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:

[raspberry flickr image via JSmith Photo]

Food Week: Reader submissions

Urban legend often attributes Marie Antoinette with saying, “let them eat cake” a phrase with associates the French with expensive taste in dining. Yet one of the best and most flavorful French dining experiences is a budget luxury- a Ladurée petit macaron priced at an affordable €1.65. — Jen Pollack Bianco,

It’s been a wild and wonderful food week here at Gadling, complete with food stories from all corners of the world and a lifetime of pictures and inspiration. If you missed the highlights, make sure you check out David Farley’s piece on a chance encounter in Calcatta, Italy, Laurel Miller’s discussion on the overuse of the term “foodie” or Kyle Ellison’s introspective on why we take pictures of food.

Things come to a close and return to normal publishing at the end of today, and to celebrate our wonderful week we’re featuring a gallery of user submissions over its course. So with further ado, please find some of the best pictures (and captions if available) below. Thanks for playing a part. — Grant Martin, Editor in Chief

The finished bowl of ramen stares up at me, a mountain of noodles in a swirling sea of golden yellow miso; a forest of bamboo shoots next to minced pork beneath crispy fresh bean sprouts. A ceramic spoon floats at the edge but I dive in with wooden chopsticks while Sakae slurps up his ramen using both utensils at once. — Andrew Evans, National Geographic’s Digital Nomad

Fresh warm spring rolls filled with mushrooms and spiced pork, folded and topped with fried garlic. From the street stalls of Luang Prabang, Laos. — [From our favorite Legal Nomad –ed] Jodi Ettenberg,

Fernando’s in Macau has some really amazing porkGary Leff, View from the Wing.

Taipei, Taiwan – Me eating my pork filet out of my toilet. — Calvin Lee

Here’s room service at the Fairmont Vancouver. Fresh & delish. — Kim Lowe, Bing Travel

The village of Njegusi, Montenegro has two important claims to fame. This was the hometown of the House of Petrovic-Njegos, the dynasty that ruled Montenegro for much of its history (1696-1918).
Njegusi is also famous for producing its own special type of air-dried ham, called Njeguski prsut. Locals explain that, because this meadow overlooks the sea on one side, and the mountains on the other, the wind changes direction 10 times each day, alternating between dry mountain breeze and salty sea air, perfect for seasoning and drying ham hocks. For good measure, the prsut is also smoked with beech wood.
Our guide took us into this local restaurant and we sampled prsut, homemade cheese and bread. — Sandra Mathewson

This is a shot of my brother enjoying a scorpion on a stick on Beijing’s famed Wangfujing Street (snack street). It is a great place to sample the oddities of Chinese cuisine (starfish, sheep penis, etc) … or watch others do it. The scorpions are well-salted and taste like popcorn. — Trent,

Food from a Viennese coffee house – up front is a cup of delicious hot chocolate made the right way, hence with milk. As well as a slice of Bananenschnitte, which is a banana cream dessert topped with a fine layer of chocolate. In the background is a traditional Viennese coffee with more than likely a poppy seed roll. Yum! — Kat Shoebox

Here’s a photo of an exotic food I would like to share. Here’s a piece of man shaped sponge cake bathing in chocolate syrup that I’ve ate in Tokyo. I hope you like it! — Patience Lee

Meet the “mitraillette” or its English translation of “submachine gun.” I discovered it in Brussels and yes, it’s a baguette covered in a meat of your choosing, the famous twice-fried Belgium fries and cheese sauce. — Ethan Adeland,

Mom’s dinner on the coast of the English Channel, Brittany, France — Mike Martin (My dad)

Suya: the next kebab?

One of the great things about the world getting smaller and everyone getting all mixed up is that we can try fast food from all different cultures. Take suya, for example. I’d never heard of this Nigerian fast food until I lived in London.

My house was on the northern end of Old Kent Road. This area has a large population of African immigrants. I met people from Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia, and I’m sure many other countries are represented. The Nigerians were very visible with lots of restaurants selling suya. It’s like shish kebab with beef, chicken, goat, or fish. The meat is rubbed with tankora powder. There are various recipes for tankora and generally include red pepper, powdered nuts, salt, ginger, paprika, and onion powder. Check out this tankora recipe if you want to try it at home.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty thirst inducing. Luckily many suya restaurants serve palm wine, a smooth, tasty alcoholic drink that’s not too strong. Many restaurants also have live music. West African music is very participatory, with the singer pointing to various members of the audience and staff and making up verses about them. I always got included but not knowing any West African languages I had no idea what the singers said. :-)

I’m thinking suya could replace kebab, which is currently the snack food of choice in London, especially at two o’clock in the morning after ten pints of lager. I’ve never liked kebab, which in most places is unhealthy and more than a little nasty, so suya would make the perfect replacement. It’s filling, salty, and quick, all the things you need after a good pub crawl, and with live music and palm wine thrown in, it makes the perfect end (or start!) to a fun evening out.

This photo, courtesy secretlondon123, shows some of Presidential Suya’s takeaway, with beef suya on the left and chicken suya on the right. Presidential Suya is one of my favorite West African restaurants in London.

Food, Travel and the Definition of Nowhere While on the Road

It seemed like any other Tuesday afternoon in Calcata, the loony medieval hill town 35 miles north of Rome where I spent a couple years living and researching a book. I was trudging down the hill from Calcata Nuova, the ancient hill town’s modern sibling, my hands weighed down with bags of groceries and six-packs of one-liter water bottles, when I heard something.

“Hey. Davide,” a voice said. It was Capellone, the local fascist, who liked to hang out in his shack-cum-cantina, lodged into the hillside between the two villages. It was here that Capellone–local dialect for “Big Hair”–liked to lure people in to imbibe his putrid homemade wine.

And soon enough, the bearded man himself, hunched over, emerged from the blackness like some kind of cave-dwelling hermit, imploring with a wave of his hand and some incomprehensible grunts to come inside–just for a goccione, a sizeable drop. Within seconds I was sitting on a log inside his musty dark shack, a white plastic cup of disgusting wine in my hand, and listening to Cappelone grunt out stories in incomprehensible Italian.

Suddenly two silhouettes appeared at the door of his cantina and Capellone jumped up to greet them. I followed. The two men wore light-pink button-up shirts and dark sports jackets. I peered up the hill toward Calcata Nuova and saw at least 10 more, all dressed the same way, marching toward us, followed by Zio Avelio (Uncle Avelio), the food shop owner, and Cesare, the sweet but mentally slow village idiot, carrying tin containers of food.

Capellone dispersed his trademark cheap white plastic cups, the aluminum foil was ripped off the tin food containers and suddenly the party was on. The identically dressed men roared with laughter and slapped each other on the back.

I stood behind everyone for a second and watched the scene, wondering: why does this only seem to happen to me when I’m traveling? These impromptu invitations, often by complete strangers, become our most memorable experiences from a trip. Food and/or drink is always the connecting bond. At least for me it is. Am I just not open to it happening in the United States, my home country? Or does this sort of thing just not really happen there as often as it does elsewhere in the world?

“So, what’s going on here?” I finally asked. “Why the party?”

“We love funerals in Calcata Nuova,” one of the guys said, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a paper plate of mixed seafood with the other. “We do funerals all over the area, but when we hear of a job in Calcata, we always call Capellone ahead of time and he’s waiting for us here at the cantina with food and wine.”

“So, the funeral is over and now you’re celebrating a hard day’s work?” I asked.

“No, the funeral is happening right now,” the man said, looking at me like I’d just asked if he could take me on a joy ride in the back of his hearse. Pointing up the hill in the direction of the cemetery in Calcata Nuova, he added: “We don’t have anything to do until it’s finished. Then we have to drive back to Civita Castellana.”

Before I could respond, I noticed that everyone had grown silent, their attention focused on Cesare, his bulging hands like they were sculpted straight out of a Soviet propaganda artist’s workshop, shoveling calamari and unidentifiable fish parts into his mouth with the determination of a competitive eater. Cesare was sweet, but so mentally slow I wondered if it would take hours before his stomach would finally be able to get the message to his brain that it was full. Six and a half feet tall and balding, Cesare spoke in a slow, grinding, and slurred monotone that made understanding him impossible. Moreover, he spoke Calcatese, a clipped dialect that sounds nearly incomprehensible to most other native Italian speakers. I once asked my friend Elena what happened to him and she said he was in a car accident.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” I said. “So he was normal before the accident?”

“No,” she said with a straight face. “He was pretty much the same. He just didn’t limp.”

After about 10 minutes of Cesare chomping down, the front of Capellone’s cantina an arena for his eating prowess, the funeral workers began shouting out jovial jabs at him. “He’s an eating machine,” one of them yelled out. “Hey, Cesare! Why not save some for the rest of us?” another screamed in a light tone, for which Cesare cracked a smile and grunted, keeping his intent stare on the tin container of seafood.

A few minutes later, the men–their bellies full of wine and seafood–gravitated back up the hill to join the funeral they were hired to work at, leaving Capellone and me standing there, just like we had been about 20 minutes earlier. I was left wondering if the last few minutes I just experienced were real or some kind of travel dream. It was like I’d been no where and everywhere at the same time, lodged on a hillside between two obscure villages in the Roman hinterlands, yet right then at that moment there was no other place I would have rather been than drinking bad wine with a bunch of funeral home employees and watching a machine of a man scooping handfuls of seafood into his mouth. Where else, I thought, can a trip to the supermarket be so memorable? Anywhere, it seems, but where we live. Such is the beauty of travel to appreciate the moments that at home we might completely ignore.

I picked up my grocery bags, said goodbye to Capellone, and walked home to Calcata.

Expat fusion cuisine: combining foreign foods with favorites from home

Part of the fun of traveling is trying new and exotic foods. Many travelers try to eat only locally and eschew the familiar, though eating at American chain restaurants abroad can be its own experience. But when you make a foreign country your home, you have to adapt your tastes and cooking to what’s available locally while craving your favorites from home. I’m lucky enough to live in Istanbul with an amazing food culture heavy on roasted meats and grilled fish, fragrant spices, and fresh produce. Some foreign foods like pizza and sushi have been embraced in Istanbul, but Turkish food has remained largely uncompromised by outside influences and passing trends. Convenience foods are still a new concept in Turkey but you can always grab a quick doner kebab or fish sandwich on the street if you aren’t up to cooking.
In my own kitchen, I’m learning to work with Turkish ingredients and dishes and mix in some favorites from home, creating some “expat fusion” cuisine. Meat-filled manti ravioli gets an extra zing with some Louisiana hot sauce. In the hottest days of my pregnancy this summer, I craved pudding pops from my childhood, making them more adult with some tangy Turkish yogurt. One ingredient I miss here is maple syrup, which is generally only produced in North America, and hard to find and expensive in the rest of the world (a small bottle in Turkey costs about $20!). One of my American friends brought me a bottle this summer and I poured it over pancakes (surprisingly easy to make from scratch when you can’t get a mix) and my favorite Turkish treat, kaymak. Kaymak is a clotted cream popular on the breakfast table, served with a crusty loaf of bread and honey, available in most local supermarkets but best eaten fresh in a cafe like Pando’s Kaymakci in Istanbul’s Besiktas neighborhood. I draw a lot of inspiration from my friend and fellow expat Joy, who was a professional pastry chef back in Baltimore and now chronicles her mouth-watering cooking in her Istanbul kitchen on her blog, My Turkish Joys. She posts beautiful food photos and recipes with both American and European measurements to help US and Turkish readers recreate her dishes such as sour cherry pie. Afiyet Olsun (that’s Turkish for bon appetit)!

Gadling readers, have you created any expat fusion foods with ingredients from your travels? Make us hungry and leave us a comment below!