Friday, November 4, 2011

Food Fridays: We're in the Alps Baby!

It's not that Spain wasn't wonderful, because it was.  It's not that the food wasn't amazing in Spain, because it was.  It's not that Spain had anything wrong with it, because it didn't.

But truth be told, the part of our trip we were really looking forward too was the 3 days at the end that we would be spending with our friends Lucy & Loic.  For you see, Lucy & Loic had a cabin they promised to take us to, and that cabin was in The Alps.

I can't quite explain the appeal The Alps held for us.  We live in British Columbia, so we have plenty of mountains within minutes of our home.  And we have a family cabin in the mountains about two and a half hours from our home as well, so it's not like their cabin was anything unique.  But there was something definitely magical about the prospect of spending a couple days in the French Alps.

Perhaps we thought a Savoyard version of Maria would greet us with a large Toblerone and a rousing version of Escaladez Chaque Montagne. I still don't know.  But once we were picked up at the Lyon airport and whisked eastward towards the Haute Savoie, we felt like we were home, even though we'd never actually been in this part of France.  Even during a stop for groceries en route, the familiar manner in which the French present their produce, and the ridiculous variety of cheese and charcuterie in even the most simple ├ępicerie reminded us why we love this country so much.

Lucy & Loic's cabin is a small three-floored building nestled into a little village in the hills of the Haute Savoie.  It's mountainous in the way that makes you feel like you're climbing a set of stairs whenever you're walking.  Where our mountains are filled with pines, spruce and firs, the hills in this part of France were primarily deciduous:  lots of apple, chestnut and walnut trees, which we made full use of during our stay.  The building itself is somewhere between 200 and 300 years old (lots of local debate on that), and the surrounding village had other buildings at least that old.

Lucy & I met through the food website eGullet, and have continued our friendship through the Internet and our respective blogs. (Lucy's Kitchen Notebook is by far the superior of the two).  Janine & I spent a few days with them three years ago and in that time Lucy & Loic have purchased the "Country House", adopted an amazing little boy and have decided to open a cooking school in Lyon (more on that later).  

Our first evening was spent catching up and consuming raclette and blonde ale in unnatural quantities.  Raclette is so engrained in this part of the world that there's actually cheese ... several cheeses ... called raclette.  And where I was expecting boiled potatoes and pickles, the Savoyard version of raclette apparently uses cured meats ... like bacon!  While shopping I slipped in a small bottle of gherkins ... you really do need the acidity to cut through all that rich cheese.  Conversation flowed as botles of local Chignin were opened, and our sweet tooth was sated by a tarte aux pommes made from apples we had picked with their son earlier in the day.

There's something about mountain air that makes me sleep the sleep of a 200 pound man-child.  Getting up the next day was rough ... and had nothing to do with the beer and wine.  After a typically French breakfast of bread, preserves and coffee we donned our outdoor gear and hiking boots and went for a wander.  Actually it was more like a harvest.  Along the way we gathered wild mushrooms, chestnuts and walnuts, all while taking in the majestic scenery.

The best way I can describe the geography is to compare it to British Columbia.  The mountains are of similar height and ruggedness, but it's as if it's all been squished together.  The villages are nestled in the valleys, and the mountains begin right outside one's back door, not a couple miles away like in B.C.  Then there's the ancient construction that's littered throughout the hills.  In B.C. any abandoned mountain huts slowly rot and return to the soil from whence they came; they're all made of wood.  In the Alps, the majority of construction is of stone.  Stone huts and walls, constructed by settlers hundreds of years ago, remain, reminding passers-by that they are far from the first people to set foot on this hillside.

Our harvest from the walk was whisked into the kitchen and returned to us in the form of lunch.  The walnuts were shelled and roasted and served with a pinch of salt and enjoyed with a fine Spanish sherry; chestnuts and the squash (from the garden) was transformed into a beautiful fall soup; the mushrooms were cleaned and roasted and served as an appetizer on crostini (with some very fine olive oil) and as the main course pizza with some Brie.  Another walk to work off all this food was in order!

It's no accident that our time in the Haute Savoie was so food centric.  As mentioned I met Lucy through a food based web-site, so much of what we have in common is food.  So it's was also of little surprise when Lucy & Loic purchased a boulangerie in the Croix Rousse neighbourhood of Lyon, and announced they were opening a cooking school to compliment the classes and tours Lucy already offered. I've been a participant in those tours, so I know she'll be a huge success with the new endeavour.

When we returned to Lyon we were able to see the boulangerie for ourselves.  There's a lot left to be done.  But the work that has been completed so far looks amazing.  Like the stone buildings in the Haute Savoie, the construction techniques used in Lyon (and Europe for that matter) differ greatly from what we use in B.C.  As a designer and someone who has done more than his fair share of remodels, I felt somewhat over my head as I was looking at stone wall after stone wall.  I know what to do with a timber framed home, but what do you do when you want to cut a hole in a stone wall?  And once you've figured that out, what do you do when there's a block of granite where you want to cut?  You defer to your contractor, and the contractor they're using is more than capable.

I'll be sure to keep you posted when Lucy's school opens, or you can follow her blog and read for yourself. Who knows, maybe we'll return ourselves for a class or two.


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