An Ash Rubbed Cheese

Don’t judge a cheese by its rind. Even if it is blackened with ash and fuzzy with mold. Before the invention of plastic wraps and waxes, creating protective rinds was the best way to preserve freshly made cheese. Wood ash is just one of the countless ways to encourage mold growth on your precious cheese.

Selles-sur-Cher is a 19th century French cheese made from goat’s milk. Its name originates from the town of Selles-sur-Cher. To bear the label, this cheese must be made in the department of Cher, Indre, or Loir-et-Cher. The goats of this region graze the floral grasslands of the Cher valley which gives this cheese its unique quality.

This soft white cheese has a doughy texture that will melt in your mouth. Its odor is light for a goat cheese. The outside is rubbed with a dark wood ash. The end result is a powdery blue-grey puck with its characteristic flat sides and beveled edges.  The thin salted ash rind is trimmed off to taste the soft, slightly nutty flavor within.

 The ripening of this cheese takes a minimum of 10 days and up to 3 weeks in a cellar. The more mature the cheese, the stronger the taste. This cheese is often seen in French cheese buffets for its decorative qualities.

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Beaufort: The Best Alpine Cheese in France

Fromage Beaufort is a french cheese produced in the department of Savoie. This region includes the valley of its namesake, Beaufort. This popular cheese must meet stringent standards before it can carry its label.

A pale yellow raw milk cheese with a smooth yet firm texture, this cheese is widely recognized throughout France. It is also an important ingredient in fondue savoyarde. Only the milk of an Abondance or Tarentaise cow can be used in the production of Beaufort, and these cows must graze solely on mountain meadow grass. In winter, hay is harvested from pastures at the base of the mountains. If these standards are not met, the cheese cannot bear the label Beaufort. These special alpine cows are bred not only to be exceptional diary producers but for their ability to thrive in harsh alpine conditions and trek across steep hillsides. Cows (vaches) are rotated regularly into different pastures, and each cow will normally have her own embroidered bell.

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The “happy cows” of California have nothing on these girls.

The milk to cheese process begins in large copper vats where timing, temperature, and stirring is essential in creating a quality wheel. Curds are trapped in cheese cloth and pressed in wooden rings. After the wheel is salted in brine, it is put in a cheese cellar to be turned and salted daily until it reaches maturity. It takes, at minimum, 5 months to properly ripen a wheel of Beaufort cheese. There is a distinct difference in taste between summer (été) Beaufort and winter (hiver) Beaufort. Summer Beaufort has a smoother creamier taste. It is also more expensive and preferable for casual eating. Winter Beaufort is used more often in fondues and gratins. Beaufort that has been traditionally handmade high in the Alpes (d’alpage) will carry the highest price tag. You get what you pay for, the difference in taste between factory and traditionally made Beaufort can be recognized even by a novice cheese tester. To view a photo essay on the creation of traditional alpine Beaufort, click here.

Inside a Beaufort cheese cellar

Inside a Beaufort cheese cellar

Génépi: The Traditional Drink of the Alps

Génépi is a high alpine plant. The silver branches of this wormwood are found at elevations above 2,000 meters and are harvested in late July and August.  These aromatic branches are then steeped in pure grain alcohol for forty days. The contents are then filtered and fit for consumption. This drink can be taken straight at room temperature or chilled. It can also be added to coffees or desserts. Génépi filled chocolates can be found throughout the region. Génépi is also a commonly used ingredient in a Grolle.

Making Genepi

Making Genepi

The taste is unmistakable and unique in itself. The closed taste comparable to génépi is perhaps chamomile paired with a freshness reminiscent of spearmint. Before it became a pick-me-up for skiiers, this drink was believed to have medicinal qualities. A deep inhale of this brew will certainly clear your sinuses.

A mature bottle of génépi varies from light gold to light green. Many commercial varieties are a bright green due to added food coloring. Génépi is available at most bars, restaurants, and markets in the French/Italian/Swiss Alps. Most local families have their own special place for collecting génépi. This plant only flowers once a year and, like most high alpine plants, it does not survive well in high traffic, overpicked locations. So do not expect any locals to give up the location of their génépi spots. And if you ask a local how to make génépi, they will simply say forty-forty-forty.

40/40/40 Savoyard

40 branches of génépi

40 grams of sugar

40 days of steeping

In a liter of pure grain alcohol

The composition of this drink is comparable to absinthe. You’ve been warned.

French Alps

French Alps

It Started with Drinking Coffee and Booze Out of a Wooden Shoe

Shepherds in the region of Savoie, France would share a mix of hot coffee and alcohol in a wooden shoe. This is where the concept of the grolle originated. A grolle is a carved bowl known as a coupe de l’amitie (cup of friendship).

This beautiful wooden bowl can have anywhere between 2 to 10 becs (spouts). Each participant drinks in turn from their own spout. Customarily, the bowl is not put down on the table until it is empty. Its cap is sometimes carved with a design that can be rotated to indicate the next spout to be used.

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Here are the traditional ingredients for your own grolle experience.

Ingredients

For 4 people

  • 4 cups of coffee
  • 1 cup of eau-de-vie or génépi
  • 4 tablespoons of sugar
  • orange and/or lemon zest

First add your citrus zest and sugar to your grolle. Pour in your coffee and then your alcohol. If you want to add some flare, literally, light it and then cap it.

Génépi is a local alcohol made in the alps from the high alpine plant of its namesake, génépi. Cognac and Rum are suitable substitute for this recipe.

The more you use your grolle the better it gets. Enjoy!

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A lost castle

Château de Chantemerle is a castle skeleton perched on an overgrown hill overlooking the commune of La Bâthie. Castles like Château de Chantemerle are dotted throughout the French landscape. Some get adopted by entrepreneuring hotel owners or restored by brave restaurant owners but most fade into rubble.

In its 800 years, it has been rebuilt multiple times to suit the needs of those conflicting over its small valley. Now no one takes the time to patch its scars and ruin, and its erosion exposes the alterations created by each century. In some places the mortar no longer exists between the stones. They merely cling to the eroded shapes of each other wrapped in overgrown shrouds of vine.

Now its tower is the home of wild honey bees, its ramparts are ran by lizards, and its corners shelter secret lovers and underage drinkers. Its broken form leaves much to the imagination. It has not been remade to match someone’s romanticized medieval vision. It is one of the last remaining real castles. Watching over its valley. Ready for when it is needed again.

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France

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The Highest Snow Polo Tournament in the World

Skiers zip down the hillside along the edge of Courchevel’s short and dangerous airport, but today they stop and sit in the snow banks. The History Channel ranked this airport as the seventh most dangerous airport in the world, but for three days it is fenced and groomed for the BMW Snow Polo Master’s Tournament. This is the highest snow polo tournament in the world at 2700m.

Courchevel is located in the French Alps and it is part of Les Trois Vallées (The Three Valleys), the largest ski resort in the world. During the polo tournament, avid skiers and polo lovers alike stop to watch these athletes slam mallets, take off in bursts of snow, and send that special red polo ball sailing in the air.

BMW Snow Polo Tournament

BMW Snow Polo Tournament

Snow Polo in the French Alps

Snow Polo in the French Alps

These teams play in 7 minute sets with 3 minute breaks to change horses. Each match is 4 quarters. These athletes travel from all over the world. They had recently played in China prior to coming to the French Alps.

Now, how do these horses run and turn on a snow packed airport in the Alps without falling? Each horse has heels and toes plus pads to prevent snowballing. To those unfamiliar with this, picture your typical horseshoe. There is a metal lip on the top of the shoe (the toe) and two metal studs on the ends of the shoe (the heel). This gives these ponies traction and digging power on packed snow. A rubber pad is placed between the hoof and the horseshoe. This prevents snowballing in the sole of the hoof. When the horse’s weight is taken off the hoof, the pad will flex and dislodge any snow accumulated.

Snow Polo Warm-Ups

Snow Polo Warm-Ups

The sport of snow polo has some modification. A large inflated red ball is used as opposed to the traditional small white ball. In addition, there are 3 players per team instead of 4 and the field is a bit smaller.

The 2014 tournament in Courchevel ran from January 30th to Feburary 2nd. There are no announcements for 2015. Watch here for updates.

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Grenoble: Frog Legs and a Fortress

Welcome to Grenoble, the home of Café de la Table Ronde-the second oldest café in France. In case you were wondering, Procope Café in Paris is the oldest.

Frog Legs at Café de la Table Ronde

Frog Legs at Café de la Table Ronde

Given the choice, I would pick frog legs over chicken wings any day. Battered with a spritz of lemon sauce, they taste similar to chicken but with less gristle and cartilage to contend with.

Now frog legs are not the only thing on the menu. Grenoble is located in the department of Savoie, and the café also serves traditional Savoyard cuisine. So don’t miss out on trying traditionally cooked local sausage, potatos, cheese, and crozet (local square pasta). And if weather permits, sit out on the terrace and eat with a view of Place Saint André.

Frog legs and cafés are not the only thing of interest. Grenoble is viewed by the locals in the Rhône-Alpes region as the hip college town. It brings in fresh markets, exhibitions, and festivals often. The most fascination festival is the Coupe Icare where hang gliders and paragliders in elaborate costumes fly off the mountains that surround Grenoble. This festival commences in September, you can find more information here.

Coup Icare Festival, September 2013

Coup Icare Festival, September 2013

Paraglider at Coup Icare Fesitival 2013

Paraglider at Coup Icare Fesitival 2013

Also while you’re in Grenoble, don’t forget to take the Bastille. The first urban-cable car in the world. It will take you from the town center to the 2,000 year old fortress on the mountain that overlooks Grenoble.

Have fun exploring the tunnels and ramparts of Grenoble’s fortified mountain!