Travel: The town that cuts the mustard

Take a gourmet tour of Dijon, famous for its condiment.
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The Independent Culture
I don't normally get enthusiastic over a condiment: good wine, an excellent meal, caviar, perhaps. But mustard - the gooey yellow stuff that is frequently used to accompany indifferent meat - never. A weekend in Dijon convinced me otherwise, and I left the Burgundy capital wiser - and laden down with pots of the stuff, from the standard variety of moutarde to red, fruit-flavoured and some other literally mouth-watering specialities.

The key to this change in attitude was a one-hour guided tour of the Amora Mustard Museum, where we were taken through the history of mustard from the earliest known reference (Matthew's Gospel), via the heyday of the glittering Court of Burgundy to today's marketing techniques. The museum has an excellent selection of clay dishes in which mustard was once sold, and cabinet after cabinet of early-20th-century advertising. You learn that nowadays "Dijon" mustard does not have to come from the town.

The name simply refers to a particular manufacturing process. More scandalous still, the remaining local manufacturers import 80 per cent of their mustard seeds from Canada.

The Cote d'Or region of France, though, was ideal for mustard-makers with its many vineyards providing verjuice, its nearby forests with mustard plants, and the Dukes of Burgundy and their entourage (who appreciated its medicinal and digestive properties) on hand to buy it by the barrelful. In one of the earliest examples of strict trading standards, quality- control regulations were drawn up in 1390 and manufacturers could be fined for a poor-quality product.

After the museum, the next stop was the old-fashioned shop on Rue de la Liberte that once belonged to Grey Poupon. The mustard firm is now part of the larger Maille group, but the original shop-front has been preserved, providing a nostalgic contrast to the less imaginative designs beside it.

Of course, there's more to Dijon than mustard, and most of the weekend was spent exploring the heart of the town and trying out some local restaurants. As befits a former capital, there are historic buildings aplenty, and their light yellow sandstone gives the centre a feeling of spaciousness and elegance.

This is best observed on Place de la Liberation, looking towards the Palais des Ducs, ancient home of the Dukes of Burgundy, who had inspiring (and flattering) names such as Philip the Bold and Jean the Fearless. The 15th-century tower of Philip the Good rises from the centre of the palace complex, and the Fine Arts Museum is housed in yet another section: both are worth visiting, one for the view over the town, the other for one of the finest art collections in provincial France.

Other noteworthy buildings include the Eglise Notre Dame and the elegant town houses centred around the rue Verrerie. In Dijon, even the tourist office is an attraction in its own right: it's housed in a small 15th- century courtyard (at 34 rue des Forges). However, I had been told to make a point of going to rue de la Chouette, where an owl is carved into the wall: stroking it with your left hand is said to bring wisdom and good fortune, but given the rate at which the sculpture has been worn away by devoted stroking, there can't be much luck left in the poor bird. Further along the street, the timbered house built by Master Milliere, a medieval merchant, now houses a shop selling local treats such as creme de cassis and gingerbread.

The attractions aren't all indoors: the town claims to be one of the greenest in France, and the Botanical Gardens offer space to recuperate after the bustle of the main street, rue de la Liberte, and the pedestrianised Place Francois Rude - not to mention from the gastronomic treats offered at each meal.

Owned by the Berard brothers (one is the chef, the other looks after customers), the Cote Saint Jean restaurant is a delight. The cuisine is more sophisticated French than regional. A four-course menu cost 140F (around pounds 15) without wine, and the highlight was the cheese platter: we were given a description of each of the 20-odd varieties available, and finally settled on a selection of local cheeses, such as Citaux and Epoisse.

The following day, it was time to try more typical dishes. La Dame d'Aquitaine on Place Bossuet offered lunch dishes from 30F in the atmospheric setting of a 13th-century crypt. I tried the lamb in red wine sauce at 45F, and wasn't surprised to learn that this is a popular choice with office workers during the week.

That evening, after the obligatory kir aperitif at La Concorde, a lively cafe with frosted glass windows on Place Darcy, we crossed the road to the Restaurant de la Porte Guillaume. Among the menus on offer was a "degustation" of several Burgundy dishes (snails, eggs poached in red wine, boeuf bourguignon) but the coq au vin sounded too tempting to pass up.

While certainly more tourist-orientated than the Cote Saint Jean, the traditional "rustic" fare available in this restaurant provided a good contrast to the previous evening's experience. And in spite of a new-found interest in mustard, there proved to be absolutely no need to add the condiment to my plate for this particular dish.

Le Musee Amora is at 48 Quai Nicolas Rodin. Entrance costs 15F and tours are available in English. The easiest way to reach Dijon is on Eurostar (0990 186 186) via Paris; you can get there in under six hours from London Waterloo. The lowest fare is pounds 119 return.

Margaret Campbell paid 528F (pounds 55) for two nights at the Hostellerie du Sauvage on rue Monge - but wouldn't recommend it, mainly due to a fearsome dog that was apparently necessary to "guard" the hotel. The tourist office (00 33 3 80 44 11 44) can suggest alternatives. For somewhere to eat : Cote Saint Jean, 13 rue Monge ( 00 33 3 80 50 11 77); La Dame d'Aquitaine, 23 place Bossuet (00 33 3 80 30 45 65); Restaurant de la Porte Guillaume, Place Darcy (00 33 3 80 50 80 50)