Walking holidays for the Bon Viveur

Travel writer, broadcaster and long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ programme, John Carter goes on a culinary journey in Burgundy

It had been a busy day during a week-long visit to Burgundy, and my host had promised me a treat. Which is why we were driving into the darkening countryside to dine at what he would only describe as “a special restaurant”.

When a Frenchman (or woman, for that matter) announces that a meal is going to be “special” or “memorable”, I tend to worry because, when they set out to impress, the French are inclined to go a little too far for my taste buds. The sauces too rich, the preparation of the main dish too elaborate.   French food is best when they are not trying to impress.

(Once, far from Burgundy, I encountered a regional speciality which I could not stomach – literally. The locals were extremely proud of their blackbird pate and couldn’t understand why I, and other British journalists, kept turning it down.)

But I digress. Back to Burgundy and that evening ride to the “special restaurant”. It proved to be a delightful place, and a joy of a meal.

The dining room of the old farmhouse contained two trestle tables at which you found a place, ensuring fresh company for the duration of the meal.    There was no menu, for the custom was that you ate whatever the owners had prepared for that day – just as you take pot luck when visiting a friend’s house for dinner.   The food was simply prepared and simply presented.   And simply excellent.

“Rable de lievre” was the main course – a saddle of hare, marinated in wine spirit, shallots, celery, bay. thyme and pepper, cooked slowly in that marinade and served with a slightly peppery sauce and, if needed, a selection of extra vegetables grown a few yards from the farmhouse door.   Then, when thoughts were turning to coffee and, perhaps, a small brandy, the hostess produced a huge tray of cheeses.    Burgundy does not produce many cheeses, but the Epoisses was fine, and the Citeaux and Saint-Florentin went down a treat.

As I say, a memorable meal. If you are fortunate, you may enjoy many such gastronomic experiences in France, though too many organised holidays confine you to the restaurant of the hotel in which you are staying.

This is why I always opt for the bed and breakfast deal, leaving me free to sample a different local restaurant at lunchtimes and evenings.   (O.K., sometimes you might pick a loser, but that’s what travelling is all about.   If you want to play safe, stick with the group.   Or, better still, stay home.)

The kind of flexibility I seek is offered to participants in a walking and sightseeing tour of Burgundy, based in the historic city of Auxerre.   You get there on the TGV from Paris, having first travelled from St. Pancras on Eurostar, and your base is the aptly named Hotel Normandie, on the edge of the old town and close to the centre of Auxerre.

You will take your evening meals in the hotel with its great reputation for cuisine.   But the plus point of the deal is that you can also enjoy a series of walking tours in the city itself, the vineyards scattered all around, and a stroll above the banks of the River Cure to the caves of D’Arcy and the prehistoric cave paintings.   They’ll certainly help keep the waistline under control, as well as generating an appetite for that evening’s feast!

I would imagine those meals would certainly feature the region’s “signature” dish, boeuf a la bourguignonne.   A good restaurant (and I’ve no reason to suppose the tour firm would recommend any other kind) will not cut corners by using cheap cuts of meat.   Best beef is marinaded and simmered slowly with onion in a decent Burgundy wine, at which stage many chefs add strips of fried belly of pork.  

I spotted this holiday on page 36 of the current Ramblers Worldwide Holidays brochure.    Back on page 32 is a similar deal based in beautiful Roman Avignon, whose cuisine is equally tempting.

At the drop of a fork, I could wax lyrical about the delights of the local duck, fresh caught Turbot and the fantastic selection of pates and terrines this region offers.   And Camembert, of course, first made in Calvados, though it is now produced throughout France, and Pont l’Eveque and Livarot.   That third cheese is an acquired taste.   Very strong.  Very pungent.

But I shan’t wax lyrical.   I’ll stop, and leave you to decide if a gastronomic trip to Burgundy or Avignon (incorporating a few healthy excursions on foot) is on your holiday menu this year.    In any case, it’s time for lunch.

Getting there:
Gateway to Burgundy – Price from £725 per person
Avignon & Roman Provence – Price from £659 per person
Both include return rail travel via Eurostar from St Pancras, half board accommodation and the services of a dedicated tour leader. Ramblers Worldwide Holidays
www.ramblersholidays.co.uk 01707 33 11 33