We first met Pascal Wagner in front of his small wine cave on a quiet street in sleepy Puligny Montrachet. He was anxiously pacing back and forth, chatting 200 miles an hour on a cell phone, in three different languages, with a client from some far off country. I didn’t want to disturb him but I had just begun braising an AOP Bresse chicken and needed an older white wine worthy of the celebrated bird. With a lit cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth, he motioned for us to be patient while he disappeared inside. He returned a moment later, still talking on the phone, clutching two fantastic bottles of an older white Meursault (chardonnay)….
In the old days of France, wine grapes were traditionally pressed by feet. The winemakers nicknamed ‘bar rosi’, or pink bottomed, due to the pink color of their feet when they were done squishing the grapes. There is a lovely sculpture by sculptor Noël-Jules Girard in the center of Dijon of a bar rosi, or bareuzai in the traditional dialect of Dijon, treading grapes.
Steak Bareuzai is the true product of the Burgundy region; local Charolais beef cut into thick steaks, spicy mustard grown in nearby fields and milled in Beaune, wild mushrooms hunted for in the damp woods and great red wine that seemingly flows from every winepress of the region. I love the fact that this is so quickly prepared, with no advanced planning other than having the ingredients on hand and perhaps a bottle of wine open. The only controversy seems to be whether or not you finish the sauce with a healthy spoonful of Dijon mustard; some recipes add it and others shun it. I personally add a big spoonful and like the creamy punch good mustard provides.
There are many gastronomic paradises in France, but there is a paradise of paradises — Burgundy. – Curnonsky
Boeuf a la Bourguignonne is perhaps Burgundy’s most iconic dish; a rich beef stew made infamous in America by Julia Child, prepared from marinated beef simmered in local red wine with a calves foot, pearl onions, bacon lardons, herbs and button mushrooms. In truth, cooking proteins this way seems much more a regional style than a one off creation, you will find this combination of flavors taking many forms, from the equally iconic Coq au Vin (chicken in wine) to lesser known dishes like Oeufs en Meurette (eggs poached in red wine with bacon, mushrooms and onions) and Pochouse Bourguignonne, a rustic fish stew made with an assortment of river fish and crayfish simmered in Chambertin with onions, bacon and mushrooms. Technically, meurette is the name for highly flavored red wine sauces from Burgundy, though the word is seldom used in that connotation today.
Beef Bourguignon undoubtedly started life as a humble, peasant dish used to cook tougher pieces of beef, long before becoming a seriously tasty way to eat braised beef at regional restaurants and tables around the world. I have seen a few websites claiming the first appearance is in an Escoffier book, but I would argue the recipe is timeless and was been published several times prior without the word ‘bourguignonne’ added to the title. Most of the older French recipes mention larding the beef and adding a calves foot to the pot to provide a certain unctuousness. Larding, or inserting strips of pork fat into cubes of beef, is the proper way to take tough cooks of beef and make them tender. I certainly would advise adding a calf’s foot if you can find one; try looking in ethnic Asian or Mexican markets where they have a better selection of animal parts than typical mainstream grocery stores.
Last weekend we were feeling rather nostalgic for Burgundy and began to relive our recent vacation. We remembered all the visits to the great bakeries, cheese shops, markets and wineries. We reflected upon the wonderful meals we shared. and which were the best. One of our favorite experiences was sitting in the warm sun, surrounded by the world’s most iconic vineyards, indulging in a plate of escargots while drinking a glass of Pommard. Soon we were in the kitchen, preparing our own plate of escargots and opening a bottle of wine we brought home from France….
‘“My guiding motto for 50 years has been simpleness, the French peasant cuisine is at the basis of the culinary art. By this I mean, it is composed of honest elements that la grande cuisine only embellishes. For example, when I prepare an elaborate dish, say one that takes several days, all the ingredients are basically simple, and the cooking is simple. There are no tricks, no attempt to disguise the true taste by overuse of wines or condiments. What it requires is patience. One must avoid the temptation to hurry, to use substitutes.” – Alexandre Dumaine
During my life time, there have been many chefs I have idolized. I studied their lives trying to comprehend what made them tick, much like a student of music might study a great composer. I read the great chefs’ cookbooks cover to cover like a novel; I devoured any and all articles I could find written about them; I ate in their restaurants if I could afford it; I even cooked their dishes and featured them on my menus; anything, just anything to try to glean one small piece of their culinary perspective and philosophy and incorporate it into my style….
Every trip to France always becomes a holy pilgrimage looking for the perfect croissant and pain au chocolat to start the day. I often hear people stateside whine on about how there are no good ones left, or that the croissant were fabricated elsewhere and only baked on premises. I say hogwash, I find them every trip and completely relish in the ancient alchemy of decadently crispy, buttery croissant still warm from the morning bake off. You know the kind, the ones that make a definite crunch when you break a piece off, sending golden shards of flaky pastry flying into the air.
Lucky France subsidizes boulangeries so every village has at least one, but I will concede, not every one is great. We accidently stumbled into Thierry and Elisabeth Cochard’s boulangerie while searching for the rumored vegetable market in Nolay early one morning. After circling the town several times in vain, we ran into the boulangerie to ask for directions. Elisabeth laughed and said the town’s farmers were lazy and they would never be there on time or ever for that matter. While she talked, I became transfixed by the sweet smell of baking baguettes, chaussons aux pomme and pain au chocolat. Rows and rows of perfectly cooked breads stared at me as I tried in vain to concentrate on her answers. We succumbed to a shameless amount of pastries before returning to Puligny Montrachet empty handed….
Nothing much needs to said about a day that begins with Champagne and caviar in a random Seattle, Washington park more suited to meth use than recreation, a 9 hour flight, a one hour layover, another flight one hour and thirty minutes followed by a two hour drive except thank god it is over. The flight went well with little Beaumont behaving as good as one would expect from a restless six year old.
British Airways temporarily lost one of our bags. Lucky it arrived on the next flight from London an hour later. To add to insult, the conveyor belt broke while bags were being offloaded. I scampered up the ramp and proudly grabbed our last bag and returned to Lisa like a caveman might have after offing a woolly mammoth.
The only real hard part of the day was the last two hour drive from Grenoble to Burgundy. Beau would fall fast asleep in some awkward position, only to be woken by a swerve, followed by a rain of tears till he fell back into a deep slumber. Poor kid was tired beyond belief. During the last ten kilometers, I started seeing double and tried vainly to cram toothpicks in my eye sockets to keep my drooping eyelids from closing completely. I was very relieved to see the Puligny Montrachet sign announcing our arrival….