Food and drink are sacred in France. From Carthusian liquor and Dominican biscuits to the gastronomic mecca of Lyon, if there’s one thing the French passionately believe in, it’s their fabulous cuisine. On my annual pilgrimage to France to visit my family, I recruited my mum and aunty and together we set out to discover more about my home region and its historic and culinary delights.
Our first destination was Les Caves de la Chartreuse. Chartreuse is a liquor made by the Carthusian monks who have lived in this region for centuries. You can visit the cellars in Voiron where the liquor is distilled and end the tour with a dégustation. The tipple is known to have medicinal properties (as if we needed another excuse), particularly for indigestion and to heal mosquito bites.
We then stopped by a little town called St-Laurent-du-Pont. This was a recommendation from my grandfather who told us about the Italians who had migrated to France after 1945 in search of work. The Isère was a prosperous region and many found work as lumberjacks. They came primarily from Bergamo and Piedmont and seemed to have settled in large numbers in St. Laurent. It’s a very pretty town and was still decorated in bunting from Bastille Day when we visited. There’s also a cute chapel perched on the hillside that’s worth the short hike.
Mise, mon p’tio, as they say in the local patois. Eat, little one. And eat we certainly did. Having a sweet tooth, I was particularly excited to visit Notre-Dame de Chalais which is known regionally for the monastic biscuits produced by the nuns who live at the convent. I took a packet back to London for my colleagues and the biscuits disappeared pretty swiftly, so hopefully they liked them as much as I do!
That afternoon we had the privilege of meeting Monsieur Jacolin, a local farmer and amateur historian, who told us an extraordinary story from World War Two. In 1944, Monsieur Jacolin’s father had rented out an empty house on his land to a rabbi who was looking after a group of Jewish children. One day the local militia came to search the house, having received a tipoff. Paul Jacolin was tending to his vineyards at the time and was nearly shot dead in the ensuing altercation. Meanwhile, the children had quietly locked themselves in the cellar, fully aware of the repercussions should they be found. The militia entered the house and threatened to break down the cellar door whereupon Paul, with incredible sangfroid, calmly suggested he fetch the keys from his house – as a poor farmer, he could hardly afford to replace the lock. With the promise of free wine while they wait, they relented and Paul set out on his bike. Upon his return, he found the officers in such a drunken stupor they could hardly recall why they were there! They left the house, having never opened the cellar door – and the lives of 19 children had been spared.
The next day we headed up to the Chartreuse hills following La Route du Désert, so called as it leads into the heart of the forests of the Carthusian monks, who live a life of silent meditation and prayer. The Monastère de la Grande Chartreuse can trace its history back almost 1,000 years and even today it remains a place of exceptional beauty and tranquillity.
It was time for hike and we set our sights on Charmant Som, an easily-accessible peak that has incredible 360-degree views over the Chartreuse. From the summit, you can see the Carthusian monastery nestled in the valley below.
While recovering from the hike over a tarte aux myrtilles we spotted a family friend. She gave my aunty a bunch of vulnéraire, which I learned is a very special plant found only in the Chartreuse and a couple of other Alpine regions. People collect it to make liquor but it is so rare that you’re only allowed to collect a maximum of one hundred stems each time.
Secular France retains a strong Catholic tradition and this tendency has found unique expression at the Church of St-Hugues-de-Chartreuse. The gallery houses the work of the artist Arcabas who spent a lifetime decorating the church with scenes from the bible.
In a little Savoie village called Entremont-le-Vieux there’s a farmers’ cooperative selling a variety of local produce, especially cheese and dairy products. Small producers are the backbone of the rural economy and the paysan remains an important element of French national identity. In fact, France, in all its quirkiness, even has its own dating television show for farmers called L’amour est dans le pré (Love is in the Field)!
There is simply no better place to end a foodie tour of France than in the country’s gastronomic capital, Lyon. It was here that I spent the last two days of my trip, eating my way around the traboules of Vieux Lyon. You can happily while away an afternoon getting lost in these little passageways that cut through the heart of the Old Town.
Lyon is a fabulously multicultural city and offers visitors a plethora of world cuisine, especially West African dishes like the classic poulet yassa. It is Lyon’s bouchons, however, that are the city’s claim to fame and they all serve the andouillette, a traditional sausage that is something of an acquired taste. As for me, my sweet tooth once again got the better of me and I chose to sample some of the delicious patisseries on offer, like the Lyonnais allumettes aux pralines.