For bibulous birds like the Gannet, the French region of Burgundy is rather like a sweet shop for grown-ups, its signposts crammed with names like Volnay, Pommard, Vougeot and Santenay – otherwise ordinary towns and villages, but sure to send a frisson up any wine lover’s spine.
Visitors should on no account miss Beaune, especially the magnificent Hospice, venue of November’s annual wine auction, but worth seeing at any time of year. And if you can fathom its eccentric opening hours, have lunch at Ma Cuisine, where Fabienne and Pierre Escoffier’s classic, smartened-up Burgundian menu – homemade jambon persillé perhaps – never disappoints. The wine cellar in the basement is equally distinguished.
Beaune gets choked by coach parties, though. For a more tranquil place to stay, try Chalon-sur-Saône, a lovely little town straddling Burgundy’s glorious river. There is a twice-weekly market, and there are few better ways of idling away an hour or two than strolling among its stalls. Start at the café in the square, in front of the fine cathedral, for a coffee and croissant, then set off in search of picnic fare, pausing at the oyster stall for a half-dozen of Gillardeau’s finest bivalves.
Also noteworthy are a couple of excellent charcutiers for rillettes, saucissons secs and terrines, several cheese stalls for a ripe Epoisses, an organic pâtisserie for pain de campagne and éclairs, and Atelier Saint Vincent, a well-stocked wine shop in the square. Find a nice spot by the river, and lunch will be blissful.
Those who prefer others to do the work should try Vin Chai Moi, a splendid little restaurant where the wines are as good as the food, which is very good indeed. It is a pleasantly rustic, woody, informal place, with a distinct sense of le patron mange ici: I had an excellent pâté de foie gras to start, with tête de veau to follow. The ingredients were top-notch and intelligently cooked; wines were a fragrant Mâcon-Villages 2011 and a cherry-scented Mercurey 2010.
Or you might head over the bridge to Rue de Strasbourg, where the pick of a row of restaurants is Le Poisson Bleu (pictured), a small and charming fish bistro. The menu changes with the daily catch, but zander (pike-perch) is always on it: this featured in a simple, homely matelote (fish stew), serving three, with excellent bread to mop up its juices. We also mopped up a terrific bottle of Rully 2011 Montagne La Folie from Claudie Jobard.
Chalon-sur-Saône has some lovely buildings, a fine market, some great little restaurants and – of course – its river; but, like all the best little towns in France, it is its very ordinariness that makes it so special.