William Sitwell: The History of Eating Out

Feb 13, ’21

Featured in 7th
edition of Luxeat Insider

Like so many people associated with the restaurant world, William Sitwell’s life changed beyond recognition when the pandemic hit last spring. One of the UK’s eminent food critics, he was left wondering what the future of the restaurant world would be, as well as looking back on how eating out has evolved over the decades and centuries that precede us. With an award-winning career in food writing, a number of published books, William’s House Wines founder and with a few guest Master Chef appearances, Sitwell’s most recent book is The Restaurant; A History of Eating Out. Within its pages, he chronicles the fascinating history of one of our favourite pastimes – dining out – and the long journey from Ancient Roman taverns to molecular gastronomy. I had the opportunity to sit down with William (virtually, of course) and find out some of the pivotal moments that have shaped the ‘modern restaurant’ as we know it today.  

William Sitwell (c) Dan Burn-Forti

It’s been a year since the pandemic hit, and of course hospitality has been one of the most affected industries. What do you think the significance of restaurants is in our society in general?

Over the years, restaurants have become a cornerstone of our culture, and you really can’t underestimate their importance in society. They touch us on so many different levels, from entertaining to feeding us, to being a way for individual countries to express themselves as a nation. And I think, COVID aside, Britain offers a wonderful example of the breadth and depth restaurants can have. The different cuisines that are represented and different budgets that are catered for shows that British people are incredibly accepting when it comes to welcoming immigrant food and diversity, because we have unbelievable appetite for variety in all shapes and forms. 

Our food and restaurant culture is a badge of identity, and the broader it is the more interesting that identity is. Restaurants are a huge employer in the UK: Nine million jobs are connected to the hospitality sector, so they’re important economically as well as culturally. Beyond this though, it’s important to remember they’re here to be enjoyed. It’s about being fed, being looked after, not always some frivolous luxury. Fish and chips provide the same function as a posh restaurant in the city: relaxation and switching off. I could chat about the importance of restaurants forever, the pleasure and fun they provide, which is why I’m so worried at the moment about the threat they face.

Our food and restaurant culture is a badge of identity, and the broader it is the more interesting that identity is.

In your book “The History of Eating Out” you talk about the first historical records of restaurants in Pompeii and Ancient Rome. What’s changed over the centuries, and what’s stayed the same? 

I think when you write historical narratives you really need something concrete, so I wasn’t about to go around speculating whether Neanderthals did the washing up together. The thing that’s so extraordinary about Pompeii is that information we have from 79AD the date the city was destroyed, then preserved in volcanic ash. It was frozen in time exactly as it was, so you don’t view it today with some historical lens. And what you discover is that the purpose of hospitality in these early days is exactly the same as it is now. In fact that word hospitality comes from the ancient word, hospitium, and it was a concept enshrined in Roman law. Travelling to and from Rome and to the furthest regions of the empire, you were expected to give and receive that spirit of hospitality. 

Hospitality is always a transaction of sorts, but it was also a very sophisticated scene in ancient Pompeii. There are bars, there are hotels, there are small restaurants with rooms, little taverns and brothels. And I think if you and I were to wake up in Pompeii, we would not feel that it’s too unfamiliar. We would see people from different classes mixing in bars, living and gathering side by side. What’s also interesting is that archaeologists have revealed the rich and poor had similar diets, based on their skeletons and the state of their teeth. The rich may have worn gold, but they ate together cheek to jowl. And there were bars, where the middle classes from across the Roman empire would visit and eat out.

The tablecloth is not necessary for the consumption of food. Neither is a fork or spoon really. You don’t need manners just to eat, but those layers of sophistication are built around food, and became part of its theatre and enjoyment.

Interestingly though, when the empire declined hospitality in Europe seemed to disappear, and we don’t see anything we’d recognise as a restaurant in London until the 1400s.

Why do you think hospitality died out with the Roman Empire?

This is one of the great mysteries. A lack of imagination, poverty, and maybe it’s the case that people tend to open restaurants in times of hope and prosperity. There were taverns and small time pubs in the Middle Ages, but we didn’t see things develop into what we’d call a modern ‘restaurant’ until 18th century Paris and London, really. The French revolution was an extraordinary moment for restaurants, actually, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were nearly 500 restaurants in Paris. Crudely speaking, this is because the revolutionists chopped the heads off all the aristocrats. The servants needed to work, so they went to the cities and they did what they could, they cooked food, they served, and often you find that they open small restaurants in the houses where they’d lived with aristocrats. It’s not the only reason for the growth of restaurants but it certainly contributed. Actually Paris took inspiration from London;  one of the very first famous French restaurants in the 18 century was a place in Paris called La Grande Taverne de Londres, which in fact took inspiration from an establishment in London. 

How about that story about the tablecloth?  You mentioned in your book that it was the beginning of the ‘smart restaurant’.

Well, in that particular chapter on Medieval England I’m searching for some very early roots of smart dining. There is a mention of a tablecloth being unfolded in a place in Westminster in a poem from 1410 called London Lickpenny. You might think that I’m clutching at straws, but what’s interesting is that parliament at that time was evolving in Westminster as democracy was in its infancy. And were there regular parliaments, meetings and debating, a growing sophistication and the beginnings of administration and bureaucracy. So a whole middle class of professionals and lawyers was born, who wanted to hang around somewhere slightly smarter, somewhere that catered to them. So that poem you mentioned, with the unfurling of the table cloth, that’s the first mention that I can find about the tablecloth in English literature. It just gives you the inkling of the fact that there was something smart going on in 1410. 

The tablecloth is not necessary for the consumption of food. Neither is a fork or spoon really. You don’t need manners just to eat, but those layers of sophistication are built around food, and became part of its theatre and enjoyment. A history of restaurants is also a history of etiquette, of the sophistication of society. There are many unnecessary things that we don’t actually need but become fundamental. 

in the UK the industrial revolution was when we saw huge masses of people traveling away from home in order to work. Some would just stay for lunch, some would stay, and when you’re staying away from home you tended to see hospitality cropping up in these places. Eating away gradually became eating out, and it became a necessity but also a pleasure to have that pint of ale in a tavern.

Now, in some ways, we’re going back to being Neanderthals, because of the fast food we eat we don’t need cutlery but just our hands. But we all know how important it is to  sit around a table eating and behaving; it’s civilization. If you can deal with cultural arguments around the table, if you can dine in a civilized fashion and entertain your colleagues, your friends, your guests, then you have the half chance to have a peaceful society. So actually that etiquette is more important than people think, it’s about convening in a safe, polite, civilized space. The more we can break bread with our friends and even our enemies around the table in a civilized way, the more the world has a chance for dialogue and peace. There is a reason why politicians at summits convene for dinner after a day of negotiating; they sit around the table and have dinner and the mood changes and conversation changes. The sip of wine, the taste of the food, brings different reactions to people.

You were also talking about coffee houses. That’s where the first debates happened and the first intellectuals were meeting in Europe. Right?

Absolutely. There were Roman emperors who were trying to ban people meeting in taverns because they thought that sedition would be cultivated. Charles II tried to shut down coffee houses too, because he worried about gossip turning into discontent, to political upheaval and so on. Similarly there were chocolate houses, where the people would meet and discuss completely frivolous things. 

There is a famous quote by A. A. Gill, “What people go out to restaurants for is a good time —not because they are hungry.”. How did eating become more about pleasure than survival?

It’s really tricky to pin this down, but I think people have been eating for pleasure for a very long time. Samuel Johnson talks about the fact that there is no greater pleasure that can be had or found than in an inn. I can’t speak globally here, but in the UK the industrial revolution was when we saw huge masses of people traveling away from home in order to work. Some would just stay for lunch, some would stay, and when you’re staying away from home you tended to see hospitality cropping up in these places. Eating away gradually became eating out, and it became a necessity but also a pleasure to have that pint of ale in a tavern. 

Certainly the 20th century has seen a revolution in eating out across the world. As international travel emerged, as logistics improved, as ingredients were able to arrive very quickly and between nations, there became this great variety of food. The Millennial generation eats out far more than our grandfathers certainly did. So there is now a greater offering of food for pleasure. But, frankly, for as long as we have had tastebuds food has been a pleasure, even if that just means a moment of brief enjoyment eating a fresh juicy berry while hiding from a sabre-toothed tiger. 

But sincerely I’d say for the general public eating out for pure pleasure is really something that’s happened in the past 50 years. And certainly, we see a massive increase in hospitality as leisure during the last 20 years. People are traveling to countries to eat, going  from London to Paris for lunch, flying to Copenhagen for dinner at Noma, even to New York sometimes, and this wasn’t happening until relatively recently.

You have the whole chapter about Ibn Battuta, the first “foodie” who was traveling for food. Can you tell us a bit about this? 

I had a bit of fun there. Ibn Battuta took a gap year in 1325. And returned about 30 years later. He wrote about it in such detail about his travels from North Africa to China. He relied on the hospitality of strangers, and he was eating out for nearly 8 years. It showed great insight to the food that was available in the Old World of the 14th century. He sheds light on different civilizations: there were some people who provided him with food, and some people treated him as food and wanted to eat him. It was an extraordinary time in history.

Who do you think are the most important personalities that shaped the history of gastronomy?

Well, historically, it’s a very difficult question… If you ask me my favorite chefs in history, I would say Marcus Gavius Apicius in the Roman Empire. His book is still in print two thousand years later, and he is a man who mastered the art of sauce. You can tell when the Roman Empire was at its greatest because the sauces were at their thickest and most sophisticated. Apicius was a tremendous foodie. He spent all his money on food, and when he eventually bankrupted himself he invited his friends to a banquet and poisoned himself during desert. He thought ‘If I can’t afford food, I would rather die,’ so he’s a hero of mine.

Apicius cooking

If we come up much closer in time, certainly The Roux brothers (both of whom have sadly died in the last twelve months) had a huge influence in the development of food in Britain after the war. It was a bleak grey period, and at the end of the Sixties these boys turned up. They saw an opportunity, because the food in London was so awful, and they were very excited about this. They were getting awful dinners in London. Their wives couldn’t believe it, asking: “Why are you so happy while eating such terrible food?”. They saw an opportunity to start something new, and they inspired chefs to see food and service as a profession.

In the United States, Alice Waters was hugely influential. She battled against the rise of US fast food culture in the early 70s. She connected diners with farmers. She tried to cut out the traders between them. And she built relationships with those farmers, she nurtured producers, she put their names on her menu. This was at the time of great American counterculture, anti-establishments, anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Artists, photographers and writers wanted her to meet. She also was a great entertainer, she was such a great cook, most of her friends persuaded her to open a restaurant. And among all fast-food, burgers and tacos, came this simplicity. There are so many pivotal figures around the world, but these are who I admire the most.

What are your few favorite restaurants in London?

Umu is a Japanese place that does amazing Kaiseki cuisine.

For classic British food I love Jeremy Lee’s cooking at Quo Vadis.

Any pub that Henry Harris is running, because he is one of the best chefs and restaurateurs for bistro cooking.

I have a friend in town, I would bring them to Chelsea Arts Club, because again, it’s about conviviality, it’s about a good time, and I know I will always have fun there around the big table. 

It depends on one’s mood… Atul Kochhar has a fantastic Indian restaurant called Kanishka in Mayfair, it’s probably my favorite. It has a chicken tikka pie which is just amazing.

The best place for grilled meat I would say is Blacklock. They’re all about chops – lamb chops, beef chops, pork chops.

Talking Truffles with Christopher Poron, Maison Plantin

Feb 13, ’21

Featured in 7th
edition of Luxeat Insider

From Antiquity to today, truffles, the diamonds of the kitchen remain a highly-prized mystery.  While truffles can be cultivated, the harvest is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as anything coming from nature. It is this enigmatic quality, and the unique, deep musky yet indescribable taste, that drives prices upwards of 850 euros per kilo, and for the more expensive Alba truffle 2000-3000 euros per kilo. Maison Plantin, in the heart of France’s Provence region has become the main supplier of truffles to the grand tables of France and around the world, working with renowned chefs such as L’Ambroisie’s Bernard Pacaud, l’Hôtel de Ville’s Franck Giovannini and Ledoyen’s Yannick Alleno. We talk with Christopher Poron who now runs his fathers truffle company with partner Nicolas Rouhier.

Aiste with Plantin owner Christopher Poron

Could you give me the backstory of Maison Plantin and it all started?

The company was founded in 1930 by Marcel Plantin, my father bought the business in 1986. Even if I grew up in a truffle world,  at that time other things were on my mind. When I was 21, I left for the United States, not knowing what I wanted to do. My father asked if I wanted to sell truffles in New York. This is how I started, with 5kg of truffles. My very first customer was Daniel Boulud. They had a special event and they needed 150 pieces of 20gr truffle… So I called my father… it started like that.  I did that for 10 years until I met Nicolas  Rouhier, my associate, along with him, I took over the company in 2009. My father was at retirement age when we started talking about it, so we stepped in and took over my father’s place. Since then we’ve worked at Plantin, and have managed to develop it a lot, especially in terms of exports.

So what is a truffle?

A truffle is an underground mushroom about which we know very little. You have, the most well known black truffles (tuber melanosporum) and white truffles (tuber magnatum pico) – although there are many different varieties. In fact, there are over 100 types but only 5-6 are for gastronomy. Black truffles are mostly from plantations, because we managed to micronize the tree, the truffle spores, and today we plant them. Yet, plantation doesn’t mean that you’re able to control the harvest, not at all, we don’t control the harvest.  We know of a few things to do to encourage mushroom growth, but there are many factors which we can’t control. One of the biggest factors is weather conditions, today the biggest problem we have is climate change. We have much hotter summers than before.  When the temperature on the ground reaches 27-30 degrees, it kills the spores, kills the microzation of the truffles, after that you don’t have truffles. So that’s why warm summers are the worst for what we do. The area is changing a little bit. We can fight it, by putting irrigation in the fields, which is very important today. On a good year when the summer is not too hot with good rain, we can get 10kg a week, and during a very warm summer we may have no harvest at all. There are a few things we can control and a lot we can’t control.

Plantin factory

What is the perfect temperature for a good harvest?

For a good harvest, truffles have to grow with the season. In April we start to see the growing process, we need rain at that time for baby truffles to develop. But we don’t need too much rain, we need just enough to feed the truffle, that’s why we say the rain of 15 of August is very important, because they fill the fields, then some rain in July. And after that, in September and October, we want cold weather to be able to start planting, because it helps develop maturity. But that’s also only what we think. This year for example, we had a big advance in maturity, we had very mature truffles early in the season, in the beginning of December, we also saw some dark truffles, I’m not going to say perfectly dark, but quite dark. And in September October it was not so cold, so that’s why we had this fungus.

Plantin factory

Was this year an especially good truffle harvest?

Yes, harvest was pretty good, but the biggest change was due to the pandemic meaning the demand is much lower. So we keep prices affordable. But overall the harvest and the quality was very good.

And to come back to the climate, what is the best climate? Because some countries in the world grow more truffles than others.

For example today, the best black truffle produce countries are France, Spain, Italy, Australia and Chile is also starting. Today the biggest producer is Spain, because they planted a huge amount of trees in huge land areas.  

Black truffle

What are truffle trees?

Mostly oak trees, green oak, white oak. What we see the most in our region is green oak, although you can also see white oak. Green oak is more robust, it’s resistant to bad climate, less fragile. If you go to Australia, you will see mostly hazelnut. A big problem we have is the biggest competitor for planting trees is wine. The truffle farmers usually don’t have an idea of how much they are going to harvest, what income they are going to have, as compared to wine. With wine they can plan, they will know approximately what income they will have, so people tend to plant vineyards instead of truffle trees. But, my friend who was working with strawberries decided to plant trees, because strawberries are a huge investment every year, in terms of plantation. In terms of truffles, there is a big investment at the beginning, in terms of preparation of the land, and then you have to wait five to seven years to see the first truffles. You have to be ready, you have to be patient, so maybe that’s why farmers plant other things than truffles.

Black truffle

How to tell that it’s a good truffle?

First of all, you check the firmness. A truffle has to be firm, not hard as a rock but just firm, and it should be dark inside. The skin usually has to be black, dark brownish. You check inside, you take a knife and make a small cut inside, you want the flesh of the truffles to be a nice black with nice visible veins. Veins may be thick, but usually quite fine also. Then you’re going to smell the truffle, I personally like it when they have a chocolaty smell, but it can vary a little bit. So mostly you look for firmness, you want your truffle to have proper weight, because the truffle is mostly water, so the longer you keep it, the more it’s going to dry out. This is very true for white truffles from Italy. The weight of a white truffle can be felt more than with a black truffle. With white truffles, from the day you harvest you can lose from 2% to 5% of weight every day. Black truffles don’t lose much weight. So, first of all, you need firmness, colour and size, aroma… The smell shouldn’t be very strong like white truffle, it should be delicate, it should have a chocolaty flavour, which is very difficult to describe. The shape is not important. The shape of the truffle depends on the environment, if it grows in soil which is quite sandy, it will grow in normal shape.  If the soil is quite dense with lots of roots, lots of stones, it will have more of an odd shape.  But the shape doesn’t determine the taste of the truffle, nor the size. A truffle should be firm, have a bit of weight, be nice and dark inside and maturity is very important. So that’s why the best time to enjoy truffles is January, February and March.

Croque truffé

You are supplying the best chefs in the world, in France, in Asia… What is their criteria for truffles?

It really depends on what they do with it. For example at L’Ambroisie by Mathieu Pacaud, he wants 80 gr size truffles for his Feuilleté de truffe fraîche “bel humeur”. The reason is, he peels the skin. This is because the skin has bitterness, and he wants to remove that bitterness. He wants the truffle hard, because it’s easier to peel the skin.  In the restaurants of Joël Robuchon, for example, they make the truffle tart he designed; they use truffle slices, so they want a perfect mature truffle which can be sliced and is a good size. So for them we make a very special selection of truffle pieces, where he can have as many slices as possible with one truffle with the least wastage. Usually, the demand is for the shape, because we make sure that the taste is good.

Some of the luxury products, like caviar, have become mainstream, do you think that truffles will always remain as luxury product or do you think it will change?

I think we will never master truffle harvest, we will not know how to control it exactly, so we have this mystery around it, which will keep this product quite special. Caviar today is also still special, even if it’s mostly farmed… I think products remain special as long as people: chefs and customers treat it as a special product. I mean it’s a seasonal product, when it’s good, it brings an amazing flavour. Also there are a lot of truffles coming to the market, different varieties, but it’s all about educating people about the differences between each truffle. You have to say Latin names, each variety is different. To keep it special we should educate customers. But I think it will never become an everyday product, because again, you can’t control the harvest. There are more and more plantations of course, which go to market, but we still need to think that today we produce a maximum of 100 tons, a few years ago it was over 1000 tons and it was still a special product.

Also, while restaurants are closed, people are starting to learn to cook again, that’s very interesting. Because people are discovering this new passion for cooking they are looking for better ingredients. People are interested in truffles, they want to learn about them, so we are trying to educate them.  Most people are not familiar with the different types of truffles in France, so it’s important to teach them what to look for when they buy products.

A farmer holding his collected truffles

You buy 15 tons of truffles per year?  

We buy from 12 to 15 tons depending on the year. The lowest is 8 tons, we did a couple of years ago, average is 12 tons, the highest is 16-17 tons of black truffle. In France the produce is around 35 tons.

So it’s the second biggest producer, first is Spain, then France, Italy,…

Italy is a small producer. For me, a good truffle is a good truffle. This doesn’t mean that good truffles grow only in France… Australians, they do it very differently than we do. They have parcels that produce a lot more than France. In France, a good parcel is 45kg per hectare, in Australia, the land produces 150kg per hectare. It’s a lot more… Why? Maybe because it’s new, new to the land. They work very differently than us. They start harvesting in June, and we only start harvesting in January, we wait for the best maturity, they pick it early and leave at least 30% of production in the soil, it’s a totally different thing. Here the farmers do that, over there are people who plant the trees, others who clean them, others who harvest… Here we started planting seven years ago and we never depend on the plantation, we depend on the farmers because it’s too risky to depend on the plantation, so we depend on the farmers. Australia is different, they control everything from start to finish and they go to check the truffles and they pick when they’re ready to be sold and they are very careful about the selection. And also they have young trees that give bigger truffles, but the quality is still exactly the same. If it’s a good truffle, it is a good truffle, no difference. After you ask chefs, some say that they are very familiar, but when you start cooking them they are less fragrant, but I think it’s difficult to judge, because it depends on the harvest, it depends on the chef also. They all have a different feeling about what they like and what they don’t like, they have different styles of cooking and different ideas of the dish. It’s very subjective, some chefs love certain truffles, some will say “I don’t like the smell”.

What is your favourite dish to enjoy truffles?

I always say simple is the best: eggs are the perfect way to discover truffles. Scrambled is good, but I prefer just cooked, put truffle butter on the egg yolk, it’s fabulous. I very much like Coco de Paimpol beans. Not so far from here, they produce a white bean that goes very well with truffles. I can name more, but for me the simpler the better.

Truffle hunting with Christopher and Guillaume

Truffle hunting with Christopher and Guillaume

Truffle hunting

Who are the famous Mères Lyonnaises?

Feb 13, ’21

Featured in 7th
edition of Luxeat Insider

Blog
France

By Caroline Champion

They are cited as culinary references in numerous texts of the twentieth century and flaunted as a key element of Lyon’s tourism. They are a cornerstone of France’s regional gastronomic heritage. Yet who are these famous Lyon Mothers  (Mères Lyonnaises)? Writing a text for the Dictionary of Creative Women led me to question the history of these women and their naming…

Mère Brazier is the first woman to obtain three stars

Lyon Mothers (Mères Lyonnaises) – This generic term designates a number of cooks of modest origin, who set up on their own after having served the great families of Lyon. They offer a cuisine that is both popular and bourgeois, simple and refined, based on a set of specialties that have become inseparable from the city’s gastronomic reputation.

The first mentions of the mothers date back to the 18th century, with the restaurant of Mère Brigousse, in the Charpennes district, and that of Mère Guy, established in La Mulatière in 1759, before being taken over and developed by her two granddaughters, around 1870. The Mères Lyonnaises phenomenon gained momentum in the 19th century with the development of gastronomic societies.

However, the mothers heyday was in the 20th century, especially during the interwar period, which saw the establishment of this type of restaurant. On the one hand, because of the economic conditions, which meant many middle-class families had to separate from their cooks; who in turn, had no other option than to set up on their own. On the other hand, thanks to the development of automobile-led tourism and the gastronomic guides associated with it. The promotion of regional cuisine began. One of the frontrunners was the cuisine of Lyon, for which the mothers quickly became the emblem.

It was during this period that the mothers’ restaurants underwent a real transformation, from the point of view of both the clientele and of the dishes offered.  Up to this point, these establishments were mostly frequented by common and working-class clientele. They became increasingly reputable and slowly grew to become an important element of Lyon’s culinary culture.  They were frequented by bosses and industrialists seeking high quality, homely-type meals at a reasonable price. Alongside the staples such as quenelles and macaroni gratins, the dishes started to become gentrified. If the first mothers were known for highly popular dishes, such as eel matelote (specialty of Mère Guy) or Venus’ Breasts (the famous quenelles of Mère Brigousse). While Mère Filloux (born Françoise Fayolle, 1865-1925) founded the reputation of her establishment at 73 rue Duquesne, on (volaille en demi-deuil) steamed poultry, served with a supreme sauce, artichoke and foie gras.

Élisa Blanc

The phenomenon accelerated with the recognition of food critics. Settled in Vonnas, White Mother (1883-1949) whose real name was Élisa Blanc’s earned a first Michelin star in 1929 for her chicken with morels and veal chop with sorrel, and a second in 1933. France’s Touring Club awarded her the first prize in its culinary competition (1930), and Curnonsky declared her “best cook in the world”.

Critics also praised Marie Bourgeois, installed sixty kilometers from Lyon (Priay), crowned in 1923 by the Club des Cent before obtaining three Michelin stars in 1933, becoming one of the first women to obtain this distinction. Along with Eugénie Brazier (1895-1977), who was  similarly recognised for her restaurant in the rue Royale and for that in the Col de la Luère.

Mère Léa

The twentieth century counted around thirty Lyon Mothers whose reputation extended far beyond the city’s borders. Among them, we should mention Mère Jean for her establishment that opened in 1923, at rue des Marronniers, frequented by the journalists of the regional newspaper Le Progrès; Mère Léa whose restaurant, Place Antonin Gourju, was awarded a star for her famous champagne sauerkraut, her tablier de sapeur– a Lyonnais speciality dish made from beef tripe as well as for her macaroni gratin, or Mère Vittet, who was to be found near the Perrache station, Mère Pompon, the great Marcelle, Mère Charles, Mère Castaing, etc. The common thread of their reputations was a strong character, an almost unchanging menu and, of course, their specialties.

Mère Brazier with her student cooks including Paul Bocuse in 1964.From left to right: Paul Blanc, Paul Bocuse, Jean Vettard, Jean Vignard, Marius Vettard (seated), Christian Bourillot, Roger Roucou, Paul Lacombe, Guy Thivard

After the Second World War, and especially from the 1970s and Nouvelle Cuisine, this phenomenon of exclusively female cooks gradually gave way to a new generations of chefs, some of whom were their apprentices (like of Paul Bocuse, who trained with the Mère Brazier) or their descendants (like George Blanc, grandson of Mère Blanc, who has obtained the third star which he lacked in 1981). As for the Mères’ establishments, when they did not close, they were all taken over by men. One of the last major representatives of this type of cuisine, Paulette Castaing, settled in Condrieu from 1950 to 1988 and awarded two stars in 1964, has just celebrated her centenary.

Prepaired by Caroline Champion

Extract from the Dictionary of Creative Women,  Le Dictionnaire universel des créatrices dir. M.Calle-Gruber, B. Didier and A. Fouque, Éditions des Femmes, published in 2012.

Burgundy on a Budget

Feb 13, ’21

Featured in 7th
edition of Luxeat Insider

by William Kelley from Robert Parker The Wine Advocate

By many metrics, Burgundy is enjoying unprecedented success. Dominating any list of the world’s most expensive wines, the region produces some of the most coveted and costly beverages on the planet. What’s more, Burgundy’s animating philosophy of terroir—the notion that the precise place a wine comes from exercises a defining influence on its taste—has come to dominate contemporary wine culture. Other regions that used to talk about châteaux, brands and grape varieties now talk about terroir, parsing the nuances of their vineyards’ expositions, altitudes, geologies and drainage in minute, Burgundy-inspired detail. Indeed, it’s precisely because of the region’s deep intellectual interest—as well as the unrivalled sensuality of its wines—that wine lovers used to say that “all roads lead to Burgundy”. Sooner or later, everyone catches the Burgundy bug. 

Barrels in the Roumier cellar

Yet as Burgundy’s greatest wines have taken on cult status, they’ve also become less and less accessible. That’s partly a problem of supply. If a big Champagne house’s production is numbered in the millions of bottles and a Bordeaux château’s in the hundreds of thousands, in Burgundy, anything more than ten thousand bottles is big. The smallest cuvée I review every year amounts to only eighty liters: not much to satisfy a big, thirsty world. This shortage of quantity is compounded by rampant speculation: wines once bought to drink are now traded as investments, driving up prices even further. If prices at the cellar door still remain surprisingly reasonable, anyone looking to get acquainted with Burgundy’s most celebrated wines overseas had better be decidedly well-heeled. And if the region’s flagship bottles are now beyond the means of most young wine lovers, for how much longer can all roads lead to Burgundy?

Clos de Beze

It’s here where Burgundy’s sometimes rather suffocating hierarchy of appellations can work in consumers’ favor. Since time immemorial, Burgundians have debated the merits of different vineyards, and the results of this long interrogation were enshrined in law in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, every square meter of vineyard land in Burgundy is classified and regulated. At the top of the pyramid are the grands crus, amounting to just a couple of per cent of the total surface area planted to vines in Burgundy and favored with optimal attributes for ripening grapes. Next come premiers crus, then communal appellations, and then humble regional wines. Different sub-regions and villages have differing reputations, with the most prestigious dotted along a 50-mile southeast-facing limestone escarpment known as the Côte d’Or: think of villages with names like Puligny-Montrachet and Chambolle-Musigny. 

Of course, there is a material basis for this hierarchy: some sites really are better than others. But its origins are also cultural and political. In the past, powerful merchants were happy to buy good but inexpensive from less famous villages and sell it under a more prestigious name, often after some judicious blending to “improve” it. Nor does a classification solidified before and during the Second World War necessarily reflect the realities of today’s climate: vineyards where grapes struggled to ripen twenty years ago are thriving today. In the past, hierarchy was often destiny: lesser vineyards weren’t farmed as well, nor were their grapes lavished with the same care as their more prestigious neighbors’. But today, more and more producers are breaking glass ceilings to show just what these so-called “lesser” appellations can do. It’s exciting to imagine a more meritocratic Burgundy, where it’s not appellation hierarchy that defines a wine’s worth, but rather the care with which it was grown and made. Given the escalating prices of Burgundy’s grandest grands crus, the rewards of looking further afield have never been greater. These five producers are some of my favorites. 

Gabin et Félix RichouxIrancy’s northerly location might seem at odds with the rich, hearty style of its wines, but this picturesque village (where vines vie with cherry orchards) is surrounded by an amphitheater of hills that trap warmth, and Pinot Noir is supplemented by small percentages of another grape, the intensely pigmented César, said to have been brought to the region by the Romans. Father Thierry Richoux is gradually handing over the reins to his sons, Gabin and Felix, and they produce exceptional wines from certified organic vineyards. Combining perfume, depth of fruit and structural refinement in an appellation that can sometimes be rustic, the Richoux family’s lovely Burgundies are well worth seeking out. 

Thierry Richoux in his Irancy vineyards

Irancy and cherries

Domaine Eleni et Edouard VocoretEleni, from Greece, met Edouard Vocoret during harvest in New Zealand in 2010, and together set up a tiny domaine in Edouard’s hometown, Chablis. In a part of Burgundy where agrochemical usage is intensive and grapes are often harvested by machine, their approach is more ecological and artisanal: viticulture is close to organic, and the wines mature in old barrels before bottling without fining or filtration. Of course, there’s no grand cru in the cellar: just delicious wines, with more texture and character than plenty of grander appellations can muster. 

Eleni and Edouard

Domaine Charles Audoin Long in the shadow of its famous near-neighbor Gevrey-Chambertin, Marsannay only won an appellation of its own comparatively recently. Now, it’s well on its way to having some premiers crus too; but for the time being, prices for the village’s best wines remain ludicrously low for the quality in the bottle. Winemaker Cyril Audoin of Domaine Charles Audoin is one of my favorite producers, producing beautifully balanced, age-worthy wines that emphasize the perfume and satiny sensuality of great Pinot Noir, and seeming to excel no matter the vintage conditions. His white wines are lovely, too.

Domaine Anne-Marie & Jean-Marc VincentLike Marsannay, situated at the northern extreme of the Côte d’Or, the town of Santenay, located close to its southern limit, is similarly neglected. Prosperous in the 19th century, when it was even privileged with a casino, times have hardened since, and Santenay’s wines are often described as “rustic” and chewy. That this is very far from fair is proven by what Anne-Marie and Jean-Marc Vincent have achieved in the last two decades. Theirs is some of the most innovative farming on the Côte d’Or, with more and more high-density plantings, and vines that aren’t trimmed during the growing season, and their winemaking is more and more refined. In a more famous village such as Puligny-Montrachet, they’d be world famous, but in Santenay, they remain something of an insiders’ secret—at least for now. 

Domaine Dureuil-JanthialVincent Dureil is another grower who has smashed glass ceilings in the last two decades. Many commentators have tended to consider Rully in the Côte Chalonnaise, south of the more famous Côte d’Or, as a source of cheap quaffing wines. But since Vincent took over his family estate in 1994, he has won a reputation as a great farmer and winemaker among his peers, with the press eventually following suit. Working essentially organically in the vineyards (though he no longer seeks official certification) he’s also talented in the cellar, producing spicy, vibrant Pinot Noir and enveloping, complex Chardonnay that embarrass many of their “grander” cousins from prestigious villages such as Meursault or Pommard. As the world takes notice, the only challenge is finding his wines!

Vincent Dureuil

Samples at Domaine Dureuil-Janthial

Dr. William Kelley developed a love of wine while studying at Oxford, where he presided over the University’s prestigious Wine Circle for three years, while completing a doctorate in history. After a stint covering Burgundy for Decanter Magazine and working harvests in both California and the Côte d’Or, he made the happy move to a respected wine publication The Wine Advocate at RobertParker.com in 2017.  Today, he lives in Beaune, France with his wife and two children and reviews the wines of Burgundy, Champagne, Madeira and English Sparkling Wine. He also produces some wine of his own in Burgundy and California.