Posted by: oysterculture | April 5, 2009

Creme de Cassis – A Sweet Addition

Creme de Cassis - a much loved addition

Creme de Cassis - a much loved addition

When we were in Dijon we had many (delightful) encounters with Creme de Cassis.  We, ok I stuffed our luggage with bottles of this yummy liqueur to take back to the States as gifts, and of course to use ourselves.

Crème de Cassis is a sweet deep red, black currant flavored liqueur.  The modern version of the drink first appeared in Burgundy in 1841, displacing ratafia de cassis from prior centuries.  It is made from black currants crushed into refined alcohol, with sugar added.

The quality of crème de cassis depends on the variety of fruit used along with the percentage of berries and the fabrication process. With the label “Crème de Cassis de Dijon” one is guaranteed berries from the commune of Dijon.  Interested parties have tried since 1997 to obtain an “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” for “Crème de Cassis de Bourgogne” which would guarantee both the origin and variety of fruit, as well as the count of berries in the recipe used by the manufacturer.

Several cocktails are made with crème de cassis, including kir (white wine, especially Bourgogne aligoté, with blackcurrant liqueur, named after former mayor of Dijon canon Félix Kir). The same drink made with champagne instead of white wine is known as a Kir Royal.  Both drinks, in my mind, are equally delicious

Dijon France

If you have never been to Dijon, you must add it to your list of must see places.  Dijon is a city in eastern France, the capital of the Bourgogne region, and it boasts a rich cultural life.
 
Dijon architecture (photo from France this way)

Dijon architecture (photo from francethis way)

 History

Dijon began as a Roman settlement called Divio, located on the road from Lyon to Paris. Saint Benignus, the city’s patron saint, is said to have introduced Christianity to the area before being martyred. This province was home to the Dukes of Burgundy from the early 11th century AD until the late 1400’s and Dijon was a place of tremendous wealth and power and one of the great European centers of art, learning and science.  These fortunate citizens had hôtels particuliers constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The region’s architecture is distinguished by, among other things, toits bourguignons (Burgundian roofs) made of tiles glazed in terra cotta, green, yellow and black and arranged in eye-catching geometric patterns.  The half timbered design is also common in the region.

Dijon was occupied by the Nazi between June 1940 and early 1945, when it was liberated by the Allies on September 11, 1944.

Main sights

Dijon boasts many churches and cathedrals, including St. Bénigne, Notre-Dame, St. Étienne, and St. Michel.  The crypt of Dijon Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Benignus, dates back 1,000 years, and the city has retained many architectural styles from many of the main periods from the past millennium, including Gothic, Renaissance and Capetian. Many of the still-inhabited houses in the city’s central district have existed since before the 18th century. 

photo from indigoguide

photo from indigoguide

Dijon was spared the destruction of various wars such as the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, despite the Prussian army invading the city.  Consequently, many of the old buildings such as the half-timbered houses dating from the 12th to the 15th century (found mainly in the city’s core district) are undamaged. 

Among the more interesting of Dijon’s sights is the Ducal Palace, the Palais des Ducs et des États de Bourgogne or “Palace of the Dukes and the States of Burgundy”, which is among the few remaining examples of the Capetian period in the region. Another is a curious carving of a little owl, la chouette, on the church of Notre Dame on the rue de la Préfecture. It is regarded as a good-luck charm: people touch it with their left hand and make a wish.    

Travel from Other French Cities

Dijon is less than 2 hours southeast of Paris by the TGV high-speed train (LGV Sud-Est) via Gare de Lyon.  By car, it is about three hours from Paris – more if you travel like my husband and I, we require frequent stops to check out the lovely towns you encounter along the way.  Note if you have never driven in France, they have a two road system where both roads run parallel – the highway or auto-routes à péage is a toll road that avoids the centers of towns, and regular roads, slower traffic and it takes you through the towns.  Both have their advantages, but the highway is significantly faster and can be pricy.  Lyon is 180 km (110 mi) away and two hours distant.  Nice takes about six hours by TGV and Strasbourg about three hours by regular train.

Culture

Dijon holds the International and Gastronomic Fair annually. With over 500 exhibitors and 200,000 visitors every year, this is one of the ten most important fairs in France. Dijon also hosts the Fete de la Musique (Music Festival) every summer, with live musical groups playing on street corners throughout the city center.  I intend to attend that Gastronomic Fair at least once – it takes place the first two weeks in November.  

 

Food and drink

 Mustard

dijon mustards

dijon mustards

The story of Dijon mustard began in the 14th century, when the Dukes of Burgundy devised a fresh recipe for an old roman condiment: mustard seeds crushed and mixed with salt and vinegar.  Verjus, the acidic juice from unripened grapes, was used instead of vinegar, and a French culinary star was born.  Crushing the dark seeds and mixing them with liquid releases an enzyme called allyl senevol, which can bring tears to our eyes.  As the mustard ages, the enzyme diminishes and mustard gradually loses its bite after packaging.  In Renaissance times, household cooks bought fresh mustard daily along with bread.

Dijon is famous for its mustard, even though ~ 90% of all mustard seeds are imported (mainly from Canada). The term Dijon mustard (moutarde de Dijon) designates a method for the making of mustard (which is particularly strong if made in that fashion), not its origin.  Most Dijon mustard, such as Amora or Maille is, in fact need, not produced around Dijon – although they have shops in the city.  The name has become genericized, so it cannot be registered for protected designation of origin status under European Union law.  Therefore, no Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for Dijon mustard.  The mustard shops feature many exotic or unusually-flavored mustard (for example fruit-flavoured Dijon), often sold in decorative hand-painted faience (china) pots.  Our luggage was very heavy by the end, because as my husband was quick to point out, I felt compelled to get several varieties including:  harissa, garlic, raspberry… the list of options was very extensive.  However, for the record, he never complained when eating the mustard.
 
 
Pain d’épices (Ginger bread to the rest of us)
 
Pain d’épices “spice-bread” or gingerbread, is a French cake whose ingredients originally included rye flour, honey and spices, and today finds the addition of aniseed but despite its English translation not ginger.  The commercial production of pain d’épices was first a specialty of Reims, and given éclat by Charles VII, “King of Bourges” fondness for it.  Buckwheat honey was required to be used.  The popularity and development of this bread is a result of these towns location along the spice routes of Europe.  The of pain d’épices of Dijon beat out the competition during the Napoleonic period.  In the Alsace region, their pain d’épices is recognized for incorporating a pinch of cinnamon.

Pain d’épices was a kind of sourdough without a leavening agent; it was left in a wooden trough to rest in a cool place for months, while the honey fermented, before it was cooked in moulds.  Today baking power is used as the leavening agent resulting in bread that is ready for consumption much faster than the first batches.

Wine

As the capital of the Burgundy region, Dijon reigns over some of the best wine country in the world. Many superb vineyards producing vins d’appellation contrôlée, such as Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin, are only 20 minutes of the city center.  The drive from Santenay to Dijon, known as the route des Grands Crus, passes through an idyllic countryside of vineyards, rivers, villages, forests, and twelfth-century churches. 

Cuisine

Dijon is home to some of the finest French cuisine, and the Dijon mustard and pain d’epice only touch the surface.  Consider the official Escargot de Bourgogne, the gastropod Helix Pomatia – vital to the rich gastronomic tradition of the region.  

A taste for adventure is helpful when approaching the Burgundy specialty of escargot.  According to anthropologists, humans have been eating snails for thousands of years.  The gastropod Helix Pomatia, the official Escargot de Bourgogne, has a striped shell coiling on the left side.  These snails were so plentiful in Burgundy during the last century that legend says the tunnel of Blaisy-Bas near Dijon was built through the Auxois Mountain to avoid the dangers of snails gumming up the tracks and derailing trains.

By 1970, the wild Helix Pomatia had all but disappeared and a law passed in 1979 limited its collection.  Most Pomatia snails are imported from Eastern Europe, since they cannot be farmed.  Helix aspersa ( European brown snail) is raised in France and Europe extensively and commonly sold in markets, but accounts for 10% of the supply.  The vast majority of snails sold are Helix lucorum, (Turkish snails) gathered in Greece, Turkey or the Balkans.  Under French law, only Helix Pomatia can be sold as Escargot de Bourgogne, so beware.

Burgundy geography determines what food is available, but the regional culture and history provide a rich tradition for the cuisine.  Inhabitants under the Dukes of Burgundy formed a wealthy middle class that could afford to eat meat daily, and is reflected in the rich food of the region.

Beef Bourguignonne

Recipe modified from the Barefoot Contessa cookbook, serves 6-8 

  • 1 (3-#) filet of beef, trimmed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning plus 1 tsp salt + ½ tsp pepper
  • 3 to 4 T olive oil
  • ¼ pound bacon, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-½ c dry red wine
  • 2 c beef stock
  • 1 T tomato paste
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • ½ pound pearl onions, peeled
  • 8 to 10 carrots, cut diagonally into 1″ thick slices
  • 3 T  unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 T all-purpose flour
  • ½ # mushrooms, sliced ¼” thick 

Directions

Cut the fillet crosswise into 1″ thick slices. Salt and pepper the fillets on both sides. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan on medium-high heat, saute the slices of beef in batches with 2 to 3 T oil until browned on the outside and very rare inside, about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Remove the fillets from the pan and set aside on a platter.

In the same pan, saute the bacon on medium-low heat for 5 minutes, until browned and crisp. Remove the bacon and set it aside. Drain all the fat, except 2 tablespoons, from the pan. Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds.

Deglaze the pan with the red wine and cook on high heat for 1 minute, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any food particles. Add the beef stock, tomato paste, thyme, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil and cook uncovered on medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Strain the sauce and return it to the pan. Add the onions and carrots and simmer uncovered for ~25 minutes, until the sauce is reduced and the vegetables are cooked.

Mash 2 T butter and the flour into a paste and whisk it gently into the sauce.  Simmer for 2 minutes to thicken.

Meanwhile, saute the mushrooms separately in 1 T butter + 1 T oil for about 10 minutes, until browned and tender.

Add the beef, mushrooms, and bacon to the pan with the vegetables and sauce.  Cover and reheat gently for 5 to 10 minutes.  Season, to taste, and serve immediately.

This dish is traditionally served with boiled potatoes.

Bon Appetit!

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Responses

  1. Hi Oysterculture
    Do you use Creme de Cassis only for drinks or do you use it any other way? I keep a bottle handy for when I make strawberry desserts – strawberries taste awesome when macerated with some sugar and a splash of cassis!

    Loved the section about mustard – how embarassing that I’m Canadian yet I didn’t know that Canada was the chief exporter of mustard seed!

  2. One of my greatest wishes is to go to France. Just reading this reinvigorates my wish even more.

    I actually had no idea that dijon was located in France either. Now I love that mustard even more knowing a bit of the history behind it.

  3. Dear LouAnn!
    Greetings!
    Thanks for your notification!
    I’ve been quite busy these days, what with video interviews of local sake breweries, writing articles and working!
    Thank you so much for writing such a good article on Dijon, my birthplace! It deserved that!
    Did you that its great university is also the cheapest one in France? Meaning the greatest number of Japanese students there!
    Talking of Kir, there is only one, the Bourgogne Alligote and Creme de Cassis. Felix Kir never drank anything else! The rest is crass business! Sorry!
    Now the next step is to visit Chalon Sur Saone, my real mother town. It has a lot of hidden history, secrets and beauties!
    I’ll let you simmer for a while, and if you haven’t found anything, it will be my great pleasure to tell you! LOL
    Once again, thanks you so much for the great posting!
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  4. Delightful Dijon…alas, I’ve never been but I was (in my pre-pregnant state) a huge indulger in Cassis. I keep two bottles of a deliciously tart British brand in the cabinet at all times in case a Kir Royal is needed (which it was many an evening after a long day at work!). 🙂 Glad to see I’m not the only Cassis lover and hoarder!

  5. Hi Phyllis,

    I confess to only using it for drinks but can only imagine it would be wonderful with all the other food you just mentioned – I like my kirs so much I’ve never been inclined to branch out. My favorite was to make a quick strawberry dessert is to macerate the strawberries with a combo of balsamic vinegar and honey, and then add some crushed black pepper just before serving.

  6. B+B – I know with your artistic leanings and your culinary inclinations that France will be just the ticket. My only advise is that while Paris is awesome – there is so much else to explore outside of it – don’t cheat yourself out of a full experience.

  7. Robert-Gilles – I’m on a mission and I must get the one and only and stock pile it , or make repeated trips to Dijon – which would of course be my preferred route.

    I will start to explore the Chalon Sur Saone – and see what I come up with and I will definitely get back to you. =) Educator that you are.

    Have a wonderful day!

    LouAnn

  8. Brenda – something to look forward to when the three of you can travel. Robert Giles – a native of the area, in the comments, identified THE true brand of cassis – so be prepared

  9. Dear Lou Ann!
    Just a few hints to make it easy out of gallantry (ah, ah!):
    -One very important invention
    -A major company
    -A new culinary spot
    -A wine-lover must-visit place in town
    Sorry for the hurry in commenting your post! I just noticed it is full of typos! I profundly apolgized and begs you to orect them!
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  10. The cassis is awesome in a cocktail. We’d love to think of a way to bake with it…

  11. Dear Lou-Ann, I mean my own typos in my first comment!
    No worries!
    As for:
    -One very important invention
    -A major company
    -A new culinary spot
    -A wine-lover must-visit place in town
    I mean Chalon sur Saone!
    Your posting on Dijon is more than perfect as it is and I’d like to thank you again for it!

    Alright, about Chalon sur Saone:
    -The first camera and photography were invented in Chalon sur saone! Check Musee Nicephore Niepce.
    -Major company: Areva (formerly Framatonne) which produces 74% of electicity in France.
    -Rue de Strasbourg across island in the middle of the saone river: 20 restaurants!
    -La Maison des Vins where you can buy and taste all wines of the Cote Chalonnaise.
    There is plenty more!
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  12. Bon Soir Robert-Gilles,

    Thanks for the feedback and compliments – I was especially careful as I knew you might check in and did not want to disappoint =) I made some corrections to your first post as you reguested. I am glad you liked it, I certainly loved visiting and wanted to share, for so many people France seems to be within the confines of Paris, and there is an incredible bounty outside of there that needs to be explored.

    I am intrigued by your home town and will explore further – I may surprise you with a post.

    Take care,

    LouAnn

  13. Dear Lou-Ann!
    You would certainly make me very happy!
    The following links might help you:
    http://shizuokagourmet.wordpress.com/gastronomic-destinations-france/
    http://www.chalon.fr/site/English-605.html
    I might surprise you there!
    Don’t forget to buzz me!
    Cheers,
    robert-Gilles

  14. I think I would need several empty suitcases to bring back goodies from France! And, I’d love a Kir Royale right now.

  15. Dijon is a definite must! We drove through on a Sunday and missed many of the mustards shops as they were closed though we got some unmarked jars of it at a local corner store. Delicious and lathered it over sliced ham and cheese. My husband was even dipping beef jerky in it.

    The wine routes around that area are pretty amazing – very different from the napa experience (though I really enjoy that too).

    I love a little splash of creme de cassis in soda water. I didn’t know Dijon was the orginal source!

  16. Finally, I’m not just reading and enjoying your blog, I got off my butt and opened a wordpress account so I can leave comments too. Sorry, LouAnn. I’m slow.

    Very informative and fascinating post. I didn’t know that the mustard seeds had to be imported from Canada. My favorite place to visit in Paris is Boutique Maille. So cool.

  17. You make me want to get on a plane NOW. I have not been to France in about a dozen years. Definitely overdue for a trip there.

  18. Wow. I don’t even need to pick up a book or go to school. I can get the most fascinating education just by reading your blog faithfully. love it. I’m becoming a big fan.

  19. Hi Leela, thanks so much for taking the time to get a WordPress account to comment. To me one of the thing I love about blogging is the dialog that can take place so it means a lot that you took the time to set up an account. I am not sure if there are mutiple Boutique Mailles – but I agree its a favorite stop. I also love Mariage Freres for tea!

    Hi Foodgal, immediately after I wrote the post I checked on flights from SFO to CdeG. I want to restock my kitchen. =)

    Burp ExcuzMe – thanks so much for the kind words. I am glad that what interests me has appeal to you too.

  20. You are just feeding my already overactive travel bug with all of this! I’ve not been to Dijon but now, of course, I badly want to go 🙂 I remember having a sorbet de cassis the first time I was in France years ago and it made quite an impression – I’m speculating now that it was made with creme de cassis rather than just straight blackcurrants. It would explain a lot!

  21. Wow – I’ll have to make sure I try the sorbet next time I’m in France. Its funny how seemingly simple things can make such an impression.

  22. […] of Shizuoka Gourmet commented on my recent post of Dijon and Creme de Cassis that I was remiss in not including his hometown of Chalon-sur-Saôn, which is close to Dijon.  I […]

  23. […] of Shizuoka Gourmet commented on my recent post of Dijon and Creme de Cassis that I was remiss in not including his hometown of Chalon-sur-Saôn, which is close to Dijon.  I […]


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