paradox in the making. Healthy hedonism was alive and well in Vézelay. There was hope. Maybe miracles happen after all.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James and Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com. Photos © 2013 Alison Harris

Lost And Found In The Ancient Gallic Citadels Of Burgundy

Dateline: Bibracte, Gaul (i.e., France):

Water squirts from seven sacred springs. Towering trees sway. The placid view from leafy Bibracte takes in forests, pastures, lakes, stone-built villages and distant cloud-snagging mountaintops. Somnolence seems guaranteed. But wait: the sweeping prospects pulse with 2,000+ years of bloody history, mystery and bizarre, only-in-France nationalistic lore.

Bibracte? You won’t find it on a map, not a current map anyhow. Bibracte is the most celebrated “lost city” of the Celts, the pre-Roman inhabitants of Gaul. Here, somewhere beneath the contorted beech trees, Julius Caesar dictated the perennial bestseller The Conquest of Gaul, etched into tablets in the year 52 B.C.

Bibracte is also where the valiant Gallic warrior Vercingétorix rallied the Celtic tribes of Gaul to face Caesar nearby at Alésia. That’s the other celebrated lost city of Gaul’s green heartland. “Lost” is the operative word. Caesar drubbed the Celts, marched Vercingétorix to Rome, and imprisoned then murdered him before cheering crowds. End of story? No. This is Gaul, meaning France. The past lives on. And on.

A riot of evocative rubble and vegetation, the remains of Bibracte spread atop Mount Beuvray. Happily you can geo-locate this handsome hill: at 2,500 feet it is one of the highest in Burgundy, sited in an unsung region west of France’s finest vineyards in the Côte d’Or.

Granted, neither Bibracte nor Alésia is really lost these days: during the reign of President Francois Mitterrand, the Museum of Celtic Civilization was built on the flanks of Mount Beuvray. This year the spanking new MuséoParc Alésia has opened to crowds of spear-shaking young defeatists. The pair of government-subsidized memorials is linked by an official hiking trail and many roller-coaster meandering two-lane roads on which contemporary Gallic road warriors pilot their turbo-charged diesel chariots.If all this sounds impossible to pronounce and better kept buried, think again. Legions of Gallo-Celtic whackos, whipped up for years by right-wing politicians, obsess about Caesar and Vercingétorix. Even “normal” French men, women and, above all, innocent youngsters learn to revere their defeated forebears and view life as a siege.

Conflict and confusion abound: at its tamest, French ancestor worship orbits around the comic book hero Astérix, who has his own Parc Astérix theme park (north of Paris). He wears wild animal skins and a helmet with wings, devours wild boar, and slays Romans by the score. The comic book series has sold 350 million copies. Originally a spoof (devised by a Frenchman of Italian parentage, and a Pole), Astérix has become a Gallic David facing the global Goliath.

That’s why, despite smoking bans and an excellent educational system, when you hear the phrase nos ancêtres les Gaulois the French are usually talking about mythical pre-Roman heroes and not the brand of cigarettes glued to their lips. Bibracte and Alésia are their spiritual homes.

Fittingly, it was within the strange wood-and-stone stockades of these charming citadels that the Roman’s wine became the debilitating firewater of Gaul, the mysterious forest gods and unwritten languages of the Celts began melding into the Latin-speaking pantheon before morphing, centuries later, via Germanic “barbarianism” into the complex Pagan-Christian-secularism of contemporary French-speaking France. It is complex. It is fascinating. It is weirdly wonderful.

The sites are not of equal interest. The best thing about Alésia isn’t Alésia; it’s the Roman ruins of what replaced Alésia (Caesar rebuilt the village) plus the Roman siege engines and walls. Unless you like populist theme parks for revisionists and toddlers, that is. Admittedly the kids wearing shiny helmets are cute and the actors playing Gallic warriors fearsome. This is as good a place as any to glorify war, butchery, treachery, and cruelty, and combine it with contemporary consumerism. The lush valley setting is also pretty, and convenient to the highway and high-speed train to Paris.

The best thing about Bibracte beyond the uplifting view and the enchanted-forest atmosphere is eating at Le Chaudron de Bibracte. Housed in an annex in front of the museum, you sit at picnic-style tables set with terracotta dishes and wooden spoons. The tunic-wrapped staff serves putatively authentic Celtic specialties from egg to apple, including what you might call dessert. Who knew the Celts drank coffee? Roman wine is also included – or, if you prefer, Cervoise, the Celts’ beer.

What to make of the handsome, glinting, multi-million-euro Museum of Celtic Civilization? Maybe it should be renamed “Gallic propaganda depot.” It’s stuffed with dusty scale models and baffling maps, riveting audio-visual displays, and copies of corroded archeological finds from across the Celtic world – including almost nothing from Bibracte. The Gallic tribes ranged over Europe, battling Germans and Romans and each other. In fact they loved hacking each other to pieces, burning each other alive and worse. Highly civilized.

Caesar identified Bibracte as the capital of the Aedui tribe. Its leaders called Caesar up from Rome to help them destroy rival tribes. But don’t expect to learn that in the museum. There’s no mention either of the Celts’ exquisite cruelty or their occasional eating of human flesh. True, one nifty waxwork tableau does show Aedui headhunters at work. Wouldn’t it be fun to know how they cooked and served those they subjugated?

This was the cradle of Gallic civilization. Yet nearly everything is Roman, including the remaining foundation stones. Teams of archeologists have dug up thousands of Roman coins, Roman fibula clothespins and other Roman metallic detritus at Bibracte, plus tons of Roman wine amphorae. At one Gallic warrior per amphora that adds up to tens of thousands of slaves for export. When you blend in Roman blood from Mediterranean and eastern colonies and multiply by 2,064 years, Bibracte starts to feel less like the cradle of Gaul and more like the original melting pot that created modern, multi-racial, seriously muddle-minded France.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next travel memoir, published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

Starry, starry night: Notes on an edible epiphany in Burgundy

It all began with the carpaccio. I don’t hate carpaccio, but when given another choice on a menu – fermented yak tail, say – I’m likely to choose the alternative. So I wasn’t really expecting much when the tuxedo’d waiter ceremoniously placed the plate with a generous disc of raw beef, sliced mushrooms and a confetti of foie gras before me.

And then I put a forkful in my mouth. And the world moved.

The combination of textures and tastes was astonishing – smooth and rough, salty and sweet, lean-beefy and fat-foie-grasy and smoky-musky-mushroomy. An edible epiphany.

For a moment I simply savored the symphony in my mouth. Then I said to the Splendid Sixsome, “I love it when a dish teaches me something about food.”

And that’s how my recent feast at a three-star Michelin restaurant began.

* * *

The restaurant was Jean-Michel Lorain’s establishment at the soul-soothing Relais et Châteaux property La Côte Saint-Jacques, in Joigny, northwestern Burgundy, France. I was there with four fellow travel writers and two press trip hosts, one from the French national tourism office and one from the Burgundy regional tourism bureau.

We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport that morning from the U.S., taken a van to the Gare de Lyon in Paris, then hopped a slow train to Joigny, where another van took us through the tiny-in-population and huge-in-charm town to the hotel.

After a break to freshen up, we’d toured the property, then repaired to a terrace overlooking the placid Yonne River, with the green fields of Burgundy and the century-old stone buildings of Joigny shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Our celebration began with an aperitif of Rose Champagne that shimmered in its flute like a liquid sunset with bubbles.

Accompanying the Champagne was a little rectangular plate with a quartet of variations on egg: a wonton-like pillow stuffed with quail egg and leek, an anchovy and pepper-tomato-omelette combo, fluffed egg whites with red wine served in an egg shell, and a fruit-dotted flan-like dollop in a shot glass.

We sat on the timeless terrace and sipped and supped and sighed. The air was as soft as the light, the light as rosy as the aperitif, the aperitif as bubbly as the bonhomie. The world oozed tranquility.

* * *

And then we repaired to the elegant and airy dining room.

That room was a beguiling combination of warmth and exquisite taste, but what really took my breath away were the ceramic plate settings and matching bread plates, which reminded me of treasures I’d found in Japan. These asymmetrical pieces were designed with wavy, grainy white frames around a pastel blue-green-purple central square. Each piece, we were told, was individually crafted and fired by François Guéneau, a well-known craftsman from nearby Noyers sur Serein. They were such beautiful works of art that I wanted to take them home. Already I loved the restaurant!

* * *

Our formal feast began with an amuse-bouche: two thumb-sized slices of lobster arranged at the tail end of a purple and yellow wave of pureed potato. The pliant, sweet lobster meat was perfectly complemented by the smooth, settling puree. My bouche was extremely amused.

Then came the “Carpaccio de Bœuf et Foie Gras de Canard aux Cèpes” – and nothing was ever the same again.

A dish that artful, so knowingly concocted as a symphony of sensations and savors, makes you realize that a great chef is as much an artist as a composer or a choreographer. From a menu of almost infinite options, he first chooses the ingredients, then plans and executes the preparation of each ingredient, then sculpts their presentation into a visually and gustatorily harmonious whole. The proof was on the platter: It looked enticing, it smelled seductive, it felt wonderfully yin-and-yangy in the mouth, and it tasted orgasmic. That was the beginning of my education in what makes a three-star chef.

“I love it when a dish teaches me something about food,” I said, and the Splendid Sixsome murmured in assent, each lost in their own version of haute cuisine heaven.

* * *

The wonders continued with the fish course: slow-cooked skate wing served in a broth spiced with coconut milk and kafir lime, tomato confit and sauteed seasonal vegetables. We exclaimed over the presentation: a foamy pool swimming with bits of skate and vegetables, with an actual part of the skate bone rising like a fin out of the pool. And the taste! A touch of the tropics, a swash of the northern sea – transporting.

As the best meals do, the evening took on its own rhythm, the conversation ebbing and flowing, bursts of passionate chatter giving way to languorous stretches of silence as we savored new tastes.

Up to this course, the theatricality of the evening had resided mostly in the plates themselves. But the next course amped up the culinary drama: Two gentlemen in tuxedoes rolled out a sleek black tray on which was perched a casserole wearing what appeared to be a huge overflowing pastry hat. This was the “Poularde de Bresse à la Vapeur de Champagne” – Bresse Chicken Steamed in Champagne. The first thing we learned with this course is that appellations don’t apply only to wines; all manner of foodstuffs can have appellations, including chickens. And this particular bantam hen was from one of the most prized appellations – Bresse. It’s all about the terroir.

Our fabulous fowl had been slow-steamed in Champagne in a casserole that had been hermetically sealed with a dough covering – the aforementioned floppy hat. The waiter in the black bow tie held the tray while the waiter in the red bow tie raised a gleaming knife and fork and ceremonially pierced the dough that had prevented any molecule of Champagne escaping. When the top of the dough hat had been removed, the pot was ceremoniously presented to the table, brought from diner to diner so that we could peer in at the pale, plump, Champage-sotted fowl and ooh and aah.

Then the bird was returned to the tray, and the gent in the red bow tie lifted it out of its redolent pot and placed it on a wooden cutting board, where he proceeded to vigorously saw it into serving-sized pieces. In Act Three of this drama the fowl was whisked away and in Act Four it miraculously reappeared moments later artfully arranged on round platters in a creamy sauce with little pellets of corn, carrot and squash. The fowl was tender and flavorful but what really astonished me was the sauce. It reminded me of the great French Old School sauces in its rich layerings of taste — but without the artery-clogging consistency. This was simply the best sauce I could ever recall eating. Had I not been in such elegant surroundings, I would have picked up my platter and licked it. I almost did. Instead, I used my roll to sop up every last savory soupcon.

By now, the Splendid Sixsome was purring contentedly. And sharing what we’d learned about three-star splendour: that it’s the sum of all its parts and more — the location and setting of the restaurant, the design of the dining room and the plates and the silverware, the choreography of the evening, the attentiveness, precision and warmth of the servers, the harmonious procession and presentation of the courses, and of course the look and feel and taste of the culinary creations themselves. A three-star dining experience is a composite of all these things, we agreed.

* * *

At this point we probably should have gone for a brisk row on the Yonne, but instead the gentlemen in the bow ties reappeared, wheeling in an elaborate sideboard that showcased more than 20 cheeses, most from the region. I sampled a half dozen — soft and hard, goat and cow. All were delicious, but the one I taste most vividly still is the Epoisses, a proud cheese made in the Burgundian village of the same name (a cheese which, Wikipedia has since informed me, Napoleon was particularly fond of, and which the famous epicure Brillat-Savarin classed as the “king of all cheeses”). The Epoisses had a creamy tang that tasted like a sunny summer pasture in the mouth – and that seemed the perfect end to the spectrum of flavors we’d enjoyed.

But no, the true climax was still to come: a delicate dessert of rose-infused ice cream served in a pastry tulip basket with crystallized rose petals. Our colleague Krista characterized eating this dish as “an out-of-body experience.” To me it was like eating pure rose petals that had somehow been transmuted into a sweet cool creamy confection. A midsummer night’s dream.
By the end of dessert the Splendid Sixsome had slipped into a kind of post-coital collective culinary stupor. Had this been a French film, we would all have been smoking cigarettes.
But it wasn’t. So instead we waddled onto the terrace, where the air was still caressingly warm and soft, and where the universe had spread out its own visual feast. We sighed one grand collective sigh. And the stars shone bright in Burgundy.

* * *

Edittor’s note: This trip was hosted by Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency; Air France; Rail Europe; the Burgundy Tourism Office; and the Champagne-Ardenne Tourism Office. All the ecstasies expressed herein are entirely the author’s.

Fore more information on La Côte Saint-Jacques, including room rates, menus and prices: http://cotesaintjacques.com/en/

[raspberry flickr image via JSmith Photo]

Photo of the day – Wine shop window

wine shop window

Some things look exactly the way they’re supposed to look. Take this wine shop window snapped in the town of Beaune in the heart of Burgundy, France. This is serious wine country, and this wine shop window is straight out of central casting: the row of wine bottles; the various discarded crates; the exterior trim; the cursive stenciled into the window. Flickr user Lobelia48 shot this image in June of this year.

Got some photos in your archive that capture the fantasy of a place admirably well? Upload said images to the Gadling Group pool on Flickr and you might end up seeing one of your own photos featured as a future Photo of the Day.

David’s Discoveries: A great bistro in Burgundy — L’Auberge de Jack, Milly Lamartine

Fred Flintstone might recognize the giant ribsteak served at L’Auberge de Jack. This poster-hung, cozy country bistro in Milly Lamartine is one of my favorite locales in Burgundy. Draw up a wooden chair and eat and drink with the locals. It’s unpretentious, affordable, and, à propos of locales, entirely local in its sourcing. It’s fun, too: a joyful dining experience.

Fred Flintstone would feel right at home: scenic, stone-built Milly Lamartine perches on a hillside a few miles from a famous prehistoric site, the Roche de Solutré, known for its bones, stones and wines.

Owners Sylvie Bouschet and her chef-husband Jack are from Mâcon, 10 miles east of Milly Lamartine. They’ve never heard of the Flintstones or locavores, either. But eaters of local food worldwide might want to make L’Auberge de Jack the template for their movement: there’s no mission statement accompanying the Charolais beef, raised by a family farmer near Charolles, 20 miles away, and served rare with thick-cut, housemade fries, some of the best you’ll ever eat. Sylvie and Jack don’t trade on common sense: for 30 years they’ve been buying wholesome, quality products from trustworthy people nearby.

But ask and you’ll discover the plump pork sausages simmered in Beaujolais come from Monsieur Girard, the butcher in Pierreclos, another handsome village, down the road a piece. The Beaujolais comes from over the bluff, near Solutré, ten minutes south by corkscrew road. That’s where the Burgundy and Beaujolais regions overlap. Excellent, underrated wines come from the eroded, limestone escarpments: Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Moulin à Vent and others.

Foodies know that cheese is part of the French dining experience codified by UNESCO. Sylvie and Jack haven’t heard of UNESCO’s efforts to protect French fare. No matter. Their snow-white or moldy goat’s milk chèvres are handmade from raw milk. Local dairy farmers continue doing what they’ve always done hereabouts – making cheese, modestly.

Admittedly, the chocolate in Jack’s monstrously exquisite Marquise doesn’t come from here. That’s the trouble with chocolate, unless you live on the equator. Happily, the coffee isn’t local either: it’s roasted in Italy. Maybe that’s why it’s good. Most French coffee is undrinkable.

Not so the wine: Burgundy’s whites (from Chardonnay) and reds (either Pinot Noir or Gamay or both) have rarely been better.

On the list at L’Auberge de Jack most of the wines are made in small quantities within a radius of a few miles. From the main road you see Olivier Merlin’s vineyards at La Roche Vineuse across the way. True, Merlin’s red comes from Moulin à Vent, 10 miles south. But it proves that humble Gamay can achieve greatness.

The most astonishing bottling on Sylvie and Jack’s list is from Domaine des Héritiers du Comte Lafon, a few hundred yards away, an offshoot of the celebrated Meursault winery. Their Mâcon Clos de la Crochette exudes not only citrus. It’s infused with the minerals unique to this area. And it’s blissfully free of oak.

Maybe a new term should be coined: “Locabiber.” A drinker of local wine. Burgundy’s a good place to start the movement.

L’Auberge de Jack: Milly Lamartine. Tel: 03 85 36 63 72. Open for lunch only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, for lunch and dinner Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday dinner and Monday.

[flickr image via filtran]