WHEN THE FRONT-DESK MANAGER OF LA CÔTE D'OR INN AND RESTAURANT in Burgundy casually produced a list of local artisanal food purveyors, he could have been reading my mind. In the 17 years I've lived in France, I'd always wanted to trace a great chef's ingredients to their source. Most of the purveyors not only supply chef Bernard Loiseau's Michelin three-star restaurant, but welcome visitors, sell products, and offer tastings as well. Loiseau's neatly typed roster featured producers of cheese, honey, bread, vegetables, snails, and jam. At my prodding, he also furnished a list of restaurants where he goes on his rare days off. And so the plan was set. I would make—eat—my way through the twin lists in four days. All the producers were hidden in minuscule villages or isolated rural pockets of Burgundy. And all were within a 25-mile radius of La Côte d'Or in Saulieu, a model of provincial friendliness.
In 1677, Madame de Sévigné, who chronicled court life under Louis XIV, described how well she had eaten in Saulieu. Boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin—two of France's greatest vernacular dishes—are nothing if not Burgundian. Without totally betraying the past, Loiseau takes a different tack. His famously ascetic style all but bans cream, butter, and flour, and he was one of the first to use vegetable purées as sauce thickeners. Indeed, Loiseau takes vegetables—many furnished by farmer Gérard Maternaud in Quarré-les-Tombes—where they never dreamed of going before in France, composing entire menus free of fish and meat. Way before Joël Robuchon published his all-potato cookbook, Loiseau was wowing customers with his dazzling all-potato menu. Maternaud also supplies his neighbor L'Auberge de l'Âtre, a homey one-star restaurant with pleasant rooms on the edge of a magnificent forest road.
By pumping $5 million into La Côte d'Or, Loiseau has battled to keep Saulieu on the culinary map. The hulking half-timbered main building was constructed in the late 1800's as a postal relay station, so a big chunk of Loiseau's money went to renovating and creating 15 guest rooms that are quite comfortable if full of what might kindly be called lapses in taste. Loiseau purposely did not touch a number of other rooms ("Just like the fifties, no?"). I reserved one of these tight doubles with a garden view and couldn't have been happier. How could I complain when my hangers had the Relais & Châteaux logo just like those in the newer, more expensive quarters?
The first morning, I ventured out in the hissing rain to the food fair held every year on the fringes of Saulieu. It offered a wonderful overview of grassroots products, from crème de cassis to marzipan-wrapped hazelnuts. Food-related antiques—heart-shaped waffle irons, majolica pitchers—were also for sale.
Next on my itinerary was the Abbaye Ste.-Marie de la Pierre-Qui-Vire in St. Léger-Vauban. The virgin beech forest that buffers the Benedictine monastery was so still and beautiful that I pulled over to take it in. The monastery derives part of its income from a soft, ruddy, brine-washed cheese called Pierre-Qui-Vire, made on the grounds (though not by the monks) from whole, unpasteurized cow's milk. As Englishman Patrick Rance notes in The French Cheese Book—the standard work, criminally never translated into French—the hand-ladled curd is drained for more than 48 hours. Pierre-Qui-Vire is supple, almost indecently unctuous, bouquetée, full of bouquet.
A shop sells not just the cheese but handsome art books printed by the monks. Absentmindedly, I entered a building where a brown-robed man sat at a switchboard. I had heard that one could spend the night at the abbey, an idea both tantalizing and terrifying. "Guests are expected to pray, respect the silence, and help wash dishes," the friar said. "The cost is a hundred and fifty francs [$25] a night with three meals, but you pay what you can."
Congratulating myself on the dishes I would not wash that night, I backtracked to Rouvray and the Ferme Apicole de Morvan, the provenance of the chestnut honey in Loiseau's luscious ice cream. At his ragtag shop, Daniel Blanc took turns filling jars with honey and manning the register. His cakelike spice loaf, mild and deliciously crumbly, is made with 50 percent honey (factory versions use 35 percent), and flavored with aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. At teatime it is terrific slathered with unsalted butter.
Small and soft-spoken, with a shaggy mustache that curls around his upper lip, Blanc told me there are rules that govern eating honey just as there are rules for drinking wine. "My spring honey, for example, is especially good on bread at breakfast; it's creamy and fruity. To make it, hives are placed among wild cherry and hawthorn trees. Acacia honey goes well with fermented milk products like yogurt. Lime-blossom, which is gentle and calming, dissolves well in tisanes. Neutral sunflower honey is suited to tea, and athletes like buckwheat because it's high in iron."
Dinner that night was chez Loiseau, with my American friends Philip and Mary Hyman. Fiftyish food scholars who live in Paris, the Hymans had come to Saulieu for the food fair. They are part of a team that is cataloguing France's existing traditional food products in a state-financed series of books, L'Inventaire du Patrimoine Culinaire de la France.
Scanning La Côte d'Or's menu, Phil was in good form. "Look at this: state-fair stuff. The lack of avant-gardism is daring for a three-star restaurant." With wonderfully crunchy, lightly breaded snails that looked like small cannon shot, Loiseau was indeed staking his claim to the land. None of us expected to eat such heavenly langoustines in landlocked Burgundy. Exquisitely crisp, they tasted of the sea, as they almost never do. As part of an all-porcini menu, Loiseau sent out micro-thin petals of the raw mushroom in an olive-oil and Granny Smith emulsion. Crème brûlée scented with orange-blossom water went straight to Mary's historian's heart. "How nice to see someone reviving a seventeenth-century flavoring." After dessert, Phil weighed in: "If you took the best of what we all ordered and put it together you'd have one great meal. But it wouldn't be worth three stars."
The next morning, the Hymans lingered over a breakfast they said lived up to its reputation as one of the best in France: velvety sheep's-milk yogurt, salt-cured ham, Blanc's honeys, stewed prunes, chestnut jam spread on organic pain de campagne from village baker Jean-Louis Poulizac, luscious rice porridge served cold. Leaving Phil and Mary to scrape their yogurt pots, I visited two artisans whose work is represented on La Côte d'Or's cheese trolley.
Didier Loison's tomme—a semi-hard, pressed sheep cheese—is made less than a mile away in a sleek, modern facility tacked onto a weathered pen. The cheese is fruity and nutty, with a roundness of flavor and creamy yellow color that make it a first cousin of the more famous tommes of the Pyrenees. Like many of Loiseau's purveyors, Loison is always trying to improve his product. "I am still striving to give Monsieur Loiseau a tomme with yet more character," he says, "more goût de terroir."
Loiseau discovered Colette Giraud while judging a goat-cheese competition. One bite and he knew he wanted her crottin, aged a minimum of three weeks and with the blue-green bloom connoisseurs find so sexy. The site of Giraud's fromagerie, St.-Germain-de-Modéon, has a tough beauty matched only by the panicky feelings of loneliness it evokes.
The Hymans and I had agreed to rendezvous for lunch at the Auberge Ensoleillée in Dun-les-Places, a village of some 500 inhabitants. The Auberge is both restaurant and café, and at noon it was crowded with locals just back from mushroom hunting. Mary, Philip, and I were led by the owner to the formal dining room in back.
It was the kind of meal I thought backwater restaurants in France had stopped serving out of laziness, or for fear of seeming démodé. The hors d'oeuvres variés were presented on a stainless-steel platter with a paper doily—10 bowls lined with lettuce leaves and filled with sliced beets, grated carrots, marinated cucumbers, céleri rémoulade. The boned and rolled veal head came with both vinaigrette and mayonnaise blended with hard-boiled egg and tomato. Fromage blanc À la crème, so emblematic of the generosity of Burgundian cuisine, was offered in a three-quart bowl, mild curds on the bottom, three fingers of cream on top.
We spent that afternoon in the hamlet of Brazey-en-Morvan, at a boulangerie in a converted barn. While the wood-burning oven is a relic worth seeing, we found Pierre Michot's baguettes spectacular-looking but cottony and underdone, much preferring the gutsy sourdough loaf with uneven crumb that Jean-Louis Poulizac makes in Saulieu. Thus, we dared to disagree with Michot's many impassioned fans—and with Loiseau, who would love to have him supply La Côte d'Or. But the baker won't bend to the chef's schedule.
With the Hymans back in Paris, I was alone for dinner. Curtains of rain worsened the unlit, un-signposted drive to the Ferme Auberge de Laneau, a restaurant and working farm in Arconcey that produces half the restaurant's ingredients. After my meal in a former barn, whenever I spied a Burgundian family at table, I imagined them eating what I had: cured ham, green salad with chicken livers, chicken in Madeira sauce, potato gratin, fromage blanc À la crème, pear tart. All for $15.
Dinner at Laneau and lunch the following day at Marie-Claude Prommer's farm in Fontangy set the gold standard for meals of their kind, simple satisfying cooking that relies as much on racial memory as it does on reflex. Both establishments also proved that cream cuisine is not dead. The roosters that had escaped Prommer's coq au vin were visible in the courtyard from a dining room decorated with slatted feed troughs. A giant potato gratin was passed between checked-oilcloth-covered tables that stretched the concept of family to include, if not the whole nation-state, then at least this corner of Burgundy.
As a measure against any liverishness I might feel later, I drove to Ménessaire, where Nadine Leduc grows and dries plants for tisanes, brewed like tea and ingested for their medicinal effects. I bought verbena to aid digestion and herb-of-the-moment St.-John's-wort for a depressive friend.
After a lunch that had ended at 3:30, my dinner was mercifully light: speckled-trout meunière at La Guinguette de la Serrée, set by a stream in an enchanting hollow in the woods of Alligny-en-Morvan. The first-rate fish, so plainly prepared as to be charming, is raised next door to the shingled restaurant at an old stone mill.
On the last day of my trip, I found myself in a dank, airless basement room in Blancey where Jean-François Vadot incubates escargots. In 1985, Vadot approached La Côte d'Or, and he was encouraged to expand his business based on Loiseau's commitment to become a customer.
A towering man whose slightly crazed expression is made crazier by a high forehead and a bald pate ringed by wild, feathery hair, Vadot lives above the farm near the château that casts such a big shadow over tiny Blancey. In the snail world he is famous for perfecting a system that produces the mollusks in four months instead of the three years they take to reach adulthood naturally. Tenderness is everything: many snails are inedibly rubbery. Part of Vadot's secret is diet, a special flour made up of 32 plants and seaweeds.
My trip ended in the verdant, cow-blotted hills of a back-of-beyond called St.-Léger-de-Fougeret. Seated at a pine table in a chaletlike structure built for making jam, I tasted the 22 of Jacques Sulem's varieties that are not on Loiseau's breakfast tray.
"Jacques's confitures are cooked less and at lower temperatures than most," says Patrick Bertron, Loiseau's chef de cuisine. "As a result, the fruit is not as reduced and they don't have that unwanted caramelized-sugar taste. They're somewhere between a fresh-fruit coulis and a classic confiture."
Sulem told me he supplies another three-star chef, Ghislaine Arabian in Paris. I made a note to call Arabian about her suppliers as soon as I got back to town.
R E S T A U R A N T S A N D I N N S
Bernard LoiseauLa Côte d'Or Saulieu; 33-3/80-90-53-53, fax 33-3/80-64-08-92; dinner for two $200; doubles from $167.
L'Auberge de l'Âtre Les Lavaults, Quarré-les-Tombes; 33-3/86-32-20-79, fax 33-3/86-32-28-25; dinner for two $75; doubles from $75.
Auberge Ensoleillée Dun-les-Places; 33-3/86-84-62-76; dinner for two $64.
Ferme Auberge de Laneau Arconcey; 33-3/80-84-11-18; dinner for two $32.
Ferme Auberge de Fontangy Fontangy, Précy-sous-Thil; 33-3/80-84-33-32; lunch for two $36.
La Guinguette de la Serrée Alligny-en-Morvan; 33-3/86-76-15-79; dinner for two $27.
Hôtel du Lac Pont-et-Massene, Semure-en-Auxois; 33-3/80-97-11-11; dinner for two $65; doubles from $45. Its specialty is a local dish: ham in cream sauce.
Hôtel de la Poste 1 Rue Grillot, Saulieu; 33-3/80-64-05-67, fax 33-3/80-64-10-82; doubles from $56. Loiseau sends his overflow to this dated but acceptable hotel directly across the street.
Meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
S U P P L I E R S
Gérard Maternaud Les Fourniers, Quarré-les-Tombes; 33-3/86-32-20-94. Vegetables.
Ferme de l'Abbaye de la Pierre-Qui-Vire St. Léger-Vauban; 33-3/86-33-03-73. Similar to the great Burgundy cheese Epoisses.
Ferme Apicole de Morvan La Croisée, Rouvray; 33-3/80-64-70-61. Daniel Blanc's honey.
Boulangerie Poulizac 12 Rue des Fours, Saulieu; 33-3/80-64-18-92. Breads.
Didier Loison Le Conrieux, Saulieu; 33-3/80-64-19-57. Tommes.
Colette Giraud Le Frène, St.-Germain-de-Modéon; 33-3/80-64-71-97. Crottin.
Pierre Michot Brazey-en-Morvan; 33-3/80-84-03-18. Breads.
Nadine Leduc Ferme de Pateut, Ménessaire; 33-3/80-64-07-75. Tisanes of common and exotic plants.
Jean-François Vadot Blancey; 33-3/80-64-64-75. Escargots.
Jacques Sulem St.-Léger-de-Fougeret, Château-Chinon; 33-3/86-85-10-44. Jams.
The Saulieu food fair takes place at Parc des Expositions in Saulieu. 1999's dates: May 1316.