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."