The local delicacies of Dijon, France
Travel and Eat Mustard, Snails, Kir and Pain d'Epices
In the home of haute cuisine, David Whitley embarks on a gastronomic mission, trying to eat as many local delicacies as possible in one day.
“Local delicacy”. It’s a phrase that should always be treated with extreme suspicion. After all, if it’s such a delicacy, why has its fame not spread far and wide? Why is not being demanded at dinner tables across the world as something we all absolutely must have? And why can you only find it in restaurants thronging with gullible tourists?
Still, when in Dijon, you should do as the Dijonnais allegedly do, and if there is one place where you can gorge yourself for weeks on unusual local treats, this is it.
The capital of the Burgundy region of France, Dijon is a city founded on food. Well, that and the ruthless exploitation of conquered industrial areas by the dukes of Burgundy. By all accounts they were thoroughly unpleasant chaps, indulging in near-slavery throughout Flanders and being largely famous for turning over Joan Of Arc to be burned at the stake. Still, it allowed them to have a really nice palace in the town centre, and that’s surely worth a few trodden-on toes.
With Dijon being a prosperous regional centre throughout the centuries, however, it could afford to develop cuisine suited to more wealthy tastes. And that it did. Fine wines prospered in the surrounding region, and many of them were poured into the food. Meanwhile, hundreds of unique recipes for everything from cakes to chicken dishes were dreamed up, and most of them still survive today, displayed with a fervent local pride. Make no mistake; this is a fabulous place in which to get fat.
And sat outside of one of those ubiquitous café-restaurants for which France is so renowned, there are plenty of people doing just that. An old couple who have been together for so long that they’ve run out of things to say to each other tuck into a steak in silence. A divorcee, having been granted custody of the kids for the weekend, is busy cutting up the totally overcooked burgers that have been slapped in front of them. Meanwhile waiters scurry back and forth with the most gorgeous-looking pizzas. Fluffy bases with toppings that seem spread on rather than plonked atop, they look absolutely divine. Especially when all you’ve got in front of you is six snails.
At this point, it is worth a look around. There must be forty tables outside on this beaming Saturday lunchtime, all of which are occupied. Guess how many of these esteemed patrons have decided to spoil themselves with the escargots de Bourgogne, the delicious regional speciality? Precisely none. Is this just a cruel trick? Do they know something I don’t?
During that look round, it’s also worth paying attention to the drinks on the table. A few glasses of red wine, a couple of Coca Colas, plentiful carafes of water and one chap chugging back a beer. Astonishingly, no-one has ordered a kir, which we’re led to believe is the drink of choice round these parts. Designed to be savoured before the meal, it is two parts white wine to one part crème de cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur. Quite the treat for someone who doesn’t drink white wine, and always leaves the purple jelly snakes just in case they’re blackcurrant-flavoured.
But still, in the name of research and cultural immersion… oh, it’s not too bad actually. A lot less sweeter than you’d imagine, with the fruit twangs being fairly non-descript. Tasting blind, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was cherry or blackberry. Palatable, although you’d raise a quizzical eyebrow at anyone claiming it was their favourite drink.
The snails are an altogether tougher challenge. Even if you’ve got the stomach of an ox and a willingness to try anything once, then the logistics will get you. They are presented as six shells with a green, herby-looking sauce in them. One whiff tells you that garlic is by far the key ingredient of this sauce; one plate could wipe out Transylvania.
Alongside them is a two-pronged fork that looks like it has been designed to poke a fun-sized fireplace and a contraption that is part nutcracker, part ornament found on an Inca temple. Somehow, using a combination of the two, you are supposed to dig the snails out from their hiding places. However, with no instruction manual, this is practically guaranteed to redecorate your shirt with creamy garlic sauce.
Eventually, it becomes as close to self-evident as a first-timer is ever going to manage, and you have a small, wriggly thing on the end of the fork. It’s surprisingly meaty, with the chewy, rubbery outer texture of calamari but with an actual taste inside. And, no – it doesn’t taste like chicken. More like red meat, although impossible to properly sink your teeth into like a good steak or lamb roast.
One thing they are not, however, is filling. And this leaves plenty of room to sample the rest of Dijon’s gourmet delights, combining exploring the city and tempting (or torturing) the taste buds with new adventures.
Rue de la Liberté is the town’s high street, cutting through from near the station to the markets surrounding the main tourist spots. It’s where you can find Mulot Et Petitjean, a shop dedicated to the area’s many unusual foods. Its prime claim to fame is that it is the only place left that manufactures pain d'épices the old-fashioned, traditional way. Why they bother is a question worth asking, as it has to be the blandest guilty pleasure imaginable. Often compared to gingerbread, it is nothing of the sort – much too soft for that – and the spicing is so mild that it’s never going to raise any real excitement. It’s the sort of thing that people on a permanent diet would eat, convincing themselves that it’s just as good as a nice, sticky cake.
Fortunately, Mulot et Petitjean also sells the thing that Dijon is most famous for – mustard. And not just one sort, either; if you thought mustard was always yellow, then you are sadly mistaken.
Hundreds of little pots are stacked against the wall, purple ones (blackcurrant-flavoured), orange ones (mixed with barbecue sauce) and bright, lurid green ones. This is Taragon mustard which, it must be said, is the culinary equivalent of absently-mindedly chewing the end of a marker pen, only to realise you’ve put the tip in your mouth by mistake.
After getting through the lot, plus a disturbingly large selection of blackcurrant sweets, it comes as something of a relief when the final stop on the gastronomic trawl is something nice and safe. Beef Bourgignon may attempt to sound very upmarket, but it’s effectively a stew with a bit of red wine thrown in. And, after a breakneck adventure through delicacies of questionable loveliness, you can’t beat a good, hearty, square meal.
Dijon is just under two hours on the train from Paris. Mulot et Petitjean (+33 3 8030 0710) is at 16 Rue De La Liberté in the city centre, whilst restaurants serving snails and much, much worse can be found across the town. Le Verdi in Place Emile Zola and La Comedie in Place Du Théâtre offer good value for those just wanting to test the waters.
on 27 June 2007.
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