THE GLOBAL GOURMET Some­thing about Mary

Food writer M. F. K. Fisher’s spirit lives on in Bur­gundy, re­ports Ju­dith Elen

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S sat­is­fy­ing as its rich-sound­ing name, Bur­gundy in cen­tral-east­ern France has ev­ery­thing go­ing for it ex­cept, per­haps, palm trees. Stamp­ing ground of the glo­ri­ous 14th and 15th-cen­tury dukes of Bur­gundy, they — like the pow­er­ful me­dieval monks — shaped the re­gion even into the 21st cen­tury. Palaces, chateaus and monas­ter­ies keep his­tory alive and, now as then, the vines thread­ing the land­scape stitch it all to­gether. In the 1984 book

edited by Ce­line Vence, I read that rab­bit with mus­tard seed, honey, oil and vine­gar graced ta­bles in Di­jon, now the re­gional cap­i­tal, as early as the fourth cen­tury. Famed 18th-cen­tury gas­tronome Jean An­thelme Bril­lat-Savarin was born nearby. And Bur­gun­dian wines have been prom­i­nent for 2000 years.

There could hardly be a bet­ter fin­ish­ing school for a stu­dent in the taste of ter­roir. It was the train­ing ground a young Amer­i­can, Mary Fran­cis Kennedy Fisher, stum­bled upon in 1929, on her way to be­com­ing renowned food writer M. F. K. Fisher.

Com­ing to Di­jon from coun­try Cal­i­for­nia, Fisher fell on Bur­gun­dian cui­sine and wine with all the fer­vour of a con­vert. Af­ter a sim­ple meal on the boat-train from Cher­bourg to Paris, she wrote: I recog­nised my­self as new-born, ready at last to live.’’ A 21-year-old bride, she was about to spend the next three years in Bur­gundy and her life would never be the same.

Trac­ing her path, I also ar­rive by rail, now 90 min­utes by very fast train (TGV) from Paris’s Gare de Lyon. The trip car­ries me through a land­scape of scratchy trees, still bare in the first days of spring. We oc­ca­sion­ally pass an an­tique farm­house snug­gled into the folds of its pas­tures, its en­clo­sure walls the faded mus­tard of the earth, or a me­dieval vil­lage clus­tered around its wind­ing cen­tral road. Once in Di­jon, I’m at the up­per reaches of Bur­gundy’s wine heart­land. The lead­ing vine­yards are fo­cused in a nar­row 60km strip, the Cote d’Or, run­ning south from here and through the sec­ond town of the re­gion, Beaune, mid­way down its length.

Within Di­jon’s 12th-cen­tury core are half-tim­bered houses, steep rus­set, brown and mus­tard mo­saic-tiled roofs, and nu­mer­ous churches, in­clud­ing Notre-Dame, with the great Jacquemart’’, the strange old clock, with ham­mers and bells and four iron peo­ple’’. It still at­tracts gaz­ers as it did Fisher. (Her land­lady’s son was ap­pren­ticed to its of­fi­cial time­keeper.)

In the old town’s aus­tere streets I find rue du PetitPotet, where Fisher moved into two far-from-lux­u­ri­ous rooms’’ in the pen­sion of Madame Ol­lagnier. From here she ex­plored Di­jon’s streets and her­itage and the vine­yards be­yond. She stud­ied French lan­guage and art, walk­ing to the nearby Beaux Arts build­ing of the uni­ver­sity. But food was her forte.

Fisher was hyp­no­tised’’ by her land­lady’s earthy charisma and ded­i­ca­tion to mak­ing some­thing out of noth­ing’’. Madame would buy fruits Fisher con­sid­ered worth­less and we would have them fixed some­how with cream (at half-price be­cause it was sour­ing) and kirsch (bought cheaply be­cause it was not prop­erly stamped and Madame knew too much about the wine mer­chant’s pri­vate life). They would be de­li­cious.’’

From the small, dark cab­i­net of a kitchen, banked with cop­per pots and pans, came the finest meals I have yet eaten’’, Fisher wrote. Dif­fer­ent from any food I’d ever had.’’ When the de­vel­op­ing gourmet moved to her own small apart­ment in a blue-col­lar quar­ter, in a nar­row shut­tered house above a patis­serie at 46 rue Monge, she emerged into the world of hands-on French mar­ket life.

She vis­ited les Halles, Di­jon’s cen­tral mar­ket, twice a week, dis­cov­er­ing small and suc­cu­lent’’ cauliflow­ers, cheeses, such as gruyere grated in the mar­ket while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, on to a piece of pa­per’’ and

pave de sante’’, slices of Di­jon’s pep­pery spice bread, a recipe brought here by Mar­garet of Flan­ders, who mar­ried one of the me­dieval dukes. Cakes of pain d’epices ap­pear ev­ery­where; lo­cal chefs serve it with foie gras or cheese.

Lit­tle seems to have changed at les Halles. The cov­ered mar­ket — de­signed by Gus­tave Eif­fel, like a vaulted rail­way sta­tion of lacy blue-painted iron and

Rich pick­ings: Les Halles, Di­jon’s cen­tral mar­ket, which Fisher vis­ited twice a week, dis­cov­er­ing ‘ small and suc­cu­lent’ cauliflow­ers, cheese and other pro­duce

In­stant con­vert: M. F. K. Fisher was se­duced by France glass — opens Tues­days, Fri­days and Satur­days, 8am to mid­day. Its stalls are laden with the fresh and the hand­made. One ven­dor her­alds the ar­rival of his newsea­son white as­para­gus; else­where are goose eggs and gar­lic, ter­rines, tiny pink radishes, horse flesh, shell­fish, deep-coloured berries, tubs of but­ter, spring wild­flow­ers and cheeses. Citeaux, a creamy, washed-rind cheese with a deep fon­dant-like crust, soon be­comes my favourite. It is hand­made with raw cow’s milk from the herd of the small com­mu­nity of Cis­ter­cian monks at the Abb­eye de Citeaux, south of Di­jon.

Epoisses is an­other rare treat, a strong-tast­ing triple­cream cheese that’s on ev­ery menu (avail­able, pas­teurised, in Aus­tralia, for about $90/kg whole­sale, ac­cord­ing to my Syd­ney cheese source).

Mar­ket bistro DZ’en­vies, not here in Fisher’s day, is a dis­cov­ery: it’s a tiny restau­rant sep­a­rated by pot­ted palms from the mer­chant traf­fic at 12 rue Ode­bert. I set­tle at a sun-drenched ta­ble for an ex­cel­lent, well­priced lunch. Suc­cu­lent lo­cal spe­cial­ties — snails, foie gras, beef, ca­bil­laud — are framed, rather than ob­scured, by the in­flu­ences of Maghreb and Ja­pan.

Fisher records eat­ing ter­rines of pate 10 years old un­der their tight crusts of mildewed fat’’ and great odor­ous bowls of ecrevisses a la nage [cray­fish]’’ and

snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, roasted, on cush­ions of toast soft­ened with the paste of their rot­ted in­nards and fine brandy.’’

Don’t ex­pect to eat any­thing so con­tentious at the nu­mer­ous restau­rants, many Miche­lin-grade, around Di­jon and Beaune to­day. Snails are per­haps the most chal­leng­ing dish, ten­der in red wine or fra­grant in but­ter and gar­lic. At three Miche­lin-starred Lamel­loise in Chagny, a de­gus­ta­tion menu starts with snails three ways: in a small white pot with the tra­di­tional but­ter and gar­lic; in a po­tato shell of parsleyed foam; and in a lit­tle galette of po­tato and mush­room.

La gougere, a bite-sized choux pas­try puff made with gruyere, the cre­ation of a Parisian chef work­ing here in the 1800s, is ubiq­ui­tous with aper­i­tifs. And the aper­i­tif of choice is kir — creme de cas­sis and alig­ote, a lo­cal white wine, or cre­mant de bour­gogne, Bur­gundy’s el­e­gant bub­bles — in­vented by and named af­ter a one-time mayor of Di­jon. The most fa­mous prod­uct, mus­tard, has been a spe­cialty since the Ro­mans were here. While Di­jon mus­tard has be­come a process, Moutarde de Bour­gogne, made with mus­tard seeds grown in Bur­gundy, lo­cal alig­ote and us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods, is ap­pel­la­tion con­trolled. The small, third-gen­er­a­tion fam­ily con­cern, La Moutarderie Fal­lot, makes it as well as a range of Di­jon mus­tards with herbs, honey, even cas­sis. Fal­lot has a mu­seum at its small fac­tory, where vis­i­tors can learn how the mus­tard is made and see an­cient tools and equip­ment. Fisher’s favourite restau­rant was Aux Trois Faisans, a dingy room with spot­ted car­pets’’ but mem­o­rable food, on the semi-cir­cu­lar fore­court op­po­site the ducal palace in the cen­tre of town. It was up­stairs from the more salu­bri­ous Le Pre aux Clercs, which had taken over the up­per room even in Fisher’s day, when she re­turned for the an­nual Foire Gas­tronomique in 1954. Le Pre aux Clercs is now the dis­creet, freshly lit one-Miche­lin starred es­tab­lish­ment of chef Jean-Pierre Bil­loux.

The im­pos­ing Palais des Ducs de Bour­gogne, op­po­site, in­cludes the vaulted 15th-cen­tury ducal kitchens, now a mu­seum, the tombs of the dukes and the square 14th­cen­tury Tour Philippe Le Bon, where I climb more than 300 spi­ralling stone steps to the roof for a spec­tac­u­lar view of the city.

Fisher’s other pre­oc­cu­pa­tion here was wine. The Cote d’Or is di­vided into the northerly Cote de Nu­its and the Cote de Beaune in the south, and har­bours evoca­tive names such as Gevrey Cham­bertin, Ro­ma­nee-Conti, Nu­its St-Ge­orges, Pom­mard, Meur­sault and Puligny Mon­tra­chet. When I ar­rive in early April, the spring vines are bare, pruned back or newly planted.

Grapes are al­most ex­clu­sively pinot noir and chardon­nay, with some alig­ote and red ga­may, pro­duc­ing, in de­scend­ing or­der of grand­ness, the re­gion’s grands crus, pre­miers crus, vil­lages ap­pel­la­tions and re­gional ap­pel­la­tions wines. Drive, cy­cle or walk through a trail of tiny vil­lages, all with mem­o­rable names that echo the fa­mous do­maines and la­bels.

My Vinea­tours guide, Brigitte Cabaret, has stud­ied the wines of the re­gion and she in­tro­duces me to Julien Wallerand at Caveau Puligny-Mon­tra­chet, es­tab­lished in the town of Puligny-Mon­tra­chet by Ju­lian’s fa­ther, mas­ter som­me­lier Jean-Claude Wallerand. Here you can taste and buy the very best of the re­gion. With 4000 bot­tles in the cel­lar, from 1959 to the new vin­tage, Ju­lian knows vine­yard his­tory and de­vel­op­ments; this is an ed­u­ca­tion that is a plea­sure at ev­ery sip. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of RailEu­rope, Mai­son de la France and Eti­had.

Check­list

Eti­had Air­ways flies to Paris via Abu Dhabi 10 times a week from Syd­ney and three times a week each from Mel­bourne and Bris­bane. More: www.eti­hadair­ways.com. There are var­i­ous guided vine­yard tours by car or cy­cle, tast­ings in cel­lars and cas­tles and self-guided drives. If tour­ing in­de­pen­dently, plan in ad­vance as Aus­tralia’s ca­sual cel­lar door sys­tem is not the same here. More: www.vinea­tours.com. M. F. K. Fisher books, in­clud­ing her mem­oir

(1991), are avail­able at www.ama­zon.com. www.raileu­rope.com.au www.franceguide.com www.di­jon.fr www.beaune-tourism.com www.bour­gogne-restau­rants.com www.dzen­vies.com

Di­jon digs: Fisher’s apart­ment at 46 rue Monge

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