By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If Burgundy is world famous for producing some of the very best wines ever made on earth it also is the land where a more-humble fruit grows. Blackcurrant’s fame began in the 16th century when Louis XIV and his court became infatuated with a delicious fruity liqueur made near Beaune with this irresistible black berry. Let’s discover this century old sweet tradition.
We know for sure that wild blackcurrant bushes already grew in the area 2,000 years ago. As it was often the case in the Middle Ages local monks worked to improve the wild variety. With its incomparable taste and recognized health properties blackcurrant has been grown and used ever since. But it was not until the 20th century that blackcurrant made history.
This happens thanks to an amazing man named Felix Kir. known in France as Canon Kir. He was born in Burgundy in 1876 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1901. During WWI he joined the French army and devoted himself to his fellow wounded soldiers working in the army health service and was awarded the War Cross for courageous acts. In the interwar years he served in several Burgundy parishes and was appointed canon in Dijon in 1931.
In June 1940 he was appointed member of Dijon town council and immediately joined the resistance. In autumn 1940 he helped 5,000 war prisoners to break out from Langres internment camp. Following this incredible feat, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo for several months. Released but dismissed from his position in the town council he secretly continued his war against the German occupying forces. In January 1944 he miraculously survived an assassination attempt carried out by French collaborators. After the war he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the war cross, the Medal of the French Resistance and several other awards.
He was elected mayor of Dijon and member of the Assemblée Nationale, the French House of Commons, in May 1945. He held this office until his death in 1968. This is when his life became closely linked to blackcurrant and in particular to blackcurrant liqueur. Nowadays in France everybody knows what “a Kir” is even if they have never heard of Canon Kir. If you go to a café or a restaurant anywhere in France and ask for “a Kir” you will be served a chilled glass of white wine blend with a drop of blackcurrant liqueur. This drink was created long before Canon Kir birth but he was the one who made it nationwide famous.
This drink is the mix of two iconic products of Burgundy, white Chardonnay wine and blackcurrant liqueur better known in France as Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant cream). He promoted this delicious drink throughout France and it is said that when travelling he always had with him a bottle of white Burgundy wine and another one of blackcurrant liqueur and invited all his fellow travellers to share a drink with him. Today Kir still is a popular drink and you can also ask for a “Kir Royal” made with white Champagne or Crémant, or even have it make with white wine and raspberry or peach liqueur.
When visiting Burgundy discovering blackcurrant liqueur, its making process and the different ways to use it is a must. If you go to Nuits-Saint-Georges a small town close to Dijon (Côte d’Or), also famous for its iconic wines, you can pay a visit to the Cassissium that gathers in the same place a museum, the factory where are made many different fruit liqueurs and a shop selling plenty of local products such as wines, liqueurs, mustard, honey, ginger bread and even… a blackcurrant ketchup.
The place is part of the Vedrenne company that makes and sells liqueurs all over the world. Of course, blackcurrant is the star of the Cassissium and guided tours in French or English as well as special workshops are proposed to help you discover and use blackcurrant liqueur. Booking on the web site is mandatory.
You can have a 90-minute visit of the site that ends with a generous tasting of different liqueurs and cocktails for 9,5 €. Don’t miss asking for a tasting of the “MarCassin” an exclusive drink created by Vedrenne. It successfully mixes the sweet Crème de cassis with a powerful grape brandy called Marc de Bourgogne distilled in copper stills and aged in oak casks. It really is delicious on the rocks! Some other products also distilled by the Vedrenne group could be taste as their whisky and gins. But, remember, no alcoholic product for anyone under 18, by law! Hopefully the tasting of such products is gently limited, and for any driver taking care of his fellow passengers, one glass could seem to be enough.
Children are not forgotten at Cassissium. The Vedrenne group also makes a wide range of alcohol-free fruit syrups that are also part of the tasting and much appreciated by children who love to discover so many different fruits tastes. So don’t hesitate to visit Cassissium with all your family.
You can also opt for a longer 150-minute experience that includes a gourmet experience with sweet and salty Burgundy specialities (24€). Every first Friday of the month Cassissium organises evening cocktail workshops where you will learn the right way to pair liqueur, fruit juice and other alcohol to make classical recipes and create your own mix (25€).
If blackcurrant liqueur is mostly used to make cocktails it can also be used in the kitchen to prepare original recipes such as pancakes, onion confit, duck stew, roasted strawberries… Don’t miss to bring a bottle of blackcurrant liqueur back home and let yourself be inspired!
More information and booking at www.cassissium.fr
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny