Playing French, eating like a Bourgondier
Belgians consider themselves quite the lovers of good food and drink. So much so, that they created a term for that side of themselves. Know what they chose? “Burgondiers.” That is, people from Burgundy. France.
If your food and wine are so good that when other people want to exclaim how good their eating is, they compare themselves to you? You’re probably doing something right.
So when I got to Burgundy, arriving through the sort of scenery that could drive an Impressionist into ecstasy and/or insanity, soft green hills supporting sprays of lavender blossoms and tranquil white cows, and learned that those cows are specifically bred and destined to be boeuf bourguignon, I knew what I had to order for dinner that night. You see, it’s a tour guide’s responsibility to know what he’s talking about, and I am determined to pass on that little animal husbandry factoid to tour members for years to come.
But do real life Bourgondiers eat only this apogee of beef stew? Non non non! The meal began, of course, with a small metal plate like a watercolor palette, each of whose half dozen concave niches held an impressively large snail shell. The verdant green of the herb and garlic sauce erupting around each mollusc was delicious to the eyes. Escargot, si vous plaits. Très délicieux!
Then came the boeuf bourguignon, so tender and savory that it deserved each and every one of those superfluous letters to ornament its palatial presence on the plate. But was that all? Time to go home? Non! And what was next? Why, fromage of course!
The three wedges of cheese arrived like something out of Greek Mythology. Three sisters of ominous potency, unique in character but sharing origin and essence. They built upon one another’s strength in a potent triumvirate, from the seductive creaminess of the first, through the herbal punch of the second, and into the toe jammy potency of the third. And of course, my wine was tailored to match, because we are civilized creatures.
I savored every slith and slythe of cheese on taste bud, and when the plate held only a smear to trace my achievement, my belly felt plump as, well, as a farmhouse cheese. No way I could fit anything else in there.
So it was time for dessert. When it arrived, I looked at the sugared expanse with remorse, knowing I was inadequate to the task. But wait! I was not alone at the table! Two new friends framed my overloaded belly, but alas, one of my mentor’s orientation culture talks mentioned that Europeans do not share food the way Americans do.
“You are always passing your plates around, saying ‘Try this!’ What is that? Why do you do this? No, we don’t do it. You order your own food and you eat it. By yourself.” Suddenly those words were like smoke signals from my rescue ship as it steamed off towards the horizon without me, leaving me lost, abandoned, hopeless in a sea of creme brulee.
But I am not a European. And as an apprentice guide, I am granted a certain amount of leeway. Cultural compromise, if you will. With my mentor’s mercenary help, our two tiny spoons progressed through the wealth of perfectly golden vanilla bean luxuriance.
So the Belgians claim culinary sophistication and epicurean qualification by comparing themselves to Bourgondiers? Yeah, they got that one right.