Trip Report: Ski Vacation to France Part II

After eating a wonderful meal at La Cremailliere we met up with Thomas Barnier, former professional French Freestyle skier who now works as a ski instructor. Thomas met us at the top of one of the lifts of Avoriaz. Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil, one the largest ski areas in the world with 12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland and over 650 km of slopes.

Shall we ski in France or Switzerland? Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Our group of 12 was here to ski/snowboard the alps by day and eat our way through the regional specialties, especially the cheese and wine, by night. Avoriaz (pronounced “ah-vor-ee-ah”) also sounds like it could have figured prominently in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy e.g. “on the third day look north to Avoriaz for help.” Anyway, we were greeted by Thomas who was tall, had long hair, a surfer accent in French and English, and was wearing the nearly calf-length red parkas of the ESF (Ecole de Ski Française). Thomas is the close friend of a friend of mine named Sylvain, a musician who sells vegetables at the farmers market for Denis Dutruel, my former boss.

Thomas, with his duster style ski jacket, looked like some kind of ski cowboy. Photo credit Nick Green.

Thomas began our lesson by talking about the principles of carving, of edging our skis, keeping our weight forward, flexing our legs. This group was all experienced skiers and were all familiar with carving. Thomas led us on slope to watch us carve. The sloped he happened to pick (on purpose I am quite certain) had about the same incline as a road in Kansas on its way to Missouri. Lacking any speed (mostly we were poling to arrive at the lift) we had scant opportunity to carve, though we did manage. At the bottom of the “slope” Thomas greeted us each individually.
“Aaron did you feel the sensation of carving” he asked.
“Oh yeah, I definitely felt it, lots of carving going on, I love to carve” we responded (or some version of that answer).
“No you weren’t carving, I was watching you and you didn’t carve at all!” Thomas rebuked us.

“What? I thought I was carving” says Nick. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

After that he had our attention (I guess he figured that since we were all accomplished skiers we would be reluctant to accept his teaching, unless he crushed our egos a little). Luckily, he took us on some steeper slopes where we could show off our carving techniques. Then he did a mogul workshop with us, showing us how to put our weight in the front part of skis and swing the backs around. He was enthusiastic and doled out compliments, but there was always his no-nonsense side with quick, unequivocal corrections at the ready.
“The moment your weight is in your heels, its too late!” he told us.
We were preparing for a guided backcountry 20-kilometer-long descent of the famous Vallée Blanche on the Mont Blanc Massif. This is an optional day trip and is for strong intermediate or better skiers and snowboarders who have some experience skiing “hors piste” (off piste, not “horse piss” as one of group wrongly claimed). Our preparation involved skiing our way through various resorts in the Portes du Soleil area, even make a good-sized loop into Switzerland and back in a day. At the French resort of Châtel we found some good fresh powder, and everyone got a chance to work on their off piste powder skiing technique. There were some spills on a steep run through some sheltered glades but mostly the group look somewhat competent.

We were mostly getting better…Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Raclette cheese is quite mild in a solid state but when melted this creamy cheese has all kinds of delicious flavors! Photo credit Lily Zhang.

We were also preparing by eating delicious sausages, lots of pastries, some beautiful salads, and Raclette (cheese scraped onto boiled potatoes and served with huge platters of charcuterie, cornichons, and pickled onions). Raclette is from the French and Swiss Alps and was originally a dish that herders made while up in the high pastures. They would place a half-wheel of cheese with the flat (cut) side next to an open fire. When the edge exposed to the fire started to bubble and melt they would scrape (“racle” in French) the cheese onto bread or boiled potatoes.

You can use a raclette machine that holds a half wheel of cheese on an incline and has a heating element that recreates the open fire. However, most raclette machines are an electric broiler that you place in the center of the table and can place small pans containing a slice of cheese (Raclette is now a type of cheese, but others will work as well) to let it melt and bubble. When eating that much cheese, charcuterie and rich food it is important to drink enough wine. The group followed that advice to the “t”.

Scott says: “Mark, can I go on the Vallee Blanche descent? Please…” Photo credit Sue Shepler.

The descent of the Vallee Blanche is weather-dependent, and I had been in touch with our French high-mountain guides, Ludovic and Fix. Our arranged day was Wednesday and the weather was looking very promising. We had an early departure to travel the 1 hour to Chamonix. Ludovic and Fix suggested that everyone obtain skis that were at least 90mm underfoot as there was a good chance of encountering lots of fluffy fresh powder.

The entry to the Vallée Blanche is impressive and beautiful. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

There was a lot of excitement and nervousness in the group. To enter the Vallée Blanche requires a walk along a very narrow, steep ridge that has a fall of several hundred feet to one side and considerably more on the other side. To be continued…

I love the French Alps. I love the Swiss Alps. I love the hundreds of varieties of French cheese, the crusty baguettes, and cured sausages. I delight in the hearty mountain dishes that are some combination of melted cheese, charcuterie, lardons, onions, wine, potatoes, cornichons, and French country bread. For “Saveur the Journey’s” Ski Vacation in France we are fortunate enough to spend the week skiing (or boarding) the French AND Swiss Alps by day and working our way through the delicious cheese-based cuisine of the French Haute Savoie region.

A charcuterie plate of various hams and sausages reposes next to the post and beam architecture in our chalet from the 1820’s.

During the trip we are based in the mountain town of Morzine which gives us access to the “Portes du Soleil,” the “Doors of the Sun” (tagline: where Swiss style meets French touch), 12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland comprising some 650km of slopes accessible with one lift ticket. This year the group consisted of 10 Americans (from Colorado, Seattle, West Virginia and North Carolina), plus myself and two French staff, François and Caroline. After picking everyone up from Geneva on Friday we drove east along Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman as it is called by the French) to the town of Thonon-les-Bains, where I spent two years teaching English, growing vegetables, and skiing.

Caro’s “Fromage de tête with cornichon and green salad. A pile of house-made buckwheat noodles looms in the background.

The first evening of a Saveur the Journey trip I try to arrange a hosted meal with a French family. I think this is the best way to be introduced to a new place and culture, to be welcomed into someone’s house and be treated like family, or old friends. Often people are tired from their travels and appreciate the informality of a hosted meal as opposed to a restaurant. Caroline, who is a fantastic cook and entertainer, graciously welcomed us into her house.

The groups I lead with Saveur the Journey are small (12 is the maximum) and we spend a lot of time together. I try to facilitate the forming of a cohesive and supportive group through a series of “ice-breakers” and group challenges. We spent about an hour learning about each other, playing silly games, and voicing our goals and concerns. Afterwards Caroline rewarded us with Aperol Spritz’s (a trendy aperitif made with Aperol, Prosecco, and sparkling water). Conversation flowed easily as everyone mingled and relaxed. We were then treated to a wonderful meal that started with a homemade fromage de tete (which to my surprise was wolfed down with gusto from almost everyone), followed by the peasant dish Pizzocheri (handmade buckwheat noodles, with cabbage, garlic, potatoes, and cheese-just the right thing to fortify us for a week of skiing). Next came a beautiful cheese board with about 18 different cow, goat, and sheep cheeses and finally little puff pastries filled with vanilla pastry cream in the shape of swans. The group proved themselves to be easy going, quick to laugh, and great consumers of red wine.

Our driver and Haute Savoie local François did a great job introducing everyone to the Portes du Soleil and French Culture.

The next day we readied ourselves and traveled by van up into the Alps to a gondola at Ardent, serving the Portes du Soleil. Some people had brought their own skis, but most decided to rent. There were no lines at the rental shops as this trip is timed to coincide with the end of the French ski vacations. The Alps had been hit with lots of storms all year and they had a great base of snow with good coverage everywhere. Unfortunately, we were treated to rain at the lower elevations and poor visibility (but it was snowing) at the higher elevations. It was not the prettiest day of skiing, but everyone had good attitudes and a hot mulled wine at lunch did much to improve our morale. Somehow it also seemed to improve the weather as the afternoon brought a cease in the precipitation and even some glimpses of the beautiful mountains around us.

Not the greatest weather but you could still see the mountains.

We finished the day at La Ferme, a cozy restaurant/bar located at the top of the final descent back to the parking lot. It became our end of day meeting place during the trip and the servers looked out for us and took good care of everyone. After an end of the day beer or wine we returned to Morzine where we checked into Villa Solaire, our stunning and luxurious post and beam chalet that would be our home for the next week. Caroline busied herself with preparing Tartiflette, a classic French mountain dish of potatoes, lardons, onions, cream, and reblochon cheese baked together until creamy and bubbling.  Reblochon is a local raw milk cows cheese from the region that is exceptionally creamy and delicious. It is no surprise why there are bumper stickers that say “In Tartiflette we trust” or “Got Tartiflette?” Unfortunately, reblochon cheese is very hard to come by (and isn’t made from raw milk) in the USA so this simple dish is best tasted in the Alps.

Fromage blanc with raspberry and blueberry coulis.

Several of the group were transported by the cheesy Tartiflette to an alternate plane of existence, it was that good. Some of them came back, but some floated off to bed, but not before a fitting dessert of Fromage Blanc with coulis of raspberry and blueberry from La Ferme Prairial. Fromage Blanc “white cheese” is a delicious soft cheese not unlike yogurt but creamier and slightly thicker. With the tart but sweet raspberry and blueberry coulis, it made for a perfect end to another superb meal.

La Crémaillière lunch. Notice the large plates of sauteed potatoes. We left full and happy.

Caroline, our chef and resident weather worker, finally arranged for some colder weather with more snow. We took the opportunity to venture farther afield as visibility had improved. Francois lead us to the top of a ridge in Avoriaz where we were able to drop into the ski resort called Châtel. Some of group enjoyed staying on the groomed runs, preferring to carve the long slopes, while others enjoyed the off-piste skiing through the pillows of soft snow. Skiing with a large group is often very difficult and not enjoyable so we break into two or three smaller groups to reduce waiting times. From Châtel we took several more lifts up and continued skiing towards the East until we finally passed the border into Switzerland. The snow was still coming down and we only caught occasional glimpses of the dramatic, jagged, snow covered peaks that this area is known for. We all agreed the Swiss had better snow, based on the premise that they have more disposable income than the French and can therefore afford the good stuff.

If you just want a tidbit to eat you can always order the charcuterie plate…

After a brief foray in Switzerland we returned to the French side for out lunch rendezvous with the rest of the group. We ate at a fantastic restaurant called La Crémaillière where huge portions of sautéed leg of lamb with a cream sauce or grilled beef filet with foie gras, served with a gratin of squash, and sautéed potatoes were brought to us by probably the most competent and charming servers I had ever seen. One of our group wasn’t very hungry so he ordered a cheese and charcuterie board, which arrived as copious piles of thinly sliced sausages, hams, local cheeses, pickled chanterelles, and cornichon. At the end of our meal, despite the restaurant being packed with people waiting for tables (La Crémaillère has an excellent reputation) our server arrived with tiny glasses and a bottle of Genepi, a liqueur made from a local herb by the same name. We sipped the strong, slightly sweet, floral alcohol and set off into the snow for an afternoon of advanced group ski lessons with a former professional French freestyle skier named Thomas Barnier (to be continued…and….the weather gets better!)

The 2017 Saveur the Journey Culinary Adventure to France was marked by great weather, lots of good food and wine, and some truly memorable cultural experiences with amazing French and Swiss hosts.  By coincidence the first day of the trip happened to be July 14th (Bastille Day, the French national holiday).  Our first group activity was an “aperitif” (drinks and appetizers) organized by our good friend Caro and hosted by her colleague Christine on her beautiful terrace complete with a wood-fired oven.  We enjoyed the hot new drink of the year, the “Aperol Spritz” which consists of Aperol (an Italian aperitif made of bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and other herbs and roots), with some sparkling wine, a little soda water, and a garnish of orange.  It was slightly bitter, effervescent, a bit sweet, and a perfect drink for a warm summer evening.  We grazed heavily on Caro’s famous anchoiade (garlicky anchovies on toast), a selection of local cheeses and bread, skewers with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and basil or melon and pancetta, saucisson sec, a beautiful gazpacho, and even some tiny samosa like pastries filled with seasoned chicken.

The UNESCO world heritage site of the terraced “Lavaux” vineyards in Switzerland.

That night many people were tired after their flights but some stayed up to see the impressive Bastille Day fireworks display in Evian that was launched from barges and lit up Lake Léman (lay-maan) (known to the Swiss as Lake Geneva) in bursts of color and sound.  It rivaled any 4th of July display I have seen but was not as impressive as a New Year’s celebration in Sweden where nearly every citizen is setting off large fireworks from their lawns making for a 360 degree cacophony of noise and explosion.

The next day we drove east and north around the lake, passing from France into Switzerland until we reached the steeply terraced vineyards of the Lavaux wine region.  The Lavaux wine region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They have been making wine here since the 11th century using many of the same techniques. The Swiss side of Lac Léman rises steeply and the grapes benefit from what the Swiss wine makers like to call “the three suns.”  The grapes receive the direct sunlight, as well as the sun reflecting off the lake and the sun reflecting off the thousand-year old stone terraces.  The wine produced here is of exceptional quality but only a tiny percentage is exported.  Due to the steepness of the terraces everything must be done by hand, and the wine makers can take advantage of micro-climates to grow different varietals.

Domaine du Daley was founded in 1392 by monks and has been making delicious wine by hand ever since. Also they have a nice view.

After negotiating several small, rock-wall lined, twisty roads we arrived at our rendez-vous spot and the smiling face of our local guide for the day: Pierre-Louis, the Swiss cousin of a close French friend.  Pierre-Louis led us to “Domaine du Daley” which was founded in 1392 by monks and has been continuously making wine by hand ever since.  They gave us an great tour in English (the Swiss are quite proficient in languages) where we saw their very elegant way of making excellent wine.  They try to reduce the oxidation of the grapes and wine as much as possible so they avoid pumps and rely instead on gravity.  They are a biodynamic winery, as many are in the region, and their goal is too add as few sulfites as possible.  The area is particularly known for the “Chasselas” grape which produces a dry, minerally, crisp white wine that is delicious and very refreshing.  Knowing a good thing, Domaine du Daley only exports about 1% of their production, which mostly goes to exclusive restaurants in Japan.  The rest they happily drink themselves!  We joined them for some truly excellent and unique wines while overlooking the terraces that fell sharply to the aqua-marine waters of Lac Léman.

Pierre-Louis using the “girolle” (chanterelle) slicer to shave off chanterelle shaped pieces of “Tȇte de Moine” (monk’s head) cheese. It is a raw cow’s milk cheese that is nutty and almost melts in your mouth.

After finishing our glasses and provisioning ourselves with some bottles to take home we once again followed Pierre-Louis up, down, across, around, and through some very narrow roads until we arrived at his house, surrounded by a beautiful garden.  His partner Martine had prepared a fantastic lunch for us spread out on long tables under the shade of some trees.  We dined on quiches, local pâté, a savory cake with sun-dried tomatoes, a wonderful lentil salad with exquisite olive oil, a grated carrot salad, some local Vaudois sausages, Tȇte de Moine (a delicious cows milk cheese that gets shaved off with a special spiral cutter), and lots more of those good Lavaux wines.  It was a great time and more than one person called the gregarious and charming Pierre-Louis their long-lost Swiss brother (the wine may have also contributed to those feelings as well).

The Saveur the Journey crew with Lake Léman and the French Alps behind.

We needed a bit of a walk afterwards so Pierre-Louis took us for a stroll though the vineyards to gaze at the view, burn off some quiche, and work up our thirst appetite for another glass of wine.  We ended up at a bar/wine cave that served wine from the local wine makers, featuring just one at a time.  The cool bottles of Chasselas and a Rosé of Gamay overlooking the Lake were a wonderful end to our time in Lavaux.  We bid farewell to a smiling and shrugging Pierre-Louis “this is how we live, you are all welcome anytime.”

Caro’s long braised leg of lamb with summer vegetables

The drive back featured several of our number taking naps, which was good because we were expected for dinner.  Caro had expertly prepared an enormous leg of lamb (she had actually ordered two of them but only cooked one once she saw the size).  We arrived at the Haug’s house where Francois, Philimena, and Caro had been cooking and preparing Kir (white wine with homemade creme de cassis).  We sat around a large table outside on the terrace of the Haug families’ post and beam renovated barn and watched the sun set over Lake Léman.  The leg of lamb made its entry nestled in an enormous earthenware baking dish full of flavorful tomatoes, many heads, of garlic, wine, onions, carrots, and herbs.  To accompany the lamb was a “gratin Dauphinois” (sliced potatoes baked with cream and compte cheese) and a marinated tomato salad.  The lamb had been cooked by braising it in the vegetables and wine but with the top off so that the dry heat of the oven caramelized the sugars from the vegetables when the lamb was periodically flipped.  The meat was fork tender and delicious, the braising being a good technique for the older lamb which was very flavorful but not gamey.

It was one of our group’s birthday so we celebrated with a rolled cake filled with black currants from Caro’s garden as well as an ice-cream cake.  It had been a long day and we happily returned to our hotel and our beds without the firework festivities of the night before.

The Vallée Blanche route on Mont Blanc is a 20km backcountry ski descent that takes most people all day.  It starts at the Aiguille du Midi at 12,600ft and ends back in Chamonix (hopefully where you parked) at 3,200ft elevation.  It is characterized by an impressive roped-in entry along a steep ridge, a huge landscape full of ice blocks the size of office buildings, jagged peaks, wide valleys and a massive (though receding) glacier.

For “Saveur the Journey’s” Ski Vacation in France trip (March 3-11, 2017) the Vallée Blanche descent was an add on option that everyone in our group opted for.  Many people said it was the highlight of a highlight filled trip (great food, bottomless powder, amazing people, regal accomodations).  I wrote a trip report about our descent that was published on a backcountry skiing blog called Wildsnow.  You can see the full trip report with some amazing pictures here:



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.

Picnic has a whole different meaning for me in France. Saucisson sec, crusty bread, pâtés, goose rillettes, and mountain cheeses.

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.

Finishing off our dinner at the Chambres d’hotes.

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 local cow breed Abondance known for its excellent buttery cheese bearing the same name and its “sunglasses” look

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.

Making the famous Abondance cheese at La Tour Fromagerie in Feternes, France.

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.

Cheeses ageing in the cellar

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.

Simon and Claire’s charcuterie platter.

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.

Simon and Claire explain fresh sausages and curing meats.

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.

Fondue with the farmer’s own cheese in a beautiful garden on warm summer night. What could be better?

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.

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.

Apperitif in the garden on arrival in Thonon Les Bains (photo Marilyn Henderson)

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.

Herve Trombert showing us his butcher shop (photo Gretta Siegel)

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 and Aaron pose with the important things in life.

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.

Herve gives direction

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.

Herve Trombert “frenching” a rack of lamb

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.

The whole gang (French and Americans)

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.

Filling up at the Evian spring (photo Gretta Siegel)

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.

Apperitif in the “borrowed” apartment

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.

The Saveur the Journey crew gathers for dinner cooked by Caro (far right)

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…