Henry Miller got stuck in Dijon, Burgundy's capital, for a few months in the 1930s, trying not very hard to be a teacher, and the experience calcified into a whole chapter of Tropic of Cancer. "Stepping off the train I knew immediately that I had made a fatal mistake", it begins, and slumps from there into a caustic, sweary blast against "a hopeless, jerk-water town where mustard is turned out in carload lots, in vats and tuns and barrels and pots and cute-looking little jars".
The cool Burgundian pride that can prickle the visitor springs from a powerful compost of ancient tradition and mellowed power. "The thing you have to remember about the French," an expat friend with a honed prejudice told me, "is where the attitude comes from. They've never got used to no longer being the centre of the world, so they just pretend." You can still see Paris as a plausible centre of the West, but the idea that Dijon, a tiny city surrounded by flat fields and vineyards, was once the Washington of its day seems fantastic. But it's true - not so long ago, power was as famous a Burgundian export as its wine, borne from a nobility that rivalled the King of France, and a cluster of monasteries that threatened the supremacy of the Pope.
"Does Burgundy have a local sport?" I ask Françoise Bidot, one of our guides, and she makes a motion with her hand, throwing back an invisible wine glass. "That is our local sport," she says. "We are champions." Wine is not just the sport but the art, geography, philosophy, religion, politics and love life of Burgundy. Churches, hotels, hospitals and of course monasteries all have wineries. People cram tiny vineyards into their backyards instead of tennis courts. Every homely bar has the same decoration, a map of Burgundy wineries which fills the same wall space that a print of dogs playing poker or a fox hunting scene might occupy in another country. It's also a kind of league table, not just showing the hundreds of wineries Balkanised by centuries of donations, confiscations, sales, sub-letting, and inheritances, but also colour-coding them by quality.
There's no exact translation for what it means, but it's somewhere between "dirt" and "sense of place". You do get a sense of it by seeing it. We travel through the vineyards on bikes, snaking through gently hilly narrow roads and tiny villages with famous names like Pommard, past gnarled, stumpy bush vines still denuded, but only weeks from the appearance of the first flowers. There are cheery Gallic men at work in overalls and leaning against vans, burning scrap in drums; much of the work here is still done by hand, as it was hundreds of years ago. The coppery earth is furrowed and strung with wires, making the vineyards look strangely like the World War I battlefields that scarred this same landscape generations ago (conversation with some older residents here can still yield a speech on the bravery of Australians, which generally ends in handshakes and references to kangaroos).
"Here the vines must fight for survival," says Bidot, over dinner. "What makes Burgundy wines special is great complexity, and that comes from the terroir: the minerals and elements, the air, the climate. A truly great wine is almost a transcendental experience. It should be like Merlin." We are dining in Lameloise, a three-Michelin-starred, third-generation institution serving local cuisine since the 1920s. Bidot expands on her rhapsodic theme, going on to compare each of the premier cru wines we're drinking to various authors. At a nearby table, a cluster of very young Japanese men are making their way through a cheese plate featuring local specialties such as the golden, seeping Epoisses (also a Cistercian invention). They turn out to be culinary students, and their faces alternate between industrious interest and rank disgust, willing their palates to acquire the unfamiliar taste, and not quite getting there. We meet Eric Pras, the humble new chef, and the first in a century not to bear the same name as the restaurant, and he explains some of the delicacies of changing the menu in a three-star restaurant. Jacques Lameloise himself is not here, but it turns out we will run into him later - by chance as it turns out - in the most unlikely place.
"French people don't realise how lucky they are," he says later, as he carefully cuts some Comté cheese in the kitchen. "They can't see how beautiful France is, how good the food is in Burgundy. I don't want to just try and do this on my own. I want there to be more people living like this, to try to educate them." Just then the table breaks into a clutter of conversation, and I ask what these culinary demigods are talking about. "Food," apparently.
The next farmhouse we end up in is unusual for a different set of reasons. La Ferme du Poiset has a huge wooden table, but the walls are littered with ancient military paraphernalia, crossbows, pikes, cavalry sabres, even a busted kettle drum. "That belonged to Louis XVI's bodyguard," says our host Pierre Moine, pointing to a dusty red and gold tunic. He seems unimpressed when I point out that the man didn't do a very good job. Like Ménager, Moine runs a farm that preserves the best traditions of pure Burgundy food - he makes artisanal goat's cheese using the same techniques as "the grandmas" used to, as he puts it. His produce comes with a side dish of crazy paysan folklore as well. "A goat is like a woman," Moine explains to me as we watch kids. I'm still digesting this maxim when he tries to convince me that water is unhealthy. "Water, when it is cold, makes fog, which gives you the flu. It can rust iron. Imagine what it does to your insides." It's better to drink wine, he says, just not too much, in case you get the something called "the winemaker's disease", where "your liver goes over your heart".