It’s not hard to get behind a new cultural centre that celebrates the good things in life: exceptional food, incredible wine and the intangible joie de vivre of a proper French meal. In Dijon, the Cité internationale de la gastronomie et du vin – or International Centre for Gastronomy and Wine – opened May 6. It gives visitors a closer look at why food is celebrated in France – so much so that the French gastronomic meal is recognized by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity.
The new complex covers 6.5 hectares on the site of a centuries-old renovated hospital building, easily reached by a short walk from the train station. It includes a cooking school, retail neighbourhood (with streets named for famous chefs), a museum, a movie theatre and luxury apartments (sold out at 6,000 euros per square foot). Two historic churches on site have been deconsecrated: One now blends religious grandeur with food and wine information boards and the other, the smaller Sainte-Croix-de-Jerusalem built in 1459, has had its artifacts restored and is now much easier for the public to view.
For travellers visiting the Cité, it’s also a chance to learn more about why French food is just so darn good in Burgundy – a region renowned for its wine (there are 33 grand cru vineyards), beef (the tender, flavourful Charolais cattle) and produce (the rolling hills and valleys are perfect for organic farming).
An early look at the Cité site a week before opening day reveals a far from dry, academic experience. There are colourful, interactive museum exhibits that explain the importance of flavours and taste, and mouth-watering – if inedible – sculptures that detail the work and techniques of pastry chefs. Other areas show historical menus and photographs to explore how French gastronomy has played a role in world politics conducted at the tables of French leaders. Many other topics and exhibit halls were still under construction.
In an outdoor area, several small streets of shops and restaurants felt like a market hall. (“You know Eataly? The Village Gastronomique area will be a little like that!” enthused a tourism board representative.) This is also where cookbook fans will find an outpost of Librarie Gourmande stocked with 8,000 titles.
As owner and manager Deborah Dupont opened boxes and stacked book displays, she said through a translator that setting up shop in the Cité was a no-brainer. “The history of French cooking is what makes it so special,” she said, but noted that while The A-Z of French Food is one of her best-selling titles, it’s important that her shop sells cookbooks for all cuisines.
Wandering the Cité will give tourists the chance to mingle with Dijonnais, too. In addition to the site’s museum and hotel (Hilton’s boutique Curio brand opens in 2023), locals should turn out for the cinema, food shops and restaurants, including a new location by three-star Michelin chef Éric Pras: La Table des Climats will focus on Burgundy food and wine pairings.
But what really had the local Dijonnais excited during a recent visit was the Cité's enormous new wine cellar. Inside La Cave de la Cité, bottles of Burgundy wines line the walls from floor to ceiling and surround a central reception area. Since even locals find it hard to get their hands on bottles of Burgundy’s top wines, the chance to sip grand crus by the glass is a big deal. La Cave de la Cité will have at least 250 wines “on tap,” dispensed by enomatic machines.
The cellar will stock 3,000 bottles – 1,000 wines from Burgundy, 1,000 from France and 1,000 from the rest of the world. (No one could answer if Canadian wines made the cut.) Visitors can sip and sample their wines on the cave’s outdoor terrace or under the centuries-old vaulted-beam ceiling. Perhaps the resemblance to a church of wine is not unintentional.
Attached to the stone buildings, architectural firm Anthony Béchu created a contemporary wing to house the kitchens of the Ferrandi cooking school. Paris’s famed culinary institution offers budding international chefs classes to learn the basics of French gastronomy in both French and English. And if you’re a home cook who’s always wanted to figure out how to create, say, the perfect lemon tart, day classes will be available later in 2022.
Visitors can enter the Cité for free, but to explore the exhibits and galleries requires a 9-euro ticket (13-euros gets you a Burgundy wine tasting, too, though this is a separate experience from the wine cellar tastings on the other side of the site).
A week before opening, the Cité was a hive of activity – construction workers were up against tight deadlines, shop owners unloaded crates of their wares, while boxes and boxes of wine were carted into stone cellars. Just a short walk away, Dijon’s scenic Old Town was also full of activity. Locals and visitors lingered on restaurant patios taking advantage of the sunny weather to draw out their lunch (already a minimum two-hour activity in France).
At DZ’Envies bistro, located across the street from Dijon’s historic market hall (always a big draw for visitors), chef David Zuddas wasn’t too worried about the upcoming competition of the Cité. Through an interpreter, Zuddas said he’s encouraged by the move to educate people about food and wine and cooking techniques. He sees it as a way to ensure food is better understood and cooking is more accessible.
“The more people who come to Dijon, the more people will come here to eat, too,” he said.
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