Monday, January 23, 2012

Le Fromage

The holiday season is lovely in Savoie; trees have changed color and dropped their leaves, revealing even deeper layers of winter color in shades of green, brown, rusty orange and grey. By the end of the first week in December, the Christmas markets are in full swing. One can wander amongst the stalls selling everything from local sweets, cheese and sausage, to handmade toys and clothing, and everywhere is the scent of fresh gauffres and hot-spiced wine.

We went to several of the markets and enjoyed watching the boys’ eyes light up at the piles of nougats and chocolates. Christmas markets are a special tradition in France, and if you are ever in this region during the holidays, don’t miss the market at Annecy, as it is particularly beautiful; it’s petite chalets lining the waterways and lighting up the ancient stone buildings.

I was eager to discover regional traditions and watched many interactions with interest. I also watched the food that people bought for the holidays and asked whomever I could what traditional Christmas foods were eaten here, even attempting to make some of them myself.  Seafood does a brisk sale during the holidays, as does Champagne. In fact, the two can usually be found together, alongside other hor d’oeuvres including fois gras on toast, shrimp, cheese, and caviar.

One week before Christmas there were violent windstorms and several trees fell down on the property that we are renting. A 60-70 foot pine tree fell right next to the house taking out the phone line. We had quite an interesting experience restoring the phone line and internet connection: no small feat.  With the help of two French friends, three stops at Orange/France Telecom, and numerous cell phone calls later we had our phone line hooked back up— two weeks later. We missed being in contact with family and friends during the holidays.

Without the internet for help, I made Christmas dinner with a bit of French style: huitres (oysters) with lemon and sparkling wine, roasted chapon (smaller, finer turkey) stuffed with chestnuts, potato puree with candied chestnuts, haricots verts, and fresh bread. For dessert we had Buche de Noel, the famous Christmas Yule log cake that is eaten all over France during the holidays.

We were also invited to our neighbor’s house to share fondue with their family a few days after Christmas.  Savoie fondue is different that what I have ever experienced. It is a mix of three cheeses, garlic, and white wine, and served in a large ceramic or cast iron pot over a flame. But this fondue does not mix evenly: the cheese congeals a bit at the bottom, while the liquid floats on top. One is told to dip their bread all the way to the bottom of the pot, swirl it a bit and lift it absolutely drenched in cheese. A sign of a perfect mix are “strings” of cheese attached to your bread as you lift it from the pot. For this reason, the pot is continually monitored and stirred with a wooden spoon and you are expected to eat quickly. Day old bread is the only thing dipped in fondue, and after everyone is done, leftover bread is cooked in the fondue pot with the remaining cheese and a few eggs and spooned onto plates. Three words still come to mind after eating this dish: Death by cheese.

Tartiflette is another famous Savoyard dish: it is a mixture of parboiled potatoes, sliced, lardons (pieces of bacon) crème fraiche, and an entire round of Reblochon cheese sliced in half lengthwise and the two rounds placed on top. The dish is cooked in the oven until the cheese is gooey and melting. It is reminiscent of an excellent au gratin potato recipe, both hearty and satisfyingly creamy. I would eat it several times per week if I didn’t care about my size.

The third, and perhaps most health-friendly of the Savoie cheese dishes is called Raclette. One uses a special Raclette grill to cook cheese slices of the same name, which is then served over potatoes, with gherkins and cocktail onions. A salad usually accompanies this dish and one can control the amount of cheese consumed—no small feat in this region! If you have Raclette at a restaurant, you will often find a half of a raclette round cooked under a flame. It is then scraped off onto a plate as it melts and served with potatoes. 

A good exercise regimen is recommended.

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