A Vine Romance

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 2nd August 2005.

Boarding Eurostar at breakfast, we are in the plump heart of France by lunchtime. As the TGV cuts south from Paris, Burgundy's varied countryside comes into view, threaded with rivers, patched with woods and vineyards and peppered with castles and abbeys. Arriving at Dijon, we jump into a taxi and head straight for the Bistrot des Halles (like most French restaurants, it closes promptly at 2pm). In the city's market square, it makes an appropriate place to start an exploration of Burgundy's rich, earthy, cooking, much of it steeped in wine.

Rich is the word. If you want to spoil yourself, there's a glut of gastronomic temples from which to choose. But despite the region's prosperity, it is also timeless and rural, even wild in places, a fact reflected in the many humble restaurants that are just as excellent in their way as the great ones. Their menus are rooted to the terroir, with the same refrain endlessly repeated: snails, jambon persillé, Charolais beef, poulet de Bresse, freshwater trout, pain d'épices, mustard, clafoutis, cassis. Some may tire of it after a while; I don't.As for wine, these are places where the winemakers themselves choose to meet and eat. Their lists are generally excellent, sometimes with bottles that are hard to find elsewhere. Armed with the inside knowledge of one such Beaune négotiant, we hire a car and set off to stretch our legs on long walks, admire ducal palaces and Romanesque architecture and eat and drink simply but well.On the subject of lodging, it's a question of avoiding insipid tourist hotels and knowing the small, homely places that match the restaurants in character and local colour.

Running from Auxerre down to Mâcon, I have divided the region into four areas, each with recommendations for where to stay and where to eat. Prices quoted are for a standard double room with breakfast. You can eat in the restaurants from around £15 per head, in some cases much less. It's wise to book ahead.

South of Auxerre, Parc des Maréchaux Auxerre (0033 3 8651 4377; www.hotel-parcmarechaux.com; £70). A substantial mid-19th-century house in a leafy garden, close to the old quarter. The bedrooms (the best of which open directly on to the garden) are handsomely furnished and in summer you can breakfast on the terrace.

Moulin des Templiers Avallon (8634 1080; www.hotel-moulin-des-templiers.com; £50). Records of a mill in this idyllic spot on the banks of the Cousin, in a wooded valley, reach back to the 12th century. Today, the quaint bedrooms have rough plastered walls, flowery paper on the ceilings, dark old polished doors and tiny bathrooms. Breakfast is served in one of two small rooms, or on the equally flowery terrace. L'Ange Souriant Flavigny-sur-Ozerain (8096 2493; www.ange-souriant.com; £40).

In a historic fortified village noted for the aniseed sweets that scent the air, L'Ange Souriant is a delightful b&b run by a gentle, ever-helpful Peruvian, Wil Barrueto. If he has time, he'll take you on a tour, exchanging greetings with his neighbours as he goes, and in the morning will serve you his special eggs with cheese en cocotte.

Eating out while in Flavigny, be sure to drop in for a drink at the locals' favourite hang-out, Trop-Chaud, with lace at the windows, bottles lining the walls - and an old wardrobe covered in clippings about the movie, Chocolat, which was filmed in the village. If it's lunchtime, head for La Grange, next to the church, where farmers' wives serve simple home-cooked food, accompanied by local wines.Down the hill in Alise-Ste- Rheine, L'Auberge du Cheval Blanc (8096 0155; closed Mon and Tues), should not be missed. It's my ideal French country restaurant: a convivial dining room in a charming place, with menus that have hardly changed in 100 years, beautifully cooked and presented, and served by smiling local staff. Cuisine bourguignonne at its best.A 10-minute drive from Auxerre brings you to Les Tilleuls in Vincellotes (8642 2213; closed Wed), where in summer you can eat beside the river under the lime trees. You need to keep your wits about you here, or the gently mocking patron, Alain Renaudin, will have talked you into foie gras, fine wines and a hefty bill without a menu ever appearing. But you will have had fun.

Over in the wet, hilly, thickly wooded Parc Naturel de Morvan, seek out Le Morvan, Quarré-les-Tombes (8632 2929; closed Mon and Tues), a plain Logis de France that conceals a talented chef, Etienne Robbé, behind its modest façade, and Auberge de l'Atre, Les Lavaults (8632 2079; closed Tues and Wed), whose owners are mad about mushrooms, as you will soon discover.Between Dijon and BeauneStaying thereLe Manassès Curtil-Vergy (8061 4381; www.ifrance.com/hotelmanasses; £64).

The great purple and gold vineyards of the Côtes d'Or, Nuits-St-Georges and Beaune run like an artery through the centre of Burgundy. It's hard to find good, modest accommodation in this voluptuous region, but Le Manassès is an exception. Best of the bunch: the gorgeous Château d'IgéIt doesn't need to rely on either of its two claims to fame: that Prince Charles once stayed, and that its colourful owner, winemaker Yves Chaley, became the unwitting star of a Channel 4 documentary, A French Affair, about village life in France.While Yves concentrates on the wine - tastings are conducted each evening in the adjacent winery - his daughter and son-in-law run the b&b: sophisticated bedrooms, wonderful views over the valley below, delicious breakfasts comprising local jams, pain d\'épices, charcuterie, cheeses - even a glass of wine if you so wish.Hostellerie du Château Châteauneuf (8049 2200; www.hostellerie-chateauneuf.com; £58).

Amid the romantic walls and turrets of sleepy Châteauneuf, floating on its hill above Burgundy, this converted presbytery next to the castle has plain bedrooms, though the new proprietors, Catherine, who is Scottish, and Eric Dusoulier, are making changes. Eric, a trained chef, cooks with flair.

Chez Camille Arnay-le-Duc (8090 0138; www.chez-camille.fr; £63). In the centre of Arnay, this is a splendid example of French provincial hotel. Leading off dull, dark corridors, the bedrooms come as a pleasant surprise, but it's the dining room, fashioned, conservatory style, from a covered courtyard, with kitchen open to view, that is the heart of the hotel, and the kingdom of le patron, Armand Poinsot.Le Parc, Levernoisa nd Le Clos, Montigny-les-Beaune (8024 6300; www.hotelleparc.fr; £61); (8025 9798; www.hotelleparc.fr; £73). Two addresses, both in villages near Beaune, both owned by the friendly and efficient Mme Oudot, where you will find attractive bedrooms dotted with antiques, equally pretty surroundings and value for money.

The wood-panelled and mirrored interior of Le Bistrot des Halles, Dijon (10 rue Bannelier; 8049 9415; closed Sun and Mon), whisks you back to the beginning of the 20th century. It's also spacious, animated and full of locals. Try a regional speciality such as daube d\'agneau, a tomato-based terrine of roasted lamb. Crème brûlée stands out among the puddings. Perfect.

If you stay at Le Manessès, the family will direct you to Auberge du Coteau in Villars-Fontaine (8061 1050; closed Tues dinner and Wed) for dinner. Wood for the fire is piled beside the door, there's a stone floor, beamed ceiling, red gingham on solid tables and a warming open hearth where beef, lamb and andouillette are grilled to order. What else to drink, but a bottle of Hautes-Côtes de Nuits-St-Georges, which is exactly where you are?

When in Beaune, follow the local winemakers to little Ma Cuisine (passage Ste-Hélène; 8022 3022; closed Sat, Sun and Wed; and all of August), where you'll discover the finest list in town, and at reasonable prices. Take your time to read it, and don't stick to Burgundy. And to match her husband Pierre's wine, Fabienne Escoffier's food is a cut above: top quality ingredients, simply cooked. Try the raw tuna tartar, the salade gourmand or the pigeon.

Just south of Citeaux, Auberge de l'Abbaye, Auvillars-sur Sâone (8026 9737; closed Sun dinner, Tue dinner, and Wed), serves good food at amiable prices in two dining rooms, one bistrot-style, the other more intimate. Jean-Michel Réchard's repertoire includes an excellent veal and chicken pie, spiced bread terrine and bread-and-butter pudding.

Around Chalon-sur-SaoneStaying thereLes Charmes (8021 6353; £85) and Les Magnolias (8021 2323; www.les-magnolias.com; £86) Meursault. Both these small hotels are intimate and charming. The former (go for the antique-furnished rooms rather than the newer ones) has a park-like garden, the latter a verdant courtyard.Hôtellerie du Val d'Or Mercurey (8545 1370; www.le-valdor.com; £71). Dominic Jayet began work here as a waiter in 1988, rose to become sommelier, and is now the proprietor. With the chef, Pascal Charreyras, he has retained his former employer's long-standing Michelin star, and refreshed the decoration. And so this early 19th-century coaching inn sails on in capable hands, comfortable, good value, essentially unchanged.Hôtel de la Halle Nolay (8021 7637; www.terroirs-b.com/lahalle; £40).

You have to dig deep into Nolay's warren of old streets to winkle out its exceptional market place, with skewed half-timbered buildings surrounding a 15th-century covered market and church. This maison bourguignonne, with pale green shutters, overlooks the square, as do its best bedrooms. Others, bright and pretty, with antiques here and there, are in an annexe behind.

Among the half-timbered houses in Chalon-sur-Saône's cathedral square is Le Verre Galant (8593 0987; closed Sun and Mon). Didier and Geneviève, its owners, specialise in rich Burgundian dishes (with stews served from heavy pans at the table) and a wine list that overflows with the offerings of small producers from all over France. Try a glass of vin surprise - if you guess what it is, you can have it for free.The rustic-elegant dining room at Hôtellerie du Val d'Or is highly recommended, whether you are staying or not. A few miles north, Le Vendangerot in Rully (8587 2009; closed Tues and Wed) is another classic hotel-restaurant: charming, cheerful and efficient, even when packed. What to choose? The queue de boeuf and pavé de porc are the specialities, and they are superb, but everything else is good, too: freshwater fish, crayfish, pigeon with truffle sauce, coq au vin cooked in white wine. Wonderful pain perdu, undoubtedly homemade. The excellent wine list includes, of course, Rully, available by the glass.Turning south on the D981, you come to a roundabout just outside Mellecey, and there is Le Guide de Marloux (8545 1303 ). It may not be much to look at from the outside, but it's another local favourite. Jean cooks, Corinne serves: charm, smiles, attentive service and excellent food. The wine list is laden with hard-to-find vintages, regional wines and Jean's personal favourites from around the country. Ignore the décor and tuck in.

Around MaconStaying thereChâteau d'Igé (8533 3399; www.chateaudige.com; £116).Don't be misled by the massive, impeccably maintained fortified château and manicured garden: they have hauteur, but the welcome is warm, even cosy, and by the time a lady who has worked here for 25 years has served your breakfast you will positively hate the idea of leaving. Spiral staircases winding up into the turrets, stone-flagged floors, a huge open hearth in the massively beamed dining room, vast old beds and antique furnishings all contribute to a sense of time standing still. And those on a budget need not be left out: there are three small bedrooms at under £50. Dinner is a revelation: the chef, Olivier Pont, deserves the Michelin star for which he patiently waits, and his team should get a reward for perfectly orchestrated service. Ambrosial Pommard; unmissable orange and Grand Marnier soufflé.

Bourgogne Cluny (8559 0058; www.hotel-cluny.com; £82). Considering this is a busy tourist hotel facing the Abbey, it has a dash of unexpected character: a charming, long, low-ceilinged sitting room with creaky polished floor, furnished with family antiques; and a graceful dining room with large open fire and arresting black and white tiles. Bedrooms are unexceptional but comfortable. If you are staying at Château d'Igé, don't eat anywhere else that night. Lunch, though, could be a complete contrast: at the nearby Bar des Sports in La Roche-Vineuse (Le Bourg; 8591 2730; lunch only). You have to be in the know - a casual passer-by might be forgiven for thinking the building had been abandoned.

Once you've ventured beyond the shabby glass door, however, you'll find a cluster of locals at the bar knocking back pastis, 1960s formica-topped tables and orange banquette seats, a pool table and a four-course, £7, no-choice menu: entrée, plat, fromage, dessert, café et vin sans modération. The entrecôte, quickly seared, is from charolais, the andouillette fait maison has a divine stuffing, and the frites - handmade by the patron's daughter - are just perfect.

Be sure to book in advance for Le Fin Bec at Leynes (8535 1177; closed Thurs dinner, Sun dinner and Mon), in the shadow of the great protruding Roche de Solutré amid a tapestry of St Véran vines. The village is off the beaten track and the neat restaurant is often packed with contented locals tucking into resolutely local dishes, including andouillette au Mâcon blanc. A sunny terrace overlooks the spacious main square.A few twists and turns to the south and you come to Juliénas and another good choice for lunch, offering tempting plats du jour such as navarin of lamb and boeuf bourguignon: Le Coq à Juliénas (7404 4198; closed Wed). In a pretty village house, it's a contemporary bistrot with a retro theme. If it feels a little formulaic, it's because it\'s part of an association of Lyon bistrots that promote good food. The chef has evident pedigree and his wife ensures that service is prompt.

Though just over the border in Rhônes-Alpes, no exploration of Burgundian cooking would be complete without a visit to Le Cep at Fleurie (7404 1077; closed Sun and Mon), probably my favourite restaurant in France. A few years ago the redoutable Chantal Chagny voluntarily dropped her second Michelin star to concentrate solely on cuisine du terroir. The hand-written menus are a marvellous introduction to the gastronomy of the whole region. Her coq au vin is the best you will ever taste, the frogs were alive 10 minutes before you devour them, and there's not a sea creature in sight. "Of course not," says Chantal with crushing force. "Are we near the sea?" Fiona Duncan is the editor of the 'Charming Small Hotel Guide to France' (Duncan Petersen, £13.99) and the 'Charming Restaurant Guide to France' (£14.99).

Burgundy basicsGetting there Eurostar (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com) runs directly to Paris and other destinations. Bookings can be made through Eurostar to more than 100 onward destinations, including Dijon (for Burgundy) from London Waterloo (Eurostar to Paris and TGV from Paris to Dijon). Prices to Dijon start from £79.

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