I'm not sure which I enjoyed the most. Was it the disgracefully decadent duck liver slice stuffed with apricots and garnished with red onion jam, red wine jelly, green beans, hazelnuts and whipped cream?
Or was it the stroll through the peaceful Burgundy countryside, along the banks of L'Arroux River, past ancient stone houses and fields grazed by pure white charolais cattle, to where the massive ruin of the Temple of Janus still dominates the landscape after nearly two thousand years?
I think maybe it was the duck liver pate because it was accompanied by a glorious bottle of Puligny-Montrachet. But then again, the stroll in the countryside did provide the bonus of a couple of delightful encounters with amiable farmers whose English was even worse than my French.
Both were among the star items on a sumptuous tasting menu of the best France has to offer, not just in food and wine, but also landscapes, architecture, history and art.
To sample this menu we had to travel to the ancient town of Autun, in Burgundy, where international businessman Pascal Yeme has created Les Ursulines, a hotel-restaurant gastronomique, in the ivy-clad remains of a 17th century convent.
Just getting to Autun, on the double-decker, high-speed train, which takes just one hour 19 minutes to make the 315km journey from Paris, was like an aperitif - a relaxing interlude before the real business, gliding from the noise and dirt of the cities to the calm contentment of the French countryside.
Of course before our meal we had an aperitif too, a pastis for me - I
love the refreshing bite of aniseed - and a campari and soda for my
wife and, because Les Ursulines always seems to deliver more than
it promises, some unexpected but delicious little pastries.
Then, while we were pondering what to order, the maitre d', Pascal
Bruel - a burly rugby enthusiast - brought a couple of palate cleansers, delicious shot glasses of puree of leek and broccoli jelly, just to get our tastebuds ready for a serious workout.
Arriving at Les Ursulines itself was rather like having a palate cleanser. Perhaps because it was for hundreds of years a convent, its
thick stone walls designed to shut out the clamour of the outside
world, its grassy terrace looking out upon a landscape of picturesque
cottages, peaceful fields, wooded hills and grazing sheep. It is a place of extraordinary tranquility where the cares of everyday living somehow cease to matter.
Our suite was once the quarters of the mother superior and amid its
calming silence I seemed to hear a stern voice saying - in the words of
the hotel's motto - "Parce que votre serenite est essentielle".
The detachment from worldly realities created by such a place must have been the reason we decided to try the restaurant's "passionate creation" menu, six courses selected by chef Thierry Chateau from the best available on the day (at 89, or $NZ200 per person).
And it must also have been why I asked Bruel to choose the wine to accompany the meal only for him to select - to our slight horror - the
Puligny 2004 as our white (72) and a 2002 Santenay as the red (61).
Two bottles of wine! But both were superb ... and somehow we managed to quaff the lot with ease.
The starter for our meal was the duck liver pate which was simply
exquisite, the highlight of a marvellous meal, rich and succulent and
perfectly set off by the wine.
The starter for our other tasting menu was a stroll round Autun's
Roman wall, much of which still stands, including one tower which protects the hotel's kitchen, a length of wall which forms the boundary of its terrace and a taller tower just up the road which serves as the plinth for a famous statue of the Virgin Mary.
Wandering through the narrow stone streets of the town you frequently come across sections of the Roman wall, sometimes with ancient houses built up against its old stones, but mostly just providing protection against invaders as it has done for nearly 2000 years.
After that the fish course offered a trinity of tastes - fried monkfish, creamy prawns and scallops with a sprinkling of caviar - all
Equally intriguing was Autun's Roman theatre, once capable of seating 20,000 people, half of which has been removed by the local council to
make way for a soccer field where half-a-dozen youths were practising
Our meat course, perfectly matched by the Santenay, was a twelve-spiced duckling fillet with a honey topping, sitting on a thyme polenta pancake and accompanied by vitelote potato chips and baby tomatoes.
It was marvellous ... and almost as impressive as Autun's main
attraction, the majestic Cathedral St Lazare, built in the 12th century
to provide a suitable home for relics of St Lazarus, the man Jesus
brought back from the dead, which were attracting a huge number of
This is described as one of the most important Romanesque cathedrals in France and it's easy to see why. Even though it has obviously fallen on hard times - much of the interior, including the Tomb of Lazarus, was destroyed during the French Revolution and some of what was left is now deteriorating due to lack of funds - it remains an impressive place to visit. Probably the highlight is the remarkable sculpture of the Last Judgement, by the great medieval artist Gislebertus, above the west door.
But there are many more extra ordinary works of art, some on display in the chapter house, which give a taste of just how magnificent the cathedral must have been in its heyday.
Of course the ideal follow-up to a meat course is the cheese - in this
case four sumptuous, piquant local cheeses - which were not only superb but also provided a grand chance to finish the red wine.
And the ideal follow-up to the cathedral is a visit to the Musee Rolin, just over the road, where you find a remarkable collection of Roman sculptures, early Gallic artwork, including a wonderful bronze, religious paintings and more pieces of sculpture salvaged from the cathedral.
Finally, of course, comes dessert, except that on our "passionate
creation" menu it turned out that we were to get three of them.
Not only that, but the first offering was actually a quartet of strawberry desserts: strawberry iced gazpacho, strawberry stuffed with
cream and basil, strawberry with a crispy biscuit and strawberry sherbert with mint minestrone. Amazing.
The other side of our tasting menu wasn't able to provide a matching quartet but it did come up with a remarkable duo of ancient Roman gates dating to the time of the Emperor Augustus. The great arch of Porte St Andre sits alongside a busy highway and these days serves only pedestrians. But the ornate gateway of Porte d'Arroux still stands astride the main road north where cars and trucks, as well as walkers heading for the countryside, must pass under its lofty span.
Our second dessert was an amazing combination of tastes: a melting
chocolate heart in a chicory milkshake with orange sherbert.
And strolling through the Port d'Arroux heading for the monument known as the Temple of Janus produced a similarly delightful mix of experiences.
First there was the pleasure of wandering over a couple of small bridges and down a tree-lined pathway along the banks of the charm
ing L'Arroux River. Then our route took us down a quiet country lane, lined with paddocks, where white cattle grazed contentedly, and pic
turesque old cottages which provided opportunities for interaction with locals.
One example: an aged man was slowly cutting the roadside grass with a pair of shears and carefully placing it in an elderly wheelbarrow.
"Bonjour," I said, almost exhausting my knowledge of French, and he whipped round with a huge smile and replied, "Bonjour". Then, having taken in my camera and backpack, he asked, "Vacation?"
Presumably my accent wasn't exactly perfect because he then asked, "Nationalite?"
"Nouvelle Zelande." This caused much confusion.
"NATIONALITE?" he asked more loudly. "Nouvelle Zelande," I said,
pronouncing the words very carefully. "Ah, Nouvelle Zelande," he
replied, and shook me heartily by the hand.
Then he led me down the lane and pointed to where a giant ruin loomed darkly above a couple of quaint cottages. "Temple de Janus," he said. "Temple de Janus."
In fact, the temple almost certainly had nothing to do with the
Roman god Janus, but that's what it is known as anyway. And, in whoever's name it was erected, it is certainly impressive, with the two
surviving brick walls soaring 24m out of the peaceful grassy plain,
these days providing home to dozens of large black crows.
By now our tasting menu should have finished but the chef wasn't done yet and a plate of blueberry and strawberry tartlets arrived. Goodness. We can't possibly eat those. But of course we did.
By now, too, we had seen most of Autun's main attractions - apart
from the Dim factory which makes a famous brand of French lingerie
and a military college once attended by Napoleon - but then owner Pascal Yeme pointed to a huge cross on the top of the hills overlooking the town and told of the spectacular views to be had there.
This, he said, was La Croix de la Liberation erected after the Second World War to commemorate the heroism of the Maquis, the French
Resistance. So naturally, I decided to walk there the next day.
Unfortunately, this took a bit longer than it should have, due to the French habit of signposting routes at the beginning but not at any subsequent crossroads (something we had also discovered while cycling around Provence), but I did get there and the views over Autun and the surrounding countryside were indeed magnificent.
Best of all, the exercise meant that despite the nine courses and two bottles of wine consumed the previous evening I was once more ready to head for the dining room.
Jim Eagles travelled to Europe with help from Air New Zealand
and visited Autun as guest of House of Travel.
HOW TO GET THERE: Air New Zealand flies daily to London, via both Hong Kong and Los Angeles, with connections to the rest of Europe with its Star Alliance partners. For further information and fares visit www.airnz.co.nz.
WHERE TO STAY: House of Travel has land-only packages from
$621 per person, including three nights accommodation at Les Ursulines (in a charming room) and four-day car rental with Hertz in a Peugeot 307 or similar. A seven-course gourmet dinner is available at Les Ursulines from $189 per person.
FURTHER INFORMATION: For more information contact House of
Travel 0800 838 747 or houseoftravel.co.nz/ursulines