Thursday, January 10, 2008

auberge of the flowering hearth

We have been reading a forgotten book, the kind you dive into and you don’t want to leave. While sitting after dinner one night in our friends’ library talking about books, and books about food in partcular, our friend Michael got up from his chair next to the roaring fire and pulled a big, fat tome off the shelves, handed it to us, and said, “I think you might really like this one.”

The title of the book supplies a significant romance: The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, and the author’s name, Roy Andries de Groot, offers a kind of northern exoticism. We were hooked from the first sentence This book was an accident…under the chapter title Strange Journey. In the high French Alpine valley of La Grande Chartreuse( yes, where the silent Carthusian monks make the secret, magical green liquer), near the sleepy little village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, Mr. Andries de Groot discovered by mistake a charming and unpretentious inn, L’Auberge de l’Atre Fleuri. He became friends with the owners, two remarkable Frenchwomen, who devoted themselves to perpetuating the tradition of supreme country dining and hospitality. His book is a poem to these two women, their way of life, and the recipes they served to their guests, dishes like Shake-pot of Chicken in Creamed Wine, Orange-style, Wild Snow Mushrooms, Peasant Style, or The Great Terrine of Duck in Honor of Mademoiselle Vivette’s Grandmother. Half travel memoir, and half recipe book, the prose is delicious, and a perfect read for our own Alpine winter. We can imagine ourselves on our snowy mountaintop with the wind whipping down through the pines, warm by our fire, tasting warm mountain food paired with clean and minerally white wines, or earthy and idiosycratic reds. Or we can do more than imagine, we can recreate our own little auberge.

This is what we set out to do: an excericise to hold at bay any winter doldrums or cabin fevers. Our first endeavor has no plan, and is left to improvisation, but we figure this is the true beauty of any country dining and hospitality. The day before our in-house auberge effort, we drive to the city to shop for fancy dress clothes for a ball we will attend a month from now. We dine late in the city, a collection of tapas in a Spanish restaurant, and drive home in the early hours of the morning, the weather suddenly warm and creating fog from all the snow on the ground. We allow ourselves to sleep in. When we get up, the winds are violent and rattle the house. It is like we are in our own mistral or scirocco. We are not inclined to venture out of doors. This presents a problem as we have not provisioned before hand in order to eat at home. After a good inventory of the pantry and refrigerators, we have a lunch of raclette (that mountain relative of fondue) made from melted Gruyere, ham, boiled fingerling potatoes, and two cornichon each (another friend of ours would say we were practically down to seeds and stems with such a dire pickle situation). Dinner is trickier, but we have some frozen eye of the round local veal in the freezer which Caleb thaws and cuts into medallions. We have a red onion and a shallot. We have a conserved jar of German-style pickled cabbage. In the fridge, we find a beautifully ripened blended cheese of cow, goat, and sheep’s milk, an orphan from Christmas (who knew that was there?!). And there are two oranges and some biscotti and chocolate for dessert. We set the table, and begin the meal with a classic Apline aperitif. We have a bottle of Genepy, a distillation of mountain Gentian brought to us from friends who traveled to the Isere and brought it back for us. In one of the menus in the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, they also drink Genepy, and so we feel kindred. A healthy shot of the Genepy over ice with a splash of sparkling water and a squeeze of lemon tastes like a clean mountain stream. The we move on to our simple repast. Veal medallions sauteed in white wine with onion and shallot served with the red cabbage. We spoon out the creamy liquid cheese onto a little rye bread, the velvety flavor and texture with a hint of acidity a perfect pair to the sweetness of the fresh orange. A taste of Brazilian chocolate to finish with the rest of the red wine.

Tired and well-fed, we re-make the bed with fresh white sheets, and draw a bath perfumed with green tea sea salts. The wind blows on, shaking the windows and spooking the cats. But we are in our own fantastical auberge, the one we’ve created in our minds, in our own home, inspired by a tale in a book written fifty years ago, and we are a million miles away.


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