by Janie Master
“I must go down to Dijon again, to the wines of the great Cote d’Or.
And all I ask is a cellar cool and a light to see the floor.
And a corkscrew, and a goblet and some close friends laughing,
And a great meal in our hotel and an absence of barfing!”

This, with apologies to the great poet, John Masefield, I just want to tell you about a trip Mel and I took last month to Burgundy.

Burgundians are mostly happy rotund folks blessed with some of the greatest wines in the world and ditto in their produce.  White Charolais beef graze in the rich meadows and across the river Saone live the world famous grey-legged Bresse chickens.

A great friend of ours had suggested to me and Mel one of those barge trips along the Burgundian canals but we both wondered what happens if you get stuck with a bad chef and an uncomfortable and claustrophobic vessel that we couldn’t escape from except on bicycles (and we couldn’t see ourselves weaving all over the lanes at our ripe old ages especially after a good lunch!) and so we suggested instead a three visit in comfort to the region instead where we could choose where to go and where to eat!

We had ordered a minibus and driver to take the six of us to dinner as we knew we shouldn’t or couldn’t drive back after a good dinner! We drove over the old moat and into the cobbled square of the beautiful town of Beaune and were deposited in front of ‘Ma Cuisine’ – a favorite restaurant for wine makers, chateau owners and cellar workers in the region. We love this restaurant and so would you. Unpretentious and wonderful bistro food with one of the greatest wine lists in all of France. We were all like kids in a candy store looking through the list finally made our choices for dinner. The menu would have to wait!  For those interested this is what we chose:

  • Puligny-Montrachet  Les Combettes 2008, Domaine Carillon,
  • Chassagne Montrachet 2011 from Bernard Moreuau ,
  • Givrey, Domaine Joblot 2010
  • A glorious Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine Beaucastel 1998 to finish

Next morning we were to have one of the greatest wine experiences of our lives. We were to visit the greatest wine Doamine in Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanee Conti.  The most wonderful, gentle, good-looking, aristocrat of Burgundy welcomed us at his mecca of Burgundy.  Aubert de Villaine presides over this Sistine chapel of wine.

Mel and I have known Aubert for decades and although he has cut visits down to the bare bone he still opened his heart, his barrels and his bottles to us in an insanely generous way.  We were treated to the Corton ‘black cherry jam’, the Echezaux ‘violets’, the Romanee St. Vivant ‘fennel, black pepper’, La Tache ‘moss elderberries’ and then the Romanee Conti itself ‘black chocolate and heavy violets with lilies of the valley’.  All came out of the 2016 barrels and any leftover in our glasses was carefully returned to the barrels. Aubert placed river pebbles from the floor on each barrel to indicate to the cellar master how much he had removed from each one so that they would be refilled the following day from the ‘filler’ barrels.  Not a drop can be wasted when you consider that a bottle of Romanee Conti 2009 (if you can find it) costs upwards of $5,000.

After tasting through all the 2016’s from barrel, he then opened a bottle of 2000 Batard Montrachet of which he only makes one barrel per year and does not even sell it. It was extraordinary. Deep, incredibly rich in flavor with a bouquet that filled one’s head with wonderful dreams! Then he opened up a Richebourg 1990. OMG!  We sipped the essence of crushed strawberries in a glass. Aubert called Mel “family” as we staggered back from the tasting. He received hugs from us all as we left.

We stopped in the center of Beaune and sat in the sun drinking cool beers – well what on earth do you follow that morning’s nectars with?  Omlette-salads and boudin blanc sausages and returned for well-earned siestas.

For dinner that night we ate at the restaurant in our hotel which was excellent but a bit stuffy!   As we sat down and were enjoying our first glass of wine, our Frogs legs all round?  Well, 3 out of 6 anyway.  Not a dish we find easily in our home towns!  Then fresh water crayfish followed by Charollais beef. Our buddy, Leslie Bricusse, started in on a New York yarn about an old guy who went to visit his doctor after his annual checkup etc and as he was trying to continue with a punch line our mortician-looking waiter slithered up to our table and raised his arms like a conductor of the Philharmonic and boomed, “Attention! Silence, if you please! (he nearly clicked his heels and saluted), “I want to tell you about the butter”.    We were all so shocked we were paralyzed into silence as he pointed and yelled – “hazelnut butter, honey butter, plain butter” – then turned abruptly and left!    Don’t they know that we are over 12 years old and can quite easily discern hazelnuts from honey?   Do we have to be told where the salt comes from or that the duck’s name was “Quacker”?  Do we have to sit in penitence as the waiter goes around the table describing each ingredient on each person’s dish in mind-numbing detail?  I HATE POMPOSITY AND ARROGANCE, so there!  Leslie could’ve been telling us the inner workings of the White House, quoting his song the Candy Man like Sammy Davis Jr or at the very least telling us a very funny story but NOOOOOOOO – we had to hear about the butter!!!

The dinner actually deserved its Michelin star but we could’ve lived without the bells and whistles and then all the staff, including the mortician, could’ve gone to bed earlier!

Off to “work” the following morning down in the damp and delicious cellars of one of the largest grand cru land owners in Burgundy – Jaques Prieur They own 5 hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) grand crus, 12 first crus, 3 village and 1 regional in vineyards which = 21 hectares!!!  At $15 million an acre that’s a doozie of a back yard!

Martin Prieur showed us around and we tasted all their estate wines from the wonderful 2016 vintage. This is one of the greatest wine houses of Burgundy and the visit was one more wonderful education.

It was pelting with rain as we left so both cars hydro-planed from the Cote d’Or down south-east to Georges Blanc, a three star Michelin Restaurant, hotel, village (literally) of Vonnas just east of Macon in the Beaujolais.  Georges Blanc (the grandson of the founder, has bought 31houses (yes – 31!) in the village of Vonnas and made a mini Gourmet-land.  The gastronomic restaurant serves wonderful bread baked from its own separate bakery building which also has a wine and cheese bar in it.  The chocolates are produced in a separate patisserie building which also doubles as a lovely café.  Hams, sausages, terrines and foie gras are made in yet another store-fronted building which doubles as a butcher, traiteur, delicatessen.  Each building in this “George Blanc village” is painted in the most hilarious happy hues of crimson, melon and sepia.  It was started in 1872 by grand mere Blanc and now her grandson has 41 grand luxe rooms and suites and 3 restaurants.  There’s even a children’s play garden, health spas, a heli pad, 3 swimming pools, river, lakes, tennis, an old Auberge and a 13th century Chateau where we were booked for a “bistro” lunch on the terrace! The whole place reminded of a sort of disneyesque gastro land!

There are twenty seven Michelin three star restaurants in France and Georges Blanc is one of them.  All of us had agreed beforehand that we much preferred the small wonderful bistro scene to the Michelin starred exuberance but Mel and I felt since we were in the region we should take our friends there.

Now days in France many of the great traditional old style family bistros have closed and have been replaced by pizzerias, cafes serving micro-waved pre-prepared food, and then you have the Michelin star resto scene which is more and more pretentious. Many of Mel’s and my favorite bistro haunts in the wonderful Beaujolais area have disappeared.

We ordered monster fresh spring asparagus weighed down with spoonfuls of osetra royal caviar.  A fresh water salmon trout covered in plump crayfish tails in butter and crème fraiche, sweetbreads with morelles, pigeons with foie gras, Poularde de Bresse with the house’s famous potato pancakes and champagne butter sauce.  Then 2 steroid-filled muscled waiters staggered up to our table with what we thought at first was someone’s old oak front door.  It turned out to be the cheese selection!

Georges Blanc came in and visited our table and Mel told him that we had been there last in 1972 with Georges Duboeuf and the great chef Paul Bocuse whereupon he embraced Mel and said “ah yes I remember your name from those days”  (Mel had represented both Bocuse and Duboeuf back then). He regaled us with stories about his trips to the USA with Bocuse! Then magnificent gravity-defying desserts arrived with silver trays of chocolates and if we all hadn’t spent most of the meal laughing together like hyenas over old times we would’ve put on 20-lbs each!!!

Next day we all mumbled our goodbyes with vague murmurings of “never again” and “well, maybe in Italy next year?” and “at least it was better than a barge trip when we could’ve been trapped with a bad chef, mosquitoes and only bicycles to take us anywhere, no?”

Mel and I are now on a diet of just 8 raisins soused in Juniper gin a day.  His brother-in-law of 86 swears by it!?!  He says it also cures his arthritis!