European Vacation – August 5th

This was a very cool day. We were invited into a small village called Montvernier in the French Alps where (follow this now) my wife’s cousin’s son’s girlfriend’s parents had a chalet. I realize the connection was a little strained here, but what the hell, it was an invitation to a chalet in French Alps. Would you say no?

The father was the chief of the local branch of the Gendarmerie, the French national police. The chalet was beautiful, the view was incredible.

This was our first real example of the intricate and involved ritual the French call eating. This is much more than mere sustenance, this is the apex of a cultural evolution hundreds of years in the making. Course by course, we worked our way through the culinary dance, guided by our gracious hosts. Food and wine paired with care, starting with white wine and a fruit liqueur, creating “kir”, with patés and other appetizers. Then on to vegetables and hard boiled eggs, paired with a lighter red wine, then the meat and potatoes, served with robust Merlots and Cabernets, then the most incredible cheeses I’ve ever eaten. We’re familiar with appellation wines in North America, with strict controls on the source of the contributing grapes. In France, cheese is treated with no less respect, and one particularly delicious cheese was made only in the tiny village we were visiting. The hosts brought out a 2 kilo block, which was an incredibly generous gesture. It would be like breaking out the 40 year old single malt scotch for people you barely know. Luckily, I think we sensed the importance of the gesture and showed proper appreciation.

After we wrapped up the cheese and wine, we finished with café and blueberry tarts that somehow captured all the flavor of a fresh picked berry. If I seem obsessed with the food, it’s because the entire country shares my obsession. I wrote a column recently with some thoughts of how in North America we’re obsessed with time, while in France and other European countries, life is more centered on eating and social interactions.

We wrapped up with a stroll up the mountain to the village of Montvernier. This was picture book scenic, and they happened to be having a “Fete du Pain”, or Festival of Bread. The celebration seemed to be centered around the baking of 2 kilo loaves in a communal wood fired oven that was well over 150 years old. The baking and selling of the loaves (we bought two) was accompanied by games and impromptu entertainment.

Sadly, it was now time to head back to Chambéry. We bid adieu to Didier and Nadine, our hosts, and chose to avoid the highway back in favor of a more leisurely drive through the vineyards and small villages. The Savoie region is rich in history, for many years serving as a region that passed back and forth from French to Italian hands. It straddles the main valley and pass connecting the two countries, so was of great military importance. Once can see the string of castles and fortifications that oversaw the passage way. One was pointed out to us that apparently served as a prison for the Marquis de Sade. Although not as famous as its neighbors as a wine producing region, there is also a vigorous industry that turns out some world class wines. On the drive back, we drove through one breathtakingly scenic and ancient village after another, with wineries and lush vineyards set against the rugged backdrop of the French Alps. All in all, an unforgettable day.

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