“We lived for almost three years in Dijon, which the Burgundians called without any quibble and only half-hearted contradictions ‘the gastronomic capital of the world.’ We were lucky to… be within ourselves eager, interested, and above all husky-gutted. Most of our orgies were voluntary, but even so I doubt if more jaded livers than ours could have stood the thousand bilious blows we dealt them.” MFK Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
In the world’s northernmost fine wine region, Burgundy’s vineyard owners play an annual game of chance with the weather, hoping that limited sun and heat will produce wines which are delicate, rarified and aromatic, rather than thin and mean. As if to compensate for this, the food is rich and abundant, reliant on butter, meat and wine-enriched sauces. The eponymous boeuf bourguignon is only the most famous of a local repertory which includes coq au vin (with chicken usually taking the place of the traditional rooster), ouefs en meurette (eggs poached in a sauce of butter, red wine, mushrooms and bacon), jambon persillade (a gelee-topped coarse pork paté) and snails with garlic butter (escargot).
Ignoring the atypically hot August weather, I managed a fair sampling of typical Burgundian dishes during a recent visit to Dijon and its environs. At a stylish bistro just across from the Eiffel-design central market, where the waitress sported henna tattoos and Gaultier leggings and the patrons were well-fed and equally well-coiffed, I began with a slice of the local paté. It was true to what I’ve seen at charcuteries across Paris, the only concession to fashion being a green, mousse-like top layer of parsley, instead of finely-chopped leaves throughout. Bouef bourgignon provided a satisfying first impression of the dish, the rich, glossy gravy soaking perfectly into the pommes purees. To finish, a sharp, boozy sorbet made with cassis (blackcurrants) and the local liqueur, crème de cassis.
There was a repeat of the bouef bourgignon the next day, the 12 hours of cooking rendering the beef so soft as to require only a spoon. I was delighted by the presentation in an individual Staub casserole, though mashed potatoes were sorely missed. Here the highlights were a poached egg in a cream of summer truffles, the cheese plate, featuring Epoisses from a producer only 10 minutes up the road and the bucolic setting in the centre of the blink-and-you-miss-it wine town of Gevrey-Chambertin. Eating such a meal—complete with matching glasses of wine at each course—was perhaps ill-advised on a day when I still had some 20 kilometres to cycle in hot sun. But both the scenery and the menu were too good to justify compromise.
Once cold temperatures and company coincide, I hope to pull out my own Staub and attempt Julia Child’s iconic recipe. For now, though, I’m concentrating my efforts on slightly lighter fare.
Poireaux vinaigrette is another Burgundian classic, combining leeks (usually poached or boiled) with a dressing made from local Dijon mustard. Tangy and full-flavoured, it would provide an excellent lead-in to a rich, winey stew. Less traditional, but also less stultifying, would be to make a few more leeks, buy a baguette and follow with some good cheese. Let your liver guide you.
It’s rare that I gravitate towards more complicated versions of simple recipes. But here the extra steps yield real improvements: tying the leeks with a twist of their greens keeps them intact through two stages of cooking. Likewise, replacing boiling with sautéing and braising dramatically deepens flavor and eliminates any potential stringiness. The sauce’s acidity makes this a poor match for more serious wine; pair with a simple, not-too-austere Chardonnay (like a Macon-Villages)
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma French
Total time: 35 minutes: Active time: 20 minutes
4 slender leeks
3/4 cups chicken stock
1 scant tablespoon grain or Dijon mustard**
Lemon juice or wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Special equipment: large frying pan; tongs
Trim leeks, retaining the green ends, and split along length. (If they are too long to fit across the base of your largest frying pan, split once across width.) Rinse each under the tap, lifting the layers to remove dirt, but being careful to keep intact. Using a thin length peeled from the trimmings, tie each leek around its middle.
On a medium-high flame, heat just enough oil to film pan. When hot add as many leeks as will fit in one layer. Season with salt and pepper. Turn occasionally until both sides are golden and have spots of deeper caramelisation, about 8-10 minutes. If required, remove to plate and repeat with remaining leeks.
Return all leeks to the pan. Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until the leeks are very tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, 10-15 minutes. While they cook, make the dressing, mixing the mustard with just enough olive oil and lemon juice to make a sharp, very thick sauce.
Pour over leeks and check seasoning. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
* While the recipe can easily be doubled, it becomes time-consuming without access to several large frying pans.
** I particularly like this one. The only brand still made with locally-grown seeds, it has an elegant, sprightly flavor. Whatever you use, make sure your mustard is fresh.