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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.