I love Sunday’s in France. Everything is closed and you aren’t allowed to make noise like using a leaf blower, chainsaw, or mower. Sunday’s are for relaxing, spending time with family, enjoying nature, and eating of course. On this particular Sunday, we drove up the windy roads in the foothills of the French Alps, past dozens of bicyclists, into the mountains where we parked at the end of the road.
A cafe sat nearby, with promises of cold drinks and tasty food when we returned from our hike. It was hot and the sun was strong but our path led up into the dark and cool spruce, fir, and beech forest. Many people were hiking that day, of all ages and descriptions, though most had treking poles (very European). After an hour’s hike we reached the summit of Mont Forchat which affords a 360 view of the Alps.
Gliders and para-gliders circled in the thermals and the charming ringing of cow bells was on the air. Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe, rose in the distance, completely covered in snow. Smaller peaks and lush valleys and pastures lay before us and Lac Leman with tiny sailboat dots barely visible glittered to the north.
We descended back into the forest to eat our picnic lunch of goose rillettes, mortadella, saucisson sec, country pâté, Tomme de Savoie mountain cheese, fresh baguette, delicious cantaloupe, olives, and chocolate. During our descent, one of our number took a bad fall and twisted his ankle and cut his nose. We helped him back to the cars, drove to our Chambres d’hôtes (a type of bed and breakfast) and a few of us drove him to the emergency room where we became acquainted with the French health care system. The take away message was that it is slightly confusing, long but not too long, helpful, and very affordable. They patched him up and prescribed some pain medicine and an ankle brace and he recovered very quickly.
Our small troupe, including the injured, returned back to our accommodations to find that they had been politely waiting for us to eat dinner even though it was now 9pm! We dined on velvety cream of zuchhini soup bolstered by the addition of another local mountain cheese, Abondance. Then came large and crispy filets of Fera, a white fleshed fish found only in Lac Leman and few other places served with a gratin of crozets (buckwheat pasta cut into tiny pea sized squares) and more Abondance cheese. We finished off the meal with fromage blanc with a quince compote that was delightful. A sampling of eau-de-vie (pear, plum, and apricot) followed by the customary espresso and everyone was ready for bed.
Morning showed us the donkeys and fowl kept at the Chambre d’hôtes. They had not only chickens and ducks, but also doves. Our gracious hosts, Jacques and Catherine, made an impressive breakfast. Jacques woke at 4 am to bake several different types of crusty bread as well as brioche. Four types of jams and jellies – quince, red currant, strawberry, and rhubarb – all made by Catherine were top notch. Yogurt, more mountain cheeses, and cured meat prepared by Catherine’s brother also made an appearance. All this was washed down with your choice of strong coffee with fresh milk, tea, or hot chocolate, plus juice.
Our morning activity was to watch the Abondance cheese being made. Abondance cheese comes from a valley with the same name and the milk comes from a cow of the same name. My friends Karine and Jean-Paul have been raising Abondance and Montbelliard dairy cows and making outstanding cheese for thirty years. The cows come in early to be milked and the warm milk goes directly into the huge copper cauldron where the cheese making process begins. Needless to say we missed a few of the first steps of making Abondance because we were still “au brioche.” When we arrived, the cheese maker was pitched headfirst into the copper cauldron holding a long, thin piece of metal that she had used to hold a section of heavy duty cheesecloth open. The entire upper half of her body was bent into the cauldron as she gathered the heavy cheese curds in her cheesecloth contraption and used her legs to provide the counterbalance to pull her body and the curds back out.
The effect was amazing, all were astonished and we wondered how she didn’t fall in. She assured us, (now diving in again with a new section of cheesecloth) that she had never swam in the curds and whey. Removing another heavy load of dripping curds she placed them in large cheese mold, with a convex rim that helps identify Abondance cheese. The whey ran and seeped out of the curds as she tightened the molds and began to weight and press them. They would sit over night, periodically being turned and tightened.The active part of the cheese making was done. Karine led us on a tour of the farm, the highlight being their herd of 80 Abondance and Montbelliard cows. In France there are strict rules regarding cheese making, and each type of cheese can only be made from a certain breed of cows. The Abondance cows are small in stature, which is a trait suited to mountain grazing, and can often be identified by the brown rings around their eyes giving the impression that they are wearing glasses. Abondance (pronounced aahh-Bon-donce) literally means abundance and is the name of a valley, town, a cow, and a cheese.
At La Tour Fromagerie the cows are milked twice daily in a milking parlor that is located right next to the cheese making room. This setup allows for the milk to arrive warm right into the copper cauldron to begin the cheese making process. During the summer, things are busy on the farm and they only make cheese in the morning most days, but the rest of the year it is made twice a day. The extra milk from the evening milking is sold to the local milk cooperative where another artisan also crafts cheese.
Next was a tour of the cheese aging cellars where row upon row of different sized cheese rounds were developing character and flavor. It was cool in the cellar and smelled of ammonia. Every few days the cheeses must all be turned and rearranged to have a consistent aging process. Most of the cheeses we viewed will be consumed locally but some will be sent all over France. Of course no visit to a cheese maker would be complete without a tasting, so Karine led us to the store front where she began slicing samples of various Tommes (another mountain cheese, smaller and the curds are not heated as much) and Abondance cheese. The cheeses were spectacular, buttery, nutty, creamy, and complex. We bought a few large hunks of Abondance and Tomme de Gavot for our picnic lunch. We ate fresh baguettes, cheese from La Tour and a selection of charcuterie the next on our visit to a lovely chapel on a green plain with a view of Mont Blanc in the distance.
After our picnic lunch we drove a few miles up the road to Charcuterie Simon, the store of a young butcher in town. Charcuterie Simon is unique because he raises the pigs and his father raises the beef cows for his shop. Generally being a butcher and making charcuterie is a full time job, but Simon wanted to control the quality from start to finish and had a background in agriculture so he decided raise his own animals. It was a Monday and the store was actually closed with no one around. We waited for a few minutes and then a small refrigerated truck pulled into the parking lot and Simon (tall, professional, glasses) and his partner Claire got out and greeted us. Claire gave us an introduction in English while Simon prepared the butcher shop. We entered the shop to find Simon slicing various hams and dried sausages into mounds of thin slices. As Simon and Claire talked about their business they were both rolling the various sliced dried meats and arranging them on a large platter. We watched as they made roses out of air dried beef and then topped the whole thing off with slivers of the tiny French tarragon pickles called cornichon.
The platter of charcuterie was for our dinner, which would take place back at Karine and Jean-Paul’s house. Simon gets whey from Jean-Paul and Karine to feed his pigs, so he was happy to send us a dinner contribution. Simon showed us his curing chamber, which was full of hanging
sausages, coppas, hams, and pork bellies and smelled deliciously of meat and smoke. We then walked outside to a building behind his shop where he smokes the meats for long periods of time at very low heat. The walls were covered in a rich patina of smoke resin and the whole building smelled heavenly. Our last thing to see was a few of their demonstration pigs, which were lazily wallowing in some mud and came snorting towards us to eat the food Simon put in their trough. We learned that Simon’s shop was unique from other butcher/charcuterie shops because everything he sold was made in house. Simon showed us pâté en croute (country pâté baked inside buttery pie dough) and explained that he makes his own dough. Every week he processes five to seven of his pigs for fresh cuts, sausages, hams, and other meaty treats.
We then drove about 20 minutes to the town of Bernex where we ascended a small road and turned past a dilapidated Chalet into a field with a gleaming white tipi next to a vegetable garden. This was Caro’s spot in the mountains and she has plans to rebuild the Chalet and open it as a bed and breakfast/retreat center. There were no scheduled events for the afternoon so our group dispersed, some opting to take a nap in the Tipi while others soaked their feet in a cool mountain stream or went for a hike, either up the mountain or into town.
After a nice relaxing afternoon in the warm, clear mountain air we reassembled and drove back to the cheese producer, La Tour, where we had been that morning. This time we drove around the back of the barn where the cheeses were aging to park in the courtyard of Jean-Paul and Karine. A beautiful table with white tablecloth had been set in their garden with place setting for 16. A few bottles of white and rosé wines were opened for the apperitif and Caro joined us again, bringing various little treats to snack on with the wine. Inside the house, Karine and her step daughter were busily preparing the meal. We volunteered to help and were put to work cutting crusty baguettes into cubes to be dipped into the fondue au fromage (cheese fondue).
The French generally eat later than Americans, though not as late as the Spanish. Our apperitif started at 7:30 pm but we didn’t sit down to eat for another hour, thus priming our appetites. We started with a French melon and port wine salad, perfect on a warm summer night in the garden. The fondue stands were lit and out came the cheese fondue. Karine had mixed several different types of cheeses but also different ages of those cheeses to create a creamy, flavorful, delicious fondue made entirely from cheeses made on their farm. I consider myself a fondue connoisseur and this was perhaps my favorite cheese fondue ever. The Tomme de Gavot that she used was so creamy that the fondue needed no thickener and she had used a sparking wine instead of the typical white wine.
The scene was beautiful, a table full of happy French and Americans sipping wine and dunking bread into bubbling pots of melted cheese as the last rays of the day played across the sky. Jean-Paul was in good humor and asked if anyone has tried plum eau-de-vie (“water of life” or brandy). Out came a bottle and those who wished sampled the strong, clear alcohol. People were becoming more and more jovial and a few heartfelt speeches were made and translated. Jean-Paul posed another question, regarding another type of strong alcohol and glasses were again filled and emptied. At this point, or shortly thereafter, some singing began on the part of the Americans. The French, not to be outdone, sung a sort of rebuttal.
No meal, no matter how big it is complete without dessert. Karine brought out 3 enormous tartes aux myrtilles (blueberry tarts) and I attempted to hack them into slices. Unfortunately, because the table was set up in a garden and was uneven, the tartes began to spill blueberry juice all over the nice white tablecloths. Still we continued and there was ice cream and Jean-Paul again inquired if anyone had tried Kirsch (a brandy made from cherries). The tarte was delicious but Jean-Paul swore that it would be better with a bit of Kirsch sprinkled on it. Sprinkling Kirsch out of a bottle turns out to be difficult and several people ended up with more of a bath than a shower.
Both Americans and French were telling me how much they were enjoying this party. It was a Monday night and the clock had made it almost to midnight and here was a group of 10 Americans who spoke virtually no French having a grand time with a group of French people who spoke virtually no English. Midnight was late enough and we helped tidy up and loaded ourselves back into the vans and drove home. I am fairly certain everyone, regardless of nationality, slept well that night.