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.