Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Deep France

Traveling in a land and among a people steeped in grace and tradition

This is the family Pertuzot Cornu, winemakers in the tiny community of Échevronne (pop. 271), in Burgundy’s famous Côtes de Beaune, and a stone’s throw south of the Cote de Nuits. They are at the heart of this story, and in fact the highlight of the entire two and a half days we spent in France. I tell you this because the material culture we experienced there was so overwhelming that it can be easy to forget that it all comes from people — dear people like the Pertuzots and the Cornus, inheritors of a great tradition. Keep that in mind as you read what follows. We’ll be meeting them again at the end of the story.

Sordello and I flew into Lyon from Rome last Friday afternoon. It took an hour, and cost only something like $75 — much cheaper and faster than the train. Europe has been suffering from an extraordinary heat wave, the edge of which was blunted by Siena’s location in the comparatively dry Tuscan hills. In Siena, it cooled off at night. But in Lyon, which sits astride the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône rivers, there was no escaping the humidity. If you have ever been in New Orleans at the height of the summer, you know what we experienced in Lyon. New Orleans, however, is used to that kind of weather, or as used to it as you can ever become. Lyon is not. Air conditioning is still unusual there, because these temperatures are quite uncommon.

That first night, we met the distinguished Swiss French religious historian Jean-François Mayer for a delicious dinner in Old Lyon, across the Saône from our hotel. Jean-François, who, like me, is a Russian Orthodox convert, had recently written something about the Benedict Option, and as Providence would have it, we were going to be in Lyon on the same weekend, and so arranged to have dinner. The inimitable James C. took the train down, and we gathered at the Boeuf d’Argent restaurant for a long dinner.

The food was excellent, but I can’t remember any details. This is not a comment on the food, but on the even greater excellence of Jean-François’s company. Surely he is one of the most fascinating dining companions I have ever had: charming, amiable, and deeply knowledgeable about religion and culture. I could have listened to him all night.

We spoke for a while about the Benedict Option. He said it is an idea whose time has come. There are people all over Europe, he said, who are thinking the same thoughts, but nobody has put a name to it until now. There is a deep sense among a strand of Europeans — mostly Christians, but some not — who intuit a profound civilizational crisis, and who feel the need to prepare for difficult times. He strongly encouraged me to get busy writing the book.

On the walk back to our hotel — the blessedly air-conditioned Hotel des Artistes on the place des Célestins, a small inn that’s further blessed by a very friendly staff — Jean-François took us through one of the famous traboules of Lyon’s old city. I say “famous,” but I had never heard of them; it turns out that Old Lyon is known for these secret passageways honeycombing the quarter:

Between courtyards and through buildings, secret alleyways and staircases once provided safe and efficient passage for silk workers to get their wares to and from market unmarred. Now partially open to the public, many of the traboules worm through several buildings forming a secret continuous covered passageway.

The word ‘traboules’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’, or ‘to pass through’, and the earliest date from the 4th century, built to allow more direct access to the town’s fresh water source than the winding streets provided. There may be as many as 400 traboules in town – unfortunately only a small percentage of them are open to the public, mostly located primarily in the historic Vieux-Lyon and Croix-Rousse areas.

What a fascinating city! Lyon was founded by the Romans in 43 BC, and became the capital of Gaul. Some of the earliest martyrs of the Church, including the city’s first bishop, St. Ponthin, met their deaths at a Roman amphitheatre there in the year 177. St. Ponthin had been sent to evangelize Lyon (then called Lugdunum) by St. Polycarp , Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of St. John the Apostle. That is how ancient Lyon’s lineage in the faith is.

On Saturday morning, we went to the farmer’s market along the river a block from our hotel. Nobody does these markets like the French. It was a culinary wonderland. Here, for example, are the apricots for sale:


And here, the radishes:


And the lettuces:


The roasting chickens, and the potatoes:


Aside from the great abundance of produce, cheese, meats, olives, jellies, and the like, the thing that always impresses me about these markets is that they aren’t a chi-chi foodie or a hipster thing; this is how ordinary French people buy their groceries in season. They also go to the Carrefour or the Monoprix — I went to Monoprix to stock up on bricks of French butter, and tubes of Amora hot mustard, to bring home — but the market is ordinary. We walked through the market with deep delight, stopping to taste and to talk to the sellers.

James and I met an incredibly nice young French woman, Tiffany, who sold tripe and terrine. She told us that she and her husband were the last traditional tripe producers left in town, because the Lyonnais are losing their taste for it. When the Italians visit her stand, though, they go crazy for her trippa. I’m not one for tripe, or chitlins, as we call them, but I did buy a slab of Tiffany’s terrine, which was beyond delicious. She was so nice to talk to that as James and I were walking away, he commented ironically, “Isn’t it terrible, how snobbish and cold the French are?”

It was the kind of comment we found ourselves making several times as we had the most enjoyable series of encounters with French people. Contrary to the stereotypical American expectation, not once was anyone rude to us, and in fact they were usually quite friendly. One older gentleman I met in a store selling knives recalled how much he had enjoyed being present at the launch of Apollo 11. He switched to English to say, “That is one small step for the man, one giant leap for the humanity.” It turns out that he is Michel Godet, a food critic for the Gault-Millau guide and his own website, Lyon-Saveurs. Walking away from his shop with a happy Francophilic glow on both our faces, James said again, “Aren’t the French just awful?”

Anyway, at the market that morning, I bought several small jars of honey — rosemary, mountain wildflower, even an unusual honey produced bees who frequent carrot flowers — and three dried sausages: one from wild boar meat, one from standard pork, but smoked, and a third mixed with Comté cheese. I bought olives, apricots, and fresh cherries too, and goat cheese, and bread. We went back to our hotel room to feast in the air conditioning.

The oppressive heat made it hard to knock around the city as much as we would have liked. I cut out to restock the family condiment larder from Monoprix, which is kind of like the Target of France, but they sell groceries there too. You can get all kinds of delicious French butters there, and good mustards; everyday French products are delicious. I also brought some pre-packaged mayonnaises we found we liked when we were there three years ago, and some fine fleur de sel, which is ridiculously cheap in France. I made a stop by the parapharmacie to buy some products Julie requested, and found a Mariage Frères tea counter inside the Printemps department store to fulfill Nora’s request for her favorite tea.

After unloading my bag back at the hotel, we took the funicular to see the Fourvières basilica on top of the steep hill overlooking the city. It is a 19th century church built by the Lyonnaises to thank the Virgin for her prayers in helping them avoid plague and war, but also, it must be admitted, as a reaction against the socialist commune (this is why Sacre Coeur basilica was built in Paris too). I’m not an admirer of the church architecture of that era, but the mosaics inside the basilica were beautiful, and the view over the city from the hill, where the Roman forum was during antiquity, is marvelous. We walked down the hill a bit to the museum of Gallo-Roman history, but it had gotten so late that we decided not to go in.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was so put out by the hideous Brutalist design of the building (1975) that avoiding going in was an easy decision to make. It looked like an outpost of the Stasi. We learned earlier that a progressive 1970s mayor of Lyon had been a big fan of Brutalism, and had proposed destroying the historic buildings of Old Lyon to construct a poured-concrete Brutalist paradise. He failed at that, but the Brutalists did succeed in defacing a significant portion of Lyon. Take a look at this photo tour of the chief Brutalist buildings of the city, done by a fan of the style. You can see the Musée Gallo-Romain in the collection. This style is the antithesis of beauty, a concrete boot stamping on the face of all who have to look at it, forever.

We walked back down the hill, and stopped into the medieval Lyon cathedral of St. John the Baptist, at the base of the slope and in the heart of Old Lyon. This, not Notre Dame de Paris, is the primatial cathedral of France, because the Archbishop of Lyon has been since the Middle Ages the Primate of France. I was startled to discover that the two 13th-century Councils of Lyon had been held right in this cathedral, where I stood. The latter council, in 1245, was the last attempt to heal the Great Schism between East and West. The Byzantine emperor backed the council’s resolution, but the Orthodox clergy and people back home did not accept it, so it was null and void as far as the East was concerned. I said a prayer there for the healing of the schism, which at this late date will require a powerful miracle of God.

The cathedral was sacked by Calvinists during the Reformation, and the tomb of St. Irenaeus, a second-century Bishop of Lyon and one of the great saints of the early church, was broken into, and his bones destroyed.

I had hoped to go to the northern part of the city, to the Croix-Rousse district, to visit the Roman-era Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, where the first Christian martyrs of Lyon went to their deaths in the year 177. I had also hoped to go to the Paul Bocuse food hall in that part of the city. But the heat was too much. We found a shady cafe near the cathedral, drank a bottle of cold, bone-dry Provençal rosé, and tried to cool off. The cold, snobbish French waiter, seeing how much we were suffering from the heat, brought out a wine bucket filled with ice-cold water, and some napkins for us to dip into it to cool our faces. Awful, the French, the way they treat Americans.

Back home this morning, reading the church historian Eusebius’s long quotation from a letter witnesses to the 48 Lyon martyrdoms sent recalling the horrifying incident, I bitterly reproached myself for not making the trip, despite the heat. Had you ever heard of St. Blandine? I had not. She was a slave who endured the worst of all the tortures before dying a martyr. Read that Eusebius document. Stupidly, I had not read it before I went to Lyon; had I done so, going to pray at the site of their martyrdom would have been the first thing I would have done. Alas, I am a glutton who thinks first of his taste buds and his stomach. Prior to this trip, when I thought of Lyon, I thought of Paul Bocuse, not Irenaeus or the Lyonnaise martyrs.

Dinner that night was at the Café Comptoir Abel, a place I chose because Bill Buford recommended it as having the best quenelles in the city, and had taken Anthony Bourdain to eat there in his great CNN episode about Lyon. Abel is a bouchon, a traditional Lyonnais eating place favored by silk workers of centuries past. Bouchons feature rustic food, which in this city means meat and heavy dishes — exactly the opposite of what you want to eat when it’s over 100 degrees outside, but hey, we were in Lyon, and we were going to eat like Lyonnais.

The bouchon was in an old building with plaster walls and exposed timbers. This was a lovely place, but there was nothing fancy about it. It was extremely homey, though sweltering inside, even though the staff had opened all the doors onto the terrace to let in as much air as they could. We ordered a carafe of red wine and one of white, but it was too hot to drink much more than water.

Here’s the Abel menu. I began with a salade gourmande, which was a green salad with haricots verts (those matchstick-thin French green beans), fresh mushrooms, in a mustard vinaigrette, with a side slab of pâte de foie gras. Sordello had the straight foie, and James C. ordered the lentilles de Puy with slices of sausage:


Here’s a close-up James took of his lentil dish:


I tasted James’s lentils, and I tell you, I have never, ever eaten lentils as delicious as these. They had been dressed with a bit of Dijon mustard, which gave them tang. It might have been a sweatbox in that cafe, but I could have eaten a bucket of those hearty lentils.

And then came dinner. Sordello had the quenelles, called “pike dumplings” on the English menu, an infelicitous translation (though I can’t come up with a better one) that cannot begin to express the qualities of the dish. I have never tasted anything quite like it. This tells you what goes into a quenelle de Lyon.  It is creamed filet of pike whipped with egg, flour, and butter, into an impossibly light mousse, then poached, and served in a creamy, crawfishy sauce. Imagine a fish stick crossed with a wedding cake. Wait, no, don’t imagine that; it sounds disgusting. There is nothing like it in my experience. The texture is almost custard-like; you could eat it with a spoon. Here is what Sordello’s quenelle looked like:


The taste is richer than I have the words to describe. This photo James took of me tasting quenelles for the first time says it all:


I ordered the chicken in mushroom cream sauce, featuring fresh morels:


The chicken itself was fine, but that sauce! It was a wonder. How the chef perfectly embedded the woody intensity of the mushrooms within the richness of the butter, I can only dream of accomplishing in my kitchen one day. Wait, forget it; I can no more do that than I could create a fresco by embedding pigment in plaster like a Sienese master. The thing is, it’s astonishing to me to think that you can just walk in off the street in Lyon, like an ordinary person, and experience greatness at this level for not a lot of money. Again, this is not haute cuisine, but cuisine de grand-mère — Grandma’s cooking.

James C., a much more adventurous eater than Your Working Boy, had the andouillette, or chitlin sausage, a Lyon specialty:


He pronounced it wondermous. I will never know from personal experience.

It was 10pm when we ordered dessert. I checked the temperature on my iPhone: 91 degrees. If it was that hot outside, it was that hot inside the restaurant. I believed it. I asked the waitress to hold the warm chocolate sauce that came over my chestnut sorbet. She understood.

As we awaited dessert, a young priest wearing a cassock emerged from the hallway behind us. And then another, and still another. By the time the group was complete, there were eight or so cassock-wearing priests standing in the room, and not a one appearing to be over 30 years of age. James spoke to one of them, and sure enough, these were traditionalists of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. They had been in a banquet room upstairs, celebrating someone’s ordination, I think. My French isn’t good enough to have followed the conversation James had with the young curé, but I was struck by the light in his face, and his plain happiness. As the men left, James said, “That’s how the Church is going to be renewed.” May it be so!

Here we are outside, after the best meal we had in France (which, considering how good they all were, was really saying something):

photo-5Those are three happy men, I tell you what.

The next day, we set off for Burgundy. James had rented a car so we could get out of the city, and with him behind the wheel, we made for the town of Cluny, so we could visit the remains of the great medieval Benedictine monastery — the greatest medieval monastery, in fact. Founded in 910 by the Duke of Aquitaine, the Cluny abbey, at its height, had founded over 1,000 daughter houses throughout Europe, and was extremely wealthy and powerful within the Church. Its decline began long before the French Revolution, but the Revolution finished it off. The revolutionary state seized all monastic properties and dispersed the monks. Within a generation of the Revolution, people began using the medieval abbey, second only to St. Peter’s as the largest church in Europe, as a quarry by the townspeople.

That’s right: they demolished nearly the entire abbey and used the stones to build other things. Only about five percent of the original abbey remains standing. We look at the Islamist radicals doing things like blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas, or flattening the city of Palmyra, and think that these things are far beyond us. We are wrong. We did it to Cluny.

This fragment of the southern transept is the only part of the main church still standing. I could not capture its full length in a photo; Sordello, the person standing there, gives you an idea of its immensity:


They destroyed almost all of it.

It was hard not to think about the current paroxysm in the US to remove from public life nearly every vestige of the Confederacy. As you may recall, I have supported taking down the Confederate flag, but it has been disturbing to see how far the anti-flag forces have gone with their crusade. None of this remotely comes close to the annihilation of the Cluny abbey, whose architectural beauty and historical importance is unmatched by anything from the Old South. The only equivalent thing I could imagine is burning down or otherwise dismantling antebellum plantation homes, which no one has suggested. Still, the fate of Cluny is an important reminder of how barbaric it can be to attempt to erase history because it is associated with a government or social order we find wicked.

Shoot, as far as I’m concerned, all the Brutalist buildings can go, because they are extraordinarily ugly. As I think I mentioned to James walking down the hill from the Gallo-Roman museum, as hideous as that structure is, and as inhuman as the ideology that caused it to come into existence, there’s a part of me that puts on the brakes when people start talking about demolition. The people who erected those baleful concrete hulks thought they were putting up something beautiful too.

Cluny had also suffered serious damage during the post-Reformation Wars of Religion. Huguenots sacked the monastery and destroyed its vast library. They also defaced these stone carvings of saints and Biblical figures in a 15th-century side chapel:

photo-10 photo-9

I had not wanted to see the short 3D film for visitors to Cluny, but I’m glad James and Sordello talked me into it. It was well worth it, if only to be reminded of the ideas behind the religious vision that built the monastery. The medieval mind considered the world to be an icon; the abbey was meant to be a representation of the cosmos. Cluny was known for its liturgical richness … but also its plain old worldly richness, as the film doesn’t say (the Cistercians and the Carthusians were reform orders that emerged out of reaction to Cluny’s worldliness). Still, watching the film confirmed within me my longing for the medieval worldview of a meaningful cosmos, and a world enchanted by the felt presence of God in all things.

Looking out the window of a 13th-century granary on the abbey grounds, it occurred to me that this is not too far from what someone standing in the same place not long after the barn was built would have seen:


“This is a real-life Benedict Option, for better and for worse,” I said to my friends as we walked the monastery grounds. Look:

The early Cluniac establishments had offered refuges from a disordered world, but by the late 11th century, Cluniac piety permeated society. This is the period that achieved the final Christianization of the heartland of Europe.

At its height of its influence in the 12th century, Cluny was at the head of a monastic “empire” of 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were almost as powerful as popes, and four of them later became popes. In 1098, Pope Urban II (himself a Cluniac) declared that Cluny was the “light of the world.”


See? The monks had retreated to Cluny to serve God amid the disorders of the day. Because of what they did, their spirituality emanated forth from the abbey, in the person of other monks who went out and evangelized and sanctified, and helped Christianize society. People keep saying that the Benedict Option is about running away from society and hiding. But it’s not. The Cluniac monks could not have accomplished the work of evangelization if they had not first found a way to step outside the world for the sake of prayer and work, according to the Rule of St. Benedict. So it is with us, though it will have to be in a way suited to our time.

There was an actual wall around the abbey (see above), but not even it could keep the outside world away forever. If the government decides it’s coming for you, you are dead. Besides, as Auden rightly warns, “You cannot conquer time.” I was reading Ron Herzman and Bill Cook’s excellent introduction to the medieval worldview on this trip, and learned that Dante’s central point — that we err profoundly when we place our hope in the things that pass away instead of eternal things — was characteristic of the medieval outlook, and that it derives chiefly from the work of Boethius. Heaven knows the fate of l’Abbaye de Cluny testifies to that. If you want to know the extent to which the Benedict Option is a perfect solution to our problems, ask the monks of Cluny. They no longer exist.

However, James pointed out that the example of Cluny is not as bleak as one might think. “Things were once worse than they are today,” he said, referring to the Revolutionary period and its aftermath. True. And, the Benedictines still survive — not at Cluny, obviously, but elsewhere. Plus, James said, we have the memory of Cluny and what it represented to inspire us.

I saw what he meant. “There’s that Balzac quote I used in Crunchy Cons: ‘Hope is memory plus desire,'” I said. “As long as we have something to remember Cluny by, and we desire to achieve what the Cluniacs did, we have reason to hope.”

“Remember that MacIntyre said that the world awaits a very different Saint Benedict,” James said, adding that we cannot and should not hope to reproduce Cluny in our time, but that we have no reason to think that what Cluny meant is completely irrecoverable. If it is to be done, we will have to do it in our own way.

True — and hopeful!

The town of Cluny all but closes down on Sunday afternoon, which may be inconvenient for tourists, but I find it admirable. We found a kebab shop to sell us cold water, and we spread out the remains of our farmer’s market lunch on a window ledge:


We wanted to go to a vigneron somewhere in Burgundy, which produces the finest wines in the world, but had no idea where to start. We hadn’t decided to go to Burgundy until virtually the last minute, so I had no idea where to research. I had a pretty good idea that we couldn’t just show up to the most famous appellations and expect to taste, say, a Romanée-Conti, especially if there was no way people like us would be able to afford a bottle to take home. But I thought about why I started drinking Burgundy in the first place, and it all came back to the Domaine Cornu-Camus, a tiny, family-owned producer in Échevronne.

I was introduced to the Burgundies of this winemaker in 2010, when I began to buy wines from Moore Brothers, across the river from Philadelphia, and therefore out of the jurisdiction of the evil state liquor control board. Back then, I would buy their Hautes Côte de Beaune for something like $15 per bottle — a real bargain. It quickly became my favorite red wine. It’s significantly more expensive now (follow the link to order some from the New York store, which will ship it where it’s legal), and I’ve never been able to find it anywhere else. Still, I’ve never forgotten it, and whenever I find a bottle of inexpensive Burgundy — a difficult feat — I always think of Cornu-Camus, and hope that it will be as good. It never is, but Burgundy remains my favorite red wine, all because of this vigneron.

Why don’t we go see the Cornu-Camus folks? I said. Sordello and James agreed, so we set the car’s GPS for Échevronne, and headed north, up the country roads of Burgundy. It was like driving through a dream, through sloping fields resplendent with green carpets of grapevines. We rounded a corner on a narrow rural road, and happened upon this sight:


No idea what it’s called. It was unmarked. It was just there, outside a Burgundian village.

We finally found our way to Échevronne, which is smaller than Starhill, where I live in Louisiana. Up a wee lane scarcely wide enough for one car, we saw this sign, and knew we were there:


But why were there five or six cars parked alongside the path? Could so many tourists have found their way to this place? It was hardly a winery at all, just the family house, an ordinary one, and a couple of big sheds. We wandered onto the grounds, and saw tents set up in the side yard. They were having a garden party. People were singing. They saw the strangers in the driveway, and sent someone out to greet us.

We felt terrible. We had crashed these people’s party. Sordello, who speaks the best French of us three, stepped forward to talk to Mme. Camus, wife of M. Cornu, the vigneron. He apologized, explained what we were doing here, and said we would be on our way.

These French people were not about to let us leave without tasting their wine, not after coming all this way, and not after Sordello told them what their wine meant to me (I didn’t know he had done this until he told me on the flight back to the US). Lydia, the winemaker’s daughter, came forward and offered to take us to the cave and pour us a taste or two. We told her she didn’t have to do that. It turned out that the party was for her younger brother, an engineer in Lyon, who had been married the day before, and was continuing to celebrate with family and friends (including, M. Cornu told me later, some other vignerons of the area). We apologized again, and told her not to leave her brother’s wedding party. No, no, she said, let’s go to the cave.

We went to the cave, following the beautiful winemaker’s daughter in her sun dress and sun-kissed skin like buttered toast.


We noticed a notch in the wall, and an ancient statue there, whose face was nearly worn off:


This, said Lydia, is a statue of St. Vincent of Saragossa, a fourth-century bishop and martyr who is honored as the patron saint of winegrowers. Every year on the weekend nearest to St. Vincent’s feast day (January 22), all the winemaking villages of Burgundy come together to hold a festival in his honor, the St-Vincent Tournante. Dating back to the medieval times, it is an occasion for all of the St. Vincent brotherhoods of the region — 80 or so — to come together in a different village each year to honor the saint, and to celebrate their wines with a grand tasting. More information here. Basically, it sounds like a Palio for Burgundian wines.

If you had told me back when I first tasted Cornu Camus wine that one day, I would be standing at the winery, staring at barrels of the stuff aging in the cool of its cave, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here I was. Lydia fetched some glasses, and a variety of bottles for us to try. We sampled whites and reds both, all of which were superb:


In the end, Sordello and I settled on two bottles of red each — only two, because of US customs laws restricting what we could bring back. We each spent a total of only $23 euros (about $26). Lydia had given us an hour of her time, and they made almost nothing from our patronage.

By then, most of the guests had drifted away, and the party was breaking up. You can imagine how guilty we felt for having taken Lydia away from all this, but again, the Cornus could not possibly have been friendlier. We met Lydia’s husband, Christophe, and their two gorgeous little boys, Paul and Jean. As it turns out, Lydia is not only the daughter of a winemaker, but the daughter of two winemakers. Her mother Bernadette and her father both come from wine families of the region, and are trained viticulteurs. And she is also the wife of a winemaker, as her husband Christophe comes from a winemaking family. Above all, she is a winemaker in her own right, having earned a degree in winemaking and returned to join her folks in the family business. She and Christophe, who also comes from a winemaking clan in the Beaune region, met working in the vineyards, and now make wine together. It is a family affair.

And there they were, welcoming us strangers warmly into their midst. Talking in Franglais with Pierre, I told him I had a strapping young boy back home in Louisiana, Lucas, and that he loves working hard outdoors. Could I send him over to help in the harvest when he’s older? “Mais oui,” said Pierre, and he meant it. Saying goodbye to our new friends, I rubbed the feat of happy Baby Jean, and admired the golden Guardian Angel medal he wore around his neck. “Please come to Louisiana,” I told the family. “Let us pay you back for your hospitality.” After a gaggle of au revoirs and bon voyages, we walked past the sky-blue hydrangeas at the entrance of the winery, and back to our rented Peugeot.

“Those awful French,” James joked. “They’re just so cold and unfriendly.”

We all laughed, because we had been treated with such grace and goodwill by a family that had every right to tell us sorry, strangers, but we are having a party. They did not. They welcomed us with hospitality that was so warm it brings tears to my eyes to think of it now. They sent us away with a recommendation for eating a real Burgundian meal:  Les Terrasses de Corton, a restaurant attached to a hotel in the nearby village of Ladoix-Serrigny. After wandering a bit around Beaune until dinnertime, we motored over, and even though they said they were expecting a crowd that night, they gave us a table. Because James was driving, he couldn’t drink wine, but Sordello and I split a half-bottle of M. Cornu’s wine, from the wine list. I’ve just discovered that the Michelin Guide gives the restaurant a generous review, and tells us that the inn and restaurant are owned and run by a family. Well, had the Michelin inspectors asked us, we could have told them that Les Terrasses de Corton is a terrific place to eat, one of those restaurants like Abel, where you cannot believe you are eating food so delicious for so little money.

I began with a Burgundian specialty, oeufs en meurette, or eggs poached in red wine:


James and Sordello went for the escargots:


For our entrees, I chose the tête de veau en croute (calf’s head in puff pastry):


The others had beef bourguignon:

photo-20“Look at it!” Sordello said, of his beef. “It’s so tender that all I have to do is to stare at it hard, and it falls apart.”

Sordello pronounced this the best dish he had on the entire trip. All of it was a joy to taste. I sat there late in the evening, watching the sun go down over a steep, vine-covered Burgundy hillside behind the parking lot, eating caramelized grilled peaches and homemade vanilla ice cream, then sipping the last of the Cornu family’s wine, and reflected on how everything is grace. All of it. All that Sordello and I had seen over the past week — from the Palio and the contrade, to the fellowship offered us by the people in Siena, and new friends met along the way, to the delicious Italian meals, and the songs and traditions, to the same thing in a different guise in Lyon, and today the ruins of Cluny, the rolling hills of Burgundy, and somehow, above it all, the example of the Cornu clan: traditional country French people who live simply, make good wine as a family tradition, honor the saints, feast in the garden with their friends, and offer friendship and hospitality to strangers on a Sunday afternoon in the summer.

This is what life is all about. When I think about Italy, yes, I think about the museums and the art, and the architecture, but I will never be able to think of it without thinking of the people of Siena, and the raw humanity of the people of the contrade, with their medieval rituals, and their ancient passions. And of course I love the art and the architecture of France, and heaven knows I adore the food and the language. But to me, the face of France will always be the faces of that winemaking family of Échevronne, the Cornu-Camus-Petruzot clan, who seemed to embody tradition in the best sense. Yes, they love their family, and they love their place, and they pour their hearts into cultivating wine as their forefathers did. All of that is admirable and dear. But they were kind to strangers, sharing what they had with us — and their wine was the least of it. That may be the greatest grace of all.

I arrived home in Starhill last night with a suitcase full of butter, mustard, panforte, confiture, and macarons. The three treasures I brought back were my silk fazzoletto of Onda, the contrada that welcomed us, and the two bottles of red wine from Domaine Cornu Camus. The scarf will go into the treasure chest until the day comes when I can take one or more of my children — or grandchildren — to the Palio. The wines are in my cabinet now, and when the day comes that I open them, the taste will return me to that magical afternoon in Burgundy. Nora, my eight-year-old daughter, ate a macaron last night at midnight, and said, “I taste Paris again!” When I sip that red Burgundy, I will be able to taste Échevronne again … and Cluny, and Ladoix-Serrigny, and all the memories of what is good and beautiful about life in France will return, as if in a sacrament.

If God wills it, one day I will return too, with my wife and children. You can’t stay away forever from a place and a people so full of grace. Glory to God for all things — including, permit me to say after this amazing week of traveling, my own family, my little dog, and my familiar bed.

UPDATE: Sordello and I gave James C. our extra bottle of Cornu Camus Burgundy, which he opened and drank today in Annécy, in Savoie: