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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
14 Nov 2003

Tonight 600 people from all over the world will gather in the Château du Clos de Vougeot, once a Cistercian monastery-cum-presshouse, in the middle of one of Burgundy's most famous vineyards for an evening of determined jollity.

The Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the gastronomic order based here, holds almost 20 dinners each year - indeed the holding of dinners is its raison d'être - but this one, coinciding with the annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction, is a social highlight for which some guests even cross the Atlantic.

I went for the first time to this particular dinner last year and was struck by its peculiarly Burgundian combination of luxury ingredients with peasant culture. In theory one dresses up. Tenue de soirée is obligatory, which seems strange when the whole thing is so determinedly raucous. I went in a party which included world-renowned white burgundy wizard Jean-François Coche of Domaine Coche-Dury who was touchingly thrilled by his invitation from a French customer and wine lover who happens to be a Chevalier du Tastevin. (You need a well-placed 'godfather' or two to be allowed to dine at the Clos' long trestle tables.)

The most difficult thing about the evening is parking, even here deep in the countryside. This is mainly because this bit of land, some of France's prime vineyard, is worth hundreds of thousands of euros an acre, so cars are forced into the muddy margins of these highly valued fields. The Cistercians, after all, had no need for car parks.

A lighting specialist has been effectively deployed to illuminate the 12th- and 16th-century buildings and their historic contents so that guests, once liberated from the vehicle that brought them there, feel they have entered a special realm, a sort of echt Disneyland.

I hear many American accents and see a group of men in kilts, one of whom, curiously, is boasting loudly about having been to school with Robin Cook. And surely that is Ken and Barbara Follett over there?

We are welcomed with trays of Crémant de Bourgogne, the frankly rather ordinary fizz that Burgundy produces from grapes that cannot find a better home. Having established the (wine) name of our table, we then file in to a large stone chamber whose beautiful mediaeval roof is in such good condition that I feel as though I am on a Hogwarts school trip to France.

The Chevaliers look awfully impressive in their red and yellow neck sashes, which warm up the look of this potentially chilly hall no end. The men's tastevins, silver wine tasting saucers dangling from said ribbons, are noticeably bigger than the women's. We all quietly resolve to become members of this in-crowd as soon as is humanly possible.

My overall impression is how amazingly efficient the whole machine running this dinner is. They have clearly done this before, but the production values are far higher than they strictly need to be.

In sharp contrast to similar dinners I have been to in Bordeaux, there is no hanging about, no hopping from foot to foot while listening to platitudes, evasions and dull speeches. As soon as the hunting horns are sounded by ample-girthed locals in costume we get straight into the reason for being here: eating and drinking.

It is my husband's job as FT restaurant critic to notice such niceties as the details of food service, but even I cannot help admiring the technicalities of serving six mainly-piping-hot courses to 600 tightly-packed diners at long, narrow tables. There is no more than a handspan between the backs of the diners and yet I see not a single example of spillage, no one has to wait for anything, and the serveuses even manage to offer us each our individual choice from their cheeseboards sporting Cîteaux, maximum matière grasse Brillat Savarin and fresh little chèvres on sticks.

The first course, a thick wedge of wild duck terrine with well dressed salad leaves and some game jelly is probably easiest of all to serve to this increasingly boisterous crowd. But they then manage to serve us individually the fish course, steaming monkfish medallions in saffron sauce from vast, and presumably extremely heavy, oval copper dishes.

Then, miraculously, come two hot oeufs en meurette (the Burgundian speciality of eggs softly poached in red wine) with mushrooms and crisp fried bread for each of us. Thick slices of veal with morels in cream sauce follow as a main course with the only disappointing wine, an Hospices Beaune 1996 that is still tasting just too hard and mean. A much-needed trou bourguignon of local marc and sorbet to re-sharpen the appetite appears before the cheese and its accompanying Latricières Chambertin 1998, only to make way for giant white models of escargots which are wheeled in to be transformed into splinters of crunchy almond toffee for our post-prandial delectation with yet more marc or prune liqueur.

This ritual has been enacted since the 1930s. Indeed it was seeing how successful all this dressing up in cod-mediaeval velvet was at the Clos de Vougeot which has inspired dozens of other wine and food 'fraternities' throughout France. The formal business of the evening is always to enthrone, or intronise, a bunch of suitable dignitaries. This particular evening's top brass includes Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcello and Cathérine Deneuve (a good bloodline, I'm sure you would agree) together with notable diplomats and businessmen and, most popular of all with the crowd, the 27-year-old chief of the local police who looks puzzled by his rapturous reception.

Music is vital to an event of this kind in Burgundy, and before even the first course at our table we have already linked arms, swayed from side to side and sung some burgundian ditties. Crucial to bonhomie at the Clos de Vougeot is the song whose punchline is, I think, 'la, la, la' and involves revolving raised open palms on a vertical axis (it's easier to do than describe, but I do remember thinking that some people, like my son and my mother, would hate it). We are each issued with a songbook, although most songs are so well known by most people that they are superfluous. The song about boire un petit coup is pointedly directed at the police chief.

The President of the Confrérie makes a witty speech incorporating many languages. The humour in general is earthy with countless similes between women and wine, and even women and cars. ('One's attracted by the shape, knows it'll cost a lot of money and that one couldn't live without it.') This is not an event for the politically correct.

Nor for the smoker, one of which is a member of our party but is trapped between a determinedly taciturn bicycle salesman and a stranger who really does seem to be a hysteric. He groans with laughter during several speeches, but then he has eaten and drunk most of what was served to his party of four. He gets very cross with the (very efficient) sommelier at the end of the dinner, slamming his half-full glass on the table saying, 'but I said I wanted un bon verre of prunelle...'

We beat a retreat at 12.20, absurdly early by Clos de Vougeot standards, after the petits fours but before the coffee is served. Some have to teeter through the mud and mist in their stilettoes but my efficient French hosts have organised taxis.

Rollicking is the word for this particular entertainment. Jean-François Coche adored it, and tried to engage the harassed young sommelier in a chat about each of the (perfectly creditable) wines. I was just glad to be in bed by one, and to have witnessed this famous scene in the flesh for once in my life at least.

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