Beaune, France: More Cheese Please! (No, Seriously, I Desperately Need More of that Cheese) (Mike)
Last week we packed our bags and hopped on a short flight to Lyon, France. From there, we took a train to Beaune, in the heart of the Burgundy wine region. As luck would have it, my cousin Danielle lives in this charming little town with her boyfriend Anthony and, like many people in this charming little town, they both work in the wine industry. We knew this trip would be great, but what these two had in store simply knocked our socks off.
First things first: as the title of this post subtly implies, the cheese in France is off the charts, out-of-this-world, off the chain, and whatever other superlative you want to insert here. Right when we arrived, we opened the fridge to discover Anthony’s permanent and massive Cheese Mountain. I mean, this man understands how to live. The circular wooden platter was piled high with at least 10 different varieties of intoxicating French frommage. With 24/7 access to these cheesy wonders, it is a miracle that both Danielle and Anthony have retained their svelte figures. Actually, with all the buttery food, wine, and cheese, it’s a miracle that France as a nation is not suffering an obesity epidemic of American proportions. They must walk more or something.
Speaking of walking, during our stay in Beaune, we were treated to several strolls though and around this gorgeous medieval town (still surrounded by the original walls, which are lit up with lush colors at night – beautiful). The first morning, we stepped out the door of D and A’s awesomely roomy yet cozy apartment and literally into the middle of the weekly farmers’ market. With the clear blue sky, brisk fall air, and food vendors as far as the eye could see, the only thing we were missing was the opening song from Beauty and the Beast (“Bonjour, Bonjour!!!…There goes the baker with his bread like always…!”)…and don’t think that Laura didn’t sing that more than a few times during our stay, because she did (and I did too, to be perfectly honest with you). Everyone was incredibly nice as we smiled and struggled to figure out even the most rudimentary French. Between the two of us, Laura and I studied French for a few days before the trip, the result of which was that we could both say “Please,” “Thank You,” and “Yes, I am eating an orange.” Super useful, as you can imagine. I think it might be a while before our personalities start to really shine through in French.
We strolled around in the open-air market, occasionally running into friends or acquaintances of D and A (this is a super-small community where everyone knows everyone), and hunting for pumpkin soup ingredients. Along the way we bought delicioud olives, yet more cheeses, and some fresh arugula ravioli. Our strategy for paying when we were alone was to hand a 10-Euro bill to the vendor and then shrug with an apologetic smile. If he produced change, then we said “merci” and made our getaway. If he continued speaking, we produced a 20-Euro bill and repeated step 1 (shrug and smile). That worked pretty well most of the time.
After the wonderfully charming market, we dropped off the morning’s spoils and got to work on our pumpkin soup. This meant putting the massive orange gourd into the just-big-enough oven and watching it shrink and then slowly, rhythmically ooze clear fluid for about an hour as it unwillingly gave up it’s pumpkin-life. We then took a stroll through the surrounding parks and vineyards. I should take this opportunity to say that traveling through Europe during fall is magical. There is a chill in the air and the smell of smoking fires wafts in your nose. Dry leaves rustle the ground. Traveling is usually for the summer-time, but there is a lot to be said for seeing the world during the colder months too. It’s great. Especially when your surroundings are ancient French vineyards dotted with stone cottages and red/yellow foliage.
After the hike, we drove to meet some of D and A’s friends, Ian and Lauren, for “wine tasting.” We thought this meant that we would meet them and then all go wine tasting together. Wrong! Instead, we drove through the gates of a private winery, where Ian and Lauren both work. They greeted us in the warehouse, full of storage tanks (and completely devoid of other people) and after warm introductions, they took us on a private tour of the winery and walked us through the process of how the wine is made. Ian is literally one of the wine-makers, so this was an insider tour and we got to sample wines straight from the barrel and all at different stages of the production process. Wine goes through two different rounds of fermentation and we got to taste the difference between the two and see how the wine changes over time as the sugar is converted into alcohol by those incredible yeast (man’s other best friend). We learned that each wooden barrel holds 300 bottles of wine and that several hundred bottles are lost each month. due to simple evaporation through the barrels, which is why it is important to keep the storage areas as humid as possible. Who knew?
We then capped off the tour by sampling the completed product and enjoying some great conversation with Ian and Lauren, who had just recently gotten engaged. Lauren was working on the winery’s production line at that point in time, making sure that nothing weird was going by on the conveyor belt except quality grapes. Ian had the incredible idea of proposing by putting the box with the ring on the conveyor belt. At 9:30am. Dirty from working and still groggy, Lauren saw the box and her initial reaction was that it was trash and then, when she realized he was proposing at work in front of everyone, her reaction was a sarcastic, “Seriously?!” It was indeed for serious, and after the initial shock, she said yes…and then had to go back to work for the rest of the day. Ha! Seriously though, these two were really great tour guides and we hope to see them again before we leave Europe. Thanks for the tour and all the wine guys!!!
The night ended with dinner at a traditional French place that A and D picked out. We ate incredibly well, as was the case throughout the trip. The French are insanely good at hedonism, so we fit right in. They even recognize when they aren’t the best at something and they import the best of that product, as is the case with beer (you can only find delicious Belgian beer). For dinner, we had liver with caramelized onion, pumpkin soup, juicy cuts of pork, and a great cod dish all paired with a red wine from 1998 that Anthony and danielle picked out to let us experience the deep and subtle flavors of an older wine. Anthony works as a consultant to winemakers and they bring him in help fix things when something goes wrong. He is basically the “wine whisperer” and has an incredible amount of knowledge about his field. He shared his passion for wine without the slightest trace of the haughtiness that we usually associate with the wine industry (at least in California).
The next day we enjoy more of the same. Instead of a farmer’s market, we walked to the nearby bakery and ordered freshly-made croissants. As we walked back in the fresh morning air with warm croissants in hand, the church bells started ringing and I had a France-gasm, which is when your brain is overrun by quaint French architecture and the anticipation of impending pastries, coffee, and still more…cheese. It is an incredible feeling, let me tell you. We spent the day around the house, enjoyed another fall walk through the vineyards (this time we got rained on, but the plus side was an enormous rainbow), and ate escargot and horse meat…which sounds terrible but was actually delicious. Sorry horse lovers, but it turns out that friends can be food.
We ended the day with visits from A and D’s friends who kindly made us a huge list of things to do and see in Lyon, where we were heading the next day. One couple had a two-month old baby that Laura captivated with her Elmo impression. For any new parents out there, that voice works on kids like magic. We enjoyed home-made risotto, pumpkin soup made by Laura, and of course, lots more wine. D and A pulled out a covered-up bottle of 1992 California pinot to prove to their friends (and to us) that California wine can stand up to the best French wine. Fittingly, we capped off the evening by nibbling on the mountain of cheese. Anothony joked that he was just fattening us up to eat us and cracked us all up by saying, out of nowhere, “After I eat these American guys, I’m going to eat that baby!” Everyone had a good hard laugh at that – except the child’s mother. Baby-eating jokes made in a French accent…it doesn’t get better than that.
We had an absolutely fantastic time with Danielle and Anthony and it was great to get to know him during the weekend. We can’t say thanks enough to them both for showing us such a great and memorable (and delicious) time! As a tribute to Anthony, we now have a huge plate of cheese in our refrigerator here in Madrid full of our favorites from Beaune. After saying our goodbyes (“Hurry, Danielle, get the knife, they are trying to leave!” – more jokes about eating us, awesome), we got on the train and headed off to Lyon, France’s third largest city and its gastronomic capital. Stay tuned for more on that amazing experience (hint: it lived up to its reputation)!