Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


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For the love of French cheese and the Jura Mountains!

In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life.  As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.

The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400.  Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”

Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites.  Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.

In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay.  By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception.  This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay.  When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since.  Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam.  A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.

One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château.  These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast.  Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge.  Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails.  Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding.  In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur.  You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet.  His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit.  Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.

Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté.  You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region.  In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle.  After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months.  Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura:  the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.

Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk.  As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th.  This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful!  Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box.  It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.

Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed.  The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness.  Depending on the season it should also include side options such as:  dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces.  Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines…  voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!

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Ma belle Dijon

My new city was a delight from the beginning.  When choosing a place to live, I decided that the center of town was full of charm and history. Thus, it was only natural that my final choice for a Dijonnais domicile was a 1636 AD house on a quiet ”petite rue” in the heart of the city. The gated entrance hid a fastidious story to be written while passing through the courtyard and a 15th century solemn staircase leading to the third floor with a good view of the toits bourguignons (Burgundy’s traditional polychrome roofs) and their geometrical patterns.  Yes, very quickly Dijon had my heart. 

The city center is lively with a brand new TRAM system, excellent shopping and restaurants spread throughout its radius.  Yet in Dijon, there is always something new to be discover.  There are days dedicated to music and so you can hear great sounds in the streets or view an opera performance at the superb Auditorium of Dijon. You can take different “discovery” walks by following the owl triangles around the city and maps can be found in the tourist centers.  The owl is the bird symbolizing Dijon. 

The traditional story of the ‘little owl” in Dijon dates back to 14 century.   It was the time when the Notre Dame cathedral was being built.  One of the traditional tales conveys the story of the architect of the cathedral who found a sickly owl nearby.  He cared for the tiny creature and became quite attached to the little bird. Hence, since it brought him much joy, he carved the owl on the stone pillar in north side of the cathedral. Historically, it seems that the little owl appeared in the end of the XV or beginning of the XVI centuries.  Whatever the case may be, visitors continue throughout the ages to touch the little carved owl, “la petite chouette,” with the left hand while making a wish and it should come true!  At Notre Dame, you will also hear the “Jacquemart” ring and announce the hours with precision. The “Jacquemart & Clock” was a war prize that Phillip the Bold brought from Belgium.  Soon the inhabitants of Dijon became devoted to the protector of the hours.  Accordingly, from 1651 to 1884 the people in Dijon did not wanted him to feel lonely and they added a wife Jacqueline who helps him ring the hours, a son and Jacquelinet responsible for sounding the half hours and lastly a daughter Jacquelinette responsible for ringing every quarter hour.  Also, behind Notre Dame are some of the oldest streets in town known for their fine antique stores. The main cathedral in Dijon is Saint-Bénigne. It is perhaps the oldest in Dijon considering that it has a remarkable crypt which was completed in 535 AD.  The grand cathedral part however, was dedicated in 1393 AD.  This is one of the sites that should be visited since marvelous pipe organ concerts are frequently offered and the acoustics always make the experience sublime.

Following the little owls triangles, visitors can easily make their way to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.  The ducal palace houses the mayor and some of the city’s offices, a tourist information center, the soaring Philip le Bon tower in the middle and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. After climbing the 315 steps or so in the Philip Le Bon tower, your reward will be an amazing 360° view of the city.  Then, after this marvelous work-out the Musée des Beaux-Arts should be the next-door charm.  In the past 2 years, this museum underwent a detailed renovation and now it is even more appealing.  Worth viewing are the intricate tombs of Philip le Bon, John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria and the “pleurants” or mourners.  Not far from this museum is one of my favorite museums in Dijon, the Museum Magnin with collections from the North, French and Italian Schools. Proximate to Magnin, the extraordinary sculptures of F. Rude can be seen at Saint-Étienne’s Church.

An international recognition for the city of Dijon is its: MUSTARD.  This delicious creation dates back to 1856 AD when Jean Naigeon added acidic juice of grapes that were not ripped to the mustard recipe.  This flavorful mustard is used in salads, sandwiches and on any dish that calls for mustard.  Nowadays, they add white wine to the recipe with a sharp taste that revives any bland fare.  Dijon also offers delightful places and parks for strolling such as the Jardin Botanique de l’Arquebuse and the Parc de la Columbière. Above all, children love Columbière Park because it has a petting zoo.