We’re in Dijon, a city of about 250,000. What Pittsburgh is (or once was) to steel, what Boston is to baked beans, what New Jersey is to ___________ (fill in the blank depending on the ordure of your last Garden State encounter), well, that is what Dijon is to mustard. Mustard, the ketchup of France. Just as Reims “(the champagne capital”) has vast underground caves crammed with millions of bottles of bubbly, one suspects that underlying the medieval city of Dijon are ginormous vaults into which are pumped lakes of yellow mustard. (DISCLOSURE: for those of you who don’t know us personally, the foregoing is, of course, hyperbole, authorized by a poetic license, which is proudly displayed on our main salon wall).
Dijon is a charming city. After six weeks of rural Bourgogne, however, any place with a traffic light takes on a fair amount of attraction. A place with not only traffic lights but choices of bars, cafes and restaurants, a place that sells pants to fit Harvey’s shrinking waistline, a place in which if one boulangerie is closed “(But messieur, of course we are open seven days a week, but not today, today is Tuesday”) then the one next door will be open, such a place, whether or not it is “the mustard capital,” gets our attention. Dijon, however, is more than mustard. It is the former capital of the Ducs, (that isn’t “ducks,” although the barge is surrounded by what appears to be a rare breed of nocturnal barking ducks, but the French spelling of “Dukes,” as in the “Dukes of Hazard,” but with more class and fewer souped-up Pontiacs) the Ducs of Burgundy. Back when Burgundy was its own nation, back when this slice of what is now France also included the Netherlands (acquired as the dowry of a Dutch princess marrying a Burgundian duc), Dijon was the capital city of a country as politically powerful as its neighbor, called “France.” Its medieval downtown is chock-a-block with 800-year-old timber-framed buildings, churches and palaces.
Palaces, statues and mansions of the various ducs abound: Phillip the Bold, John the Good, John the Fearless, Robert the Old and, finally, Mary the Rich. Makes you wonder how these ducs received their honorifics. Did they get to choose their own titles? They could not have been bestowed on them at birth, or at their assumption of the ducdom (see, for example, Robert the Old). You can’t help but be impressed by the perspicacity in distinguishing between Phillip the Bold and John the Fearless. In any case, any of these titles is preferable to the Transylvanian king Vlad the Impaler.
Dijon’s main church features Europe’s largest herd (they can’t come in “gaggles”) of gargoyles.
We went on a guided walking tour of the historic district and enjoyed it so much we returned the next day for a walking tour of Dijon gastronomy, which was mainly about mustard, with a bit of spiced bread (“similar to the spiced bread in Reims, but we use better wheat”) and an introduction to kir, the Cassis liquor named after a former mayor of Dijon, a “mad monk” who adored the drink. Kir, we were told, should only be sipped undiluted, except when it is added to white wine or, even better to champagne (a “kir royale”) or it can be dribbled over ice cream. And always buy the bottle with the highest alcohol content, the sign of quality. Buy square bottles rather than round ones. And drink it within a year or it goes bad. That is everything you will ever need to know about kir, except why a “mad monk” ever became mayor of a capital city.
But mustard was the main attraction. We went to the Maille mustard store, the major mustard manufacturer of Dijon, before a certain Messieur Poupon made an offer to Messieur Maille that he could not refuse. We did our first (and most likely, last, after all, how many of these can one do) mustard tasting, carefully dipping little tasteless baked swizzle sticks into small mustard pots and commenting on the distinction between mustard vin blanc and mustard Chablis (“slightly fruity with a hint of chamomile, would go well with, let me think, yes, a Fenway frank”). The highlight was watching people bring in their mustard pots to be refilled at the mustard fountains, three taps offering a wide selection: mustard vin blanc, mustard Chablis and, of course, the original recipe, mustard anciens.
Not a jar of Guldens in sight, and surprisingly, not a bottle of French’s mustard in the entire city.
We’re waiting for the grandkids (and their parents, who made themselves relatively extraneous by spawning) to arrive later today for two weeks on the boat. We then have two days motoring to the end of the Burgundy Canal at the “barge capital of France,” Saint Jean de Losne. This canal, which we entered at the end of June, is 242 kilometers, about 150 miles, with 189 locks, 112 of them carrying us up to the summit, at which there was a 3.5 kilometer tunnel, and another 76 locks dropping us down to the River Saone. We’ll go on from Saint Jean de Losne (“the barge capital of France”) to the River Doubs, which will take us toward the German and Swiss borders, on the way to our winter home at the city of Epinal, in far eastern France. But we have at least two more months of cruising before then. So, there’s plenty more to come before our hibernation.
AN APOLOGY – sorry about the gap in blogs recently. It is due to a lack of wireless internet coverage in the countryside, combined with our profligacy in going through our monthly allotment of 3 gigabytes. But Dijon has a McDonalds, our reliable link with the web.