At the very heart of the country, Burgundy is one of France’s most prosperous regions. Its peaceful way of life, celebrated wine, delicous food and numerous outdoor activities all combine to make this region the ideal place to discover and appreciate la vie française. Wine is, of course, the region’s most obvious attraction, and devotees head straight for the great vineyards, whose produce has played the key role in the local economy since Louis XIV’s doctor prescribed wine as a palliative for the royal dyspepsia. Wine tasting is particularly big business around Chablis, Mâcon and Beaune.
For centuries Burgundy’s powerful dukes remained independent of the French crown, and during the Hundred Years War they even sided with the English, selling them the captured Joan of Arc. By the fifteenth century their power extended over all of Franche-Comté, Alsace and Lorraine, Belgium, Holland, Picardy and Flanders, and their state was the best-organized and richest in Europe. Burgundy finally fell to the French kings when Duke Charles le Téméraire (the Bold) was killed besieging Nancy in 1477.
There’s evidence everywhere of this former wealth and power, both secular and religious: the dukes’ capital of Dijon, the great abbeys of Vézelay and Fontenay, the ruins of the monastery of Cluny (whose abbots’ influence was second only to the pope’s), and a large number of imposing châteaux. During the Middle Ages, Burgundy – along with Poitou and Provence – became one of the great church-building areas in France. Practically every village has its Romanesque church, especially in the country around Cluny and Paray-le-Monial, and where the Catholic Church built, so had the Romans before, with their legacy visible in the substantial Roman remains at Autun. There’s more history on show at Alesia, the scene Julius Caesar’s epic victory over the Gauls in 52 BC.
Between bouts of gastronomic indulgence, you can engage in some moderate activity: for walkers there’s a wide range of hikes, from gentle walks in the Côte d’Or to relatively demanding treks in the Parc Régional du Morvan.Read More
The food of Burgundy
The food of Burgundy
The richness of Burgundy’s cuisine is largely due to two factors: the region’s wines and its possession of one of the world’s finest breeds of beef cattle, the Charollais. Wines are often used in the preparation of sauces, especially à la bourguignonne. Essentially, this means that the dish is cooked in a red wine sauce to which baby onions, mushrooms and lardons (pieces of bacon) are added. The classic Burgundy dishes cooked in this manner are bœuf bourguignon and coq au vin. Another term that frequently appears on menus is meurette, which is also a red wine sauce but made without mushrooms and flambéed with a touch of marc brandy. It’s used with eggs, fish and poultry as well as red meat.
Snails (escargots) are hard to avoid in Burgundy, and the local style of cooking involves stewing them for several hours in white wine with shallots, carrots and onions, then stuffing them with garlic and parsley butter and finishing them off in the oven. Other specialities include the parsley-flavoured ham (jambon persillé); calf’s head (tête de veau, or sansiot); and a pauchouse of river fish (that is, poached in white wine with onions, butter, garlic and lardons).
Like other regions of France, Burgundy produces a variety of cheeses. The best known are the creamy white Chaource, the soft St-Florentin from the Yonne valley, the orange-skinned Époisses and the delicious goat’s cheeses from the Morvan. And then there is gougère, a savoury pastry made with cheese, best eaten warm with a glass of Chablis.
Burgundy – and in particular the area to the east and south of the Morvan – is one of the prime château regions in France. Whether still in the hands of old families like the château Bazoches du Morvan (wchateau-de-vauban.com) whose current owner is related to Vauban, the great French fortification builder, or state-owned and -maintained like the château de Castellux (wchateaudechastellux.com), their remoteness and association with a feudal aristocratic class places them several steps above a simple stately mansion.
As the upkeep of such massive structures becomes more and more expensive, many château owners rent their properties to large families or groups. Depending on numbers, costs can be as low as £300 per week, but take note: wi-fi may not penetrate the thick stone walls, and you will almost invariably need your own car; some places come with a cook and a maid, and occasionally the owners may still live on the premises (though you might never even bump into them). The range of experiences is broad, however, and you should be able to find something to suit your tastes – from Château de Missery near Saulieu (wchateaudemissery.com), who offer weekend cookery courses and wine tastings for about a dozen people, to Château de Tailly (wchateaudetailly.com), which is split into three buildings and can accommodate smaller parties of guests. Check wsimplychateau.com for a selection of options.
The wines of Burgundy
The wines of Burgundy
Burgundy farmers have been growing grapes since Roman times, and Burgundy’s wines are some of the most renowned in the world. In recent years, though, Burgundy’s vineyards, and those in other regions of France, have suffered due to competition from the southern hemisphere. However, because of stringent legal restrictions banning watering and other interference, French wines, more than others, remain a faithful reflection of the terroir where they are produced, and Burgundy experts remain confident that the climate and soil of their region will fight off any temporary economic challenges.
Burgundy’s best wines come from a narrow strip of hillside called the Côte d’Or that runs southwest from Dijon to Santenay, and is divided into two regions, Côte de Nuits (the better reds) and Côte de Beaune (the better whites). High-quality wine is certainly produced further south as well though, in the Mâconnais and on the Côtes Chalonnaises. Reds from the region are made almost exclusively from the Pinot Noir grape, while whites are largely from Chardonnay. Fans of bubbly should look out for the often highly regarded sparkling whites, which crop up across the region and won’t set you back half as much as a bottle of Champagne.
The single most important factor determining the “character” of wines is the soil. In both the Côte d’Or and Chablis, its character varies over very short distances, making for an enormous variety of taste. Chalky soil makes a wine drier and more acidic – while clay brings more fruitiness and body to it.
For an apéritif in Burgundy, you should try kir, named after the man who was both mayor and MP for Dijon for many years after World War II – two parts dry white wine, traditionally aligoté, and one part cassis. To round the evening off there are many liqueurs to choose from, but Burgundy is particularly famous for its marcs, of which the best are matured for years in oak casks.