There are many places in France where you can eat well and a few where you can eat superlatively. The Hôtel de la Côte-d'Or. in Saulieu, however, has almost the character of a national shrine. Here, French cuisine is regarded as a cherished art, an essential element of the national patrimony, every bit as sacred and as important as the Mont-Saint-Michel, the château of Chenonceaux, or the cathedral of Chartres.
When Alexandre Dumaine and his wife Jeanne bought the Hôtel de la Côre-d'Or in 1930, traffic was not what it is today, nor did many travelers think of stopping off at Saulieu. Since the coming of the Dumaines, however, the town has become a center of pilgrimage for Frenchmen and non-Frenchmen who want to partake of the glory of la cuisine française.
Furthermore, like the mountain coming to Mohammed, the suppliers of all France now descend upon this quiet corner of Burgundy. The Côte-d'Or's market is the entire country. The chickens come from Brcsse. The sole comes from Boulogne The lobsters and shellfish come from Roscoff in Brittany. The butter conies from the DeuxSevres where the cows graze on the salt marshes. The suppliers know that if the Côte-d'Or buys their merchandise. it is the best recommendation they can have.
Cooking is like music in that, once composed, it requires great interpreters to keep it alive. Alexandre Dumaine probably the greatest interpreter of Carême, Vatel. Prosper Montagué, and Escoffier in our generation. There is nothing that belongs to the cooking tradition of his country that he cannot realize—and with exquisite finesse. He has never limited himself to his specialties but, upon request, is willing to draw from the entire classic repertory. Dishes that became but reading recipes in old books have been brought back to existence.
This great gastronomic shrine at Saulieu has recently weathered a state of transition. Never, however, was a succession more wisely prepared for or more smoothly executed. It is for this reason that I choose to speak of the Hotel de la Côte-d'Or, its past and its present.
If there is one dominant principle at work in the kitchens of the Côte-d'Or, it is the idea that a sauce should be made supple and rendered light. All the fat needed at the beginning of the cooking process is removed before the end. It takes time—slow cooking, dunging of casseroles, frequent use of strainers and cheesecloths—until every heavy panicle has been spirited away. After five or six hours of such pampering, the sauce is but a suggestion. There is really almost nothing there but a taste. To arrive at what is hoped will be little more than a volatile perfume, twenty quarts of sauce may be reduced to a quart and a half. This lavish concentration is the triumph of the theory that less is more, and it applies to almost everything that is good in life.
Obviously, to appreciate a great restaurant like the Côte-d'Or you should not speed in for lunch or for dinner, stuff yourself on half a dozen specialties, and then move on. If I were a visitor to France and did not have the chance to come to the Côte-d'Or very often, I would arrange to stay for about three days.
The restaurant is part of a hotel of twenty-six rooms. They are plain, clean rooms—simple, but comfortable. as are the rest of the surroundings of the unostentatious Côte-d'Or. The entrance, for example, is a combination lobby, sitting room, writing room, and bar.
If you have been expecting “atmosphere,” you'll think you have strayed into the wrong place. There is another atmosphere, though, created by a welcome tendered equally to an ex-crowned head, a movie star, an internationally known industrial designer, or a very young American father who arrives carrying his baby in a plastic bassinet on his arm. It is all very en famille.
One evening in the dining room I saw a large man, well dressed in a blue suit and black-and-white shoes. He was eating alone and giving thoughtful attention to the food. After the meal, I watched him walk outside past the Bentleys, the Alfa-Romeos, the Peugeots, and climb up into the high seat of the cab of an enormous truck. That this gourmet truck driver was receiving the same attention as everyone else is one reason I have always loved the Côte-d'Or.
Salvador Dali once announced a visit months ahead. “I shall be coming in the spring.” he wrote. “I am Spanish and I want to eat what my king ate in the spring season.”
Mr. Dali was served a cold saddle of hare accompanied by gooseberry jelly, which, according to the files, had been a great hit with Alfonse XIII.
A savant gourmet once ordered suprême of salmon trout en papillote to be served among other dishes for his birthday lunch for twenty persons. The menu had been plotted like a battle Operation weeks in advance.
At 7 A.M., the morning of the birthday, the salmon trout were fished out of the cold waters of Lake Annecy some 286 kilometers away. A truck was waiting to hurry them to the Côte-d'Or. The driver stopped twice en route to telephone in his road progress. At 11:30, he pulled up smartly in Saulieu and the kitchen brigade rook over.
“Much of the talent of a cook lies in his sense of precise timing, “M. Dumaine explained to me on my first visit, a three-day Christmas holiday. As a guest at the Côte-d'Or, you too have the responsibility of absolute punctuality. If you are not prepared to meet it. better not come. You will spoil the dish and break everybody's heart.