Shop window for La Vieille, France

Burgundy bargains

Thomas Woodham-Smith mixes gluttony and business


One of the great joys of being on holiday is working. Though Christmas does traditionally engender a toasty sense of lethargy, one still likes to get out and about. Happily I am privileged to be able to spend the holidays with my mother-in-law in her house in Thoires, a small north-Burgundian village. Accompanying us is a modest crew of additional relatives. Needless to say, the primary impetus is towards eating and drinking and we do both as industrially as we can manage.

The first feast is roast wild boar, the second goose, and turkey comes a worthy third. This year it was all washed down not with Burgundy but with Portuguese wines both delicious and peculiar, courtesy of my wife’s uncle, a scientist who works in Lisbon and wanted to entertain us with a wine experiment.

As a necessary enhancement to our gluttony and excess we visit the local town, Châtillon-sur-Seine. There we enjoy the supermarket and the fine butcher but mainly we go to worship at the temple of Serge Barbier, the greatest pâtissier I have thus far encountered.

In France there is still enough of a robust love of old things to allow a town like Châtillon to maintain several antique shops and for the area to put on an annual multiplicity of vide-greniers (literally, “empty attic”).

You rarely get a sighting of the man himself as he is cloistered away in his kitchen fashioning his legendary confections. His wife, with raven-black hair and a charming but steely-eyed expression, sells them. There is a faint whiff of Lady Macbeth as she remorselessly seems to be absorbing the whole street of shops, to expand her empire and dominate the Châtillon salon de thé market.

For me, Châtillon’s most wonderful secret is the survival of a vibrant antique trade — a happy contrast with England, where every village which once supported an antique or junk shop has now ceded that place to the desperate, vague word “design”. In addition, poor old Blighty’s boot fairs seem to survive solely as places to sell cheap DIY equipment, knock-off designer clothes and slightly broken plastic toys.

In France there is still enough of a robust love of old things to allow a town like Châtillon to maintain several antique shops and for the area to put on an annual multiplicity of vide-greniers (literally, “empty attic”). These are rich in no-longer-wanted period objects sold by the individuals they used to belong to, unlike at home where market “professionals” dominate.

Just a few doors down from Barbier there is still one empty shop to which our friend M. Jacques has somehow got the keys and filled it with his anarchic instinct for what constitutes an antique. Over the years I have bought from him an Empire sofa, a Louis XV chest of drawers, a 1950s wicker secretaire bookcase and a 1960s Formica desk, not to mention innumerable other curious objects. No age or condition frightens him and he always has something I cannot resist.

Chubby and with white hair which manages to be both ordered and a bit maverick, he finds the world funny and delights in all its foibles. His main shop is in a lane a few steps further on and it offers two floors of concentrated everything. I have often tried to decipher the code behind why an item should be placed upstairs or at the back. It is not clear. The freshest and most exciting (to him) pieces are at the front by his desk. How long they take to be pushed away I have never been able to fathom. But despite the dust and the chaos things do change all the time.

When I first came across this shop I assumed it was a bit fossilised, with objects waiting decades to be unearthed. Now I realise that the carapace of inertia is misleading and that M. Jacques is something of a master salesman.

Walking away from his shop you pass the dealer who sells modern dog beds. I guess he had a real one once. Now he piles them up, all a beastly stain-enhanced red mahogany. A few yards further on and you get to M. Bourgeois.

He has a marvellous seventeenth-century stone house which you enter at the bottom of a winding stone staircase. Each visit seems to afford access to another room. It took several to be taken upstairs and finally we were introduced to a fabulous ramshackle basement kitchen cunningly filled.

The main house has a narrow entrance passage, made narrower by dining-table leaves leaning hither and thither. Beyond the passage you come to a small room followed by a larger and finishing with a downright big one.

Each of these rooms is full to the point of absurdity: not just tables with objects on them but heaps of objects teetering on the edge of collapse. You move at your peril. Here I have also made many purchases. But it is somehow not as easy as at M. Jacques. Both dealers are the antithesis of minimalists but at M. Bourgeois it is unfathomably harder to see the wood for the trees.

Looking for longer is not a hardship, however, and again I leave with something every time I visit.

Châtillon-sur-Seine has one further secret up a back street — the vast charity shop Emmaus, in an old stable or garage. Here there is little in the way of antiques though I very often find a little something for home. The opportunity resides in buying old linen sheets. They cost a modest amount and once metamorphosed they adorn most of what I buy that needs upholstery.

After Christmas we always return with a car laden with locally-sourced treasures, but it is not that that makes the axles grind along; it is because our poor dog has gained so much weight from all too successful at-table begging from weak-willed relatives. This is what makes us fret as we crawl through passport control at Calais.

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