Burgundy For Beginners
by George Pandi 

©Photo by Lois Siegel

George Pandi
Ottawa-based travel and food writer
Tries to teach the world where to go and what to eat and drink
Proud honourary member of the Canadian Culinary Federation

Don't let the menus intimidate you. French and pseudo-French restaurants that aspire to haut
standing in cuisine impress the world with sophisticated-sounding dishes. But civets and ragouts are
just stews that twelve-year old farm girls make without a recipe. Those satisfying dishes-that always begin with fat, garlic and onion in a big pot-have been around for centuries. They were and are the foundations, and will outlast tall food and plantain chips. When you start cooking, that's where you want to start. 

©Photo by Steven Foster

These thoughts came to me while mopping up the sauce around my oeufs en meurette with a piece of bread (a good peasant habit, acceptable at the best places in France). Poached eggs in a red wine sauce-what could be easier to make and tastier? And what could be more bourguignon?  At the risk of offending all French regions, I say that Burgundy put France on the culinary map, with both the quality of its products and the wondrous ways it can bring the best out of them. Beside many of the world's greatest wines, Burgundy produces tender Charolais beef, flavourful poulet de Bresse (the world's only chicken with appellation d'origine contrôlée and époisses, the no-nonsense cheese that, according to the poet Gautier, smells like the feet of God.

In a land blessed with ingredients like that, everybody cooks, eats well and encourages everyone to do the same. Instead of "ah, monsieur, a proper matelote, she requires the practice of a year," they insist on how easy it is. Boeuf à la bourguignon? Throw it together and sleep while it simmers for eight hours.  Jambon persillé? Add water to cover the ham, the rest is even simpler. These familiar Burgundy dishes conquered the world, but pain d'épice has stayed home. I only encountered this honey cake-persistently misnamed as gingerbread, although it has no ginger-in Dijon. Actually, its home was Flanders (now Belgium), where a distant relative, the crisp spekuloos, still lives in Brussels.

In the 14th century, when Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, married Margaret of Flanders, the bride brought this sweet present to her new subjects. Pain d'épice cannot be simpler and more satisfying. Rye flour gives it body, sugar and honey the sweetness, star anise, nutmeg, and cinnamon the flavour. The result is a brick of a sturdy, brown, moist cake with all the comforting taste and smell of Christmas.

Of course, it couldn't stay that simple. People added candied fruit, orange zest, coffee, chocolate, even tea to flavour it. Pastry chef Jean Herbert sells pain d'épice in seven flavours. He provided the
following easy, basic version:  Bring 1 cup (235 ml) milk to boil;  add 1 tsp ground star anise; remove from heat. Stir 5 tbsp (150 g) sugar into 1/2 cup (150 g) honey and mix well. Stir in milk. Let cool to lukewarm. Add 1 beaten egg. Mix 2 cups (300 g) rye flour and 1 package dry yeast; add to batter and mix lightly until just smooth. Pour into a 9x9" (23x23 cm) square pan and bake in a 300 F (150 C) oven for 60-70 minutes. Let cool before slicing. (If any is left and dries out, mix the crumbs into the next batch-up to a fifth of the volume of flour-to improve the texture.) Pain d'épice goes well with a glass of Kir (dry white wine with a splash of cassis liqueur) or sparkling wine. If you go to Dijon, find Chef Herbert's shop, Le Gourmet, at 59, boul. Maréchal Joffre (tel. 03-8071-1024).


Taste more!
An aid to better cooking, eating, drinking
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