Burgundy à Table: Beyond boeuf bourguignon

The Burgundians take their food very seriously, never more so than in the depths of winter, when chicken is celebrated and wild boar hunted and prepared for the table in myriad different dishes. In this extract from Académie du Vin Library's On Burgundy, Raymond Blake gets involved...

Words by Raymond Blake

On Burgundy
Raymond Blake's essay appears in On Burgundy, a compilation of pieces focused on the region

For those who have yet to visit Burgundy it is difficult to convey how seriously the Burgundians take their chicken. Worldwide, apart from some pockets of resistance, chicken must rank as the most dumbed-down foodstuff of all. Produced by the million, the pasty-fleshed, limp and characterless fowl comes in shrink-wrapped blobs of flesh and bone that are about as tasty as the packaging. Industrial methods of production have driven the price down and the flavour out. Quite how seriously was brought home to me when I attended a tasting of three dozen different breeds of bird, all raised and cooked by Frédéric Ménager, chef-proprietor of La Ferme de la Ruchotte, a hard-to-find, rustic restaurant set in farmland some dozen crow-flight kilometres northwest of Beaune. The Journée du Goût [taste day] involved four dozen tasters seated at six tables, each table being served six different breeds of chicken to select a favourite that then went forward to be compared to the other favourites, before a winner was declared. Almost as impressive as the firm flesh and full flavour were the evocative names: Poule du Vercors, Geline de Touraine, Combattant du Nord, Coucou de Rennes and the eventual champion Noire de Challans.

Wild boar roam the forested hilltop that runs for most of the length of the Côte d’Or

Such choreographed enjoyment sits at variance with my first experience of hure de sanglier, also known as fromage de tête or brawn. Sanglier is wild boar and they roam the forested hilltop that runs for most of the length of the Côte d’Or. Saturday mornings sees hunters in high-vis couture setting out in earnest pursuit of their quarry, which is eventually consumed in myriad iterations: rillettes de sanglier, terrine de sanglier, foie de sanglier and, finally, hure de sanglier. The preparation of this latter dish calls for commitment and skill – and a boar’s head.

First, it must be singed to rid it of bristles, for which task my neighbour Joël uses a lance-flamme – a large blowtorch of the sort municipal workers use to burn off road markings. It was the intermittent whooshing from this fearsome device that excited my curiosity one sunny and otherwise quiet morning. Looking out a bedroom window and into the next-door garden revealed the source so, with camera to hand, I immediately joined in the fun. But the singeing is only the first step, to bring the task to completion is a tedious business; the entry for hure in the Concise Larousse Gastronomique runs to about a-page-and-a-half of close-spaced text. Once the head is singed: ‘…scrape it out carefully, and bone it completely, without tearing the skin. Cut off the ears and set aside; remove the tongue and the fleshy parts attached to the skin…’ Many processes later: ‘Using thin wooden cocktail sticks (toothpicks), fix the ears, coated with a layer of brown chaud-froid sauce or dissolved meat glaze, in their correct positions… put the tusks back in their sockets and make eyes with hard-boiled (hard-cooked) egg white and truffles.’

The real enjoyment is in the preparation; it’s akin to a men’s shed project

In truth, hure de sanglier doesn’t reward the effort and the result is for strong-stomached trenchermen only, but to criticize it thus is to miss the point. The real enjoyment is in the preparation; it’s akin to a men’s shed project suffused with good humour, racy quips and ribald asides, and once Joël silenced the lance-flamme it was time for un casse-croûte (literally break-the-crust, or snack) accompanied by a bottle of wine, at 9.30am. The remainder of the day drifted away.