Friday, September 14, 2012

Heading North

We're clearly no longer in Aix. The sun is gone, thick clouds have moved in, it’s dreary and it's raining. Burgundy and its famous wines are lovely but I so miss the southern sun.

A mere five hours on the autoroute and we’d arrived in a different world. You can drop France into America’s second largest state with a few stray Texan angles poking out, but the geographical variety found in the hexagon outdoes the Lone Star State, hands down. Every corner has its own special treasures and we’ve loved getting to know so many of them but the stops we planned for the five days our way up to Paris would all be in areas new to us: Burgundy, Lorraine and Picardy.

As we left Aix and headed north, we waved goodbye to the fields of sunflowers flanking either side of the highway. We passed by their heavy, bowing heads that just like the lavender, were done with the season, their broad round faces all tired and brown. And so the recitation of our on the road “lasts” began: we saw our last sunflowers; we picked up our last rental car; we paid our last toll; we stopped at our last rest stop; we exited our last autoroute. There would be countless more Gap Year “lasts” in the coming days and each time we checked them off, it took just a little something out of me.

I thought of the string of valedictions behind us – the farewells we’d said to places, images, people and experiences – and it reminded me of the things we’d left strewn in our wake. All along the way, every time we repacked, we did everything we could to lighten our heavy load. I convinced Joe to finally say goodbye to the rarely used, clumsy golf umbrella he lugged along for eight months (I called it Albie, short for Albatross). And there are t-shirts, shorts, socks, jeans, sweaters, scarves and guidebooks -- in bus depots, train stations and hotel rooms, on park benches, train compartment seats and tourist office bookcases. We generated a trail of laundry -- things either no longer needed or that we could no longer bear to wear -- from France to Turkey and abandoned a packed duffle on wheels in a train station in Sicily. The note said, “I’m for whomever wants me.” Throughout our trip, I anticipated the day, with both dread and more than a little amusement, that we would see someone on a train or on a line in front of us wearing one of Joe’s discarded sweaters or my oversized sweatpants.

Just in time, our arrival at the incomparable pink and green shuttered Bernard Loiseau country auberge in tiny Saulieu, smack in the middle of vineyard-rich Burgundy, snapped me out of my soulful reverie looking backwards. It was time to face forward and appreciate present pleasures. For years I had hoped to one day visit the legendary inn (where everything is about the food), lovingly built around the three-starred Michelin restaurant as its centerpiece, despite the fact that the property is burdened with a tragic story. I had learned about the establishment and its chef, Bernard Loiseau, a deeply troubled, driven, perfectionist husband and father of three, in an interview with his wife on the French program, Champs-Elysées.

In 2003 at age 52 and in the depths of clinical depression, Bernard committed suicide at his home around the corner from the restaurant after putting in a full day’s work in the kitchen amid rumors that his restaurant was on the verge of losing one of its three stars. He had worked tirelessly for 17 years to establish his preeminence and earn his bona fides, yet was deeply in debt and had grown increasingly despondent. His aggrieved yet accomplished widow, Dominique, took over the business, which not only survived the family tragedy but also prospered under her direction. The ironic chapter of the sad story is that the restaurant was never downgraded, never lost a star and in the hands of new executive chef, Patrick Bertron, has thrived.

We spent two nights at the Relais Bernard Loiseau and ate our way through our first ever three-star meal. The rustically elegant dining room was warmly decorated, dimly lit and looked out on a leafy garden courtyard. The meal did not disappoint. For over two hours we surrendered to the sheer love of eating and delighted in savoring every dish, gourmandise and mignardise put in front of us. Every mouthful was exquisite, each a tiny spoonful of sublime nuggets with subtle flavors, and all accompanied by a delicate Pouilly-Fuissé. Our dinner was outstanding and faultlessly executed, the atmosphere was relaxed, the service was friendly and unhurried and there were no pretentions to be found.

While we certainly missed the blue skies of Aix, the dining room radiance of our dinner in Burgundy went a long way towards easing our ache for the sun. Through the power of taste and a fine dining experience, we paid tribute to Bernard Loiseau, his passion for food and the classic French restaurant he left behin

Pictures of our adventures:

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