Dijon cuts way more than the mustard

September 17, 1995|By Thomas Swick | Thomas Swick,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

At the Restaurant de la Porte Guillaume in the Hotel du Nord -- the place to which tourists are unfailingly directed, not just by guidebooks but also by locals, to sample classic Burgundian fare -- no butter is served with the bread. In its place is a small ceramic pot of mustard. Dijon in a pot.

Every French city is a miniature Paris. There are regional touches -- sea gulls in Le Havre, Tudor houses in Strasbourg, red roof tiles in Marseille -- but the overall plan, the concept, is the same.

It hits you in Dijon. There are the intimate winding streets and familiar tree-lined boulevards, simply on a smaller scale. There is the heroic Place de la Liberation (the local Place de la Concorde) and the commercial Rue de la Liberte (Champs-Elysees). There is the church called Notre Dame, the Hotel du Nord. There is, inevitably, the Avenue Victor Hugo.

There are the linear rows of shuttered windows, the sidewalk cafes with white-aproned waiters. There are the public gardens and burbling fountains and sycamored squares. There are Algerians in embroidered skullcaps. There are old men in sweaters and green-tinted glasses. Over at the market there are vinegary dowagers scrutinizing offal.

It is as if the French, after building Paris, unanimously agreed that they had created the perfect city and that there was no need elsewhere to improvise. In the United States, despite creeping homogenization, our cities remain unique. San Francisco could never be mistaken for Chicago, New York for Los Angeles, Miami for Boston. It is our saving grace, a reminder of our knack for regional self-expression and our contempt for centralized government. In France, the cities demonstrate the national duty to conform and explain the smugness of a people who, even in provincial backwaters, are made to feel like the proprietors of greatness.

Aux Trois Faisans, the Three Pheasants, still stands on the Place de la Liberation. It is here that M. F. K. Fisher, the American food writer, and her first husband had their "first meal alone together in a restaurant in France."

A very important meal

The year was 1929, the square then called Place d'Armes. (In France, the names of public squares change more frequently than restaurants.) "The meal we had was a shy stupid one," Fisher wrote in her memoir, "The Gastronomical Me," "but even if we had never gone back and never learned gradually how to order food and wine, it would still be among the important ones of my life."

Dijon is the capital of the province of Burgundy, famous for snails and wine-rich sauces. By the 15th century its dukes ruled much of northern Europe, and its wealth rivaled that of Venice. The tombs of Philippe le Hardi (the Bold) and Jean sans Peur (the Fearless) attest to their affluence, with their ornate figures of comfort ing cherubs and miniature mourners under feathery arches. They are on view in the former ducal palace turned museum of fine art.

"Dijon is a bourgeois city," a resident explains to a visitor one night in the Pub Brighton. (Pubs, especially Irish, have sprouted up all over Europe, but only the French believe that by reversing the order of the words they will be able to retain their own cultural integrity.)

The man is a furniture salesman, originally from the northern city of Lille. "The Dijonais were once a rich people," he says with obvious satisfaction at the use of the past tense. "No longer. Now they have only the airs of the wealthy" -- he lifts his nose into the air -- "without the wealth."

The mustard museum is open by appointment only, on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons. The mustard shop sits on Rue de la Liberte, the main shopping street, between Place Darcy and Place de la Liberation. The words "MOUTARD GREY-POUPON" appear above an attractive window display of antique pottery.

"The American mustard that goes by the name of Grey-Poupon has nothing to do with Grey-Poupon in France," the shop assistant says. "I cannot tell you anything more. The case is in court at the moment.

"In fact," she adds, washing her hands of the matter, "we are no longer a Grey-Poupon shop. We are part of Maille." And she hands over a pamphlet that reads: "Maille. Since 1747. The oldest and traditional brand really made in Dijon." No need even to say the word "mustard."

Five German tourists stand in front of Notre Dame, gazing up at the blackened gargoyles gazing down. They fill three parallel rows, farcical grotesques protruding from the facade like stuck-out tongues. As you move, the gargoyles move with you, falling out of line and mocking your mortality.

Over on the north side, carved at the base of one of the buttresses, sits the famous owl, the chouette. It has been rubbed so smooth that it is beginning to resemble a pigeon. For centuries -- the church went up in the 13th -- people have believed that touching the chouette will bring them good luck; it is also a surrogate for those who really want to get their hands on the gargoyles.

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