Where's the Boeuf?

Grazing on dandelion and clover in Burgundy, Charolais are considered some of the choicest beef cattle in the world. David Downie travels to rural France to find out why everyone from breeders to chefs is following the herd.

Let's get a little closer to the bull," says cattleman Paul Chevalier. Before I can protest, Chevalier has driven us into the pastures of La Tour, his ranch in Champlecy, in southern Burgundy. This could be a golf course, with grass mattress-thick and emerald-green. In my mind's eye it runs crimson at the flick of a bull's horn. Chevalier's four-door Renault bounces toward the herd of white Charolais cows swirled around a huge cream-colored male. As we circle, the bull stares us down, scuffing and bellowing. "Melodieux is five and weighs a ton and a half," Chevalier says proudly.

Small, soft-spoken, and in his mid-fifties, Chevalier is from many generations of ranchers. He was also president of the Charolais Institute, headquartered in the town of Charolles, the bull's-eye of Burgundy's Charolais cattle country. Like him, most Charolais ranchers call their animals by name and treat them as if they were pets. As Chevalier eases the car to a halt, he springs out and, to my alarm, begins bellowing back at Melodieux, making a tcha tcha sound. Before I know it, the bull is charging. I reach for a cell phone to call an ambulance. But Melodieux veers off and saunters away.

"He's temperamental," Chevalier sighs as we bounce out of the pasture. "Charolais are a gentle breed."

Gentle they may be, but Charolais are also known for their stature and heft. Prizewinning bulls bulging with muscles top 3,000 pounds and stand six feet tall at the shoulder. Some ranchers jokingly call them "Schwarzenegger bulls." Cows commonly weigh a ton. The breed's origins, as draught animals, might reach as far back as prehistoric times, though they are more likely medieval, from around the ninth century.

Since the mid-1700s Charolais have been bred for meat, and they now thrive throughout Europe and the United States. But the best Charolais still come from Charollais. (The region's name is spelled with a double l like the town it is named for, while the cattle get only one. "A spelling mistake someone made two hundred years ago," says Chevalier. "Luckily the spelling doesn't affect the flavor.")

To many tastes, Charolais is some of the most mouthwatering, perfectly marbled, meltingly tender beef anywhere. It's juicy and buttery without being fatty, spreading an irresistible nutty flavor across the tongue and palate, with a spicy, grassy aroma. Connoisseurs compare it with other premium European beef varieties, such as Scottish Angus or Tuscan Chianina, though it is often more tender and subtly gamy than either. Its exceptional flavor and wholesomeness made Charolais beef one of the first French delicacies to earn the country's coveted Label Rouge for certified top-quality meat. Simply stated, to get a red label, the taste of the ingredient or product must stand out, and the method of production or growing is strictly regulated by a government-monitored private entity. All red-label Charolais are range-raised for up to ten months of the year; naturally fattened on grass, hay, and grain; and free of growth hormones and anabolic steroids.

To taste red-label Charolais is itself worth a visit to Burgundy. Many of the region's chefs put it on their menus, most often pan-frying it with butter, red wine, and marrow, ingredients that enhance its natural flavor.

The late, legendary chef Bernard Loiseau (who'd been very active in the Charolais dans l'Assiette, an association of restaurateurs devoted to promoting the use of Charolais in cooking) was one such champion. His main restaurant, La Côte d'Or, in Saulieu, still serves a luscious standing rib roast that is seared in a frying pan, oven-roasted, then topped with an oxtail-and-red-wine reduction with shallots and marrow.

The three-Michelin-star chef Michel Troisgros, in Roanne, a few miles south of the region's official borderline, serves a variety of sumptuous beef dishes made exclusively with Charolais Label Rouge, including an extraordinarily tender, three-inch-thick pan-fried fillet in a Beaujolais reduction.

Since 1947, Jean-Ducloux, owner of Greuze, in Tournus, on the region's eastern edge, has been serving spicy Charolais pepper steak, velvety entrecôte, and slow-cooked tranche de boeuf à la vigneronne (a slab of Charolais with a thick red-wine sauce). A host of respected regional chefs, such as Frédéric Doucet, Christian Lannuel, and Jean-Noël Dauvergne, specialize in everything from humble Charolais beef-jowl pie to pot roast, wine-braised beef, and veal-shank stew.

There's a reason why Charolais from the Charollais are so delicious. The landscape that gave birth to the breed has unusually abundant, rich grasslands, especially along the Arconce River, which runs through the town of Charolles. The river's limestone and clay deposits have created pasturelands so rich that locals refer to them as herbe violente, with grass that merges dandelions, alfalfa, and clover with a dozen or more indigenous wild varieties.

The region is also unspoiled, unpolluted, and uncluttered, a rollercoaster of hills groomed into a classic French patchwork. It stitches together timberlands, hedgerows, pastures, farms, and on the slopes east of Charolles, near Mâcon, mile upon mile of vineyards. Tractors rattle down looping two-laners. Romanesque churches and crumbling châteaux signal stone-built villages where time lazes by. This is what Chevalier and other Frenchmen affectionately call la France profonde—deep, rural France. The nearest sizable city is Lyon, an hour and a half's drive southeast of Charolles.

Technically Charollais was a medieval region that disappeared, along with other ancien régime nomenclature, during the French Revolution. (No longer showing up on most modern maps, Charollais lies roughly within the current Burgundy area of Saône et Loire.) On a knoll in Charolles itself, a handsome farm town sitting astride several meanders of the Arconce, is the tower of a ruined fortress, about the only reminder of Charolles' feudal past.

Charolles is also home to the Charolais Institute, the government-funded rural museum featuring videos and educational displays about local cattle, from the farmyard to the frying pan. Charolles has also been designated a site of gastronomical pilgrimage by the Conseil National des Arts Culinaires, an organization that inventories the national food treasures of France. (Beyond the beef, the region's specialties include classics such as coq au vin; buttery, garlicky snails; gougères cheese puffs; ham with parsley.) All told, there are about 1.6 million inhabitants in Burgundy and 1.4 million head of cattle. But in the heartland of the Charollais, cows, heifers, bulls, bullocks, and calves easily outnumber humans. Not surprisingly, livestock is now the economic mainstay in the Charollais, which for centuries was known for its timber and winemaking.

The systematic breeding of Charolais actually began about 15 miles south of Charolles, on the edge of the Arconce Valley in the village of Oyé. In 1747 rancher Émilien Mathieu set himself up breeding, fattening, and transporting Charolais to Paris, at the time a 17-day march. The rich grasslands allowed him to fatten his livestock in two to three months, a feat unheard of at the time. Mathieu's son Claude expanded the family ranch in 1773 to Burgundy's northern edge, in the Nivernais region, closer to demand in the capital. Cattlemen still refer to Oyé as the cradle of the Charolais breed, though nowadays it is a sleepy place with a single café. The keepers of the Charolais Herd Book, the register of purebred cattle established in the mid-19th century, are based not in Oyé but in Nevers, on Burgundy's western edge. The Herd Book was symbolically closed in 1920: Only descendants of animals of known purebred ancestry at that time have been admitted since. Most of these purebreds are in Burgundy. Stud farms and what the French call "experimental farms" scattered around the region continue the job the Mathieus began.

One such state-of-the-art breeding facility is at Jalogny, in fertile bottomland between Charolles and Mâcon. The spotless, odorless barns are full of Herd Book animals gorging on hay. Ideal attributes include a straight chignon hanging over a broad forehead; thin white half-moon horns facing forward; a soft hide; generous, shapely haunches and rump; and a smooth tail. Short, wide heads and long, wide bodies are essential for purebreds. From these physical traits, along with months of observation of an animal's behavior, skilled cattlemen can usually tell whether cows will be good mothers and bulls good breeders. They can also get a sense of the quality of the animals' meat. Contrary to expectations, the most flavorful, evenly "parsleyed" Charolais meat actually comes from cows four to seven years old, and less so from the three-year-old heifers or bullocks with the light-red, mild, tender meat that most consumers demand. Mature Charolais bulls are too tough for prime cuts, and most wind up as pot roast or burgers.

Every head of cattle in the Charollais, Herd Book or not, wears tags in its ears, with bar codes indicating its herd and date and place of birth. "We call it traceability," says Olivier Poiseau, who until recently was Jalogny's technical director. "Wholesalers, restaurateurs, inspectors, butchers, and consumers can now track a cut of meat to an animal and find out everything about its origins, so it's practically impossible to cheat."

For dozens of dedicated Charollais-region butchers, such as Jean-Claude Dupaquier, in the town of Salornay-sur-Guye, about ten miles north of Jalogny, traceability isn't an issue. Dupaquier goes into nearby fields with ranchers he's known for years, chooses animals (some of which he has watched grow up), and takes them himself to the local slaughterhouse (there are currently 15 in Burgundy) to be butchered "the old-fashioned way," he says. "No shortcuts. With a three-week dry hanging, I lose up to five percent of the meat's weight, but I've got loyal customers and professional pride."

Passion and pride are a big part of the reason why every Thursday, year-round, hundreds of Charolais professionals and hard-core beef aficionados converge on the historic cattle market at Saint-Christophe-en-Brionnais, a village on the Charollais region's southern edge. Sellers start unloading cattle at 3:30 a.m. The first bell rings at 6:30. An average of 800 head of cattle stand in rows under the covered marketplace abutting the village's main street. Thick mist welling up from bottomlands cloaks the cattle's white coats. Dozens of ranchers, buyers, and inspectors wearing black or blue smocks move deftly among the livestock, prodding and pinching them. Voices and hands fly—rituals going back to at least 1488, when the market was created.

Saint-Christophe-en-Brionnais remains the country's biggest quality-beef cattle market, but numbers have declined from 100,000 head sold yearly in the 1970s to about 40,000 head now, largely because of demographics. Instead of taking over their parents' ranches, young locals are more likely to pursue college degrees and move to the cities. The average acreage per rancher has doubled in the past two decades to 250 acres, which means that fewer cattlemen have the time to take their livestock to market. Many prefer to sell direct to wholesalers. Longtime regulars reassure visitors that the market will survive, however, and not merely because of tradition. It is still the place where both trends and prices are set.

After our visit with Melodieux, Monsieur Chevalier takes me to a generously napped table in the dining room of Hôtel de la Poste, chef Frédéric Doucet's provincially posh Charolles restaurant. As we wait for our Charolais rib steaks to be served, Chevalier explains that locals speak both of the land and its beef as grand cru, comparing them to northern Burgundy's great vineyards and vintages. In fact, wine tasting has lent much of its vocabulary to the emerging world of Charolais beef tasting, one of the Charolais Institute's pet projects. A tour of the institute often ends with a sampling of various cuts of local beef, he tells me, and an initiation into the tasters' terminology. Like sommeliers, beef experts gauge color and nose. When it comes to taste, they focus on tenderness, juiciness, texture, and flavor. They talk about fat that should be woven between muscle fibers and not concentrated on the outside, running between three and five percent by weight. They also use words like "parsleyed," "silky," "herby," "vinous," "caramel," "floral," or, the one that works best for me, "hazelnut."

My mouth waters as I cut into my two-inch-thick Charolais rib steak pan-fried in sweet butter with coarse sea salt. Chevalier is a man of few words and guarded expressions: He eats quietly, methodically. After my first bite I struggle to downplay my delight. The steak is so succulent and redolent of herbs, nuts, and grasses that I am tempted to try out the Charolais Institute's newfangled beef tasters' vocabulary. I decide instead to put Chevalier on the spot. I ask him what he detects in his rib steak, and if he can tell me about the animal it came from.

"Hazelnut," he says without hesitation. "And butter—not just from the cooking fat." The meat is uniformly tender, I agree, evenly marbled and cooked rare, as requested. "I'd guess it's from a four-year-old cow that had had one calf," Chevalier speculates. "It was probably dry-hung for three weeks. Any less and it's not this tender or tasty."

As if on cue, Hôtel de la Poste's energetic chef bustles over. I ask him about the meat. "It came from a four-year-old cow that had had one calf," he says. "I dry-aged it for twenty days." I wonder for a moment if Doucet has tipped off Chevalier simply to put on a show. It seems unlikely; after all, these are serious beef experts. But whatever the case, it hardly matters to me as I finish the last bite of the best steak I've ever tasted.


Where to Eat and Stay in Charollais

Restaurants

LA COTE D'OR
The late Bernard Loiseau's three-Michelin-star restaurant La Côte d'Or is in Saulieu, a small town just north of the Charollais region. La Côte d'Or still makes an incredible côte de boeuf rôti, jus de queue de boeuf au vin rouge et à la moelle, a standing rib roast seared in a frying pan, oven-roasted, then served with an oxtail-and-red-wine reduction with shallots and marrow. Saulieu hosts the annual Fête du Charolais (a barbecue party) the third weekend of August. Dinner, $300; 33-3-80-90-53-53; www.bernard-loiseau.com.

LA MAISON TROISGROS
Roanne is not officially in Burgundy, but it is only 15 miles or so from the Charollais region's southern border. The Troisgros family has had its three-Michelin-star restaurant and hotel here for three generations. Chef Michel Troisgros serves beef specialties made exclusively with Charolais Label Rouge. They include an extraordinarily tender, three-inch- thick pan-fried fillet in a red-wine sauce. Dinner, $335. At Place Jean-Troisgros; 33-4-77-71-66-97; www.troisgros.fr.

GREUZE
This two-Michelin-star restaurant in Tournus has been run since 1947 by Jean Ducloux. Specialties include frogs' legs, pike dumplings, rabbit, and three Charolais dishes: Entrecôte non parée à la charollaise (rib steak made with sweet butter), steak au poivre (with a gray-pepper sauce), and tranche de boeuf à la vigneronne (a slab of Charolais with a thick red-wine sauce). Dinner, $250. At One Rue Thibaudet; 33-3-85-51-13-52.

RESTAURANT DANIEL ET FREDERIC DOUCET & HOTEL DE LA POSTE
In 1999 Frédéric Doucet took over this old-fashioned Charolles restaurant-hotel, run by his father, Daniel, for decades. Doucet serves only Label Rouge Charolais meat, which he dry-hangs for at least three weeks. The hotel offers 15 simple but comfortable rooms. Dinner, $120; rooms, $55-$145. At Place de l'Eglise; 33-3-85-24-11-32.

RESTAURANT DE LA POSTE
Owner Jean-Noël Dauvergne, a founding member of Charolais dans l'Assiette, serves a beef tasting menu with Charolais prepared in three ways (a pan-fried or grilled fillet, luscious braised-beef jowl pie, and a flavorful pot roast). In Poisson, on the Arconce River between Charolles and Saint-Christophe-en-Brionnais, the restaurant adjoins Hôtel La Reconce, with six simple rooms and one suite. Dinner, $80; rooms, $68-$140. Le Bourg; 33-3-85-81-10-72.

LE RELAIS DU MACONNAIS
Christian Lannuel's elegant but unpretentious family-run country restaurant, with ten simple guestrooms upstairs, is favored by local gourmets for its updated regional food—squab in layered puff pastry, slow-cooked, braised Charolais, and fabulous desserts. Dinner, $100; rooms, $75-$110. At La Crois Blanche, Berzé la Ville; 33-3-85-36-60-72; www.lannuel.com.

LA MARMUSETTE
A country auberge with a small dining room, this family-run spot has a dozen tables and a fireplace and is perched atop one of the Charollais region's highest peaks. The menu includes Burgundian specialties (rabbit à la bourguignon and fresh frogs' legs) and excellent Charolais steaks. Dinner, $60. Butte de Suin; 33-3-85-24-84-20.

Hotels

HOTEL DE LA COTE D'OR
Thirty-two rooms, most with private terraces or balconies, overlook a garden at this Relais & Châteaux hotel that is part of Bernard Loiseau's restaurant. The decor is traditional and tasteful, with russet tile floors, open timbers, wooden furniture, and thick floral and plaid fabrics. Rates, $240-$585. In Saulieu; 33-3-80-90-53-53; www.bernard-loiseau.com.

LA MAISON TROISGROS
This 1930 hotel, attached to the Troisgros' restaurant, was rebuilt in the 1990s and now features original art work, contemporary designer furniture (sofas by Yves Taralon, standing lamps by Eric Schmitt, armchairs by François Champsaur), tropical-wood louvers and tables, and colorful African textiles. Rates, $200-$525. At Place Jean-Troisgros; 33-4-77-71-66-97; www.troisgros.fr.

HOTEL DE GREUZE
There are 21 air-conditioned rooms (some with antiques and fireplaces) in this luxury hotel near Greuze restaurant. It's built into the medieval ramparts of Tournus on the Saône River, about an hour's drive northeast of Charolles. Rates, $205-$590. At 5 & 6 Place de l'Abbaye; 33-3-85-51-77-77.

CHATEAU D'IGE
An imposing 13th-century manor about ten miles northwest of Mâcon, this ivy-covered hotel-restaurant features Louis XIII-style chairs, toile wallpapers, and paintings of hunting scenes. The 13 spacious, lavishly furnished rooms have brass or canopy beds, and some have marble fireplaces. Rates, $145-$260; 33-3-85-33-33-99.