I knew the first trip I led to the Haute Savoie area of France would be exciting. The countryside is beautiful, Lake Geneva’s deep blue waters giving way to tidy fields of crops, finally rising to the lush pastures and rocky crags of the Alps. The people we would be visiting are passionate food producers: bakers, butchers, charcuterie experts, cheese makers, pastry chefs and restaurateurs. From the first day – sipping cool rosé wine in a beautiful garden while sampling one of the local cheeses (Tomme de Savoie) and eating a flavorful saucisson sec – I knew this was going to be a memorable trip.
When traveling I try to create itinerary frameworks, general ideas of where to go, but with flexibility built in to account for unanticipated opportunities. Opportunities were presenting themselves. First there was an unplanned visit to a Friday night street fair and celebration with live music and local sausage cooked in white wine (Diots) as well as Moules Frites (Mussels with fries) and Raclette Tartines, creamy mountain cheese melted over potatoes and charcuterie on a thick slab of bread.
We had jumped into French culture. Some of the group ended up with double the amount of drinks they thought they had ordered because the French assume that the index finger held up (indicating “1” in the US) includes the thumb and is therefore “2.” We watched as people of all ages enjoyed the music and food, sitting on long benches in front of tables, drinking wine, singing, and talking with friends and strangers alike.
The next morning we walked through the cobbled streets as shopkeepers cleaned their windows and sidewalks. We arrived at Boucherie Trombert, a well respected butcher shop in the area where I had interned for six weeks. Hervé Trombert, the owner, had prepared a visit to the shop and walk-in coolers where wholes and sides of lamb, veal, pig, and beef were hanging and aging. Hervé’s English vocabulary consists mostly of the word “good” said either emphatically or quizzically so I was translating as he spoke French. I was worried that this would be a difficult task but it proved to be easy enough. Hervé spoke a sentence or two at a time and then paused to let me translate. Then we moved outside, where it was easier to avoid the apprentices, butchers, and salespeople as they worked. Large platters of house made jambon blanc (cooked ham), jambon cru (smoked, cured, and dried ham), saucisson sec fumé (smoked and dried sausage) as well as crusty baguettes and bottles of red wine greeted us. The group of Americans was a bit taken aback at the idea of red wine at 10 am but everyone seemed to take comfort in the fact that it was 1 am back home and the glasses were filled and emptied several times.
Hervé then showed us his craft by butchering a pasture raised chicken, frenching a rack of lamb (removing the meat and fat from around the rib bones), and finally cleaning a cut of beef from the shoulder. He then sliced the raw beef thinly and those who wanted tried the flavorful aged beef raw. His skill, speed, and lack of waste amazed all and a discussion of the butchers and butcher shops in the US ensued.
Somewhere during this time a bottle of anise flavored liqueur called Pastis (Ricard) appeared and glasses were filled yet again. Ricard always amazes me because it is a translucent amber colored liquor that one adds 4 parts water to at which point it turns an opaque milky white color. The anise flavor is very pronounced and can be refreshing on a hot day (its very popular in the south of France), but if you don’t like anise then it can be overwhelming. Meanwhile a selection of small sausage were being cooked on an outdoor plancha (griddle): merguez (spicy North African lamb sausage), chipolatas (a simply flavored pork, chicken, and beef sausage) as well as kabobs with marinated beef, and vegetables.
Hervé was loaning out the back of his butcher shop to a group of five of his friends who ranged in age from about 25-60. They were all hard at work, laughing and joking, while making about 100 pounds of sausages for home use. They joined us in the courtyard for drinks and food, which further increased the party atmosphere. Despite a lack of common language between the Americans and the French, people seemed to be communicating in one way or another and everyone was having a blast. We left stuffed to the gills and it was decided unanimously that lunch would be skipped.
We loaded into the vans and drove several miles east along Lake Geneva to the famous town of Evian-Les-Bains. Evian is more of a tourist destination than Thonon-Les-Bains due to its world renowned spring water, beautiful streets and houses, and its casino. Thonon also bottles the spring water but it known only in France. We walked toward the famous Evian spring on small pedestrian streets filled with people. Everyone filled their water bottles from the cold clear spring water that is supposed to have healing qualities. The afternoon was spent relaxing by the lake.
I received a text message announcing an impromptu “apperitif” at 5:30. We arrived to find a beautiful apartment with excellent views over the lake and the old port. It was hosted by Christine, a woman that I used to sell vegetables with at the farmers market. She was a gracious host as well as an adept and expressive storyteller in both French and English. Christine opened a few bottles of delicious rosé and white wines and we took in the view over the blue waters of Lac Lèman (Lake Geneva) as we sipped.
We complimented Christine on her beautiful apartment only to find out that it wasn’t hers at all, but rather a friend of hers whom she was house sitting for. We were a bit taken aback but she assured us that her friend was fine with having a group of Americans drinking apperitif in her apartment. The group thought that this was pretty funny, and unusual.
Afterwards Christine led us on a nice walk to the house where my longtime friend Caro was cooking us dinner. We arrived to find Caro putting the finishing touches on a delicious looking meal and a well laid table. The house was old and charming and decorated with the paintings of the artist who lived there. Christine had brought tea lights with her to complete the effect. The candles were lit and we sat down to dinner.
We ate a hearty Niçoise salad with fresh vegetables from the garden and farmers market, followed by farm raised chickens in a cream and morel mushroom sauce with squares of rice and a beautiful tart to follow. Everyone was so happy to be invited into someone’s home and have such a comforting yet elegant meal served in such a convivial manner. Caro was complimented on her beautiful house only to find out that once again we were in someone else’s home. Caro was house sitting for our friends Margaret and Eric who were visiting Poland and were happy to have their house used for such a splendid purpose. Both Christine and Caro, as well as the group of Americans, marveled at the idea of having such nice parties in other people’s houses. After dinner we helped with dishes and felt like we had met and dined with long lost friends.
To be continued…