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Whining in Burgundy?

June 29, 2011 By:
Sharon McDonnell
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Burgundy is a picture-postcard of a vacation, filled with fine food and drink; below, Katherine the Fabulous' inn

In Burgundy, a region of France once ruled by Dukes nicknamed Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Philip the Fair, I'm in an inn run by Katherine the Fabulous.

In a stone barn converted to a stylishly-appointed inn in a town of 300, I'm on a tour for epicureans, taking cooking classes, tasting Burgundy's famous wines, and visiting postcard-perfect medieval towns, as well as the city of Dijon, known for its pungent mustard.

But since Katherine Frelon is a blonde Englishwoman who's lived in France for 20 years, and her guide and wine expert are also English expatriates who live in towns nearby, there's no need to resurrect my high school French.

No need to go far to find a castle, either: A stone chateau, complete with moat and drawbridge, is a five-minute walk from the five-bedroom inn whose wall overflows with wisteria, past the stone Roman foot bridge.

Our first full day, lunch is in Le Charlemagne, a one-Michelin-star restaurant that overlooks vineyards from floor-to-ceiling windows, an hour's drive away.

Its chef-owner shows us how to cook red snapper in a rosemary-orange juice sauce, while his kitchen staff work silently in a Zen-like calm utterly devoid of the profanity-laced drama of Gordon Ramsay or Anthony Bourdain.

Afterward, we feast on the delicate, refined flavors amid decor whose serenity is owed to the chef's stint in Japan.

Then we tour Beaune, a beautifully preserved town encircled by 15th-century ramparts, and filled with wine cellars for tastings from the Cotes de Beaune vineyards that surround it.

A magnificently preserved building that looks like a palace -- and is a masterpiece of Burgundian Gothic style, turns out to be a hospital built in 1443 -- the Hospices de Beaune.

Built by the dukes of Burgundy, who once ruled Flanders in Belgium and much of the Netherlands -- and whose power rivaled that of French kings until Burgundy was conquered in 1477 -- it houses Flemish masterworks from tapestries to "The Last Judgment," a painting of the delights of heaven and torments of hell.

A weeklong tour with Frelon's Fabulous France soon settled into an easy rhythm. After breakfast, we're driven past vineyards and countryside dotted by the distinctive white cattle used for boeuf bourguignon to our destination of the day, Frelon's inn.

Then, back relaxing on a sofa in front of a fireplace, and sipping Burgundy's sparkling wine, watching her cook dinner, helping as much -- or little -- as we like. Our gourmet three-course dinners, washed down with Burgundy's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, are spent recounting the day's adventures.

One night, it's fish tagine fragrant with star anise, cinnamon, saffron, paprika, ginger and lemon zest on a bed of spinach -- whose wonderful Moroccan flavors are creamy, crunchy, spicy, sweet and tart all at once, reflecting both North African influences in France and Katherine's sophisticated twists.

France has Europe's biggest Jewish population -- about 600,000. In Dijon, by the late 12th century, a Jewish community centered around streets now named Rue Piron, Rue Buffon and Rue Charrue, while a Jewish cemetery was once located on Rue Berbier.

After the French Revolution, a new Jewish community arose for the first time after Jews were expelled in 1306.

The grand synagogue, built in 1879, at 5 Rue de Synagogue, survived intact after World War II, except for its original pews,

In the book Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, Dijon's deputy mayor for health and social affairs, Francoise Tenenbaum, shares her recipe for cherry bread pudding -- which begins with soaking stale bread in rum, brandy or kirsch -- with prominent Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan.

Jewish cooking in France is highly regional, and also reflects the origins of different Jewish communities, so it ranges from North African tagines to Polish gefilte fish and Sephardic charoset, Nathan notes.

In Semur-en-Auxois, a wealthy stronghold of the dukes, dominated by four conical stone turrets, life imitates fiction, as we do a tasting at a chocolatier, a few days after touring the town of Flavigny, where "Chocolat" was filmed, with Juliette Binoche as the chocolatier with magical powers.

Another night, those of us afflicted by a fear of heights await the return of the Canadians from a hot-air balloon ride, an option at Frelon's, as we dine on lamb that we marinated in an intense green sauce of coriander leaves, mint and parsley a few days before.

"It's the best one-week vacation we've ever had, and we're foodies who travel a lot," said cohort Victoria Glazerman.

 

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