Monday, November 15, 2010

Dijon I

20 August

The train from Besançon to Dijon was about an hour long.  I had chosen a hotel very near to the train station, so after dropping my luggage in my room, I headed into town to spend the afternoon getting to know the heart of the former duchy of Bourgogne.  In the historic town center, the streets are lined with fluttering ensigns:


I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast except for a couple of peaches picked up in the market in Besançon, but it was still way too early for dinner, so when I passed a Mulot et Petitjean, I had to step inside to ogle the comely comestibles.


There are a few branches of the well-known and well-respected Mulot & Petitjean around Dijon, which was founded in 1796 and today offers all of the Burgundian pastry specialties - most notably, pains d'épices and nonnettes:

Oozing ooey gooey cassis goodness
Nonnette translates as "little nun;" these are mini spiced buns that taste similar to the region's famous pain d'épices.  They may be described as natures (plain), or have a sweet fruity filling.  I chose a package of nonnettes au cassis - ones filled with the region's most popular fruit (after, perhaps, the grape): blackcurrant.  Unlike the pain d'épices I had gotten in Strasbourg, these little treats were moister and sweeter, with a crisp sugary shell.  But the real star was the super sweet gelée de cassis (blackcurrant jelly) in the middle, which added a great freshness.  Very tasty, although definitely a little heavy in the sugar content, even for my sweet tooth!

After nibbling on a little sustenance, I walked down to the heart of Dijon, the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne (Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgandy).  The Duchy of Burgandy was a major player in the medieval Europe, and the former seat of the Dukes' power is now the Hôtel de Ville (city hall, essentially) and the Musée des Beaux Arts.  In front of the Palace there is a huge open Place, filled with café tables and water fountains just perfect for cooling off on a hot summer's day.



This little cutie was quite enamored of the tall fountains.  He was thoroughly wet - and thoroughly displeased - when his father decided it was time for them to leave.

Water that shoots up??? I've never seen that before.
Dijon is home to more half-timbered buildings, like the ones I had seen in Alsace.


The Maison de Millière, below, was built in 1483.  In more recent years, it has appeared in a number of films, including Gerard Depardieu's Cyrano de Bergerac in 1990.  It almost looks more like a movie set than a real building!

Maison Millière
Another famous facade in Dijon is that of the église Notre Dame:


I almost wish it had been raining to see these guys in action
Unlike Strasbourg, where I walked around in circles no matter where I was trying to go and kept ending up in the wrong place over and over again, in Dijon I found it remarkably easy to find my way around - I had no trouble getting where I meant to be, despite wandering at random.  Eventually I had wandered long enough that I could head to dinner.  When looking for a great restaurant in France, it's best to go with one that doesn't begin their dinner service until 7:00 at the earliest.  I chose Le Théatre des Sens for dinner this evening.  I'm glad I did - it was a small establishment - 8-10 tables, one server, and, as far as I could tell, one man in the kitchen.  The waiter was very friendly and talkative, and we had a nice chat about my trip across France.

Dijon was the one city in France where I opted to have an apératif, a before-dinner drink, with my meal.  I ordered the quintessential French apéro, a kir.  A kir is white wine with with Crème de Cassis, an eau-de-vie made from the ubiquitous Burgundian blackcurrant.  (As a side note, a Kir Royale uses champagne in place of the white wine.) I had had a kir before in Paris, but it was no comparison to this delicious drink, which was super sweet and fruity - it didn't taste like alcohol, it tasted like candy.  It had a nice tart cherry flavor and a gorgeous ruby red color.  Um, yum.  I'll have one now, please.

With my kir, I was served an amuse gueule:


An amuse gueule is, literally, something to amuse the throat; it's a cousin to the amuse bouche - basically an hors d'oeuvre.  This one was little slices of bread topped with cucumber, lettuce, parsley, and bacon in a slightly acidic creamy sauce.  The sweetness of the bread was a nice balance to the sour topping, but it could have used a little crunch to push it to the next level.

If I was going to order escargots during this trip, this would have been the place to do it.  Burgundian snails are prized above all others in France, and they were listed in the entrée section of every menu I saw.  However, given my experience with escargots in 2008, I opted to stay away from the much esteemed gastronomic gastropods.  I started with another Burgundian favorite, Oeufs en meurette:


Egg heaven.  These were two eggs poached perfectly in red wine, and served in a jus of red wine, mushrooms, onions, bacon, and mustard.  The whites of the eggs were firm and chewy, but the yolks were runny, while the sauce was a thick, syrupy texture with a deep, lovingly developed flavor that had just soaked into the egg.  Eaten on the crusty slices of toasted bread, the dish was a perfect mix of crunch and chew with an awesome rich, winey, earthy flavor.  I don't know why anyone would want to order snails when this is on the menu!

I drank a glass of Bourgogne Pinot noir.  It had a very similar flavor profile to the oeufs, but much drier and more acidic.  It had some dark fruity notes, like sweet cherry and blackcurrant, with just a little sweetness and a hint of something metallic.  Not bad, but a little too tannic for my taste.

For my plat, I selected the poulet façon Gaston Gérard:


Gaston Gérard was the mayor of Dijon from 1915-1929.  As the story goes, his wife first prepared this dish in 1930, and the rest, as they say, is history.  This is definitely the preferred preparation for chicken in Dijon - it shows up on menus all over the city.  The chicken is cooked in oil or butter, and then a sauce is made from the pan drippings, cheese, cream, Burgundian white wine, and mustard.  (As an aside - after seeing little pots of mustard on all the tables in restaurants in Lyon and Alsace, I was surprised to find no mustard on the table in Dijon, a city that most Americans know solely for its relationship to mustard.  Don't get me wrong, there are mustard shops all over the city, and even a mustard museum, but no mustard pots on the table.  But I digress.)  This dish included the drumstick and thigh and came with three dollops of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes.  The dish was wonderfully cheesy, but the cheese did not overpower the excellent chicken flavor - perhaps it was made with famed poulet de Bresse?  Wherever the chicken came from, it was delicious - definitely something I would order again.

By the time I'd worked through the main course, all I could manage for dessert was the coupe Bourguignonne:


This coupe came with two sorbets: glace de Marne, and glace de cassis.  The cassis is the deep burgandy colored ball, which had a strong fruity flavor - very pleasant.  I wasn't as fond of the Marne, which tasted a little like prunes, a little like industrial cleaner, and a lot like a strong liqueur.  There were also a few cherries tossed on top that had been spiked in some kind of liqueur and left a strong alcoholic aftertaste.  It was not bad, but not my favorite dessert.  Overall, however, it was an excellent meal - I would be glad to eat here again.

After dinner, I headed back in the direction of my hotel.  The sun was starting to set, and the city was beautiful as it started to light up.

Porte Guillaume, in the Place Darcy
I passed through the Place Darcy, and when I noticed how beautiful the enormous fountain in the Jardin Darcy looked, I wanted to stop in and take a few photos.  A native of Dijon would probably tell you the Place and Jardin are named for Henry Darcy, a Dijon-born engineer from the 19th Century, but I'm pretty confident it's an homage to Jane Austen, just as it should be.


Note the moon in the sky!
In the first picture, did you notice the yellow glow just above the staircase on the left?  I did, too, and wondered what it was.  Turned out to be an impromptu spectacle (performance) in the park.  These two actors did a number of short comedic skits, each with a silly "moral" at the end - like, "don't marry a woman, don't marry a man... marry a bird, it's so much more interesting!"  In one of the first skits I saw, the man on the left, seated, was a doctor in a facility for idiots, and the man standing on the right had been sent by his boss to be tested to see if he was an idiot.  When he asked to see the idiots, the doctor gestured to the audience - but then explained that we were very nice idiots.  By the end of the skit, the patient had sufficiently proven his idiocy and joined the audience.

Ils sont tous les imbeciles?... Ils ont l'air gentil !
While I don't think I caught every word, I understood enough to get the general idea for each of the skits, some of which were very silly indeed.  I watched for maybe 45 minutes - what a fun thing to stumble across!

Coming soon: Dijon part deux, day of markets and tombs and tripes - yes, that's right, all in the plural.

A bientôt,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

Another day I am sorry to have missed! :-)

I wonder if part of the difficulty navigating in Strasbourg was the overcast skies. I know I do much better when I can see the sun.....