Bonjour from the French Alps!
It has been a week since I’ve return from France (sigh). I’m just now getting myself back into the nitty gritty of my life in New York. Not that I was gone for very long, mind you. But there’s something about travelling (especially when you travel to a place where you don’t speak the language) that stirs up your soul in ways that a good book or even a nice long meditation session can’t do.
My first (and only) time in Europe was nine years ago. Paris and Florence. For a wedding.
This time, the French Alps and Rhone Valley. For a wedding.
I see a pattern here. Which, of course, I don’t mind. The more European weddings the better, especially if I’m invited to them. It seems to be the only way to get my butt across the Atlantic Ocean.
The bride (British) and groom-to-be (French) rented a large house on the Lac d’Annecy to share a week of pre-wedding fun with about 20 of their friends. Annecy is a resort town, of sorts, about an hour from Geneva (which is where I flew into). Where French people go to “holiday.” With the Alps as the backdrop, and the unbelievable crystal-blue lake as its center, there are a myriad of activities available. Swimming, of course. Boating, canoeing, waterskiing, parasailing, biking, hiking, you get the point.
A few months before I left I remember being at a party, talking to a Frenchman, and mentioning that I was going to Annecy. “You will eat very well,” he told me. Apparently, this region is the culinary capital of France, which was supported by the Fodor’s travel guide I carried with me religiously.
Ironically, most of my meals were spent eating at the house on the lake, rather than out and about town. Each evening for a week several people would make dinner for the group. Except for the groom, no one was French.
First night: ratatouille and poulet, and, of course, lots of wine and baguettes.
Second night: Grilled pork chops and sausage, lots of wine and baguettes.
Third night: Baked fish, rice and salad…wine…baguette.
Fourth night: Caprese salad, tagliatelle with smoked salmon, pasta bolognese, wine…baguette.
Fifth night: My night to cook.
To be honest with you, I didn’t actually think that I’d be cooking one of the nights. It was the night before the wedding, and I figured there was a rehearsal dinner or something. Well, there was a rehearsal dinner, and I was one of the chefs! The guest list for the evening grew exponentially and included parents and godparents, a few late arrivals from Australia, and even the pastor. Oh dear.
I had talked all week about baking an apple pie. You know, my way of representing America, in the midst of the Brits, Swiss, and Germans at the table. About noon on Friday, my cooking partner and I made our way to the French supermarket, armed with a very long list, and a request for more wine. I had no access to the internet, and no cookbooks at my disposal (at least not in English). I truly felt like a contestant on the Next Food Network Star. On the menu: flank steak with avocado and tomato relish (I had made that this summer from a Cooking Light recipe), baked chicken in various marinades, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables (including sweet potatoes), and, yes, the piece de resistance: the apple pie.
A French supermarket is not too different from an American one, but there were a few things to get used to.
- First, you have to pay for your shopping cart. You do get your money back in the end, however
- They don’t ask you “paper or plastic,” because they don’t have either one. In fact, they don’t even offer the option to pay for bags. They just don’t have any (luckily we were warned ahead of time and brought our own bags!)
- The wine is dirt cheap. 2 for 1 specials, only 3 Euros. Can’t beat that. No wonder we went through so much wine!
Now. Apple Pie. Okay, I had no intention of making my own pie crust. Just throwing that out there. But the thing about France is that they love their tarts. So, you don’t just have one or two options for a pre-made crust. You’ve got about 10. The packaging is all in French, so while I know it’s a crust, I can’t tell the difference between any of them. After about 10-15 minutes of staring at the wall of crusts in front of me, seeing people picking up various kinds, I finally see one with a drawing of an apple on it. Okay, that’s it. Let’s move on!
Back to the chalet, and we realize that we have no idea how to work the oven. Plus, of course, the French don’t bake in Farenheit…it’s celsius there! I’m scrambling to find a French person to translate the pie crust instructions. Um, I must admit, I was actually worried there for a minute. 20 people were counting on us for their dinner. They were hungry. Amazing to say, but, considering I’m a pretty much by-the-book cook, I decided to wing it, and it all turned out just fine in the end. People were fed: mission accomplished. And this was the only night there weren’t leftovers. Could be because we had a larger than normal crew, but I’d like to think the food was just that good!
Eating in Annecy
Annecy is an old charming town with cobble-stoned streets, canals (it’s known as the “Venice of France”) and baguette-eating French people. A few days during the week I either walked or biked to the center of town. Lunch consisted of a salad with cheese and lardons (otherwise known as bacon). Lardons appeared on nearly every menu in Annecy. And, a big pot of cheese fondue with slightly stale bread. Fondue, too, was on nearly every menu. Typical lunch fare!
An afternoon snack of tea and an apple tart–tarte du pomme, I proudly ordered in French. The waitress looked at me quizzically and couldn’t understand a word I said!
Eating in Lyon
Lyon is the closest big city to Annecy and I was fortunate enough to be able to take a train there for a day trip. While most of the Europeans wanted to spend the week relaxing by the lake, I wanted to be a tourist, big time. It’s not like I can drive or take a train here any ol’ day, you know?
My first stop in Lyon was at a boulangerie for a quiche lorraine. Um, okay, I’m not a big quiche fan, but this thing was amazing. Buttery and salty from the ham. I’m still having dreams about it. Then there was a lunch at a small cafe off the beaten path. After perusing menu after menu trying to find the perfect spot to dine, I realized that the “culinary capital” is known for its exquisitely prepared organ meats: calf’s head, anyone? If I had a week in Lyon, I probably would have been more adventurous and tried a few of these delicacies (which appeared to be the normal menu items), but considering I wanted to satiate my hunger as well, this cafe was perfect. A glass of white wine, tarte des troix fromages avec poires (toasted bread with 3 cheeses and pears), and a mousse au chocolat. And, to top it off, the waitress looked like Amelie.
It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day. The lake was the clearest it had been all week. I find that weddings are never really about the food. The reception consisted of 5 courses, all elegant and light.
Grains and vegetables
Dessert: the wedding cake and profiteroles
As I write this massive post on France (thanks for reading!), I sit with a pot of tea and a baguette. It’s the simple things really. What I will take away most from my trip are these:
- Community is crucial for the health of the soul–not only eating together, but preparing food together
- Savor your food. Take time to focus on what you’re eating instead of doing lots of other things with a full mouth
- Spend a little extra money to get higher quality. It will enhance your enjoyment of life
- Take time to really listen to other people. Everyone has a perspective all their own and something to offer to the world
Until next time, a bientot!
♦ Buttery B