Having written on three producer visits and the Biou Festival in Vadans in my first four articles of “Jura Week”, I’m going to end my 2016 Jura excursion with all the odds and ends which might be of interest to any potential visitors to Arbois and the northern part of the region (and I know that if everyone who has told me they plan to visit next year actually goes, I may find myself without a place to stay). Restaurants, shops, walking, and a look at that fascinating unspoken rivalry between Arbois (styled as Capital of Jura Wine) and Poligny (Capital du Comté).
I had been looking forward to writing a review of Arbois’ newest restaurant, Aux Docks. When I was in Arbois in September 2015 it was still a work in progress, on the site of what was once a fairly run down and ordinary café on the Place de la Liberté, in the centre of town. It is now a nice looking bistro-style restaurant with a nice looking wine list. The only problem is that one of us doesn’t eat animal produce.
This is a fairly common choice and although France has in the past been slow to acknowledge that anyone should make such a food choice, it is now pretty common. At Aux Docks you will not find vegetarian dishes on the menu, but that doesn’t deter most people from asking. Sadly, here, a request as to whether they might be able to cater for someone who doesn’t eat meat was met in what we perceived as a very offhand and flippant, even patronising manner – “we have plenty of vegetables”. It’s the way it came across.
I can say that Arbois acquaintances who have eaten there have said that the food is quite good. There seemed to be people in there every night, although it was never busy (perhaps the time of year). Please excuse my not trying it out. There’s enough choice in Arbois for us to go where we perceive the welcome to be warmer. Vive la difference! For the casual day tripper, Aux Docks is very well placed for lunch or dinner and has plenty of tables. I suspect it catches more simple passing trade than any of Arbois’ other restaurants.
I’ve written before about many of the Arbois restaurants. Jean-Paul Jeunet sits at the top of the list, retaining its two Michelin Stars. The food is very good indeed here, though it’s very much old-style Michelin in its decor and formality. Certainly a place to try at least once if you can afford to. La Balance (more formally La Balance Mets et Vins) had been for sale, and I believe it is now under new ownership. Apart from not seeing one long time member of staff, you can’t really tell. The menu, which focuses on fine locally sourced ingredients, hasn’t changed at all, but it does (as always) provide vegetarian food, even having a separate vegetarian menu. Les Claquets, the favoured hangout of the natural wine fraternity, is still going, if very obviously up for sale (big sign outside over the tables), and we didn’t visit this time.
Les Caudalies is somewhere we’d not previously dined at. I’m not sure why. It’s a smart hotel set in a small park at the far (northwestern) end of town, so to speak, that is unless you are coming from the railway station, and it’s right next to “La Finette” (a simple place, the first we ever ate at in Arbois). Les Caudalies is run by Philippe Troussard, who is a Sommelier “Meilleur Ouvrier de France“, quite an honour for someone so young.
Contrast the reaction here when asked about vegetarian or vegan dishes. First, when booking, Philippe said that of course they could cater for any dietary requirements. Then, after arriving the next evening, we were asked specifically about whether the chef could or couldn’t use a whole list of ingredients. I chose a €43 Menu with a starter based around the most delicious ancien varieties of tomato, of several different colours; then a main course of the traditional regional dish here described as Poulet Fermier aux Morilles et Vin Jaune, plus a venerable cheese selection and dessert. After an aperitif, we drank a wonderful Jacques Puffeney “sous voile” Savagnin 2011 (€59).
The food at Les Caudalies is very good indeed, as good as some Michelin “one stars”. They included several little amuses bouches. The starter included an exquisite red pepper sorbet. Service is pretty attentive, and my only negative comment is that a couple of the younger waiters seemed to find the formality somewhat amusing on the night we visited. Maybe just a bit of inexperience. We were one of only four occupied tables, so a little quiet for a Friday, albeit just out of tourist season. The bill came to €165 for two, so not a cheap night out, but I can certainly recommend it. It’s the closest you’ll get to Jeunet in Arbois, at probably a bit more than half the price, and there’s plenty to satisfy the wine lover who wants to go large, and doesn’t have a twenty minute walk home afterwards. Their take on chicken with morels in a Vin Jaune sauce was a little different. Always a rich dish, it was lighter than some, and well judged for quantity (unless perhaps you are exceptionally hungry).
Arbois seems to grow the number of restaurants it has each time we visit, and it’s impossible to try them all, but I do try to sample all the wonderful food shops in the town. Not least, the chance to buy Comté, and the region’s other cheeses, Morbier and Bleu de Gex, in versions which completely surpass those you’ll find almost anywhere back home, and, more to the point, at prices substantially below what we pay here, by at least half. Top of the list of shops is naturally Hirsinger, the chocolatier of national, even international, repute. We didn’t go as far as last year, the amazing €40 chocolate tart, soaked in alcohol, for our very own Biou Festival meal with friends. But I did succumb to a cake and a bar of their own chocolate (€9.50 for the latter, but amazing stuff).
Arbois is unusual in the number of wine shops which individual producers have in the town. I know I’ve written about them on previous visits, but it bears repeating. For anyone travelling through, say on the way back from Geneva or perhaps on a day trip from Beaune, it means you don’t necessarily need to spend the day driving round individual estates to buy wine. Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot (Domaine A&M Tissot) have a shop which could not be better placed on the Place de la Liberté, opposite Hirsinger – because there’s almost no Arbois producer you’d want to buy some wine from more than those guys (though they also have a “by appointment” tasting room at the domaine in Montigny-les-Arsures, a nice drive through the vineyards, and you might get to see their rows of amphorae in action).
Arbois’ Place de la Liberté and its arcades at the centre of town. Most of the essential supplies you’ll visit Arbois for can be found within a minute or two either side of this square.
Domaine de la Pinte, who I wrote about in article number 4 of my 2016 Jura Week, are a few seconds along the Rue de L’Hotel de Ville, in the direction of the river (always good for one or two older cuvées, all at good prices, including an off-list Vin Jaune, not cheap but remarkable value). I should also mention the shop of Domaine Rolet, just opposite La Pinte. Rolet are a large, reliable, family company with a decent range of wines. They are, to my knowledge, the only people who sell Vin Jaune in a smaller, half-size, bottle. This means that if you want to try Vin Jaune, but don’t want to risk the €40-€50 asking price of a Clavelin, you can grab a sample here. It’s also a nice size to save for cooking with, though I must say I’ve not actually cooked with Vin Jaune for a very long time. It’s too expensive, and as I’ve said before, a decent sous voile Savagnin will do the trick for me.
The nicest place in Arbois to sample an individual producer’s wine (plus those of a few friends) is at the Bistrot de la Tournelle, where you can drink that domaine’s wines (see Jura Week 1) with simple dishes and plats in the riverside garden of their Arbois headquarters (5 Petite Place). Sadly, if understandably, it’s only open from the end of June until the first week in September (from when the tasting room is also closed for the harvest), and it also closes when it’s wet.
Arbois only has one good general wine shop, and unfortunately its status is doubtful. The brilliant Jardins de Saint-Vincent, at the top end of the Grand Rue (No 49), specialises in natural, biodynamic and organic producers, mainly local but also from the rest of France. I have made some exceptional discoveries there, such as my first bottles of L’Octavin, Ratapoil, Buranfosse, Giles Wicky and Les Bodines. Last year it was firmly shuttered for the whole week we were in Arbois. This time the shutters were taken down, and there was wine inside, but nothing moved and it didn’t open once whilst we were in town. The shop is owned by Stéphane Planche, previously Head Sommelier at Jean-Paul Jeunet. I’m told he’s now back consulting at Jeunet, and he also has a business importing Jura wine into Switzerland. Although a couple of vignerons told me they thought the shop was still open, it looks very much as if it is only for private tastings, according to Stéphane’s web site. Perhaps it may also open in peak season?
A&M Tissot and Rolet’s Arbois shops – tastings available
Arbois also boasts a very special vinegar producer, Philippe Gonet. You can buy his extensive range of artisanal vinegars (Red Poulsard, Vin Jaune etc) at Vins et Vinaigres, 16 Grand Rue (thirty seconds past Aux Docks, but on the left – Grand Rue passes both sides of the Place de la Liberté).
It’s a good time to ponder upon the relative prosperity of Arbois and Poligny. Both were a little dull when I first came to the region, though not without their considerable charm. Arbois, with its producer wine shops, sort of had the edge. With the addition of Les Jardins de St-Vincent and some new eating places (Les Claquets was a great place for cheap country dishes and new natural wines), Arbois seemed to streak ahead. But on this visit, it seemed that quite a few shops further from the centre had closed their doors, and a few others looked almost on their last legs.
Poligny, on the other hand, seems to be undergoing a quiet renaissance, and this year a newly paved area around the streets leading up to the central Place des Déportés (officially opened with some pomp and ceremony during our stay) has given the town a spruced up feel. Whilst Arbois styles itself as the capital of Jura wine, Poligny has turned to Comté. The main facility of the big Jura cheese co-operative can be found on the edge of town, and there are several shops selling Comté (and other fine local produce) in the town centre.
One of these, known under the multiple names of “Epicurea“, “Essencia“, and “Fromagerie Vagne“, owned by Philippe Bouvet, not only has probably the best cheeses in the region, but specialises in natural wines. I’m not going to spoil the surprise for the visitor, but if this kind of wine is your thing, you want to pay them a visit. As well as the big Jura names in this field, look out for producers outside the region such as Vignes du Mayne/Julien Guillot (Maconnais) and Cécile & Vincent Balivet (Bugey/Bugey-Cerdons). The store occupies a site that has been a wine shop for as long as I can remember, on the northern corner of the Place des Déportés, near the military statue of General Travot. Bouvet also now owns the deli near Hirsinger at the top of the Grand Rue, in Arbois.
Epicurea in Poligny and Napoleonic General Travot
I think it’s clear that despite the massive increase in popularity of Jura wines internationally, and the inevitable drip by drip increase in wine tourism as a result, Arbois seems a town of mixed prosperity. I hope that the long term prognosis is good. It’s a place of unrivalled tranquility, and some of the walking in the surrounding countryside is hard to beat, anywhere in France. It just needs a bit of investment, and sprucing up. I know the town pretty well and can get under its skin. The casual visitor could, after having visited the wine shops and bought some chocolate and cheese, leave thinking the same.
Both Arbois and Poligny have good tourist offices in or near the centre of town. They also both have mapped and marked town walks. That in Poligny is very historical, is longer than Arbois’ and takes you to a number of places you would almost certainly miss without the map. The town walk in Arbois has a very nice stretch along the River Cuisance, again, something that the casual visitor would miss. This stretch, which begins on a narrow road towards the cemetery, by the Eglise St-Just (opposite the Tourist Office), before taking a right turn at the garden nursery, only takes about fifteen minutes and I’d recommend it, even to a day tripper. This section comes out down by the Maison Pasteur.
There are a few resources which anyone visiting Arbois might find useful. For getting around, the IGN Map in their Série Bleue, number 3325O(uest) (Salins-les-Bains-Arbois) just squeezes in Arbois and surrounds (Pupillin, Montigny-les-Arsures), and you might decide to get a copy of 3225E(st) (Poligny) as well.
Pick up a town map from the Tourist Office (same goes for Poligny), both of which include the town circuits.
Mêta Jura produce a soft cover booklet, Arbois aux vignobles lumineux (€10), available around town and in the shop at the wine museum. It has a lot of useful information, with photos, but in French, of course.
Much of that information is also available in Wink Lorch’s more substantial, and essential guide, Jura Wine (Wine Travel Media, 2014). You won’t find a more thorough and well researched book on the region, even in French, which is why if you forget to order a copy via Wink Lorch’s winetravelmedia.com you will find it in most of the region’s book shops. Apart from the detailed information on much more than just the wines and their producers, Mick Rock’s photos will inspire many journeys.
There’s an excellent map sold at the Arbois Tourist Office, published by Jura L’inattendu in their Promenades et Randonnées Series (Arbois – Vignes et Villages, €5). Both this and the IGN maps are at a scale of 1/25,000 (ie 4cm = 1km).
If you do the short walk in the above map from La Châtelaine to Le Fer à Cheval, along the ridge, don’t miss the château ruins (path to left of church) first. The site was occupied in the fifth century, but most of the ruins date from 13th to 15th. There’s not a full blown castle, just a few towers and walls, but the site is very atmospheric in the forest. Every time we’ve been we have seen chamois really close.
From La Châtelaine to Fer à Cheval, high above Les Planches
Other lovely walks include one through the vines (Les Corvées vineyard) to Montigny-les-Arsures. Try to return via a path up in the hamlet of Vauxelle (easy to accidentally walk up a driveway just below it – you need to enter up into the hamlet off the main road and basically turn right, soon reaching vines and pasture). This will eventually take you down into Mesnay, on the outskirts of Arbois, through a vineyard marked on the IGN Map as the Coteau des Nouvelles. This is if you read the map carefully. Good map reading is essential if you wander up into the woods where paths cross all the time, though some routes are well marked.
Montigny walk (Tour de Curon, Montigny village and pasture above Vauxelle)
Another nice walk takes you up to the Hermitage chapel you can see up on the hill to the southeast of the town. Walk a little way along the D469 (to Fer à Cheval and Champagnole), past the turnoff to Pupillin (which is just after Place Faramand), and climb the path by the small roadside shrine, maybe 50 metres further, on the right. Eventually you’ll climb rough steps through what was once farmed terraces which have been completely taken over by woodland since their abandonment. It’s not far, but it is quite steep. If you climb above the chapel on the road to its left, there’s a viewing platform from where I took one of the photos below.
Hermitage from above and below
There is some great walking up here, through forest and pasture. If you have the IGN Map, the GR59 can take you all the way to the Fer à Cheval, or on a somewhat shorter route in the other direction, to Pupillin. But even if Pupillin is your target, do take provisions. The village does have a very good restaurant (Le Grapiot), but it is extremely popular and gets fully booked, sometimes even midweek. Returning to Arbois from Pupillin, it’s far nicer to take the old road, now a rough path, which leaves the D246 on the right a little out of the village (follow your nose and the IGN). It’s a lot safer than negotiating the big bend where the road sweeps down into the edge of town. Alternatively, just follow the path in front of the chapel as it heads into the trees. You will come out in the cluster of new houses on the Pupillin road, where it’s just ten minutes back to Place Faramand on the edge of town.
Finally, don’t forget the Cascade des Tufs, about a ten to fifteen minute drive on past Mesnay. It’s near where the River Cuisance re-emerges beneath the limestone cliff below the Fer à Cheval. Park in the car park next to the church at Les Planches-Près-Arbois, and it’s about a 2.5 kilometre circular walk to the water falls.
As you can see, a place which the French often think of as rural and even a bit dull, is far from being those things. If you add in all the possible places to visit within a short drive from Arbois, you’d only cover half the things to do in a two week holiday. Lakes, forts, water falls and rivers with pretty villages straddling them, underground caves, open pasture, wildlife and even a toy museum make for pleasant day trips, not forgetting the region’s other prominent villages (not least Château-Chalon, Arc-et-Senans and the Abbey of Baumes-les-Messieurs). But even when you are busy, there’s always a sense of relaxing calm here…and the smell of wood smoke, Comté and Vin Jaune.
Maison Pasteur – Pasteur’s house and laboratory. Endlessly fascinating, even to this non-scientist. Guided tour, mainly in French but most guides speak English.
Hôtel Sarret de Grozon – Not open all year, a provincial aristocratic home from largely 18th/19th Centuries. Far more interesting than it looks from the outside. Occasional special exhibitions.
Château Pécauld, Musée de la Vigne et du Vin – Perhaps in some ways the least exciting of the three, but the Jura wine museum has some nice artifacts and some explanation of Vin Jaune production in a lovely old building. The tiny museum at Château-Chalon has perhaps a more thorough explanation of sous voile ageing, via a video.
* A final note – all the museums and shops close one or two days a week, and it’s not always the obvious days (Hirsinger, for example, is closed on Wednesday). Best to check out the relevant web site if it matters that somewhere is open.