A la France profonde
Snails, wine and history in northern Burgundy
The supermarket in Chatillon-sur-Seine, in northern Burgundy, does not sell New World wines. You would struggle to find even a cheese that was from outside France, and the choice is strongly weighted towards products of the region: there are six or eight kinds of Chaource, maybe 12 of Comté. I think we found a single gorgonzola. It offers a brilliant and varied choice — as long as it’s French. I found more kinds of lardons than I could possibly have imagined — but no pancetta. I wonder what happens if a Chatillonais wants a curry. The only time I saw a non-French wine was in the duty-free section of the Terminal Charles Dickens in Calais. I should add that I was in France around the time of the Juillet 14 celebrations (marked with a massive pop concert on TV) and the French World Cup victory. It is possible I experienced maximum Frenchness.
Chatillon is the land of crémant de bourgogne — geographically next to Champagne, making wine by the same method. One local producer told us that until the time of Napoleon, their vineyard had actually been Champagne. It is definitely la France profonde. A New York Times piece from 1952 describes the town as “small, not even attractive . . . in a region few people have reason to visit”. Today the official major attraction is the Route du Crémant. If you drive 45 minutes one way you can visit the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay. The same distance in the other direction gets you to the Charles de Gaulle museum and memorial at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. But the occasion for the NYT article was the discovery of the Vix Grave — evidence that at one point Chatillon was a well-connected centre of wealth.
In the Chatillon town museum is a bronze krater (wine-mixing vessel), found in the nearby village of Vix, of a completely bonkers size. It weighs more than 200 kg and it’s 163 cm high. It would hold 1,100 litres. You can picture yourself climbing into it with ease and comfort. As a practical object, as a display of wealth and luxury, it’s totally excessive. It was buried around 500 BC in the grave of a woman whose identity is unknown but who we can infer was extremely important, along with her chariot, jewellery and so on. As the NYT slightly cruelly put it in 1952: “The krater is a reminder that a barbarian woman living in this part of France 2,500 years ago may in some ways have led a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan existence than most of the local women a visitor passes in the streets today.”
The modern woman in Chatillon does have an advantage over the Lady of Vix — I feel sure that wine today is better. And if she wants education she can go to the the Oenocentre Ampélopsis, ten minutes from Chatillon, where the proprietors of Domaine Brigand have created a very enjoyable (and playful) museum of winemaking and wine history, covering everything from vine-growing to fermentation, pruning and diseases. The 120 vines in their “Jardin de Bacchus”, each pruned according to the method of its region, are planted alongside blackberries, roses, herbs and white flowers and soft fruits, to guide us towards understanding the components of wine aroma.
The Vix Krater is testament to the early wine trade, proof that in Burgundy people have cared about wine for a very long time, even if in 500 BC some people were slightly over the top in expressing their appreciation. (This object was made in northern Greece and shipped in pieces to Burgundy, so someone specifically ordered it. I imagine the woman flipping, dissatisfied, through some Greek artisan’s catalogue: “Haven’t you got anything bigger?”)
So wine and food in Burgundy have grown up together. Perhaps as a result the wine menus seemed considerably less fussy than those in the UK. A local — good — restaurant, apparently beloved by many, gives you a buffet of various traditional dishes with red wine by the carafe included — for something like 15 euros a head. What is the wine in question? Some kind of burgundy — who knows? In another restaurant, a member of our party, dissatisfied with an Alsacien pinot gris we ordered, asked for un verre de vin rouge. When the glass arrived — I still don’t know exactly what it was — it smelled like the platonic ideal of wine. A vigneron’s shop we went to in Chatillon sold just six or seven wines, and a cassis (blackcurrants are another regional speciality). The lack of choice is in some ways reassuring. What goes with gougères? What goes with the fat Burgundian snails, or rabbit? What goes with artichokes? Honestly I don’t know the answer. (Is a snail red meat? Is a rabbit?) But going with the local choice is a pretty worthwhile method. So we cooked more or less Burgundian food and drank extremely local wines.Perfectly-ripe apricots from the market became apricot tart and compote. Two rabbits became the classic rabbit stew with white wine, shallots and thyme. (Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking mentions this dish briefly before dismissing it as too boring.)
I didn’t see any of the famous Burgundian snails pottering around in the woodland — it was far too hot and I assume they were hiding; I only found shells, majestically large compared to English ones. Fortunately, if you want actually to eat snails in Chatillon you don’t have to catch them yourself: go to the patissier and traiteur S. Barbier where Madame Barbier will take your order and somehow, presumably, act as intermediary with the snail farmer. Ask her for 96 prepared snails and she does not bat an eyelid. (The Burgundian snails are delicate and soft, mushroomy, earthy, slightly livery.) The Barbier patisserie is very good: we particularly enjoyed the Dijonnais, which is a spectacularly light and feathery cassis mousse on a sponge base. When you praise it, Madame Barbier says, “Well, Monsieur Barbier trained in Paris, you know.” No further explanation is necessary.