I have had some extraordinary meals around the world, but one stands out. It was in the late 1970s, and I was in Burgundy in central France researching the wines and cuisine for an article in the Chicago Tribune.
It was well past noon, and I was hungry and thirsty. I had just visited the vineyard village of Vougeot, home of a parcel of vines hallowed throughout winedom: Clos Vougeot. It is an ancient castle floating in a sea of vines that are divided among many small owners.
After visiting the tasting room of one of the larger owners, and enjoying the gustatory delights of the fruit grown just outside that door, I hit the road in search of a meal. Just around the corner I noticed a short grizzled unshaven old man in a flannel shirt in a rickety old chair beside a barrel that was standing on end. On the head of the barrel was an open bottle, a single wine glass, and a sign: “Degustation.” Tasting.
This winemaker had an unfamous name, but the wine was marvelous, far better than the renowned vigneron from whose caves I had just come. I bought a bottle for about $20, a lot of money in those days at that location.
I drove my rental Renault north seeking sustenance. Parked beside the road I noticed a trailer, not much bigger than a minivan. As I sped past I could smell them. Saucisse. Chien blanc. Pommes frites. French hot dogs and French fries. I wheeled around and drove back. The trailer had a window with an awning, and a shelf for passing the hot food through. Fast food, French wine country style.
I was second in line behind another short grizzled unshaven old man in a flannel shirt. Through an open window in the trailer still another short grizzled unshaven old man in a flannel shirt was mounting a freshly shaven potato onto a grid of metal blades. He pulled down a handle and pushed the potato through the blades extruding it into a bouquet of quarter inch shoestrings and propelling them directly into a cauldron of hot oil. Gurrrrrrglllllle. Hisssssss.
He produced a long skinny baguette of crusty bread, cut off an 8″ section, and impaled it lengthwise on a stainless steel hot poker. It went right up the center of the soft white bread, and warmed it, toasting it slightly.
He then turned around and with his bare fingers plucked a white sausage from a griddle. Holding it between thumb and forefinger he dipped it in a widemouth jar of mustard made just up the road in Dijon. He wriggled the dog lubed with mustard into the impaled bread, and wrapped it in tissue paper. Then he scooped out the fries, dumped them all in brown bag, and handed it all to the man in front of me.
I had what he had.
Moments later I found myself sitting on a stone wall overlooking The Great Chateau in Clos Vougeot (above), eating the world’s best chien and pommes frites made just over there, and drinking nectar straight from the neck of the bottle, made from the vines at my feet. Here’s a picture I took that day.
In June 2009 I stopped in Brasserie Jo for a meeting, a very nice bistro in Chicago with the distinct Alsace flavor of the owner, Chef Jean Joho. Alas, it is now closed.
I sidled up to the bar for a cold one, and there, right next to me, was the same kind of device I had seen 30 years earlier in Burgundy. The chien blanc they sell at Brasserie Jo, nestled in the baguette with Dijon mustard, was pretty close to the one I had in France: Delicious!