Byline: Nick Curtis
WHEN a friend of mine settled, grinning, into her seat for her firstflight on Concorde years ago, a colleague muttered spitefully to her: "Try notto look like you've won this in a raffle." Having stayed at Abbaye de laBussiere, a converted 12th-century abbey set in a lush valley between Dijon andBeaune in Burgundy, I know how my friend felt.
I've stayed in sumptuous hotels before.
I've visited buildings of historic interest.
I've been in countryside so remote that all you can hear is birdsong. I'veeaten in Michelin-starred restaurants.
But I've never done all these things in the same place, over one dazzinglysunny weekend, with a bit of top-flight shopping and culture thrown in.
We arrive in Dijon via Eurostar and TGVsurely the most civilised mode of transport aroundthen it's a halfhour cab ride beside the Canal de Bologne, through metal gatesand into the 15 acres of parkland surrounding the Abbaye. There's a largeornamental lake, mill buildings clustered around the river Ouche that runsthrough the property, and a couple of Shetland ponies cropping the grass. Andahead, the imposing main buildings, unmis- takeably ecclesiastical but alsoredolent of an English country-house hotel. This thought must have struck CliveCummings, who ran Amberley Castle hotel in Sussex with his parents beforebuying the Abbaye in 2005. The first building contains two private dining roomsand two f loors of bedrooms; the second, the gourmet restaurant, the lunchtimebistro that doubles as a breakfast room, and three upstairs sitting rooms.
It's even more English inside, the bedrooms heaped with overstuffed andtasselled cushions, the lounges off the upper gallery studded with antlers,swords and musical instruments converted into reading lamps. Our bathroom isAmerican: downpour showers, Jacuzzis, Bulgari toiletries. But the welcome, andparticularly the gastronomic restaurant, is undeniably Gallic.
After a tour of the grounds we settle down on a sofa on the lawn between therestaurant and the unconverted 14thcentury building containing the abbey's winepress and cellar. Swallows dart in and out of the masonry, and black-cladwaiters dart to and from the kitchen.
We have a glass of Henriot Champagne and Coteaux des Moines respectively andchoose chef Olivier Elzer's Bourgogne set menu before going in.
Here, classic local dishes are served as originally conceived, and with atwist. So you get one snail cooked in its shell, another deconstructed andserved in a ring of crisped potato; there's a square of ham hock terrine, and a"hocktail" of pork cubes and bouillon topped with parsley sauce in a shot glassetc. It is all quite camp and delicious, especially the eggs poached in redwine and the beef on lasagne "printed" with leeks. The formality of the diningroom is offset by little theatrical touches (mint-sized pills that swell tobecome hot towels when water is added, dishes served on squares of artificialgrass) and the impish charm of the sommelier who brings an excellent bottle of2006 Eric Marey Pernand- Vergelesses. Naturally, there is wonderful cheese,especially a pungent Epuisse. Elzer, 28, deserves his Michelin star. We sleeplike the dead that night and awake to more dazzling sunshine.
If we'd hired a car we could have explored the many chateaux and vineyardsnearby, most of which offer tastings and tours. Indeed, on our second morning,two piratical older couples churned up the gravel drive in a rented E-TypeJaguar and Triumph Spitfire, checking out the Abbaye as part of an epicureantouring holiday. …