The Luxury Gap

France mastered the art of high living back in the days of Louis XIV - that's why we go there. So why are we being shortchanged with a few posh accessories instead of la vie en rose?

Lyon is a good place to start any tour of France, especially a gastronomic one. But if you are flying in, best to take your mind off the airport. In a fit of nationalistic re-branding, some ministry intello has decided that the old Satolas should be re-named Lyon Saint-Exupéry. Much as I admire the romantic author of The Little Prince, it seems odd to name an airport after a juvenile fantasist who crashed his plane in the Mediterranean in mysterious circumstances. Still, it is a short flight.

Lyon is a good place to start any tour of France, especially a gastronomic one. But if you are flying in, best to take your mind off the airport. In a fit of nationalistic re-branding, some ministry intello has decided that the old Satolas should be re-named Lyon Saint-Exupéry. Much as I admire the romantic author of The Little Prince, it seems odd to name an airport after a juvenile fantasist who crashed his plane in the Mediterranean in mysterious circumstances. Still, it is a short flight.

Like the late Cyril Connolly, I have an immoderate fascination with France. True, it might be based on an adulatory and snobbish love of abroad mixed with embittered and boring connoisseurship of food and wine, but it is real nonetheless. I am always preoccupied with how standards are changing and how the French seem intent on destroying, or at least on compromising, those very parts of France and French culture we most admire. Show the same ministry intello a charming little boucherie and he tears it down and puts an hypermarché in its place. So, an opportunity for an adulatory and snobbish trip to Burgundy and Champagne offered an attractive laboratory to examine these two most famous brands and to question the larger issue of just how good the French really are at this luxury business they invented.

It was Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Monsieur de Seignelay (1619-1683) who, as Louis XIV's Intendant des Finances, established the French system of art patronage and, in effect, the luxury goods businesses still dominated today by French companies such as Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessey. However, this domination might, just might, be coming to an end. Consumer expectations are changing.

I started this article at the end of my trip, at Hotel Royal Champagne, a Relais et Chateaux establishment near Epernay, on the south side of the Montagne de Reims – champagne country. In the bathroom I counted a cork-stoppered glass jar filled with tricolor cotton-wool balls and an alarming number of cotton buds. There were two foam shoe shiners, Gel de Bain, shampoo and conditioner, emery boards, jojoba lip balm, Crabtree & Evelyn shell soaps, unusable aftershave, towelling mitts (what for?), a sewing kit and yet more of those bloody shower caps. I dislike this lazy first-class garbage. Was I having a luxurious experience? Well, not entirely. The reading matter in my room consisted of a few unreadable tourist magazines, and there was no one to carry bags. After a long journey, a pile of fresh newspapers and a jug of iced water would be worth more than a metric tonne of freebies.

The week had begun in Lyon. A largely charmless industrial city, Lyon has a magnificent site split by two great rivers: the Rhône and the Saône. The old town, to the north-west of the city, must be one of the best places to lunch on the planet. Up and down the rue St-Jean and the alleys off the rue du Boeuf are the bouchons, the small restaurants offering similar menus based on famous local produce. You start with a plate of grattons de porc. We call them scratchings, but since you are allowed to chill your (predominantly Beaujolais) red wine in Lyon, they go down very well. Continuing the aeronautical theme, you might then have fricassée d'ailerons of the legendary local Bresse chicken, or a generous poire de boeuf, a cut like a fillet. This you eat with (much) more Beaujolais.

There are three exceptional hotels in Vieux-Lyon. The achingly cool Cour des Loges, the characterless but "luxurious" Villa Florentine (with stunning views from its terrace). Or the very interesting La Tour Rose. True, the interior design in this radically restored townhouse is of the type where you cannot tell where accidental light damage or wilful vandalism ended and the decorative schema began. With scratchings, daubings, prints, paintings and tortured cast iron this was a hotel suffering from art disease: dinner was served on what looked like an industrial light-fitting. The restaurant has a Michelin rosette with consequential bafflement and elaboration on the plate: foie chaud de canard, filet de rougets barbets, poilés aux lentilles were typical. But with its warm ochre patination, polished stone floors, mysterious dark nooks and surprising sunny corners, this was also an immensely satisfying place to stay, giving the guest a delicious sense of adventure. I am delighted to report there were no cotton wool balls or shoe shiners. A pity, then, that the room offered nowhere to hang my trousers, although it did have Art Nouveau in astonishing abundance. I'll take the clothes rail, thanks.

Still, it is wonderful country. An hour north of Lyon you are driving through a wine list: signs for Nuits-Saint-George and Gevrey-Chambertin lead the way to Puligny-Montrachet. You get a sense of the complexities of Burgundy when M Leflaive, of Puligny's Domaine Leflaive, takes you to a small, dusty crossroads and shows you the corners of four vineyards within hand's reach: one is Bourgogne Grand Cru, the other Bourgogne Premier Cru, followed by the humbler Bourgogne-Villages and the basic Bourgogne Blanc. Meanwhile, in the distance, you see the church tower of Meursault, a vineyard or two away. Why did the wine-maker cross the road? To get to the Grand Cru!

The system is baffling, but Olivier Leflaive explains that, while in Bordeaux it is one chateau, one wine, in Burgundy, one maker may produce an average of six wines. In Leflaive's case it is more: buying grapes in Auxey-Duresses allows him to label a wine he makes in Puligny-Montrachet with that other wonderful name. But caution – there is sometimes vestigial contact with substance because that Auxey-Duresses might really be a Puligny-Montrachet.

You can meditate on this in Leflaive's own vignerons' dining room or in the superb village restaurant, Le Montrachet. A plate of jambon persillé and a pied de Cochon en crépinette are useful meditative tools when thinking about the enduring quality of France's great wines.

Further down the road I was beginning to show a hint of nervosité. A private tasting in Burgundy has many of the characteristics of religious observation. There is a sense that you are being inducted into a secret mystery by a persuasive priesthood. There are rites, icons and liturgy. That the induction takes place in dark, dank cellars while the sun beats down only adds to the feeling of mystery. And, of course, as in any religion there are apostates and true believers. Visits to wine-makers are one of life's great pleasures and a tasting at Chambolle-Musigny (where it was 36C outside, but the glum wine-makers put their woolies on indoors) was a brilliant combination of hedonism and thought-provocation. Admittedly, cask tasting is a specialised art form that calls for prophetic qualities of a high order, but confronting wines in this way can be demanding – rather like meeting a duchess in her nightie.

"Don't hesitate to agitate," the glum oenologist said in an effort to get some response from an aristocratic, although possibly brackish, wine. The thing is, no one would dare say this. At Bonneau-de-Martray in Pernand-Vergelesses, where they make the oldest Corton-Charlemagne, by reputation a glorious white wine (meant to be "achingly refined"), it was the same, but the snobbishness of French wine traditions does not yet allow frank criticism. Difficult to drink? You have to say it is closed in on the nose.

That same night we stayed in the Vault-de-Lugny, a Burgundian chateau of great antiquity in lush country near Avallon. You could tell it was old because of the sheer volume of tapestry and peacocks. A maître d' with a face the colour of kir had himself acquired a certain bottle age: he served supermarket snails, a difficult local Chablis and a tragic boeuf bourguignon, whose most prominent ingredient was flour instead of wine or meat. There was no Marc de Bourgogne in the tapestried bedroom, but untouched miniatures of Jameson's Irish whiskey.

Geographically speaking, you connect Burgundy with Champagne by driving across La Grande Bourse, the vast agricultural plain of eastern central France. Our objective was a visit to Champagne Deutz at Ay, one of the great houses of the district. Here in Ay was sepulchral quiet, an atmosphere whose innocence Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks have rather compromised for us. Deutz is a house champagne in all of Paris's nine three-star restaurants and all of its 19 two-stars; it comes in six types, but in all honesty it is very difficult to distinguish between them (although they are all delicious). Establishments like Deutz are not open to the public, except by rendez-vous, but it is well worth making the effort, or posing as a restaurateur on a buying trip, to be entertained in Deutz's Empire-style dining room and eat langoustines flambées au whiskey and filet de sole aux petits légumes. It was marvellous sitting on top of a labyrinth of cold, chalk, damp cellars eating cuisine de grande-mère, or what we might uncharitably calls school dinner in strong sunshine. I only wish Sebastian and Julian could have joined me.

Eating and drinking in luxurious France is always fascinating and sometimes disappointing, but at the very pinnacle the experience is exceptional. Gérard Boyer's Les Crayeres, in Reims, the champagne capital, is such a peak. This is a hotel-restaurant built in the old house of Pommery, just up the road from Veuve-Clicquot. And here was an experience of luxury if ever I have had one: a bottle of Deutz arrived from Madame. The immaculate terrace was a swirl of burnished rich folk, all with the atmospheric patina of wealth. Money, it appears, makes people go a very particular colour. The ratio of grey-suited staff to pink-faced customers was, perhaps, two to one. There were lots of people who looked like Henry Ford II, lots of State Department accents. Lawns and fingernails were equally well manicured in a universal jardinage of cultivated well-being.

The food and wine were perfectly executed, but the memorable and impressive value-for-money element was the lubricated theatre of it all. A man to walk you to the loo. Someone to open your menu. You are struck by the contented hum, the muffled affluence, the great confidence that money brings. Restaurants like Boyer have an entire species of waiting staff. There are baby sommeliers, youthful sommeliers, mature sommeliers, possibly even geriatric sommeliers. There is a periodic table of charcoal suits. Fluster is not known here. It all works like a luxurious battleship: subdued, but intense. These guys, you think, should be running our railways. There is prosperity and plenitude. And as a nice reactionary touch, the menu is still priced in francs.

Certainly, Gérard Boyer reconfirms a belief in conventional luxury. But often in France luxury is found in surprising places. My principle here, in being a touch contrarian about some of the pleasures of traditional Burgundy and Champagne, is that of Coleridge: "Praises of the unworthy are felt by ardent minds to be robberies of the deserving."

How much do we really like champagne? Is it sometimes too acid? Are the distinctions a fiction? Isn't a simple pot of delicious and accessible Beaujolais actually more pleasurable than a costly, but thin, red Burgundy? I am not certain of the answers, but I know that asking the questions is part of the pleasure. Hotels? Well, linen sheets, iced water, a fresh newspaper and good books are worth much more than frivolous give-aways in bedrooms. And they are rare. It is certainly true that you can have the greatest eating experiences in the world in France, but not always in the most expensive places. Before Eurostar whooshed us back to Waterloo, we went to the very simple Chez Michel near the Gare du Nord. Here we had the best meal of all. It was rough instead of smooth. Service, by an amiable but hard-pressed soul in a Breton pul marin, was slow: my companion ordered fish and after a while said "the morue never comes". Eventually, I ate fresh anchovies with rocket and celeriac and a roast pigeon with morels. Simple perfection.

As we rushed home I thought about the great pleasures of France. Heinrich von Treitschke once said: "The English think soap is civilisation." Yes, but not shower caps and cotton-wool balls.



The Facts

Getting there

Stephen Bayley travelled to Burgundy and Champagne with An Invitation to France (020-7751 0990). A two-night trip to Burgundy costs from £360 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Lyon, b&b accommodation in La Tour Rose and Chateau de Vault-de-Lugny and two days' car hire. Two nights in Champagne costs £330 per person, based on two sharing, including return crossings on Eurostar, b&b in the Hotel Vigno and Hotel Royal Champagne and two days car hire.

Being there

Le Montrachet, 10 place des Marronniers, 21190 Puligny-Montrachet (00 33 3 80 21 30 06).

Les Crayeres, 61 Boulevard Henry Vasnier, 51100 Reims (00 33 3 26 82 80 80)

Chez Michel, 10 rue de Belzunce, 75010 Paris (00 33 1 44 53 06 20).

Champagne Deutz at Ay, 16 rue Jeanon, 51160 Ay (00 33 3 26 56 03 96),

Champagne Louis Roederer, 21 Boulevard Lundy, 51100 Reims. (00 33 3 26 40 42 11).

Further information

French tourist board (0906 8244 123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

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