1950s Archive

An Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces


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But the star of the show is still the little red crayfish, unimpressive in stature but incomparable in flavor. They serve him à la nage, hot or cold, or in a cream sauce. Sometimes they take the patience to remove enough crayfish tails for that incredible delicacy, gratin de queues d'écrevisses.

The lotte, a handsome fish, was once highly esteemed here, to judge by a provocative fragment of old verse:

Pour un foie de lotte

L'homme vend sa culotte

Une femme …

The rest is lost in conjecture, for the lotte has now disappeared from the local streams, along with his mysterious powers over women.

The thick forests of the Jura yield a varied measure in game, (rum red squirrel to wild boar, from which is made an admirable salmis. They marinate the boar patently in wine, oil, and spices before roasting him. The older the boar, the stronger the marinade, so goes the culinary rule of thumb.

But the forests produce nothing subtler than the beloved bécasse, all too little known to us as woodcock. So beguiling is the bouquet of this estimable bird that many a gourmet contends that it cannot be appreciated at an ordinary table. The true amateur of bécasse will therefore cover his head with a vast napkin, using it like a tent to cover his roast bird, his goblet of old Burgundy, and his olfactory nerves. The art of conversation may languish during that course, but proper respect will be paid the divine bird. Quite a mental picture is stirred up by this technique. Supposing, for example, you had a dinner party for twelve.

The forests hold other riches—a whole orchestra of wild mushrooms, fascinating things, to be selected by the experts only (for there are plenty of deadly poisonous ones), bearing such names as chanterelles, oronges, russules, and, of course, crèpes. But the fragrant, warted morille still stands at the head of the list, once you scrub out the last grain of sand. If there is any mushroom dish better than morilles à la crème, I have yet to taste it.

Cheese, fish, mushrooms—and wine, these are the gustatory resources of the Jura. A handsome strip of vineyards stretches southward from Arbois, producing a succession of unusual wines. It is a difficult slope to cultivate, far more so than Burgundy, and the patient vigneron more than earns his pittance. The familiar vin d'Arbois has a wide acceptance all over France. Its peculiar brownish-pink color resembles that of a certain onionskin, and it has long been nicknamed pelure d'oignon. It has a deceptive headiness, is inexpensive, and goes ideally with a simple meal. There are some good, straight white wines, Poligny, for example, and some vins de paille, pressed from individually picked grapes which are partially dried on straw and bottled after ten years in the cask. These are rarities, needless to say.

Franche-Comté's greatest unsung treasure, however, is the extraordinary vin jaune known as Château-Châlon. This wine has no counterpart in France. It is pressed from a mysterious grape now called Savagnin. Some critics contend that it springs from Tokay grapes and that it dates hack to the Crusades. Others say that it was imported from the Iberian peninsula back in the distant days when Franche-Comté was under Spanish dominion. It certainly has a taste reminiscent of a dry sherry and makes a perfectly marvelous aperitif. But it fits into a meal better than sherry, harmonizing handsomely with cheese, nuts, fruit, and a few fish dishes. Very dry, nutlike, and fragrant, its color is an extraordinary deep yellow. After spending seven years or more in small casks of red oak, this vin jaune is put up in a stubby, individual bottle all its own. Furthermore, it defies all the laws of age, due to its special vitrification, and its life can be counted in decades instead of years. Some bottles are centenarians, believe it or not. There isn't enough of this amazing wine to go around, so the wise people of the Jura keep most of it there for themselves. You will find some extraordinary years of it on hotel wine cards, and it is possible to pick up a bottle or a case of it in musty old wine shops in Arbois or Poligny. But the thirsty world outside doesn't know too much about it.

If you can arrange to be in Arbois on the first Sunday in September, a treat awaits you. This is the day of the annual wine festival, when an immense two-hundred-pound “bunch” of grapes, composed of countless smaller bunches, is carried in honor through the streets to the church. This year, as a special feature, the “Free Commune of Arbois” issued an invitation to its “Sister Commune” of Montmartre, making a particularly tempting offer: that its fellow members could drink as much wine as they warned for a full hour, for a fee of only a hundred francs, or twenty-eight cents. The Parisians of Montmartre accepted with joy, and it was fortunate that the good citizens of Arbois had thought well ahead and arranged for ambulances and trained nurses to be on hand.

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