France: Beaune, the Cote d’Or’s Golden City
Actually, it was my husband, Michael, who first dared to dream this out loud, saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could live full-time in Paris and have a country house in Beaune?” Of course I dreamed along. Wouldn’t you?
So, while we’re waiting for our dream to come true (translation: while we’re waiting to hit the lottery), we visit Beaune when we can. And, when we visit, we stay at La Terre d’Or, where Jean-Louis Martin and his wife Christine make us feel like their guest house is our house by giving us free rein of the kitchen, so we can prepare our own lunches from things we get at the terrific Saturday market, or by setting out Kirs (a white wine and cassis liqueur aperitif) for us before we head out for dinner. That Jean-Louis once played the theme from Amelie on the piano downstairs to awaken us, instead of knocking on the door, didn’t make us feel like we were at home – it made us think we were living in that film.
Michael and I get to Beaune once or twice a year, but just a few weeks ago I snuck in an extra trip with a group of journalists, which gave me the chance to visit the Hospice de Beaune for the umpteenth time. Just so you know: You can never see the Hospice (or hospital) too many times.
The Hospice, the Hotel de Dieu, just celebrated the 564 th anniversary of its founding and it is in great health – it is supported by the proceeds from the famous Hospices de Beaune auction and dinner held each November. It was the extraordinary idea of Nicolas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins, to build this hospital as a refuge and sanctuary for the poverty-stricken people who had suffered so severely during the Hundred Years War. Their mission was to give patients something beautiful before death, something they had never had.
Five centuries later, the Hospice, which was an active hospital until 1971, is still gaspingly beautiful. Look at the painted ceiling in the patients’ hall; the chapel; the apothecary, where the remedies were made from herbs grown in the hospital’s gardens; and the kitchen, which is fascinating for people like us who love food.
While you’re admiring it – and the way the museum people have set the scene – just try to imagine what the nuns had to do to turn out 120 meals a day when their water supply was in the courtyard, that large, gracious courtyard that’s not exactly steps away from the kitchen or the patients’ quarters.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the Rogier van der Weyden triptych of the Last Judgment. It’s haunting.
Happily for us visitors, the Hospice is in the center of town, just across the Place Carnot from a great specialty shop, Fromagerie Alain Hess.
I always stop here, always talk to this server to find out what’s new, and always buy a local cheese. Among my hometown favorites are: Citeaux, made by the monks in the nearby Citeaux Abbey, which you can visit; Soumatrain; and Epoisses, the soft, runny, you-can-serve-it-with-a-spoon cheese that has a forbidding smell and a rich flavor.
It’s also close to two of my favorite restaurants:
Ma Cuisine, a simple-looking bistro that’s a favorite among the winetrade people. The food is traditional, excellent and, not surprisingly, perfect with Burgundy. (You will, of course, drink Burgundy when you’re in Burgundy.) And if, like me, the wine list makes you dizzy because there are so many wines you want to have, put yourself in M. Escoffier‘s hands (yes, remarkably, his name is Escoffier – he tends to the front of the house and his wife, Fabienne Escoffier, does the cooking) – the odds are good he’ll choose something that will not only be exactly what you wanted, but probably something you didn’t even know about, which, to my mind, is the best.
Le Gourmandin, also simple, also very, very good, but the approach here is a little more modern. The first time we went to Le Gourmandin, it was for a fast lunch. But the food was so good and the staff so accommodating – we arrived way past lunch hour – that we returned that night for dinner and we’ve been returning ever since.
On this last trip, we were spoiled and taken to dinner at le Jardin des Remparts, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the edge of the town’s fortified walls. The young chef, Roland Chanliaud, is wildly imaginative and, while many of the products are local, the inspiration for his dishes comes from everywhere and the execution sometimes has a high-tech edge. One of my favorite dishes was a beef tartar surrounded by oysters and topped with what the chef called sea foam, essentially an oyster juice gelee.
My favorite little touch was this herb garden, planted in a window on the side of a staircase.
And then there are the wines and the vineyards – you can have a swell time in Burgundy if you don’t care about wine, but you’ll have a much sweller time if you do. And you’ll have the best time if you drive the wine route and stop here and there. Actually, you don’t have to stop, you just need to slow down – the vineyards themselves are things of beauty.
For those who care about wine, a must is a visit to the legendary Clos de Vougeot, the abbey where the famous wine was first made almost 1,000 years ago. The Abbey, which dominates the treasured vineyard, a small plot shared by 80 owners, and its architecture (Cistercian), are, without being dramatic, awe-inspiring.
Just writing this makes me long to go back – and I’ve only just been there! While Michael keeps dreaming, I’m going out to buy another Lottery ticket. Wish me luck.