Can the French get any more bigheaded about their cooking? Of course they can, and they are about to do so. The Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin (International City of Gastronomy and Wine) opened in Dijon last week. With an investment of about $260 million, this is France proclaiming world dominance with a glass, a gratin, garlic and a grin. It ranges from giant macarons to grand cru wines, via everything in between. The galling thing is that it looks as though it might work.
For its genesis we need to scroll back to 2010, when Unesco agreed that the “French gastronomic meal” constituted an element of the world’s intangible heritage. The rest of the planet rolled their eyes, but the French were thrilled. They started devising projects to exploit the new status. First up, an exhibition-cum-museum in Lyons, which closed within a year because it was deemed inadequate. The new center has a quite different scale, range and inventiveness.
Frankly I’d expect nothing less from Dijon. It was the capital when the medieval dukes of Burgundy outgunned France, running swathes of Western Europe. The great ducal palace encapsulates past power and glory, overlooking a semicircular plaza as elegant as any in France.
In more recent centuries Dijon — like Burgundy as a whole — retired from the world stage to play to its real strengths: eating, drinking and making mustard. It excels at all three, hence its selection as the site for the gastronomy and wine center, as well as its visitors’ tendency to waddle. By the time I got to preview it I had been in town for 36 hours and eaten no fewer than six meals, and was proceeding like an alderman.
But I could still see that this was a grand cultural project — the most important in France this year. Granted, the French never knowingly undersell themselves, so you need to filter out a lot of guff about “unique savoir-faire”, “visions of French-style excellence” and “skills of which the entire world is envious”. What is left, though, stands up to scrutiny.
The 16-acre site takes over what had until 2015 been the city hospital for 800 years. Contemporary bits have been grafted on to and between restored old buildings of monumental dignity. These include a rust-colored metal extension thrusting toward the city center like one of those walkways leading to airliners. Weirdly, it looks good.
Within, you plunge into a universe in which the French revel in their epicurean wonderfulness, but also justify it. Only they could take a patisserie exhibition so seriously as to create a pile of macarons the size of tractor wheels and a cake big enough for visitors to explore from the inside. Other, permanent exhibitions bring the bells and whistles of modern museology — interactive this and that, films, hands-on experiments, virtual cooking — to consideration of dining through the ages, and of the involvement of the senses and Burgundy wines.
Evidently a Dijon center wasn’t going to hold back on the last of those. Want to learn how to taste vintages like the folk who talk about “acacia-like floweriness”? There’s a place on the right as you enter. Further on, the Cité’s wine bar is an oenophile’s dream: three floors and 3,000 bottles from Burgundy and beyond, with 250 sold by the glass, from around $4 to much, much more for wines you’ll never encounter again, unless you run a hedge fund.
Elsewhere you’ll find a bookshop, a Ferrandi school of cuisine and several restaurants, from gastro-snack eateries to wannabe Michelin cohorts. There’s a luxury hotel scheduled to open next year.
Unesco agreed that the “French gastronomic meal” constituted an element of the world’s intangible heritage.
But on my return I’ll be making a beeline for the Cité’s centerpiece — the gastronomic village. Part market, part exhibition, it promises a rolling cast of food and drink producers from all over France. They’ll be selling, but also demonstrating, talking, barbecuing, cooking with chefs in the on-site kitchen and otherwise enrolling you into the narrative of French grub. Among those first up are Charolais beef farmers, coffee roasters and producers of Époisses cheese.
In short, this place is more than a shop window for our neighbors’ gastronomy; it’s an overview in concentrated form, thus an entrance. Of course you must suspend disbelief that such attention be focused on, say, the apparently trivial matter of wine-food pairings. This is France — smile indulgently and get stuck in. I doubt you’ll regret it. I didn’t, and barely anything was ready on my visit.
Later I took a spin through the Côte de Nuits winelands south of Dijon. Vines coat the plain and climb the slopes, and one gets soaked in wine talk — that, for instance, the climats (a Burgundian term for specific small vineyard plots) produce wines tasting “entirely different”. No they don’t. Entirely different tastes are as between Angel Delight and a kipper; different tastes here are as subtle as distant whispers. No matter. It’s good to be reminded that the whole grand cru edifice starts with blokes in wellies carrying buckets.
Back in Dijon I coasted around a town august with mansions, half-timbered old streets and a sense of centuries lived well. A mustard workshop showed me that making the dressing is easier than you might think. The pain d’épices specialist Mulot & Petitjean taught me that the spice bread was first brought west by Genghis Khan. At some point I roamed what is probably the finest market hall in eastern France, hearing of snail-related concerns — escargots constitute a key traditional Burgundian dish, but with French stocks gone many are now imported from Ukraine, so expect shortages.
And so to the Jardin Darcy park for a breather from gastronomy. By the entrance was a life-size copy replica of the François Pompon sculpture Polar Bear. This is the finest of all animal sculptures and I was entranced. Dijon was providing almost all I needed.
Where to Stay
The four-star Chapeau Rouge has room-only doubles from $136, with William Frachot’s sleek, two-Michelin star restaurant alongside it (four-course dinner $108; chapeau-rouge.fr). Or opt for Hotel des Halles, a contemporary three-star alternative with room-only doubles from $85 (hoteldeshalles-dijon.com).
Where to Eat
In a vastly crowded restaurant field we went for the new and youthful, including Chez Monique, with evening sharing plates such as gravlax-style trout with berries, turnip and ginger (platters from $10; moniqueboireetmanger.fr). Or there’s the sprightly La Fine Heure, where staff lay on ace wine tastings and Burgundy dishes such as beef bourguignon, deconstructed and put back together with a modern twist (menus from $32; lafineheure.fr). Our pick for lunch is Le Chat Qui Pense, where in town-house premises unannounced on the street (press the bell to get in) the former psychologist Isabelle Sonnet has been creating dishes of finesse on a daily-changing menu for two years — Mondays to Fridays only, booking essential (three-course menus from $25, lechatquipense.com).
Where to Drink
Bars abound, but there’s only one I insist you visit: Monsieur Moutarde, slotted into a fancy town house, with a succession of salons, a courtyard and the most startling cocktails in eastern France (monsieurmoutarde.com).
Where to Shop
Mulot & Petitjean for pain d’épices (mulotpetitjean.com); Fallot for what may be the world’s only mustard tasting bar (fallot.fr); and for every other foodstuff the Halles, or market hall, open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturday mornings and for brunch on Sundays (facebook.com/hallesdedijon)
Anthony Peregrine is a Languedoc-based British journalist and specializes in food, wine, and travel