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June in France: Part 2

by Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas

The Delightful Liaison of Past and Present in Burgundy and Beaujolais

If you ever saw the movies Gigi, An American in Paris or Lili you will remember the charming, dancing ingenue, Leslie Caron. She is still equally charming and looks as if she practices daily at the barre. A few years ago she bought four 18th century boat houses in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in Burgundy. She restored them, creating a cohesive hotel with four delightful bedrooms and a large, airy dining room with oak beams, white stone walls and a large open fireplace. There is also a room, which doubles as bar and restaurant, whose walls are decorated with posters and photographs from Mme. Caron's acting career. Chef Daisuke Inagaki had his own restaurant with a Michelin star, in Cholet, before joining Mme. Caron.

The hotel is called "Auberge La Lucarne aux Chouettes" or "The Owl's Nest" and is located 130 klm from Paris; an hour from Paris by train to Sens-gare de Lyon, then a 10 minute taxi ride or via the Autoroutes A6 and A5.

Light pours into my favorite room, the large "Loft", from several windows, reflecting off the fresh, white, eyelet bedding, blue and white upholstery and white-washed walls. You step up a couple of stairs to the bath and basin and you can either let down a curtain for privacy or chat with your companion from the bath. I felt a bit like Marie Antoinette holding court. The w.c. has complete privacy in a room off the bedroom. The view of pleasure boats, barges and ducks slowly drifting beneath the bridge, dating from the twelfth century, has a most tranquilizing effect. The Loft costs 150 euros per night. Breakfast (9.5 euros per person) consists of orange juice (sqeezed as we sit down), steaming café au lait, hot crusty rolls, tender croissants, and delicate chocolate and raisin-filled pastries, all straight from the oven. Perfect. In addition to an à la carte menu, there is a prix fixe dinner for 35 euros with several choices and a prix fixe lunch during the week for 18 euros. The chef produces pleasing Burgundian meals with accompanying local wines.

All the rooms have private bathrooms. The smallest room at the back, the "Blue Room", costs 90 euros. All the other rooms look over the river. The view is worth the extra cost. "The Suite" (130 euros) has a large double bed in the main bedroom with a narrow double bed in the anteroom, which can be separated by a curtain. The Duplex (150 euros) has a four-poster double bed beneath exposed beams in the enchanting main room, and a single bed in the little room along with the bathroom at the bottom of a private winding staircase.

While staying in Villeneuve we tried a few neighboring restaurants, including Joël Desmurs' Restaurant Le Gamin, about half an hour's drive away in Erveauville, a little country town near Courtenay. The restaurant's name Le Gamin (The Urchin) refers to the owner. A drawing of Joël Desmurs as an angelic little boy has become the logo imprinted on all restaurant paraphernalia. The grown man approaches his guests with a warm smile as soon as they enter the door, and guides them into the dining room. Suddenly this ancient stone village house opens up, surprising you in every direction with brightly-colored life-size pottery figures of animals and children placed against shiny white walls. The original seventeenth century beams also glisten with new white paint. It's all "over the top", including a male duck and a female dog in human clothing and two huge roosters. But it's fun and cheerful.

The staff was pleasant and helpful and, best of all, the food by chef Patrick Chauvet was great. There was a simple menu at 35 euros, but we chose the multi-course one at 53 euros. We enjoyed an excellent bottle of vieilles vignes Chablis (38 euros). The amuse-bouche consisted of a crisp wing joint of chicken resting in a small pool of flavorful wine reduction, a silky mouthful of rabbit rillettes on a toast point, and a tiny soup bowl of refreshing gazpacho. This was followed by wild asparagus (they really are picked in the wild, unlike so many of the "wild" mushrooms enountered these days) fanned on the plate with warm foie gras. The combination of the delicately-flavored, barely-cooked spears with the foie gras, crisp on the outside, melting within, was made in heaven. There were choices for all the courses. Three little slices of tender lobster with three sauteed halves of tiny new potatoes on a sumptuous sauce left me wanting to return, as did the small slices of sole meunière with peas on a truffle butter sauce. Melon sorbet cleared the palate before the main course of roasted turbot served with a simple butter sauce and tiny, crisp croutons. My husband enjoyed tender veal fillets with fricassé of chanterelles, tiny carrots and baby peas. By the time I reach the cheese course I sometimes find fromage blanc a lighter choice than the aged cheeses from the tray. Here, they pair the fresh white cheese with a decidedly un-French ingredient, maple syrup, in addition to a choice of honey or sugar. It is a hard decision, however, when I see all the local cheeses in peak condition asking to be tasted. The finale of cherry clafoutis was delightfully paired with caramel ice cream.
A one star Michelin restaurant in neighboring Courtenay is Auberge La Clé des Champs. It is in a restored seventeenth century farm building with modern additions overlooking the garden and fields. We were welcomed by the delightful and elegant Madame Delion, co-owner and wife of the chef Marc Delion. From a well-chosen wine list with many reasonably-priced local wines, we chose a 1997 Gevrey Chambertin, Domaine Trapet Père et Fils for 46 euros. It was superbly smooth. Our menu at 55 euros began with an amuse-bouche of a tiny satin-smooth tomato-flavored custard, a snail in garlic butter (the epitome of Burgundian cooking) and a few melon balls. This array of contrasting colors, textures, tastes and temperatures prepared us for the beautifully-balanced meal to come. A lobster dish (supplement of twelve euros) consisted of a very generous serving of tender, Breton lobster chunks on a bed of peas and carrots, surrounded by a creamy sauce, with subtle flavor and of a flowing consistency. Snails in garlic cream around a potato cake provided a warm alternative. Local lamb noisettes were moistened with their own juices flavored with rosemary. The alternative main dish was roasted, boned pigeon with a hint of licorice in its sauce. Local cheeses followed or, a specialty of the house, Pressé de Chèvre Frais aux Tomates, à l'Huile de Noisettes: a slice of terrine formed of fresh goat cheese layered with strips of skinned, seeded, fresh tomato with a little hazelnut oil drizzled alongside. Desserts tempted in their fruity lightness: feather-weight puff pastry layered with stawberries and mascarpone or Trilogie Glacé, which sounds so much more poetic than Three Ice Creams, and suited the refreshing and unusual lichi, wood strawberry and pistachio trio.

Driving south to Beaujolais we returned to another favorite Michelin one star restaurant, Le Cep, on the main square in the middle of the village of Fleurie. Here, we learned the importance of heeding the warning "prévenir" (inform them of your coming). A group of six arrived at 8:15 without a reservation and were turned away even though some tables remained empty throughout the evening. We chose the 40 euro menu, but could have eaten more simply for 20 euros. We sipped the deep red house apéritif of Beaujolais combined with Cassis (black currant) and Framboise (raspberry) as we pored over the pages of Fleuries in the wine list. The simplest wines from the region are called merely Beaujolais. Next best are Beaujolais Villages and the top Beaujolais wines are from ten specific areas in the north-east of Beaujolais: Fleurie, Juliénas, St.- Amour, Moulin à Vent, Chénas, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côtes de Brouilly and Brouilly. As we nibbled a warm, airy gougère (cheese-flavored puff), we scanned the wine list's numerous pages of Beaujolais. Wanting a truly local wine we followed the advice of Le Cep's chef-owner, Madame Chagny. A 1999 Clos de Roilette Fleurie (27 euros) proved to be a perfect accompaniment to what followed. The amuse-bouche of pea soup with raw pea garnish, sliced salami, and radishes with butter (a traditional combination) preceded foie gras salad or frog leg salad. All were excellent. Succulent young pigeon with a golden-topped circle of creamy, scalloped potatoes was made for the Clos de Roilette. Local cheeses preceded the black currant and vanilla ice creams surrounded by a cassis puree. A delicious alternative was a smooth, creamy custard, broiled to create a golden top without the addition of sugar. Order one of each and switch plates half way. Once again Le Cep had produced a very satisfying meal. Cep, by the way, means a grape vine, not to be confused with cèpe (the mushroom).

The Château d'Igé (Michelin one star), an easy drive from Fleurie and just 14 km. from Mâcon, is a delightful place to stay with an excellent kitchen. There are eight rooms (107.50 - 131 euros) and six apartments. Igé, a castle dating from 1235, surrounded by flower beds, meadows, woods and vineyards, was converted about twenty years ago into a luxurious hotel with elegant bedrooms and dining rooms, maintaining a medieval feeling with their thick stone walls and choice of furnishings. Unlike many converted castles, the prices remain reasonable, as demonstrated by two excellent menus at 33 and 43 euros, a half bottle of Saint Véran Lassarat (16 euros) and a full bottle of the house Mâcon Rouge la Bruyère 1999 (17 euros). After a taste of creamy potato soup with a perfectly-seasoned chicken broth base, the 33 euro menu began with a typical Burgundian dish of non-rubbery snails with fava bean puree, followed by perfectly-cooked pink lamb noisettes with mushrooms and turnip discs. The 43 euro menu offered an excellent crayfish and goat cheese salad, followed by Charollais beef steak with a creamy gratin of potatoes and mushrooms. As an alternative to the cheese tray, the specialty of the house was melted cheese on toast served with pear chutney, not interesting enough to choose unless I was truly bored with the excellent local cheeses. Two of the desserts were thin slices of pear with blackcurrant sorbet , and cookie "cigarettes" filled with cream and raspberries. Both were satisfyingly simple after quite a rich meal.

North of Beaune the Château de Gilly, in a village 3 km. from Vougeot, dates from the fourteenth century with a seventeenth century addition. Formerly the residence of Cistercian abbots, it has recently been converted into a hotel with 39 rooms and 9 apartments, and has been beautifully restored by members of the beaux arts community. An example of their talent appears in the breakfast room, in which the beams are painted with the same designs and subtle colors originally used. I was fascinated to compare it with a tiny room, as yet un-restored, with faded paint and cracked walls. A maid, seeing my interest, had whispered "Have you seen the little room?". She led me to an inconspicuous door behind which fleur de lys painted on the walls revealed that it had been painted for a king.
Our room, number 18 (180 euros per night),on the second floor of the original building, displayed an extensive view overlooking the moat, the formal French style gardens, and the fields and vineyards beyond. It had a high ceiling, stately, stone fireplace, exposed beams, stone walls, and attractive red and cream upholstery. A sparklingly clean, heated (though not much!) pool was discreetly hidden from view by a neatly trimmed hedge.

Some said that the stone cellar dining room with its high, vaulted ceilings had been the monks' chapel and others, the wine cellar. In any case dinner between the pillars of this spacious hall was as delicious as the room was beautiful. The service was friendly, but unobtrusive. There were menus at 33 and 44 euros, but we chose the more extensive tasting menu at 68 euros. Glancing at the other tables during the evening, we were reassured that our dishes looked more interesting, and as soon as the perfectly trimmed and perfectly cooked foie gras poêlé arrived we knew that we had made the right decision. It heralded eight superb mini courses. A1998 Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru Les Carrières, Henri Felletig (70 euros), smooth and full of fruit, proved to marry happily with everything.

As we sat down, a small plate of tidbits arrived: a tiny sesame seed-coated gougère and a cheese straw. These were followed by a slice of potato, ham, goat cheese and wild asparagus roll; the aforementioned foie gras garnished with two green grape halves, two black currants and grape chutney to cut the richness; a tart of scallops and endives with lemon sauce; red mullet with fava beans, tiny ham dice and morels; refreshing mandarin orange granité; then a fabulous dish of four small, seared pieces of lamb fillet wrapped in thin potato and deep-fried at the last minute so that the potato was crisp all around and the lamb still perfectly pink within, accompanied by a mound of small zucchini, carrot, broccoli, and turnip. The excellent selection of local cheeses was served on the base of a wine barrel and was followed by caramel custard on coconut and a surprising pineapple slice, marinated with Szechuan pepper.

In a happy haze, we sailed out of the dining room to walk round the château grounds on this balmy, summer evening. Life doesn't get much better than this.

Auberge La Lucarne aux Chouettes is at Quai Bretoche, 89500 Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Telephone: 33 3 86 87 18 26. Fax: 33 3 86 87 22 63; www.lesliecaron-auberge.com.

Restaurant Le Gamin, 45320 Ervauville. Telephone 02 38 87 22 02. Fax: 02 38 87 25 40. Le Gamin is closed on Sunday evenings, Mondays and Tuesdays.

Auberge La Clé des Champs, Route de Joigny, 45320 Courtenay (20 km. from Villeneuve-sur-Yonne). Telephone 02 38 97 42 68. Fax: 02 38 97 38 10.

Restaurant Le Cep, Place Eglise, 69820 Fleurie-en-Beaujolais. Telephone: 04 74 04 10 77. Fax: 04 74 04 10 28.

The Château d'Igé, Igé 71960. Telephone: 03 85 33 33 99. Fax: 03 85 33 41 41.

The Château de Gilly, Gilly-lès-Cîteaux, 21640 Vougeot. Telephone: 03 80 62 89 98. Fax: 03 80 62 82 3


Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas is a graduate of London Cordon Bleu; she is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California and taught French, British and American cooking classes for twenty years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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