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IN NORTHERN BURGUNDY
Rich in tradition, history, gastronomy and excellent wines, Burgundy is renowned for its warm hospitality and inimitable knack for enjoying life.
Linda Watten enjoys the long, balmy evenings scented with lilac, wisteria, and climbing roses of her garden while feasting on local produce, wines and cultural events in neighboring Medieval towns
By Linda Watten
Montigny-La-Resle, Burgundy, France -- Sometimes it seems as if the French are embarked on a lifelong journey to perfect the art of living. "Se régaler," a verb heard frequently in Burgundy, means to regale oneself, to have a great time feasting on food, drink and conversation. Add to the mix long summer nights, balmy weather, a cornucopia of fresh produce in the markets, summer music festivals, hundreds of flea markets, art exhibits, children's programs and craft shows, and one does indeed regale oneself.
To me, summer is inaugurated by the white asparagus harvest starting in April, running until early June. The weather becomes soft and warm. Outdoor tables and chairs are set up; gardens provide color and scent with lilacs, wisteria, and early climbing roses; and thus the languorous courtyard lunches begin again.
White asparagus is frequently the first course. They are bought firm, and either fat (if you like them creamy) or thin (if you like them tender). Unlike green asparagus, their outer skins need to be removed with a paring knife, not a peeler. They are blanched until easily pierced with a knife, and wrapped in a cloth towel to absorb water. I like to serve them with a very good olive oil (add a few drops of pistachio oil), freshly chopped tarragon and parsley, and coarse Breton sea salt, or in a crème fraîche-dill sauce. Eating with your fingers is encouraged. A good Savonnières white from the Angers region (well chilled and opened the day before), or a slightly sweet white from the Gers, Tariquet, are good matches. The Tariquet is a late harvest wine, so while very fruity, the finish is acidic.
I prefer fat asparagus, because there are fewer of them to prepare. Nicholas, our village's farmer who grows them, uses the Argenteuil variety that melts in your mouth and is never bitter. He harvests early in the morning, opens at 10 a.m., and is sold out by noon.
Fresh strawberries are next, starting with the flavorful fraises des bois. Chef Robert Bachelier, at the nearby Hôtel Soleil d'Or, simply sautés them in butter and olive oil and a little sugar to caramelize; and then flambés them in ratafia, a grape-based liqueur.
Evenings are long and balmy, and as the summer picks up steam in late June, the activity schedule explodes. First, there are the famous vide-greniers, garage sales, meaning emptying the attic. A schedule of vide-greniers - which community, what date - is published. There are daylong strolls through closed-off streets, looking for that perfect whatever someone no longer needs, punctuated by food and drink at one of the many stalls, games for the children, games of pétanque, and pony-rides. You can find antique linens, early postcards, old Johnny Cash albums, bric-a-brac doodads, as well as wonderful pottery from local artisans who work with clay from La Puisaye just down the road.
Local farmers set up stalls to sell their fresh produce.
Which brings us to cherries, ripe in June and July, the time for cherry clafoutis. There are two kinds of clafoutis: one is cake-like; the other is more like a custard, which I like better. But whatever style is preferred; the cherries are not pitted, as the pits give flavor. I macerate them in kirsch for even more flavor.
Raspberries come in season now as well as red currants, other berries and rhubarb. Kitchens are aromatic with deep copper pots simmering jams and compotes. Red fruit jams are very popular here, where cherries, strawberries, raspberries, currants and anything else that looks good are combined (I usually add some fresh bergamot mint). The jams here are not so sweet as those sold in supermarkets, usually no more than 50% sugar -- I like to use raw unrefined cane sugar. The addition of star anise enhances rhubarb; lemon rind keeps apricots tart, and a few baie roses keep strawberries from being too sweet.
The mushroom season starts in June with morels, and July brings girolles. Sometimes you can find a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms to make a ragoût: sauté the mushrooms, add garlic and parsley and deglaze with Madeira, and serve with fish or poultry. Slim green beans and tender early radishes are plentiful in the markets, along with woodland asparagus: tiny, thin, forest-green. They are thrown into a pot to blanch for 30 seconds. Mussels are back in season in early July and we do the classic marinière version: white wine, parsley, shallots, sometimes cream at the finish, but never garlic.
The concert season starts with the Gregorian chants at the Pontigny abbey on Pentecost Sunday. The 12th century Romanesque abbey has several concerts scheduled each season, featuring choral music. Vezelay, the astounding basilica perched atop vineyards at the entrance to the Morvan preserve, has concerts as well. There is a baroque opera music festival in Beaune throughout July. Most of the concerts are in the open-air courtyard of the magnificent hospice. If you get there early, you can tour inside, ending at the tryptych The Last Judgment by Roger van der Weyden.
There is a quintessentially Burgundian summer activity, called Bach and Bacchus: a series of concerts and wine tasting throughout the Côte d'Or and Yonne departments, in July and August.
I like to go to the ones in Noyers sur Serein, a dreamy 12th century town that still has some ramparts and towers, boasts a great vide greniers in mid-July, has great concerts in the church, and you can combine all this with visits to a gifted husband and wife potter team, Andy and Claire Squire, as well as to the gallery run by M and Mme. Gueneau: he's a sculptor with a whimsical bent, and she weaves wall hangings.
The Cathedral in Auxerre has free organ concerts at 5pm every Sunday - a great way to cool off on a hot day, and the organ recitals are generally quite good. There are also sound and light shows for the families: an extravaganza at St Fargeau in La Puisaye where Colette grew up, features 300 horses, 500 actors in a breakneck march through history, ending with American armored vehicles in the world war II segment.
Full summer brings more heat, and more fresh vegetables, notably tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and bell peppers, for big batches of ratatouille, hot or cold. I use a lot of onions and tomatoes and throw in garlic and black olives from Nyons, and avoid green bell peppers, as they can be bitter.
June brings yellow peaches and nectarines, and July white peaches. While there are fruit tarts for dessert, and you can make a tarte tatin out of any fruit, including peaches, white peaches are best consumed standing up, juice dripping down your chin.
To wash all this down we drink mostly local wines. It doesn't hurt to live in Burgundy if you're going to drink the local wine. If it's really hot, we don't start with champagne, but with the sparkling Clairette de Die. Our very local whites are Chablis and Sauvignon. Not far away are the Sancerres and Pouilly fumés. The local reds are Irancy, which to me are harsh and thin, or Epineuil, which is more flavorful, or the Pinot Noirs from the Côte d'Or.
We sometimes drink whites like Sancerre and Pouilly fumé with the cheese course, especially if we're serving local goat or sheep cheeses. If we're serving cheeses from our neighbors to the east, such as the Comtes, or Morbier, we'll serve a white Arbois. Some prefer chilled rosés with salads and cold pasta lunches, so I always have a Tavel, or a Côtes Tonnerois for everyday.