How to spend a weekend in Dijon, France’s mustard capital
- Credit: Archant
Having frequently passed through, Mary Novakovich decided that a stay in Dijon was the best way to experience the foodie city’s charms
Burgundy's city of dukes is making me hungry. I'm standing in Les Halles, Dijon's 19th-century food market whose glass and wrought-iron roof was inspired by the long-gone Les Halles in Paris. French food markets usually bring on a feeling of euphoria in me anyway, but the richness of Burgundy's food is something else.
Bresse chickens, the best in France, lie on display, their feathered heads still attached. Butchers show off chunks of charolais beef, ready to go into a boeuf bourguignon. Glass cases full of cheese - époisses, langres, comté - leave this cheese fanatic a little giddy. The savoury treats on offer at Le Gourmet traiteur are mouthwatering, including the inevitable escargots in garlicky, buttery shells as well as the traiteur's own creation of a duck and kir terrine. Kir itself is courtesy of a former Dijon mayor, priest and French Resistance hero, Félix Kir, who always served the drink of white aligoté wine and crème de cassis to his guests and thereafter had it named after him in his honour.
For someone who had used Dijon only as a convenient stopping-place en route to the south, I'm discovering not just its flavours but also its character. There's an innate stateliness to this city that was home to the dukes of Burgundy for centuries - heightened by the dozens of elegant hôtels particuliers built from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
Even more splendid is the vast Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, a sprawling palace that had various guises until it was redesigned over the course of the 17th to the 19th centuries. Its broad sweep is echoed by the Place de la Libération opposite, with its dignified semicircle of 17th-century townhouses. Part of the palace is taken up by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which during my visit is in the midst of a major renovation and has only a portion open to the public. I get a glimpse into the city's past during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but even these galleries will soon close until the whole place reopens in May 2019. It is refreshing to see is that all of Dijon's municipal museums are free of charge to visit.
Follow the owl
The neighbouring 15th-century Tour Philippe le Bon is still open, another symbol of the dukes' power. It's worth climbing the 316 steps for wonderful views of the city as well as the Burgundian countryside. If it's not cloudy, as it is now, you can see Mont Blanc.
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Back on ground level, I walk a couple of hundred metres to the 13th-century Notre-Dame church and its wondrous façade. Three rows of gargoyles hang over the façade's arcades, all looking suitably macabre. What's even more macabre is the legend that one of the gargoyles had fallen off centuries ago and killed a pedestrian, leading the church to destroy the remaining creatures before they were replaced in the 19th century.
On the cathedral's north wall I see a hint of Dijon's quirky side. A sculpture of an owl is tucked into a corner of the wall, so small it's easy to miss. But then you see people coming up to it and giving it a rub - always with the left hand - for luck. I'm on Rue de la Chouette, surely one of the most endearing names you could give a street. Just as endearing are the little brass owls embedded into the pavements all over the centre, each inviting you to follow the Owl Trail to discover different sides to the city.
Savoury and sweet
Here, just as I enter an attractive quarter of half-timbered houses, I find another Dijon institution, which is making me feel peckish again. Family-owned, independent Edmond Fallot Moutarderie has been making mustard since 1840, still using the traditional stone-milling method and - crucially - Burgundy mustard seeds. Earlier I had passed the pretty Maille shop in Rue de la Liberté, but, rustic as it looks, Maille is owned by Unilever and is a major industrial mustard producer. Fallot, on the other hand, has protected geographical status for its products, which you can see being made here at certain times of the day.
I head to the rear of the shop to the Bar à Moutardes for a tasting. Who would have thought mustard had so many permutations? I tried mustard with tarragon, honey and balsamic vinegar, basil, walnuts - each time being given helpful suggestions for what to serve with them.
After the savoury comes the sweet - and spicy. Pain d'épices is another Dijon staple, and anyone thinking gingerbread is fit only for houses needs to visit Mulot & Petitjean. Active since the late 18th century, the business has a flagship fairy-tale boutique in a 15th-century half-timbered house in Place Bossuet. Scents of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger waft around beautifully presented displays of cakes, biscuits and jam-filled mini cakes called nonnettes. After a couple of tastings, I become a fully paid-up fan of ginger spice.
Even though those dukes are long gone, Dijon shows how some traditions are well worth keeping.
WHERE TO STAY
Mary stayed at:
Le Pré aux Clercs
13 Place de la Libération
Tel: (Fr) 3 80 38 05 05
This stylish boutique B&B forms part of the celebrated restaurant on Place de la Libération. There are only five rooms, and all have wonderfully eclectic designs. Doubles from €110.
Grand Hotel la Cloche
14 Place Darcy
Tel: (Fr) 3 80 30 12 32
Living up to its grand name, this venerable four-star has an excellent restaurant as well as a spa. Doubles from €136.
WHERE TO EAT
Mary ate at:
Les Trois Bures
12 Rue Bannelier
Tel: (Fr) 3 45 43 73 56
Cheese is king here, with dishes the best cheeses to come out of Burgundy and Franche-Comté. The poached eggs in crème d'époisses are sublime.
Mains from €13.
Loiseau des Ducs
3 Rue Vauban
Tel: (Fr) 3 80 30 28 09
The Loiseau family's Dijon outpost offers beautifully crafted Michelin-starred cuisine in unstuffy surroundings.
Menus from €59.
12 Rue Odebert
Tel: (Fr) 3 80 50 09 26
Lively bistro by Les Halles offering fresh takes on classic Burgundian dishes.
Mains from €17.
WHERE TO VISIT
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Palais des Ducs et des Etats
Tel: (Fr) 3 80 74 52 09
Extensive collection of art and artefacts from antiquity to the 20th century. Reopens May 2019. Admission free
La Fabrique de Pain d'Epices
6 Boulevard de l'Ouest
Tel: (Fr) 3 80 66 30 80
Discover the history of pain d'épices in Dijon at the factory and adjoining museum. Admission €8, including a tasting.
Tourist information: Dijon tourist office, tel: (Fr) 0892 700 558, destinationdijon.com
Département: Côte-d'Or (21)
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