Dijon: Gastronomy, Wine & History in Burgundy
By Mary Anne Evans
Dijon, the capital of the rich Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, may be one of the less visited cities in Burgundy, but as far as gastronomy and wine are concerned, it’s right up there with France’s best. And as I discovered on a visit recently, there’s a whole lot more to Dijon than mustard.
An International Gastronomic City
Dijon hit the news in April 2022 when the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin opened. Just beyond the railway station, the 16-acre site took over what, for the last 800 years, had been a hospital. And it’s an entirely appropriate addition; in 2010 UNESCO added the ‘French gastronomic meal’ to its list of intangible heritage sites.
Walk into the modern entrance and ponder where to start. As you’re here primarily for the gastronomy part, go upstairs to the four French Dining Exhibitions. You’ll find an intriguing mix of sections around tableware, films on food (I could watch the short Babette’s Feast sequence for hours), and a series of exhibits that you touch and smell and guess what it is you’re touching and smelling. It’s full of families having a great, sometimes competitive, time.
Once you’ve done the food part, make your way to the rather enigmatically named section, The 1204. It covers 2,000 years of Dijon’s history distilled into a series of rooms full of images, films and models.
Set slightly apart from the main building sits the charming chapel now housing Climats and terroirs, an exhibition introducing you to those hallowed Burgundy vineyards and wines. Don’t miss the separate little 1459 Sainte-Croix-de-Jérusalem chapel, the only part of the medieval hospital left. Sit on a bench, listen to the music and contemplate the frescoes and altar in front of you.
Eight shops, mainly food shops with one selling books and a second kitchen utensils, occupy a large space; they’re very good, very chic, and very expensive.
But the main purpose here is food…and drink. If you’re here for the wine, make for the Cave de la Cité wine cellar. Three floors contain 3,000 different wines from around the world, though the majority are from Burgundy. 250 wines are available by the glass, dispensed from nifty machines, and activated by a card you’ve bought for however much you want to spend. There’s a choice of 3, 6 or 12 cl measures, each costing from 2.50 to 9.50 euros (for a small glass of a Burgundy Grand Cru).
And of course you can eat here. La Table des Climats restaurant is superb, as good as its very French, rather pompous, description of itself as a Vinostronomique implies. They help you match superb wines to great dishes. Menus are from 32 euros to 71 euros. Add the suggested wines or ask the sommelier for advice.
More Food Shopping and Tasting
A wander through the cobbled streets of the old town took me to the charming Mulot et Petitjean at 16 Rue de la Liberté. The windows are full to bursting with beautifully wrapped packets, colorful boxes and tins of pain d’épice, or to us, gingerbread. Inside the small shop, restored in 1919 to its original 19th-century splendor, there are more delights and a quick tasting of different types of the local delicacy. The dry gingerbread is perfect for making a crumble topping; a universal favorite is the sweetest made with honey from bees in the Morvan mountains.
Dijon and Mustard?
No visit to Dijon would be complete without a mustard tasting; after all, isn’t moutarde de Dijon what the city is famous for? As it turns out, it’s not quite so straightforward. Dijon mustard is not protected by an official geographic protection label like Brie or Cantal cheeses or Burgundy wines where the products are made in that particular region and made exclusively according to ingredients and recipes. So anyone can make Dijon mustard (and many companies around the world do).
But there is protection. Look for the Burgundy label (indication géographique protégée). You’re getting a genuine ‘Moutarde de Bourgogne’ made from seeds grown in Burgundy and made with Burgundy AOC white wine rather than vinegar. For the real thing, go to the main Edmond Fallot shop in rue de la Chouette to taste a variety of mustards dispensed onto a small wooden spoon. Tastes and combinations vary wildly: for me, Dijon gingerbread didn’t go down as well as a herby tarragon. Edmond Fallot is one of the best known names still making traditional mustards, along with Maille (at 32, rue de la Liberté), Grey Poupon and Amora.
A little wine tasting
Burgundy is one of the world’s great wine-producing regions…with prices to match. But there is hope. All the sommeliers and wine shops we visited were championing the same thing: wines that come from vineyards or climats that mere mortals can afford. They’re located right beside the Grand Cru vines: same climate, same soil, same grape…just without the AOC label, and the hefty price. And unless you’re a real connoisseur, you’ll find them similar to those grand names that dominate the world.
Dr Wine, at 5 Rue Musette, is a delightful restaurant/bar in an industrial style space with an outside terrace for summer dining. Order from the short but excellent menu (menus from 18 to 32 euros) and let the staff advise on wine.
La Source des Vins, 6 bis Rue Michelet, is another top venue where bottles of wine range from 12 euros to 2,000 euros. Hadika Simon, originally from Beaune, started this small wine shop in 2018. Downstairs a tutored tasting, with a board of charcuterie, cheeses, grapes and figs, takes you from a Village classified wine to a Premier Cru. At 20 to 25 euros per session, it’s a great way to taste top Burgundy wines.
We finished off with nectar – in the form of a Cassis de Dijon from a small vineyard started by Jean-Baptiste Joannet. Still family owned, this is a spectacular Cassis, traditionally mixed with white Burgundy wine for an aperitif. It may cost more than usual: 17 euros for a half bottle and 35 for a full bottle, but this is the one to go for.
A Wine Tour
It was a cold, wet autumn day when we took a wine tour with Chemins de Bourgogne. Sébastien Maurin started the business after leaving London where he was the first sommelier at Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch. Sébastien’s English is impeccable; his enthusiasm catching, and his knowledge impressive. Six of us in a minivan bowled along roads and down tracks past the vineyards, most of them divided into small parcels of ownership. Just a few workers were tending to the vines so we missed the sight of horses and carts used in the summer, increasingly used here as the impact on the soil is so much lighter than tractors. Many of the owners are upgrading their wines from Village (the lowest classification) to Premier Cru, a process which in bureaucratic-heavy France takes up to 10 years.
And to finish the tour, a wine tasting in Gevrey-Chambertin at the Domaine de Quivy. Family owned (as so many Burgundy vineyards are), its location guarantees a good wine. And these were exceptional.
The Heart of the Old Quarter
Back in Dijon, the charming old city centres around the magnificent Palace of the Dukes and Estates of Burgundy. Originally a fortress for the Gallo-Roman city, the present building is, as with so many grand buildings in France, a grand mix of styles and eras. The most prominent old part is the large tower built by Philip the Good in the mid 15th century. The square tower dominates the 18th-century classical palace (climb the 316 steps to the top for a panoramic view). The newest part is the 19th-century façade of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Don’t miss this museum which contains a superb collection of medieval art. For me, as for many people, the stand-outs are the two spectacular tombs of Philip the Bold and his son, John the Fearless who lies here with his wife, Margaret. Philip and John were the first of the four dukes (followed by Philip the Good and Charles the Bold), who between 1342 and 1477 made Burgundy one of the most powerful and richest regions of Europe, and by extension, the western world.
The figures are colourful, but the most impressive part of the tombs are the statues of the weepers (mourners) who surround the base, each with a different expression, and each looking almost alive. They were the work of the Dutch-born Claus Sluter who lived in Burgundy from 1380. I hadn’t heard of him but he was the pioneer of a style of northern art that influenced Jan van Eyck and a later generation of Old Masters.
The Lofty Gothic Cathedral
You may have spotted two multi-colored tile roofs as the train drew into Dijon station. They cover the towers of the Saint-Bénigne cathedral. Built on a former Romanesque abbey church, the cathedral’s original crypt is being restored and re-opens in 2024 when those typical rounded arches and Romanesque carvings can be seen in all their glory. The interior of the cathedral is Gothic: a soaring interior where the chairs, paintings and even the organ with its massive pipes and statues are dwarfed by the high, curving roof.
The cathedral is just one of the churches that in the Middle Ages earned Dijon the title of the ‘City of One Hundred Steeples’. Dijon is compact and walking through the small streets it’s easy to imagine how incredibly noisy it must have been as the bells of every church peeled out the hours.
A Walking Trail
Dijon is a relatively small city and its old centre is traffic-free apart from a free shuttle that runs regularly from the tram and bus stations. The pedestrian-only streets give visitors the time, and freedom, to wander.
Follow the official Owl Trail from Notre-Dame church (where the owl on the wall has been rubbed shiny with people touching it and making a wish), past the different attractions. Get the owl guide booklet from the Tourist Office; without it I would have missed the clock with two figures striking the quarter hour on the south tower of the cathedral (coming out of the cathedral I was avoiding puddles), and the Jardin de l’Arquebuse just outside the main sites, where phylloxera was first spotted in July 1878 in the Côte-d’Or. Wait a minute. Phylloxera in Dijon? Well yes. Dijon was once a thriving wine producer, and the city is now planting 50 hectares of vines under the Burgundy AOC. Côte de Dijon could well be a name to look out for in the future.
I left Dijon promising myself to return very soon. Next visit, I’ll dig a little deeper into the gastronomy and visit the Mulot et Petitjean factory showing the history and techniques of making those delicious pains d’épice; take an (electric) bike ride through those vineyards, and visit the remains of the former monastery, the Chartreuse de Champmol in the Jardin de l’Arquebuse which I missed due to lack of time. It’s a peaceful place at one end of the garden, taking the visitor back to Philip the Bold. The first duke founded the monastery as a burial place for the Valois dynasty in the 1380s, and as a showpiece for the finest medieval art of the time. After the French Revolution and the dispersal of so much of the art, there’s not much left here. But what there is here is well worth the visit: sculptures on the church entrance by Claus Sluter and life-sized figures of the Old Testament prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah on the Well of Moses.
I had seen such a lot; I had missed such a lot, like dinner in the conservatory restaurant at the Grand Hôtel de la Cloche just by the Jardin d’Arcy, named after the 19th-century engineer who brought running water into Dijon and…I leave it up to you to discover more about Dijon.
For more information, visit the Dijon Tourist Office.
Mary Anne Evans is a former magazine editor and now a freelance travel writer living in London but partly spending her time at her 400-year old house in the remote French area of the Auvergne. She is the author of guide books to Brussels, Bruges and Stockholm, and contributes to Frommer’s Guides to London and France. She also writes extensively about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. Her website is Mary Anne’s France.