3 MAY 2008, Page 68

The thrill of la chasse

Rory Knight Bruce goes hunting in Burgundy The arrival of the faster Eurostar to France will doubtless bring more people to Paris and the new bridge in the south is already cutting driving times to the fashionable Riviera. But for those with more time on their hands it is still possible in Burgundy to have an exquisite and inexpensive holiday, staying in small châteaux and buying up the lesser vintages of the Côte de Beaune.

Do not, however, rely on guidebooks (other than the Michelin Guide), whose contributors seem to be wide-eyed and bearded Americans on a budget, or English wine merchants who are, in my experience, bad choosers of burgundy off the top rung of famous names. Put your trust instead in a Frenchman, preferably of Burgundian origin and one who hunts, and what will follow is an epicurean journey of mustard sauces and rare Meursault.

Jean-Christophe Iseux, 40, is both an international diplomat specialising in China and the master of his own private pack of hounds which he keeps at his château on the Loire. Within an hour of his home the names of Fleurie, Clos Vougeot and Macon flash past your car window.

For 20 years I have been visiting him to hunt, most often for the traditional church service and opening meet which celebrates St Hubert’s Day in early November. Under his guidance I have been to many small auberges which despairing tourists imagine have all but disappeared.

Almost any burgundy bought for less than €12 in this region will taste at least twice as good as that sent to British shores. Last autumn I hosted a dinner there with Domaine de la Creure Noire (2005), at €9 a throw, and no one batted an eyelid. ‘Seek out the lesser vineyards and buy your wine direct from them,’ says Iseux. ‘You will save yourself both disappointment and tax.’ This year with Iseux, quite apart from joining in his roe deer hunt of which I am a vice president, I sat down with him to cook his grandmother’s Burgundian recipes and learn his views on wine. The burgundy years which stand out for him are ’76, ’82, ’85 and 2000.

‘We would not dream of serving a good burgundy first with the main course,’ says Iseux, whose favourite dish is Pot au Feu, the charollais stew native to the region. ‘We always begin a dinner party with a decent Bordeaux.’ But his pièce de résistance this year was capons’ hearts in cognac and rice for breakfast. First he took me to see the farmer who reared the birds and they were living quite happily (until our departure with them in the boot of Iseux’s Bentley), with his old sheepdog, in the kitchen.

In his forest, where he hunts his deer, Iseux also harbours the wood or merrein which is made into wine casks. ‘The scent of the wood is highly individual and highly prized as it infuses into the wine,’ he says. A day after they have been hunting, you can still smell the oaky aroma of the trees on the hounds’ heads.

Thyme is a great ingredient in Burgundian cooking, every bit as much as cream and mustard. Nor do Burgundians stint on the wine in their cooking. ‘I think nothing of adding a prime white burgundy,’ says Iseux.

On the advice of my French tailor one day (he makes the distinctive velvet hunt waistcoats which we wear out hunting), I went to have lunch in a small hillside village — a chicken in a mustard sauce, leek and pumpkin potage, a carafe of Gamay and all for €20 for two. Here was the France which tourism has never touched.

In the village of Poisson, four miles from Iseux’s château, a small delicatessen offers everything for the gourmand. Nearby is a simple hôtel de ville, and I have even enjoyed an eccentric stay with Madame Dor at the not far distant Château de Martigny, where I was once given the keys to the cellar and invited to help myself.

Increasingly, adventurous hunters are making forays into France. It is, quite simply, the most direct route to the heart and culture — sporting, social and sustaining — of the country. Where else would I have enjoyed the surprising experience of being given a three-course lunch with toasts in Marc de Bourgogne before getting on my horse?

But you do not have to be a rider. You can follow la chasse on foot and anyone with a taste for the French interior and its cooking, its churches and its civilisation will get off the fast train to Marseilles at Le Creusot, hire a car and head for the Burgundian hills.

Rory Knight Bruce’s Red Letter Days: Hunting Across the British Isles (Quiller, £20) is published on 2 May. It includes a chapter on hunting in Burgundy.