France

Dining in the Vercors

Out of breath after a steep ascent upward, I pause and stare up at Annick as she beckons from the mountain path above. “Come on!” she tells me. “Come look at the cows!”

I do as she says, continuing the climb up, up, up the steep mountain side. The faint ringing of bells grows louder and louder, until I reach the top of the crest. There, looking over an enormous valley in the Vercors, I spot the cows. The herd is far below us, but their bells echo up the stone mountainside. They graze near a small but solid house, made of stone and plaster.

“Who lives there?” I ask.

“A shephard,” Annick answers.  “You can tell because there’s no road that leads to the house.” She’s right. I stare at the house, wondering what it must be like to wake up to the sounds of cows’ bells and a view over the Alps.

Claire, Annick’s friend, joins us at the hill’s crest. I ask another question.

“Think their cow milk is used to make the Vercors blue cheese?”

“Oh definitely. And we’ll be eating that tonight, on our pizza!”

I smile as we continue on, Annick and Claire outpacing me. I’ve returned back to the Alps for a brief stay with my former hosts, who are starting to feel like family. This visit to the Vercors, a range of mountains close to Grenoble, has been one of the highlights of my trip.

Queen of the Vercors cows looks over her domain…

An afternoon rain cut short our hike and created a layer of fog throughout the valley. We explored the small surrounding villages instead. The Vercors are an old Catholic region, with crosses crowning hills and crossroads.

Camping sites in France have one major difference from those in the United States: in France, you can order fresh bread in the morning, and it will be delivered to you. Instead of soggy, stale Wonderbread packed into cartons, we eat fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Although I love the simplicity of camping cuisine, I must admit that this morning luxury of fresh baked bread is much appreciated.

We eat well during our four day trip, packing a light lunch to eat in the mountains and preparing a healthy dinner in the evenings. One evening, we visit the camping site restaurant, where the three of us share well-earned pizzas. My favorite was aptly named “The Vercors”, topped with specialties from the region: ravioles, bleu du Vercors-Sassenge cheese, and lardon, or diced bacon. What a perfect meal after a day climbing up and down those steep mountain peaks.

Annick and Claire walk ahead of me, as I take a moment to admire the surrounding view.

Roadside milk, pumped fresh from the cow every day at 6pm.

The final evening, I try what I’ve been waiting for, since I was in the Rhone-Alpes last month: ice cream, à la Chartreuse. With a scoop of chocolate ice cream, la Chartreuse flavor is strong and tasty. I debate ordering the small shot of la Chartreuse to pour over the ice cream, but I choose to enjoy the flavors alone instead. We drink more Chartreuse later, snuggled near the campfire.

I sigh contentedly when I’m finished. The Alps have left me feeling absolutely full: mountain views, mountain air, and mountain food.

The view from the top of Col Vert- 1800m (almost 6000 ft). The world’s best view for a lunchtime picnic!!

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Au Revoir!

One of my last days in the Rhône-Alpes countryside, I talked with Annick about how school lunches usually work, in the USA. Annick is a nanny for a few local children, taking them to her house for a healthy lunch during the school day, and keeping them for a few hours after school. She asked me if it was similar in the United States.

I said that in the US, leaving the school for lunch is rare. More commonly, students buy a hot lunch at school. Or, in my case, I took a “sack lunch”, or “paper bag lunch ” to school– a paper sack with a sandwich, fruit, snacks, etc. Sometimes, parents will also include little notes in the paper bag lunch, wishing their children a good day, or a reminder how much they love them.

Annick found this idea very cute, but at the time, I thought nothing of it. Three days later, the morning I left for Paris, I heard her announce: “I will prepare you a paper bag lunch!”

I gratefully took it, eating the contents throughout the day. She had made the perfect paper bag lunch. And, in the end, in the bottom of the sack, I found a note:

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I am lucky, to find family wherever I go.

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A tous mes amis francophone, qui peut être sont en train de se servir de Google translate-

J’écris un petit note en français pour vous remercier. Vous étiez tous profs patients et sympas, et j’avais de la chance de vous connaître. Si vous passez aux États Unis, vous êtes toujours bienvenue chez moi. A bientôt, j’espère!

Beer Je T’aime

La France is, without a doubt, a wine country. But this big ol’ American likes beer, and I was curious if there were any good French beers to be found. During my weeks in the Rhone-Alpes region, almost all the beer I found was imported from Belgium, with very few French varieties.

I stopped in Paris for a few days at the end of my time in France, and I met up with a Parisian friend that I had made months ago, at the Warsaw Beer Festival (further proving my belief that beer brings people together). He showed me what I had been looking for: a French craft beer bar.

“La Fine Mousse” has made the news not only for focusing on French beer, but also for copying something normally reserved for French wines: beer-food pairings. With 150 beers avaliable, and friendly “bièreologues” to help you choose, there is no shortage of options.

I drank only the French beers on tap, trying to select a diverse range. The bar had a distinct vibe, with black and white and wood details, making me think of
hipster bars back home. Though some of the beers were underwhelming, others were quite good, and it was fun to see an unexpected scene like this in Paris.

There is a young craft beer scene in France, even if it is hidden by the sheer mass of wine culture. Paris, as they say, will always surprise you.

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Short Summer Stays

If you love food, the summer is full of celebrations. Each week, there is something new to look forward to. In Wisconsin, I love watching the season pass, tracking when the raspberries are at their sweetest, or how many weeks I can count on fresh peaches. I count the summer weeks by what fruit is most ripe.

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Fresh wild strawberries, found on a walk in the woods. Luckily, with the rain earlier that morning, they were fresh and washed.

Now, here in France, I am less familiar with the timing of the season, but I enjoy celebrating the cycle nevertheless. During my stay with Thierry and Annick, there are a few things in particular that are in peak season. The wild strawberries and raspberries are bountiful, and I harvest them nearly every day. Elderflowers are also blooming, and Annick and I use them to make a pétillant, a naturally fermented drink.

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Annick takes a picture of me, as we work to shake loose the blooms of the elderflowers.

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The elderflowers, combined with lemon and sugar, sit in the sun. Natural yeasts in the air will ferment the infusion, and after a few weeks in the cellar, the pétillant will be ready to drink!

And why not celebrate? I savor these summer fruits, made all the sweeter by their short stay.

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Wild strawberries stained my hands red all week. I didn't mind.

Bread in the Oven or the Fire?

I confuse a lot of French words. Gare and guerre (train station and war, respectively) tends to be a perennial hilarious mixup (“excuse me sir, is the war this way? I need to catch a train”). I still remember the Polish man who told me that he will never be able to keep straight the difference between chicken and kitchen, and I empathize. Anyone who has learned another language can recount numerous embarrassing stories about misunderstandings and errors. It’s part of the learning process.

It also inevitably makes my life full of surprises, as I usually only understand around 85% of what is going on at any given time.

One day, Annick, my French host, kept mentioning that we were going to make what I thought I heard as “pain au four”, or bread in the oven. “Well of course!” I thought, “why is she specifying? Where else would we make bread?”

It was only later, when she showed me the recipe, that I understood my mistake: not pain au four, but pain au feu- bread over the fire. Suddenly, I became much more excited.

The dough, ready to cook over the fire on the branches.

Annick and Thierry, my WWOOF hosts in France, are always up to something. Whether it’s hosting the village open-air cinema, or tromping through the woods to find elderflowers, they stay busy with different projects. Annick has recently been toying around with cooking over an open fire, and she has perfected the pain au feu.

We started with a simple dough, and let it rise. I wrapped the dough around a branch and slowly and attentively roasted it. Next to me, the children that Annick watches after school roasted their breads, and I woefully tried to prevent their sticks from dropping into the fire.

Annick, wrapping the fresh dough around the stick.

Eventually, we all had cooked pain au feu, with various levels of charred bits. We gleefully ate the bread with a bit of cheese and chocolate, enjoying the smokey flavor and crisp outside.

Though I’ve always had a high respect for French bread, I’ve now grown even more respect. Even regular bread, cooked in the oven, won’t be enough for me anymore- I’ve discovered pain au feu.

I, amused, guard the kid’s bread, when they lose their patience with cooking and start to play instead.

and finally, the bread is done! The outside is a beautiful crust, but the inside is still soft dough. Perfect with a piece of chocolate.

Searching Out the Specialties

Upon arriving in Grenoble, a college friend, Patrick, informed me of two Rhone-Alpes specialties that I must try. The first is the la tartiflette, which features the specialty regional cheese, and secondly, la Chartreuse, which is a strong liquor specially made by monks with a secret blend of herbs. However, as the weekend flew by, full of activities and parties, I never found an opportunity to search out these specialties.

After the weekend, I headed to the countryside, to do WWOOFing work with a family near Lyon. And there, by the second day, I had not only made and tasted la tartiflette, but I had also drunk la Chartreuse. La vie est belle, à la campagne.

La tartiflette is made with reblochon cheese, a famous type of cheese from the Alps. The name comes from the French word “reblocher”, which basically means to re-milk a cow. The origin legend claims that cow farmers, back when they had to pay tax on the amount of milk their cows produced, would purposefully only partially milk their cows. Then, after their product was accounted for and taxed, they would return to their cows for a second milking. The second milk has a much higher fat content, and it is with this creamy milk that they made the strong reblochon. The cheese has a strong nutty flavor, one that you can smell from a mile away.

La tartiflette is a type of gratin, made with potatoes, onions, and chunks of pork fat. All these are cooked together, in a pan, until well browned. Then, they are combined in a casserole dish, and the round of reblochon cheese is added on top. These ingredients combine in the oven to become a gooey, oozing, beautiful mess of a dish.

It is most popular in the winter in the Alps, after you’ve finished skiing and tromping in the snow all day. We, however, ate it at the end of a hot summer day. As my Portuguese friend Catarina would say, after eating la tartiflette, you can’t do anything but roll away from the table. This is comfort food, the meal that leaves you satisfied and wanting a nap.

La tartiflette, in its cheesy glory. The original round form of the reblochon can still be seen on top, cut into four pieces.

La Chartreuse is the liquor of the Alps, with a long and eventful history. Made by monks since the 1600s, even during periods of their exile, it has become world famous. There is even officially a color, chartreuse, which lies somewhere between yellow and green.

The most famous type of Chartreuse, the strong green liquor, is made from reportedly 130 different herbs, and is the “secret elixir for a long life”. Today, only two monks know the exact blend at one time, and they prepare the herbs for each batch. In typical AOC fashion, it is rumored that the two monks never see each other, in case some natural disaster should kill them both at the same time.

The flavor of la Chartreuse is strong and herbal, staying in your throat and warming your bones. I drink it the second night with Annick and Thierry, and I feel as if I am tasting the elixir of the Alps.

La Chartreuse verte, at 55 percent alcohol. Don’t worry, we didn’t start out the evening with a full bottle.

Though it can be a bit overdone to always focus on the “regional specialty”, I find something very beautiful in searching it out. First of all, I truly enjoy how even if people may be embarrassed or roll their eyes when they tell me about their “specialty”, every single person I ask gladly joins me in sharing a plate. Familiar food is still good food.

I also find that, over a shared plate, people will frequently share memories about the dish. Stories about holidays, family, or attempts to cook pass back and forth. There is something in a familiar taste that elicits some sense of home, a sort of comfort hidden in the sauce.

Cuisines are becoming more global, influenced by styles from around the world. I love that I can see Thai influences in French cooking, or eat a damn good baguette in Tokyo. But these regional specialties, too, add diversity and resilience to a globalized food network. Great cuisines, like French and Japanese for example, celebrate their local products, encouraging local pride and continuation.

But for me, I search out these regional specialties for a different reason. In a time when cuisine becomes more and more global, these regional specialties tie us to a place. They help bring us together; they help us remember. When we make and celebrate a special dish, we are acknowledging the long tradition we come from, and creating our place in it. These dishes give us a sense of belonging, if only for a meal.

Bienvenue en France

I’ve taken years of French courses, and each year, there is inevitably a lesson titled, “on va au marché!” In this vocabulary lesson, you learn the names of fruits, how to ask for two kilos of tomatoes, and indicate what kind of meat you wish to buy. The lesson always includes a section on the different types of French stores: the boucherie, for different meats, the fromagerie, for cheeses, or the pâtisserie, for pastries. I’ve studied this lesson many times, memorized the vocabulary, and done silly role playing exercises, where we pretend we are in a French market.

And yet, here I am in Grenoble, France, standing in front of an actual French cheese vendor, completely blanking on the word for “slice”. Umm… a pile of cheese? “Un petit peu”? Enough for two sandwiches, s’il vous plaît?

Eventually, he gets my meaning, and I get my cheese- two tranches de chèvre, fresh and fluffy. The vendor smiles knowingly at me, and I think he’s happy that I’m making an effort. I slink away, repeating to myself, “une tranche… tranche… tranche de fromage”.

A real, bona fide French market. How beautiful! Exactly as French as I pictured it.

I am lucky to be welcomed in Grenoble by Patrick, a Lawrence University alumni who, despite never having met me before, showed me around the city for the weekend. I happen to arrive during the city’s big festival, La Fête des Tuiles. The festival is named for the famous protest in Grenoble, when citizens took roof tiles, or tuiles, off their own houses and threw them at the marching parade of the army. This was one of the starts of the French Revolution. Today, we celebrate their rebellion with food and music. What better way to honor the revolutionaries?

It’s been a few years since I was in a French speaking country, but the language is starting to come back to me. After a few drinks at la Fête des Tuiles, I find my tongue loosening, fitting better into those French vowels and the dreaded French “r”. If only I could adapt as easily to the accent as I have to the wine.

La Fete des Tuiles, à Grenoble!

Though I spent many months in Sénégal, a francophone country, it’s fun to finally be in France too. I spent years in French courses, reading books and small cultural anecdotes about this country. Now I’m here, taking the TGV and seeing that, truly, a large percentage of people have a baguette in their bag at any given time. I’m excited to finally see this country for myself, to talk to the people here, to learn this accent and this slang.

But let’s be honest- I’m really just here for the cheese. And now that I can proficiently order what I want, let the culinary exploration begin. Une tranche de fromage, s’il vous plaît!

Sunday, Patrick and friends and I visit a nearby lake. Finally, finally, I was able to find an excuse to use the useless vocabulary word I had been carrying around for years: how to say “windsurfing” in French. “Beaucoup de monde fait de la planche à voile ici, non?”