I have form with Burgundy. I’ve been here before, the last visit almost 14 years ago, at the time of my 40th birthday. That particular trip was with a man who turned out not to be The One. It seems no time at all since that memorable birthday lunch at L’Espérance, back in 2002. We ended up sharing a table with a couple called Howard and Annie, from California, who were staying at the same hotel. They ended up getting engaged that night after an eight-hour lunch and we’re still friends. Sadly, L’Espérance is no more, having gone into administration recently, so I can’t go back, not that I ever could.
My last visit to L’Espérance wasn’t my first, either. Another road trip in the early 1990s, in my sister’s bright orange MG Midget convertible included a stay in the picturesque Vallée du Cousin, where an unplanned detour led to the discovery of a tiny guesthouse, Les Moulin Des Templiers. It’s still there, should you fancy something basic and pretty. It’s in the Parc du Morvan, a good base from which to explore some of the sights of Burgundy, such as the abbey at Vézelay. You might want to check out the relics of Mary Magdalene, housed in the abbey. I’m not quite sure why places of early Christian worship hold quite so much fascination for this particular Jew. This one is well worth a visit, even if you aren’t Jewish.
I was on my way to look at said relics, in a ghoulish fascination sort of way, when I came across the sign for L’Espérance. It looked lovely. It looked expensive. I consulted my battered copy of the bible, the Michelin Red Guide. It was way above my pay grade.
My sister had lent me her beloved MG for this trip because my Honda Accord didn’t have the necessary glamour and more importantly, it wasn’t a convertible. I would phone my sister from various public payphones (pre-mobiles, the joy) giving her regular updates as to the state of the car.
Because it was obviously deeply entertaining to do so, I would pretend to have crashed or scraped the car and wait for her to get upset before coming clean. An altercation with a rubbish cart in Paris on the last day of the trip meant I had to have that call for real and I’m not sure she believed me until I drove up the path, the car practically expiring as it ground to a halt. With the roof down, the tax disc had flown out of its holder on the motorway on the way back, by way of final insult.
I came back to Burgundy in the late 1990s, slightly higher up the pay grade by then and decided that I could now justify a single meal at L’Espérance. It was my only fancy meal the whole trip. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave in formal restaurants then. It felt so grown-up and stuffy and I hadn’t really had much experience of that sort of eating out. I also didn’t speak much French and I was the youngest person in the restaurant. I’m not sure that I knew exactly what I was ordering.
A plateful of nondescript deep fried cubes (see here for recipe) was delivered to the table, each cube about the size of a small dice. I had no idea what was about to happen. Liquid foie gras, infused with truffles, simply exploded onto my tastebuds. I’d never had anything quite like it. I can still taste it. So began my love affair with French fine dining and in particular, L’Espérance.
And I’ve wanted to come back to Burgundy ever since my 40th but never quite managed. Shall we go in the car to Burgundy in September, maybe look at some of the Loire chateaux as well? I ask C, in May, whilst we are driving round Skye. I have become the type of person who has to have their next holiday booked before the last one is quite over. I think it’s a sign of age.
Fine, if you book it, he says. I am simultaneously irritated and pleased. Irritated because I have to do all the work and pleased because I get to choose where we go. In former years I have I generally left the “hotel” part to C, whilst (shocker) I sort out the food and thus we invariably end up at some safe behemoth like the Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton. I’m not complaining, obviously, as that would make me a revolting and ungrateful human being, but in truth, I’m not a fan of soulless luxury palaces. Well, not all the time.
I am quite happy to stay in smaller, simpler places, ones with a little more character, risking the possibility that the thread count might be under 400, or the bed not the most comfortable. But whilst there is the possibility of choice in the “you book” scenario, the reality is that I have only limited leeway, not wanting to have to deal with The Face, swiftly set into disapproval mode, following discovery that the bed/lighting/curtains/coffee/noise/insert what you like here are not to the required standard. I mean, I’ve only just got over the trauma of the violent reaction to the Fishermans’ Huts in Whitstable (see here) and that was two years ago.
Now in the fortunate position of being able to eat in more than one faine daining destination per trip my challenge is not to go full Michelin, every night. I almost manage to restrain myself, but the pull is great. Who knows when I will be able to do this again? I could die before being able to do this.
I could die as a result of doing this.
I look at my itinerary and am both dismayed and overjoyed to find that what I have organised is a sort of temple-of-gastronomy crawl, across the centre of France. I see that there are very few Chateaux de la Loire in my itinerary.
We are starting in Reims, at L’Assiette Champenoise, moving onto Maison du Rhodes in Troyes where, thankfully, the restaurant gastronomique is closed the nights we are there. We then drop down to just below Beaune, to Hostellerie de Levernois, then eat at Lameloise in Chagny, and drop into Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, because I have wanted go there for thirty years and somehow it has never quite happened.
I do not mention to C that I have not booked anywhere for the last few days. I do not disclose that I do not really know when the last day will be, as I have bought a flexible Eurotunnel ticket. My plan is to recapture just a little of the spirit of my first trip, when, for a month, armed only with Red Guide and no mobile phone, I followed all the scenic routes, took my chances on hotels and had the trip of a lifetime. I know it’s not possible to go back in time but, in a very small way, the slight uncertainty is liberating.
Meanwhile, I worry that I have booked to many big meals and will not be able to eat everything. Despite having what one might call an old-fashioned appetite, there is that dread point of overfull, when you just stop enjoying it. I worry that my work clothes will not fit when I get back to London and am mentally editing my wardrobe to work out what doesn’t have zip or a waist. I worry that I am trying to pack too much in, literally.It won’t be the first time.
So I’ll let you know how I get on with that; if I don’t explode first.