Food and wine are two of France’s great passions, and nowhere do these come together more appropriately than in Burgundy, the region that stretches from just south of Paris, past Dijon to the Mâconnais. Home to some of the most beautiful countryside in France, with rolling hills, tree-lined tracks, acres of vines and picture-perfect medieval villages, it’s also the perfect location for a French food trip.
With snails, Chablis and mustard some of Burgundy’s most famous products, and Boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin its most famous dishes, the region is a food and wine lover’s heaven. Yet this vast rural landscape with so many sub-regions and hidden corners can seem daunting for a first-time foodtripper, particularly if you’re attempting to avoid the tourist traps and big, corporate hotels.
For help steering a course you could do a lot worse than turn to Château & Hotels Collection, a 40 year-old organisation dedicated to protecting and promoting characterful, boutique hotels and independent restaurants (and championed by Alain Ducasse, no less). Many of its 500 members are in France and, with 31 of them in Burgundy, booking in at a handful of these places is an easy way to plan a quality-controlled weekend of culinary indulgence.
The first stop on our Burgundian adventure is Château de Courban, owned by the Vandendriessche family. In the north of the region, close to the famous vineyards of Chablis and Champagne, this grand country house is more like a family home than a hotel, complete with resident dog, Dolly, ready to greet you when you arrive. The main building has been lovingly restored, with two living rooms on the ground floor a-glow with open fires, plus 25 characterful bedrooms, individually decorated in classic French style (Pierre Vandendriessche learnt his trade as an interior designer and it shows). Any of the bedrooms make an ideal retreat for a couple looking for quiet luxury but if you’re pushing the boat out, the 16th century dovecote is the place to do it.
Oenophiles can visit the surrounding Chablis vineyards during their stay, or explore the cellars with a wine tasting and sit-down lunch, while spa devotees will want to book an expert treatment carried out by upmarket Parisian beauty brand Nuxe. So far, so French. So the hotel’s restaurant comes as a surprise.
Led by head chef Takashi Kinoshita, the menu brings together typically Burgundian ingredients with modern, Japanese twists, such as langoustine with a cumbawa (Asian citrus fruit) cream, capers and minzuna (a peppery, mustard-like Japanese leaf), and tender, delicately smoked roasted loin of lamb cooked in hay with cepe mushrooms and shiso. For traditionalists there are plenty of seasonal favourites, too: pumpkin soup makes the ultimate autumnal comfort food with a deliciously indulgent swirl of truffled Chantilly.
From here, head south to Dijon to stock up on mustards (the town can provide everything from cassis-flavoured blends to coconut and harissa or the more traditional tarragon or truffle flavours as well as classic Dijons) and wander among the city’s pretty architecture, with its traditional tiled roofs and timber buildings. Then, head south again to the Mâconnais, the most southerly and one of the most famous sub-regions of Burgundy. Here, surrounded by four acres of Viré-Clessé chardonnay vineyards, you’ll find the 16th century Château de Besseuil, another member of the Chateaux & Hotels group.
While the chateau’s exterior, with its honey stone façade and sweeping gravel drive, is undeniably grand, the atmosphere manages to maintain a relaxed, rustic charm. In part this is because the six apartments here are unexpectedly contemporary, their moulded acid-bright chairs and crisp white bedlinen hidden away among wooden beams and ancient fireplaces (there are also 16 guest bedrooms in the surrounding buildings). Spend days cycling through the vines of the Mâconnais stopping at cellar doors and road-side bistros along the way. Or drive out to La Roche de Solutré, 30km away, in the famous Pouilly Fuissé vineyards. A hike to the summit of this limestone cliff, home to one of France’s best-known prehistoric sites, takes an hour and rewards you with spectacular views across to the Saône River and even (if you’re lucky) as far as Mont Blanc.
Back at Château de Besseuil, the cellar produces its own wines from the surrounding vineyards, currently in the care of internationally acclaimed organic winemaker Jean Thévenet. The resulting wines are fantastic examples of their type: fresh, lively and elegant with notes of fresh green apple and citrus in the younger expressions and stone fruits with hints of honey as they age (2009 and 2006 are the stand-out years). The whole range is available to try over dinner, which includes traditional Burgundian dishes such as wood pigeon breast served with blackberries and sweet red cabbage, and snails encased in a crisp coating that, when bitten into, explodes with garlic butter (a great way to try snails for the first time if you’re put off by the shells).
A short hop back north will bring you to the Côte du Beaune wine-growing region. Here, in the heart of Meursault, is another Chateaux & Hotels hit, the 19th century Château de Citeaux –La Cuillette. Five minutes from the historic but impossibly chic town of Beaune – with its pristine stone buildings, signature tiled roofs, treasure-trove wine shops and old men playing accordion in squares – the hotel is set within a walled vineyard on the foundations of a Cistercian enclave dating back to the 12th century.
The renovated château contains 19 comfortable, modern guestrooms (each overlooks vineyards but four come with wrap-around terraces) and a lavish spa, which uses a range of ‘fruititherapy’ products, harnessing vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from the region’s grapes and berries. It’s the bar and dining room that really shine here, however. Left in their original belle époque style, with painted ceilings and gold-leaf finishes, the rooms form an opulent backdrop to meticulously cooked dishes such as mussel and saffron soup, fall-apart braised pork cheek with bacon-wrapped potatoes, pan-fried perch (a specialty of the region), and apple tarte aux fines with chestnut purée and chestnut ice cream. Or guests can head to the trappings of the hotel’s cavernous wine cellar (the oldest in Burgundy, apparently).
It could be argued that Burgundy is full of good surprises for food-lovers but our biggest revelation comes back in Paris. Making a pit-stop between trains at Restaurant Allard, owned by Alain Ducasse and run by head chef Laëtitia Rouabah, we encounter some astonishingly good Burgundian food much closer to home. Crisp coatings give way to snails served in the shell and topped with an intense garlic and herb butter. There are traditional frogs legs, succulent duck cooked with sweet roast figs and a walnut sauce, peppered steaks and, for dessert, iles flottantes. Everything you would want from a Parisian bistro, in fact, only with a hint of Burgundian earthiness.
HOW TO DO IT Return fares from London to Paris start from £64 (eurostar.com) and return from Paris to Dijon from around £40. Local hire car starts from around £35 for three days (holidayautos.co.uk). Double rooms at Chateau de Courban start from €99/night, b&b, at Chateau de Besseuil from €99/night b&b and at Chateau de Citeaux – La Cuillette from €190, b&b (chateauxhotels.co.uk). More info: burgundy-tourism.com