We’re supposed to be making a sunflower-shaped pastry but mine is looking rather sad. I’ve got far too many petals, they’re facing the wrong way, and despite loads of encouragement and remedial action from our ever-patient host, my pastry is never going to look like a Van Gogh masterpiece.
It’s the second to last day of our stay at La Ferme de la Lochère and, sunflower disappointment aside, I’m as happy as a kid let loose with a paintbrush. We’ve spent a week at the luxury gîte in Burgundy where Katherine Frelon offers her bespoke food and wine experiences and I’m looking forward to tonight’s farewell celebration with friends, new and old.
A long-time friend from Australia who lives in nearby Dijon is a highly skilled knifemaker and creator of cast iron pans, and our host has kindly invited him to join us for dinner. Our new friends – four Canadian women celebrating a significant birthday and an English woman and her granddaughter – have been a joy to cook with, laugh with and converse with over the past week.
Not even the drizzling rain, and certainly not my sad-looking sunflower, can dampen my spirits as our energetic host and her assistant whip up yet another divine feast, all while making sure our sunflowers are painted with egg wash and popped in the oven.
Katherine Frelon is pretty much a self-taught cook but she turns out wondrous dishes and has been doing so for a long time. She arrived in France in 1990 at the age of 22 with no money, no French and no friends. Within a few years, she had bought her first property in the Loire Valley and met and married her French husband, Yannick, who she describes as “master builder, technical director and head gardener”.
“Gardening is not my thing” he is said to have pronounced in his mid-20s. If it wasn’t then it certainly is now, as the raised beds that fan out around the willow tree in the garden between their home and the gîte flourish with juicy tomatoes, heirloom vegetables and herbs.
The couple bought La Ferme de la Lochère in 2004 and, in between raising their children Charlie and Mathilda, magically transformed the solid stone barn into luxury accommodation with five very large ensuite bedrooms, a spacious open-plan sitting/dining room, and Katherine’s dream kitchen.
The barn’s enormous wooden beams were preserved, and magnificent oak doors were added, along with an imposing stone staircase decorated with huge lanterns from Morocco. Katherine was responsible for the décor, selecting the furniture and making the curtains, achieving the style of a grand country house that is both elegant and homely.
The house is one of a cluster of stone properties ranging from quaint little houses to expansive barns and farmsteads in Marigny-le Cahouët, a village of about 300 people, about an hour’s drive north-west of Dijon. The village is surrounded by lush, rolling meadows dotted with fat, contented cows, and in the dappled late-afternoon light on the day of our arrival, it’s as pretty as a picture. As the Burgundy Canal wends its way through the region, people are out and about on boats, having picnics or pulling up a chair and fishing.
Our upstairs suite has a super-comfortable king-size bed with bathrobes and slippers provided. The bathroom is stocked with luxurious L’Occitane products and the French doors open to a tranquil view over a stream with farmland beyond. There’s a lovely surprise of a welcome gift of locally produced sweets, honey and other treats.
Yannick greets us on the first day, and every afternoon thereafter, with a flute of Kir Royale, the popular Burgundian aperitif of crème de cassis topped with Cremant, the region’s sparkling wine. Katherine, meanwhile, is busy in the kitchen preparing the weekly stockpot and simultaneously preparing our first night’s feast of pumpkin soup with olive oil biscotte, followed by Chicken Gaston Gérard, a typical Burgundian dish made with white wine, crème fraîche, mustard and grated cheese.
Much of the week is spent rolling from one fabulous meal to the next and by the end of it I feel like an extra in the 1973 film La Grande Bouffe, in which Marcello Mastroianni and his companions retire to a country villa to gorge themselves to death. We show a little more restraint than the film’s cast, although the bundle of menus, beautifully tied with ribbon, presented to us at the end of the week is a reminder of just how well we have eaten.
Salmon with beurre blanc, pork ragù, boeuf Bourguignon, duck confit, not to mention the delicious desserts and a fabulous array of cheeses … this is five-star dining, home-style. Meals are taken in the courtyard when it’s sunny or at the beautifully set, 14-seat oak dining table that Katherine commissioned especially for the house.
There’s a gentle rhythm to the days as Katherine demonstrates dishes, encourages her guests to be hands-on in the kitchen, and shares her wisdom. She honed her kitchen skills while working as a cook on barge tours, but there were other influences as well: “Yannick’s mother was a great cook. They were poor; they grew everything and she used it all.”
In between cooking, eating, relaxing by the pool and strolling around the village, we pay visits to small local producers including a woman farming snails and another making goat’s cheese. A whole day is spent at the workshop of an organic baker, Alexandre and his wife Karine, who show us how to make sourdough bread in their traditional wood oven. Some of these artisans feature in Katherine’s book, Shop.Cook.Eat, which she published in 2014.
She also arranges for wine consultant Brendan Moore to take us on a personally guided tour of the Burgundy wine region. An Englishman who has lived in France for 25 years, he is able to organize visits to vineyards that tourists would not normally have access to. He takes particular pleasure in introducing us to some of the village wines that he believes represent the best value.
“Between seven and 12 euros, you get the greatest wines in France,” he says. “The entry level wines are far more interesting (than the more expensive wines). If you can make a great wine from the simplest vineyard, that’s far more indicative of the skill of the winemaker.”
Nevertheless, we have our sights set on some of the big names, and as we meander along the Route des Grands Crus, which runs through many of Burgundy’s great appellations, we eye off names like Romanée-Conti, Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet. We stop to see the Hospice de Beaune, built in the 15th century as a hospice for the poor and now a jewel in the crown of Beaune. Its terracotta tiles glazed in green, yellow, red and black, arranged in a striking geometric pattern, gave rise to a trend for similarly colourful roofs throughout the region.
One morning, Katherine takes us to the market in Dijon, a steel and glass-covered hall designed by Gustav Eiffel, more famously known for designing the Eiffel Tower. Armed with a list of ingredients to buy for dinner, we marvel over the cheeses, the charcuterie and local delicacies such as pain d’epices, a kind of gingerbread.
When our baskets are full, there’s just enough time for a drink at a café in the square overlooking the magnificent Ducal Palace, and a wander through some of the winding streets with their centuries-old half-timbered houses and shops, including the iconic Maille mustard shop.
For guests doing the cooking program, it isn’t necessary to have a car as the program is fully hosted and guests can be collected from the train station in nearby Montbard, just one hour by train from Paris. We have our own wheels, however, and that enables us to slip in a few excursions to nearby points of interest such as Fontenay Abbey; Epoisses, home of the famous cheese; and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, one of France’s most beautiful villages and the location for the movie, Chocolat.
Burgundy is the perfect region in which to unwind as the bucolic landscape invites you to take your time, savour and enjoy. Just as our sunflowers are coming out of the oven, the drizzle gives way to sunshine and we sit down to a long leisurely lunch in the courtyard. No-one wants to deal with the mundane chore of packing for tomorrow’s departure. One of the Canadian gals, Noreen, speaks for us all when she says, “The only thing that would make this more perfect would be to have someone pack my bags.”
If you go:
La Ferme de la Lochère,
6 Rue De La Lochere
+33 6 7286 5609
Host Katherine Frelon offers a variety of bespoke gourmet vacations, or the house can be rented and you can do your own thing.