1950s Archive

An Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces


Originally Published January 1951
Notes on the gustatory riches of a verdant province, from the unctuous fondue to that divine topaz nectar, Château-Châlon.

If you enjoy the beauties of nature, the spell of the forest, and the quiet of the country, you'll probably love the Franche-Comté. It is one of the most verdant and peaceful of the French provinces. One is struck at once with the overwhelming greenness of everything. The pine forests loom deep bluegreen on the horizon. The fields glisten with a green that only Veronese could paint. But other colors intermingle in this rolling tapestry, especially in spring when the ground is successively carpeted with narcissises, crocuses, and multicolored anemones. These give way in summer to fragrant cyclamens, which happen to be the particular delight of the discriminating pigs of Franche-Comté. They devour every blossom they find. Small wonder that the charcuteries of this province have a haunting fragrance all their own!

Franche-Comté is composed of three départements, Doubs, Jura, and Haute-Saône, and of the territory of Belfort, which owes its unique status to its dauntless resistance in the Franco-Prussian War. The province is less traveled than many parts of France, which is a pity, for it repays the visitor richly in landscape, wine, and food. The Franche-Comté is called the Jura often as not, and the two names are used interchangeably. Whichever you use, the same picture of greenness, moisture, and fertility is brought to mind. The cities are not remarkable. They are quiet communities, each with an industrial specialty. Besançon has always been famous for its watches. The best briar pipes in France are made in Saint-Claude. Most of France’s combs are made in Oyonnax, and its spectacles in Morez.

As a foil to the incessant green, the landscape of the Jura is dotted with cattle, creamy-white cattle with large russet spots. It is often a fenceless landscape, and the cattle would roam at will, except for a small boy or girl with a slender rod and a faithful farm dog. The fanner of the Franche-Comté begins his career at a very tender age indeed. Watching the cows is work that even a first-grader can do, and he often has to bring his homework with him! Each cow has its musical bell, though, just in case some of them stray from their youthful herdsman.

The large number of cows means one thing in particular—cheese. This is the land of Gruyère cheese, and the people of the Jura were making it centuries before the Swiss were. The yield of the russet-and-white Jura cow is impressive, and so are the husky cartwheels of Gruyère which age in the caves. Over forty million pounds of cheese are produced annually in this one province. Such a huge industry calls for a well-planned cooperative effort, for the average farmer of the Jura rarely has more than a dozen cows. And it takes about 650 quarts of milk to make a single Gruyère cheese. Over twelve hundred cheese factories are scattered over the hills. Your local epicure doesn't like his cheese too full of holes. He knows that the richest, most flavorful cheeses are the compact ones. They make a better fondue, too. He is quite willing to ship the better ventilated cheese to Paris.

A delectable blue cheese, bearing a kinship to Roquefort and a fairly close resemblance to Bleu d'Auvergne, also comes from the Jura. In the past quarter-century another industry has cropped up—the preparation of Créme de Gruyère, that transportable and convenient processed cheese which has become known all over the world.

As you travel through these hills, you will perhaps observe husky farmers wrestling with stubborn, cactuslike plants and painfully prying out their roots with longhandled picks. It is a Herculean job but it is worth the effort, for when they finally wrench it from the earth, they have the gentian root, an aromatic substance which, distilled, forms the basis for many a liqueur and apéritif. Absinthe plants abound in these hills, also, and it is not surprising to learn that this is the home of Pernod. The principal fountainhead for this toned-down absinthe is Pontarlier, an anise-scented town almost on the Swiss border. Pernod may not have all the gastronomic virtues, but its place in the French cafe cannot be challenged!

A drought would be close to impossible in the Jura. It is a moist countryside bubbling with springs, sprayed with waterfalls, veined with winding rivers, and dotted with lakes. This conjures up the enticing picture of fresh-water fish in the mind of the visiting gastronome, and he is not disappointed. It means trout to him, and trout there is, in abundance. The banks of those lakes and streams must splash musically with frogs, and so they do. Frogs' legs are a subtle delicacy awaiting him in many a country inn. He has visions of a sublimated fish stew, not so outspoken as a bouillabaisse but filled with undertones of flavor—white wine, herbs, spices, small onions, and mushrooms. Call it a matelote, a pochouse, or a meurette, he doesn't mind. He knows it will have subtlety, savor, and seductiveness. Tench, carp, perch, eel, and pike will all contribute to his happiness. And there are a dozen dry white wines of the province to act as companions.

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