Very cultural crowd the Romans. Look at a map of France and you can see their influence everywhere – especially in the older off-the-beaten track roads that run dead straight for mile upon mile. Without doubt the Romans knew the shortest distance between two points.
Without doubt they also knew that the quickest way to get from a thirst to a drink was to plant vines. France may (rightly) claim to be one of the finest wine producing countries in the world, but we reckon that without the Romans we’d be somewhere back down the queue. Wherever Romans traveled vines and wine traveled with them.
There is a particularly old grape variety they grow in a very small area around the village of Irancy in north Burgundy. It’s called the César, after the rulers of Rome and, when blended with Pinot Noir, makes dark red tannic wines. They’re not the sort of fine wines that made Burgundy famous, nor the sort of wines we normally serve on board. Uniquely, it’s the only appellation contrôlée red burgundy that had two grape varieties in it. One thing’s for sure, when you drink a glass you’re swallowing a lot of history.
Now there’s an old door in nearby Chablis, in an ancient building called L’Obédiencerie that was built by monks in the 9th century. It’s the oldest surviving building for miles around and was originally built to house the relics of St. martin, a Roman army officer born in Hungary in 316 AD who converted to Christianity. During a night watch in Gaul he famously cut his cloak in half to give a freezing beggar. When he died in 397 AD his relics were kept in Tours. Nearly five centuries later the Abbots of Tour were threatened by Normans who sent the relics to Chablis for safe keeping. The monks took their vines with them and the rest, as they say, is aperitif o’clock.
The niche where the relics were kept can still be seen although these days the tower houses the cellars of Domaine Laroche who make some very fine wines. And here’s the thing – carved into the wooden door surround are vine leaves of the César grape. The monks liked a glass or two of red (well who doesn’t?) with their pottage and maintained the traditions of Roman viticulture.
It was almost certainly the Romans who also brought edible snails to France. They took them to England too where they have recently been rediscovered in the hills around the old Roman City of Bath – they’re known there as Roman snails or Escargot de Bourgogne. Be careful if you live in England though as it’s illegal to hunt and kill them.
We often say that cruising the Burgundy canal is seeing France at a snail’s pace. For sure, snails and Burgundy are inextricably linked. We serve them on every cruise (well, it would be rude not to) cooked in a sauce of garlic, parsley, white wine, lemon and a whole heap of butter. You’ll get half-a-dozen with a piece of warm crusty French bread to soak up the juices.
Then all you need is something to drink – something like a Chablis with a flinty bite goes very well, as does something buttery like a white Burgundy from the Cote De Beaune.
In comparison to slow food the Romans were also partial to snacking on an edible Dormouse or two when they needed a quick nibble – not that we ever have those on the menu. Then again they used to throw Christians to the Lions. Best that we should render unto César what is César’s and be thankful for small mercies.
LIVE IN THE USA? SAVE 5% OFF THE TASTE OF BURGUNDY IN A BOTTLE.
We’ve got a fantastic Burgundy Wine offer for you this week if you live in the USA courtesy of our good friends at Elden Wines. It’s a 12 bottle tasting case, either reds, whites or mixed. Heavily discounted as an introduction, normally it sells for the incredible price of $275, including delivery. But we’ve managed to get them to squeeze another 5% off for friends and family – and the good news is that includes you! Just enter code FCBC5 at the checkout and click here for details of what’s in the case.