Of Passions and Country Bistros

Quarré-les-Tombes, France -- When the French are passionate about something, and proud of what they do, there can be no end to their sharing those qualities with their guests. And Francis Salamolard of the charming Auberge de l’Atre at the edge of the Morvan forest in northern Burgundy is just that kind of Frenchman.

Along with his wife, Odile, this chef/innkeeper/mushroom expert and wine aficionado somehow juggles all the balls in the air, all the while playing perfect host in the lovingly restored auberge overlooking a forest of oak, beech, birch and evergreens that look as though Christmas might be right around the corner.

The fire glows in the hearth at both ends of the spotless hotel-restaurant, as Francis races around like a magician, excited about the morning’s mushroom harvest. Although French mushroom lovers predicted a dreadful fall crop due to the summer’s draught, the actual harvest has been small but exceptional in flavor: meaty mushrooms that are fragrant and powerful, and chefs are managing to extract extraordinary flavors from their treasures.

I wanted a simple weekday lunch and Francis came through, with a model platter of raw vegetables, with all manner of cucumbers and tomatoes, beets and celery root, melon and a touch of tomato. The requested main course --- nothing but mushrooms -- arrived fit for the leader of any kingdom, an avalanche of cepes (wild boletus), girolles (chanterelles) and pleurots (feather-edge mushrooms) cooked with precision and attention to detail with just a tiny bit of oil, a shower of shallots, a tangle of fresh parsley. From his vast cave came a sterling bottle of crisp, mineral-rich Chablis 1er cru from Francis and Jean-Marie Raveneau, their 1997 cuvée that somehow manages to offer all things for the palate: tastes of gunflint, bonbons, butter, and yet is refreshing and long-lasting in the mouth. Remarkable. And all the more remarkable when paired with a perfect platter of just-picked wild mushrooms, so good we asked for seconds.

Save some wine for the cheese course, for this is Burgundy cheese country: We savored the dreamy, unctuous double-cream Chaource, the golden, buttery, Epoisses-like Soumaintrain; and a local dry goat’s cheese, all served with a basket full of fresh walnuts.

I am already making plans to return, to sample some meatier fare: rabbit terrines and a saffron-tinged blanquette of monkfish; roasted guinea hen with the aromas of fresh rosemary; pigeon flavored with the local honey; and of course Burgundy’s famed chicken with tarragon cream. This sweet spot deserves every bit of its Michelin star.

If one ever doubted that those picture-book village bistros still existed then that person has not been to Les Minims, a solid and old-fashioned BurgundianPhoto of the bistro Les Minims bistro in the center of the charming village of Semur-en-Auxois. Here Eve-Lyne Bouy holds court, barking orders and acting tough, like all good bistro owners, amidst a tried and true décor of mahogany-colored moleskin banquettes and walls decorated with photos of past and present wine harvests. (Among the bric a brac displayed is the bistro’s award for receiving 3rd prize from the village for its Christmas window decoration in 2001.)

But as ever, it’s what’s on the plate here that counts and there is plenty of it – from tete de veau to pied de porc, clafoutis and profiteroles. But there is also lots of invention here, including a warming and welcome plate of ravioli filled with the ripe and pungent cow’s milk cheese, Epoisses. Equally delicious was the updated versions of the popular regional jambon persillé – or cubes of ham in a parsley-seasoned gelatin. Here, chunks of chicken as well as ham were suspended in the flavorful gelatin, making for a refreshing starter. The main course chicken in tarragon cream was all it should be, with a healthy hit of pungent tarragon.

For a simple bistro, the wine list is quite exceptional: Try Vincent Girardin’s red Chassagne-Montrachet 2000, a ruby-colored pinot noir rich with flavors of blackberries and cherries and well-priced here for 36 €.

An equally good meal and good time was had at La Pierre Sauvage, a country auberge/bistro just outside the city of Macon in southern Burgundy. This is a pastoral, picture-postcard corner of France, filled with compact farms of golden stone.

Sitting in the sun on the terrace of this pleasing auberge, we enjoyed a modern Burgundian version of snails, here bathed in a touch of cream, plenty of tomatoes, three different kinds of mushrooms and a touch of parsley. Sopping up the light, refreshing sauce with plenty of country bread, we sipped a simple Macon Villages from the nearby Domaine de la la Croix Senaillet.

The menu here – with fine cooking from chef-owner Annie Lionet -- offers something for everyone, including an excellent version of the local fromage fort – a strong cheese that combines aged goat cheese, a touch of Burgundian marc or eau-de-vie, and white wine. The cheese literally bursts in your mouth, and makes you want to come back for more.

Auberge de l’Atre
les Lavaults
89630 Quarré-les-Tombes
Tel: 03 86 32 20 79
Fax: 03 86 32 28 25
email: labergedelatre@free.fr
web: www.auberge-de-latre.com

Closed Tuesday dinner and all day Wednesday. Menus at 39.50 € and 47.50 €. A la carte, 35 to 65 €, including service but not wine. All major credit cards.

Les Minimes
39 rue des Vaux
21140 Semur en Auxois
Tel: 03 80 97 26 86.

Closed Sunday evening and all day Monday. About 35 € per person, including service but not wine. Credit card: Visa

La Pierre Sauvage
Col des Enceints
71520 Bourgvilain
(15 km from Mâcon, between Pierreclos and St-Point Lamartine)
Tel : 03 85 35 70 03
Fax : 03 85 35 74 71

Closed Tuesday and Wednesday in summer; Open Friday night to Sunday night in winter. A la carte, about 25 € per person, including service but not wine. Credit card: Visa.