L'Esperance in Burgundy
Marc and Francoise Meneau have welcomed The Queen Mother, the Nixons, Princess Caroline and Prince Ernst of Hanover, Presidents Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterand and Chirac to their hotel/restaurant, L'Esperance at Vezelay. An easy two-hour drive from Paris, if it's good enough for them………
Meneau's maison is set in the heart of the bucolic Burgundy countryside. The stuff dreams are made of when you're trying to edge your way forward in the crowded métro, or fight your way through to the best bargains at the Galeries Lafayette sale. Meneau, who says he's self-taught, has created his own style of cuisine, traditional, revised and updated, showcasing Burgundy's bounty. French chefs always say that, but then they are lucky, instead of having skeletons in their cupboards they have white- aproned grannies who seem to live permanently in huge farmhouse kitchens. Probe a little and it turns out that the little Meneaus of this world were making soufflés, and boning poultry when knee high to the grasshoppers that they nimbly folded into a pastry shell.
The present L'Esperance is a former private house to which the Meneaus moved in 1972, after winning their first Michelin star. By 1975 L'Esperance had two Michelin stars (which they still have to-day). Heaven is Meneau's signature Cromesquis; fritters stuffed with liquid foie gras, or Oysters with sea-water jelly. “Look at it this way”, reasons Meneau. Eat two meals a day during 75 years and you've got a total of 54,750 meals. The combinations are infinite, that's why I rarely leave my kitchen!” Through February, it's Epiphany, and Meneau's interpretation will be based on oysters, truffles, game, potatoes and the famous galettes and gateaux with beans hidden inside and golden crowns for those who find them. Some Meneau dishes are an homage to Vatel, the 17th century chef who killed himself when his produce failed to arrive in time for a royal banquet at Chantilly. Meneau researched the sumptuous menus for the recent film Vatel, directed by Roland Joffe, starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman! Somewhere up there Alex “the ogre” Humbert is looking down and may even be smiling; just a little!
Menus – FF300-800 and FF500 (wine included)
A la Carte – FF600-800
30 rooms – FF700-1,400
6 suites – starting at FF1,700.
From Paris: A6 to exit Nitry. D944-D32 towards Vezelay.
At Voutenay, take the N6. Follow the signs.
Copyright © Margaret Kemp
Just to get you focused: Burgundians, originally from the Baltic, settled in this area naming it “Burgundia” - which, in the 11th century, became Burgundy. Nine centuries later the lusty Marc Meneau was born, in the village of Saint-Pere-sous-Vezeley! His father was the village saddler, his mother ran the local epicerie. In the 60's, Meneau graduated from the Ecole Hotelier, Strasbourg and met, and married, his soul-mate, Francoise. Together they converted Mama Meneau's grocery store into a small restaurant, calling it L'Esperance (Hope!). “We served crepes and pasta to tourists en route to the Basilica of Vezelay”, recalls Meneau.
Meneau's tutor (apart from granny) was Alex Humbert, head chef at Maxim's, Paris for twenty years. “When Humbert retired he lived nearby, at Cluny. The first time he came to L'Esperance he stayed three days and refused to talk food. Before leaving he asked to see my “fonds de cuisine”. I showed them to him proudly: fumet de poisson, fond de veau, glace de viande, after all I did have a Michelin star!” Humbert took the lot and, throwing them in the dustbin, yelled, “when you've learned how to make the basics, come and see me”. Meneau says that was the most humiliating lesson of his life, much harder than eventually losing one of his 3-Michelin stars. Other influences were chef Andre Guillot, a precursor to the new lighter cooking that caused the French culinary revolution. Guillot taught the essentials: precision in construction, and the finest freshest seasonal ingredients. “Eat with your eyes, a beautiful dish should be like a painting” , says Meneau. “Eat with your ears, the noise of onions browning in a copper pan as it is brought to the table. The feuilletage which “craques” under the knife, the crispy skin of a chapon as you bite into it!” Meneau says the most sensual feeling for him is the “nez du vin”, the nose above a glass of good wine, a fragrant truffle or freshly cut herbs. As for the late lamented “ogre Humbert”, he corrected Meneau's weaknesses by standing in his kitchen until he got it right. “But”, admits Meneau, “none of this could have been accomplished without Francoise, L' Esperance is our maison and we are a dream team”.
Bonjour Paris is pleased to have Margarte Kemp as a contributor.