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Symposium: Barging through Burgundy

Jack Smith

Up ahead, the vista widened as the canal opened into Burgundy’s Saône River. “Gently, monsieur. Gently,” the pilot advised as he surrendered the helm to his passenger, who nodded. “This will be a piece of cake,” the passenger thought, for the barge was moving a mere 5 mph. On the foredeck, his three companions looked up quizzically from their books as the barge began a slalom trajectory down the river. “Just getting the feel of it,” he assured them. A straight course, it seemed, was impossible. On the other hand, there was no hurry. And so Hirondelle, a 130-foot craft with pilot, mate, gourmet chef, maid, concierge, and cabins for eight, continued to zigzag downstream.

Like the barge, life moves slowly in this part of France, where small, rustic vineyards are the rule. Even so, few are as homespun as the château in Volnay, where, a few hours later, the voyagers were invited to join vintner Pierre Boillot, his son Philippe, and some of the Boillots’ longtime family friends—two local chefs and their wives—for their ritual monthly get-together.

Bienvenue à ma cave,” exulted Boillot, a diminutive, roly-poly fellow of about 70, leading the way into his cellar. Now, this was rustic. The air was redolent with dank earth, and cobwebs hung between the barrels. However crude the setting, the Pinots Noirs and companion petits pains were terrific.

An hour and a half later, as the group emerged back into the sunlight, the Americans prepared to say adieu. “Mais, non,” said Boillot, motioning to the garden, where a table was set with chicken livers, bread, and bottles of unfined white Burgundy heavy with lees.

Another hour passed before the Americans rose from the table; they hated to impose, and they could not eat another bite. “But lunch has just begun,” Boillot protested. Resigned, the Americans moved into the dining room, where a large ham awaited. “You know,” one of them whispered, “we could be here a long time.”

Once everyone was seated, Boillot poured more wine and posed a question: Did the Americans know Paul Masson? Of course, they responded. Everyone knew the man who would sell no wine before its time. “He is from Volnay!” Boillot exclaimed. In fact, he continued, as a mousse of spring vegetables with tomato aspic arrived, he was a cousin. So saying, Boillot slipped away, promising to fetch a family photo album.

The third course consisted of wild salmon in ginger and lime and, naturally, more wine. But where was the host? He was taking a little nap, Philippe explained. But he would soon be back.

The vintner reappeared in time for the fourth course, a leg of lamb accompanied by more wine. By this time—though the Frenchmen spoke little English and the Americans’ French was rudimentary—the conversation had become animated. The two chefs engaged in a heated debate over the relative merits of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Boillot brought out the family album to document the ties between the Massons and the Boillots. The American women listened intently as one of the French women offered advice on amour. Cats roamed in and out of the dining room. Boillot napped again and returned. Time had lost all meaning as afternoon dwindled and the cheese tray appeared along with a bottle of marc, distilled from skins and twigs. “Drink up,” Boillot urged. “It will make room in your stomach for the cheeses.”

It also made room for a fruit salad, a Savoy cake, meringues, and coffee and cognac. Somebody looked at the clock. It was 7:30 pm. Now Boillot’s guests really had to go, they explained; it was time for dinner.

The lateness of the hour notwithstanding, it had been a memorable afternoon, with engaging conversation, delectable cuisine, and exquisite wines. “We should really send Mr. Boillot something when we get home,” said one of the women, as their Kombi rolled back to the barge.

Her husband knew just what the old vintner might like. “How about a bottle of Paul Masson?” 


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