I’ve driven through Burgundy and spent odd nights in the region many times over the years but my recent visit was to stay with friends who own a house in southern Burgundy and it was very nice to have more time for a bit of exploration and appreciation of all Burgundy has to offer. One shouldn’t just drive through it, it deserves time, for after all this is one of France’s finest regions for food and wine; it also offers wonderful landscape and delightful villages and architecture.
There are many possibilities with airports like the Paris airports or Geneva and Grenoble fairly close by. I flew to Lyon, just south of Burgundy. You can also easily access it by Eurostar, but really it’s best if you have a car and either drive from UK or, if flying in from there or elsewhere in the world, hire a car. You can certainly manage without if you’re based in a city but if you want to get around and visit medieval villages, country markets and vineyards, then a car is almost essential.
Burgundian food is much more than Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin. The region is a rich and fruitful, with lush green plains reaching up to the Jura mountains; there’s Charolais beef, said to be the finest in France; Bresse’s famous chickens; hams with dishes like jambon persillé; cheeses such as Époisses and Chaource and lots of chèvre – goats’ cheese – including these sweet little ones to go with your aperitif, which my friends served on my first evening and were always seen on cheese stalls in markets.
There is the famous mustard from Dijon which will often be added to sauces and dressings and – if you want to go very French – plenty of large juicy snails (escargots) and frogs’ legs (grenouilles); and if you really want to push out the French experience, then a speciality of the region is tête de veau (cow’s head).
For those with a sweet tooth, you’ll find Ile Flottante and Sorbet au Cassis. And on my first morning, my friend Di served little fromage frais Burgundian style so that a little cream was poured over the top and instead of the usual sugar sprinkled on top, we chose maple syrup.
There are impressive salads, perfectly dressed, for no one dresses a salad better than the French, usually containing frisée, mâche (lambs’ lettuce) and roquette (rocket). Sauces will often contain wine and/or cream but so fine is the French cooking that, while rich, there will be subtlety too.
If the food of Burgundy is famous, its wines are no less so, indeed they are perhaps even more famous. This is the land of Chardonnay (think glorious Chablis, not heavily oaked Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world), Macon, Beaune, Gamay, Givry, and of course the Beaujolais region.
I was fortunate to be staying with friends who knew a lot about wine and they took me to one of their favourite vineyards, just a small place and definitely non-touristy, to taste and buy some Beaujolais – Domaine des Duc.
It was great to be able to buy some wine, which my friends will bring back to UK in a few weeks’ time, as I travel so much by plane it’s not usually possible. This for me is one of the best parts of the French wine experience – stopping at a vineyard, talking to the producers and buying what you’ve tasted and like.
One of the excitements for anyone who loves food and is travelling in France is visiting local markets. My friends took me to the one at Louhans, which is held on Mondays. It stretched right the way through the town, completely taking it over, and you could buy pretty much anything you might want or need.
Louhans is the capital of the Bresse region of Burgundy and thus it was not surprising to find a large amount of famous Bresse chickens for sale – either alive or dead. But even the dead still had their heads and innards – the French housewife/husband likes to clean and prepare chickens themselves.
I ate chicken a few times – well why wouldn’t you if you love chicken and are in one of the best places in the world to eat it? – and the Bresse chicken really is something very special. I ate a gorgeous Bresse chicken meal at Auberge des Grenouillats in St Maurice de Satonnay, served with a morilles and cream sauce.
There were plenty of things to excite the tastebuds in Louhans market.
After walking for a while we stopped for coffee and ate some local pastries – corniotte – a kind of sweet choux pastry with our coffee.
Different regions of any country invariably offer different types of architecture and buildings can vary enormously from one part of the country to another. Within the fairly small area of Burgundy I was able to cover in three days, it was fascinating to be shown two distinct types of houses: those of Bresse and a typical Burgundian house.
The typical Bresse house above was actually a museum in St-Cyr-sur-Menthon, but driving around we saw them everywhere, their distinctive long roofs reaching far out beyond the walls of the building.
The reason for this is that the walls are made of mud – and so they need to be protected from the rain as much as possible. You can see the mud that’s packed between a timber frame in the photo above. There was even a Bresse chicken running about in front of it at one stage. Many roofs had corn hanging from them due to the large amount of maize grown in the area.
The Burgundian house below is typical because of its stairs at the front of the house leading up to the living area; animals were kept below stairs. As we drove through this part of Burgundy nearly all the houses were like this.
Another feature of southern Burgundy architecture was Préty stone, from the village of the same name and the next village along from where I was staying in La Truchère. It has a beautiful pale pink tinge to it and you see houses built from it. In my friends’ home they had a fireplace made from the stone.
And in the abbey at Tournus it was used on the floor, sometimes having an almost marble effect.
Town and Villages
There are wonderful, pretty villages everywhere you go and my friends took me to the medieval hilltop village of Brancion, which has a château and 12th-century church.
A major town in the area is Tournus which is a lovely town with a 10-12th century Romanesque abbey that we visited.
Inside are some beautiful and rare 12th-century mosaics with signs of the zodiac.
I had a brilliant time in Burgundy – and thanks to the kindness of my friends Di and Tam, who took me to so many places, I managed to see a lot in three days! It’s an area that deserves time and there are so many other places to see, so many vineyards and markets to visit, that I think next time I need to take my car across the channel to explore some more and give Burgundy more than three days.