Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cote Chalonnaise (Southern Burgundy)

Waking up in Southern Burgundy is nice. First, you're in Burgundy - always a good thing. Second - I was going to eat in my first-ever Michelin starred restaurant. Granted, it was "only" one star, and it would be lunch, but I was truly looking forward to it. I even packed a shirt and long pants into my panniers to make sure I was presentable.

My path today would take me from Chazelle to Mercurey and back in an elongated route through most of the Cote Chalonnaise -- a total of around 100 km. Here's the map of the course (new window). I had decided to avoid the voie verte on the way up so that I would have new scenery for the ride back.

I left my campsite at 08:00 on a chilly, but sunny summer morning, easing in to a slow but steady rhythm to warm up and to take in the sights.  I headed away from the river up into the rolling fields, passing beautiful stone villages, and humble homes house the farmers that tend to the surrounding fields.

A humble French farm
About an hour into the ride, the idea of a croissant and a café serré sounded just about perfect.  The French seem to compartmentalize a lot of their activities – you generally cannot get a coffee at a bakery, but there’s often a Tabac right next to the bakery, and no one minds that you bring your croissants with you to the Tabac to have with the coffee you buy there.  Also, I took the opportunity to refill my bidons with water when the bartender asked if I need water for my journey onwards.

Thus refreshed, I saddled up and continued through the mostly flat countryside, passing more villages, Chateaux, and wash-houses.  Southern Burgundy still has countless washhouses.  They’re not only well-maintained, but some of them have become informal art galleries where local artisans set up little exhibitions of their wares – thus adding even more to the charm.

Yes, the day was going very well.  There was no traffic whatsoever, I was making good time without hurrying, there were no serious hills to contend with – life was good. 

At Granges, I joined the voie verte for 4 kilometers until Givry, where it would turn off the Chalon-sur-Soane (the local capital).  Lunch was beckoning, and I continued north on the departmental road D981 leading towards the Cote d’Or.  Granted, the road was quite busy, but as I’ve mentioned before, French drivers show a tremendous amount of respect to cyclists – you never feel as though you might be in danger.  The terrain was becoming more hilly, but it was just enough to let me feel that I’m earning my lunch – after all, I like to believe the myth that when one is cycling, one can eat and drink as much as one likes (it’s a lie).

I arrived at the the Val d'Or at 11:00.  An hour before the lunch seating began.  So, I continued upward into the hilly vineyards famous for their Pinot Noirs.  As the name of my restaurant suggested, Mercurey liked to associate itself with the more posh, more marketed and more expensive Cote d’Or region.  This area was administratively a part of the Cote Chalonnaise, but one could make the argument that it could easily have been included in the Cote d’Or for geological reasons – it’s the same ridge, the same rocky soil, but with wines at half the price.  I bought a bottle of white for my evening quaff.

Above Mercurey
 After cycling through the village and its vineyards, and stopping for a taste or two, I went back to the restaurant for my long-anticipated gourmet meal.  I ordered the 3 course lunch with wine.

Amuse bouche

Foie gras with an asparagus
and lentil terrine and
 magret de canard on the side.

Scallops, langoustine, asparagus and a delicious cream sauce

The best creme brule I've had (with cardamon)

Surprise desert -- dark chocolate cake with a mousse of mustard and cassis

It was, to say the least, tremendous.  I can unreservedly recommend the Val d'Or, not only for a fantastic, elegant meal, but that it is a great value as well.

Leaving Mercurey as I came, I impulsively turned off the main road which would have led me back along the been-there-done-that path.  I saw a sign for Saint-Denis-de-Vaux, and knowing that it was in the generally right direction, I took it.  The route was scenic - with views over my valley, vineyards rolling down towards the river.  No people, no cars - just a perfect ride with a perfect meal in my stomach.

It couldn't last.

At Saint-Denis, I checked my map to see where my next waypoint was -- Barizey.  At the crossroads, I could see that the road led downwards, but NOT in the direction of my valley.  Ever the optimist, I convinced myself that this valley would lead to my valley.

As has become habit - I was wrong.  But, before we get into that, let's have some wine from Barizey:

Givry En Veau - Vielles Vignes, Masse Pere Et Fils - 2009 (Pinot Noir) - 15 Euro.
Now, I have to be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of Burgundy reds (though I don't turn my nose up at them), but I really like this wine.  It should be decanted a good two hours before drinking (it will hit its prime in 2012-2014) to soften the tannins.  It's 30% new barrels, and j'aime le chene.  It has a fruity, spicy-cherry nose. A taste that swings to a light jamminess with just the right amount of oak to make me happy.  It has a long smooth finish.  Good stuff.

The climb out of Barizey was never-ending.  Again, let's remember that it's HOT, I'm not in the greatest shape in the world, I've just had a big lunch with enough wine to make me happy.  I'm not supposed to be climbing - I'm supposed to be drinking more wine...

At some point, I stopped because I was overheating.  In my dilerium, I thought it a good idea to take off my shirt, because it was dripping onto my feet.  I spread it on my panniers to dry in the relentless sun.  I got back on the bike and started humming the theme song to the Bridge on the River Kwai.  I climbed. 

Now, I cannot stop stressing how the French like cyclists -- they give us room, they give us free water, they sometimes invite us to share their picnics, and you will, more often than not, get offered copious amounts of wine just for being a fatter (much) and (inordinately) slower version of their heroes that ride the TdF.  For all their faults, the French make up for it when you're suffering up a hill and they roll down their windows as they (courteously) pass you and scream "Allez!  Allez!"  It makes you feel PRO.  I have made it up climbs I had no business even trying, because each "Allez! Allez!" made me want to justify it.  So I dig. 

I was about to surrender to the burning lactic acid in my legs when a beat-up Renault came barreling down the hill with two (probably drunk) teenagers screaming "Allez! Allez!" at me.  I dug deeper and hit the summit a 500 meters later.  Thank God there was a bus stop with a bench there, so I was spared having to lay down on the tarmac and get hit by the daily bus (I checked the schedule after I could see again).  From this vantage point, I could see that I was home free -- this road did, indeed, descend into my valley.  No more climbing.

Descents are cool - in more ways than one.  They're cool, because guys like me can go really fast - I may not climb well for my weight, but I certainly descend well for it.  Gravity is good.  It's also cool, because you can get chilled even in 30+ temperatures.  At this point in my cycling career, I didn't have a gillet (nor any cycling-specific clothing for that matter), so I turned to take my shirt off the back of the bike... wait, where the hell is my shirt!?

My shirt had not made it up the climb.  My wife had given me that shirt when I had taken up volleyball back home.  Despair.  I walked back to my bike, thinking "I can't, I simply can't go back down - I won't make it back up again".  As I prepared to get back on the bike and cycle half-naked back to camp, I spotted a flutter of white on the crossroads.  My shirt!  I picked it up.  It had a dirty, black tire track on it.  I had been passed by only one car on the way up - the two drunken boys in the Renault beater.  They must have found it (after running over it) somewhere down the hill, and returned to the summit.  Why they tossed it rather than giving it to me, I'll never know (maybe they were frightened by the sight of a sweat-logged half-naked man lying on a busstop bench... who knows?).  In any case, I joyfully put the shirt on.  I have it to this day, and the tire mark never came out.  I'm glad it didn't.

The descent into the valley was fast, cold and perfect.  I joined the voie verte back to home base, showered, got a pizza from Cormatic, popped the Mercurey white, watched the day end, and listened to the bells of Taize before crawling into the tent to sleep like a rock.

Southern Burgundy taught me a lot of things -- it's worth going to Michelin starred restaurants for lunch; France is the best place in the world to cycle; climbing sucks, and it doesn't.

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