23 November 2009

The Town and the City: A Humble Food Tale

Grilly, France

Geneva is a great place. Who could argue? It’s pretty, clean, safe, etc, etc. It’s “international!” When it comes to food, though, I’m afraid the international status doesn’t do it any favors.

An international city means a city where no one lives, where people from all over the globe fly in and out to do business with others flying in an out. These people need to eat so they take each other out, usually at the expense of someone’s international corporate credit card.

Restaurants in these international cities have it made because the flying people can’t or don’t cook for themselves, they can’t or won’t pay for themselves, and, really, only need a place to continue business and put something in their mouths. As long as a restaurant looks impressive enough to attract these people, what it serves and how much it charges is secondary. Someone else will pay the bill; no one is there for the food anyway. But what is good for a restaurant is not always good for cuisine.

When I think of Geneva I am reminded of Washington, DC, another city of dubious international acclaim. There, too, you will find an overabundance of high-end restaurants that are always full of beautiful people who speak several languages. When you wade through the crowds, sit down, and attend to the matter at hand, what you are often presented with —though as pretty as the clientele— is overly decorative and lacks of a certain soul.

I fear that many of Geneva’s finer restaurants suffer from the same sort of rest-on-your-laurels, charge-it-and-they-will-pay laziness as those in Washington. As I see it, part of the problem is that Geneva (and Washington’s northwest corner) has never had to feed itself. Those who work in Geneva don’t stay in Geneva but either drive back to the more affordable (or expensive) suburbs or fly in, reap the rewards, and fly out again. Other than a few pockets of ethnic minorities there is almost no such thing in Geneva as an established working class population that authentic local cuisine is built upon.

Think of all the great food cities of the world: New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Rome, among them. Why are they so great? Because within these cities people immigrate to and away from them; they live and work and raise families in them; they attend schools and wedding and funeral ceremonies all inside of them. Big, busy cities, yes, but also homes, neighborhoods, schools, community centers, and churches to generations of families who become part of the city’s living architecture. Over time very specific customs and practices are formed, food traditions among them, and the traditions become as established within a particular place as streets and buildings. When supplied with a gastronomic foundation built from time-honored customs, an artist can often take a historical cuisine and propel it into a contemporary masterpiece.

In Geneva there are certainly a few vestiges of hope, but to find these might take some serious pavement pounding. Money and foreign occupation have dictated the climate of the city for some time and that forecast isn’t likely to dissipate. Like Washington, DC, a city with as many historic sites combined with an almost overwhelming global representation means that your clients are generally one of two types: tourists or businesspeople. Presumably, both have money to burn and both must eat out. By and large, then, what you find in the way of restaurants in Geneva are the hip and swank versions where food is secondary to looks and attitude; the stodgy, blue blood (and haired) variety where the menu is as old and stale as the maître d’; and the budget ethnic establishments, as in the Pâquis district, where quality is irregular and unpredictable.

So where is one to go for regional cooking without pomp, circumstance, or Geneva’s notoriously high prices? An auberge near you. Fortunately, there are at least two countrysides worth of them to choose from, all within easy and short driving distances. The Auberge de Grilly in the village of the same name, is a great place to start.

The concept of the auberge most closely resembles that of an Inn or a Bed and Breakfast, a place for wayfaring strangers to hang their hat for a night and fill their belly with a good meal. In the United States, where the Interstate system has made wastelands out of rural byways, the country Inn either has disappeared completely or been relegated to boutique status for honeymooners and other special occasions. Not so in Europe, where backcountry traveling is still a lifestyle. The auberge, typically the only place to eat and sleep in a small village, plays a third gastronomic role of highlighting a micro-region’s particular culinary traditions. In this case, Geneva and its surrounding villages have the luxury of representing two distinct local mountain cultures, that of the Jura in the east and the Haute-Savoie to the west and south.

The Auberge de Grilly is located close to the base of Mont Mussy in the Jura foothills, about ten minutes from Divonne and Gex, France. The menu is classic French, elevated a notch or two, and composed mostly of regional, seasonal ingredients. The menu is divided into four dégustation selections, each differ in price and theme and each are offered with a choice or two of entrée (appetizer), plat principal (main course), a cheese plate, and desert. The main courses run the gamut from beef and chicken to more interesting game and fowl from the region like deer, boar, pigeon, squab, and rabbit. There is always at least one fish selection and several of the appetizers are made with seafood.

Like most good French cooking, the real treats are the sauces. Simple yet elegant, the sauces highlight the featured ingredient and enhance its natural flavors without covering them in thick gravy. All French restaurants make good use of sauces but not all French restaurants make good sauce. The Auberge de Grilly does a fine job and seems to forage the countryside for ingredients to pair with the protein. Chestnuts, mountain berries, figs, local mushrooms, and wild fennel all made their way onto our plates in the form of sauces as accompaniment to our entrées and plat principals. The cheese was local — as in the Jura — or from the larger Franche-Comté region; the deserts from the mind and talent of the chef. The presentations were beautiful but not overly ornamented. In all of the courses there wasn’t a single instance of foam, sous-vide cooking, spherified liquids, or any other trendy culinary science experiment.

The wine list was good. All French, naturellement. The only problem was that as it’s a rural auberge their expertise lies not in the finer distinctions between two Burgundy producers (of which I asked). The wait staff was busy and the only opinion I could gather was: “Je ne sais pas. C'est bon!” But the wine bars are all back in Geneva and unless there is a dedicated sommelier your advice in the city will usually come from a college kid who has memorized some descriptors from the Wine Spectator or Le Guide Hachette des Vins.

The service, too, was warm, friendly, and amiable but nothing spectacular. More like your sister and aunt teaming up to serve dinner to family members. Again, if you’re looking for exemplary service and stuffy sommeliers you’d best go someplace more urban. The setting is casual but the Auberge de Grilly, or any auberge, is not quite a pub, either. The dining room holds thirty-five and there is one setting. The restaurant opens at 19:00 and closes at 21:30 and, like us, most of the diners made full use of those hours.

Is the Auberge de Grilly inexpensive? In a word, no. Is there a high quality to cost ratio? In another word: absolument! For four adults with two bottles of wine, four aperitifs, one digestif, two coffees, two bottles of water, and tip, we paid somewhere in the neighborhood of € 250. Is it haute cuisine? No. The Auberge de Grilly does not claim a Michelin star. Is it Kountry Kookin’? Not hardly. As far as I could tell, nothing was deep fried; all the meats were easily identifiable.

To spend a night dining at an auberge is neither high nor low-brow but to experience regional cooking at its most honest level. The auberge concept, and in particular the Auberge de Grilly, exemplifies the “farm to table” idea of locally, seasonally produced foods that is finally awakening in the United States and elsewhere. But in the United States this movement is largely a reaction against corporate, industrial agriculture. In France and other parts of Western Europe the movement is more of a redefinition, a rediscovery of practices and values that have been in place for a millennium. To dine at an auberge, then, is not a celebration of the past, of something antiquated or quaint, but a unique living and breathing combination of current local attitudes, customs, and practices informed by years of dedication to a specific place.

The Franco-Swiss Border
Grilly, France

Photo credits:
Grilly City Hall

18 November 2009

Literary Skiers 5

We felt our first tremor when the Chileans came barreling down our driveway in a borrowed Jeep, gears screaming, doing 50 in low gear. When they alighted we found them Latin to the core. They also possessed the very peculiar Latin death wish: they drove cars with feckless abandon and no regard for vehicular law, skied with an unconstraint that sent hackers scrambling for the trees, kissed every woman in sight (even if she looked like a hamster and was pushing seventy), woke guests singing loudly of heartbreak nights and joy-filled days.

Their battle cry, I'll tell you right off, was later banned from the Olympic site. Imagine, if you will, a sound composed of equal parts Yma Sumac, Comanche war cry, and the screech of tearing metal, and you have it. The cry originated with the boy Indio, who was not your routine Portillo or Santiago Chilean. He sprang from somewhere high in the Andes, was pure, unadulterated Incan, and didn't even speak Spanish.

Actually, Indio never spoke at all. He just looked alert, his button-black eyes moving from face to face and marking every exit. When Indio had needs the other boys divined them, probably through osmosis, and if he wished to vent a feeling or two, he simply broke into the high, mournful wail of the battle cry. Indio in full voice could single-throatedly set off an avalanche.

My mother arrived for her first visit from the East in time to hear The Cry issuing from forty throats in the upstairs lounge - the guests had picked it up in sheer self-defense - and immediately took to her bed with a three-day sinking spell and without, as I sniffled to Iglook, "...even one glance at our view!"

The Chileans plummeted up and down our driveway and all the ski runs, spilled hot wax the length and breadth of our dorms, used my steam iron to press their skis, leered shamefully at our prepubescent daughters, and triumphantly presented me with a housegift bouquet of live, unplucked chickens they'd wheedled out of a local rancher. The children, meanwhile, picked up a lot of Spanish, most of it unacceptable in polite homes, and followed the team everywhere. It was influences such as this which led to Dan, at the age of three, traveling the chairlift to 11,000 feet while his father and I rested secure in the thought that he was safely enrolled in kiddies' ski school down below.

The Chilean National Team may not have won any medals at Squaw Valley, but they sure left a lasting impression in Aspen.

--Martie Sterling, from "Life with Stein, Leon, and the Chilean Crazies," Ski Magazine, 1977

(Gracias, Andi, por permiso. Besos y abrazos también.)

09 November 2009

Get Your Feet Up Off the Ground

Oh, the shameful convenience! I mapped my run. And it comes in several versions.




I guess it's a little more accurate than my tattered, old, hand-drawn map from yesteryear. Still, is nothing sacred?!


•15.92 km/9.89 miles
•Bottom elevation: 724 m/2375 ft
•Top elevation: 1527 m/5010 ft
•Time: 1:57
•Heart Rate: High
•Pace: Slow
•Calories Burned: Lots

This is not my everyday run but rather a goal of mine. While figuring out the trails in the Jura this Spring I said to myself, "I'd like to run to the top of these one day." So I did. This was my third time.

A while ago a neighbor asked me where I go for my runs. I told him a little higher up in the Jura. "Oh," he said. Then, after a brief pause, "That's sporty." I'm not quite sure what that meant. I chuckled. He didn't. Maybe to him that seems sporty. To me it always seems like hard work.

Our limited conversation is significant because on this last run to the top of the Jura I saw sporty, if only for a moment, and once again proved to myself that though I might run around in the mountains several times a week, I'm no runner.

The sporty one passed me rather quickly. This was also significant because besides the dogs I haven't seen anyone, man or beast, running those same trails and roads I run. Sure, there are plenty of mountain bikers in the Jura but they don't count. What they ride these days looks more like motorcycles than mountain bikes and what they wear makes them look more sci-fi robot than human. Plus, even I have run past mountain bikes while climbing to the top.

The sporty one was human and by all accounts he was a runner. Though not much taller than I, his hips were about as high as my rib cage. His legs didn't have much muscle definition, more like the long rabbit legs I threw on the grill for dinner last night. I must have outweighed him by forty pounds. But that knickered, wind breakered, skinny Schweizer floated past me like he was on an escalator, his feet skimmed across the top of the dirt while my plodding legs pounded stones to sand with every step. Now that's sporty.

But I made it and I'll keep it up and I'll try to get up to the top of La Barillette at least one more time before the snow is too deep. At that point I'll strap on some skis and get there by sliding. Until then the running has been a real pleasure (and a bit painful).



Climbing above the clouds:


From the top. Mont Blanc and the rest of the world:


Self portrait:


Back down. Les Dents du Midi:



And to simulate the experience of running up a big hill and then back down I have devised a short learning film. I'm not technologically advanced enough to add my own music to my own films so I have included the same song that was being fed into my head during the making of this film. The song is a few seconds longer than the film so if you start the song first and wait for the cowbell (at about the thirty-two second mark) then the effect will be something like listening to The Wall while watching The Wizard of Oz. And if as not entertaining as Pink Floyd and Judy Garland then it will most certainly make you as head-dizzyingly sick. I suggest turning both volumes up. There is some riveting dialogue on what was an especially busy Saturday that you won't want to miss.

Good run. Thirsty dogs.


02 November 2009

Before the Mortal Coil 3

Part three in the Heavenly Trinity is 1991's Blood. A full five years after the release of Filigree & Shadow, Blood was a bit of a surprise. Other than a few stragglers--the final Cocteau Twins album, the final Pixies album, a couple more Dead Can Dance albums, a album or two from The Wolfgang Press--the classic 4AD sound was quickly disappearing and the roster turning decidedly more poppier. Belly, Lush, Spirea X, The Pale Saints, the Red House Painters, among others introduced styles of music less directly associated with the vision of a particular record label than with the prevailing sound of college radio. Let's not forget, 1991 was also the year of Nirvana's Nevermind, and depending on who you ask, either the quick birth or slow death of independent rock.

I find Blood the least engaging of the three albums mostly for the same reasons as above. To me it sounds like a great compilation rather than a singular inspiration. It works as a whole but by the end, especially after the gorgeous "'Til I Gain Control Again," the album splits into about six unresolved pieces. That said, the covers are fantastic and a few of them ("Help Me Lift You Up," "You and Your Sister," "'Til I Gain Control Again") rank with some of the best interpretations in the series. I knew, too, that by the time Blood came around I had already attained college rock coolness and no longer needed This Mortal Coil to introduce me to obscure cult bands. I owned the Rain Parade's Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, from which "Carolyn's Song" is taken, for several years before it appeared on Blood. So there.

Note: As a bonus offering to Ullr, I have graciously included two versions each of "I Come and Stand At Every Door," and "'Til I Gain Control Again." Both The Byrds and Emmylou Harris versions are featured on the box set's fourth disc of originals. However, as a true music fool I wasn't satisfied with that. Rodney Crowell wrote "'Til I Gain Control Again" and though everyone from Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson to Crystal Gayle to Jerry Jeff Walker to Blue Rodeo has recorded it I thought I would put his definitive version--recorded after many of the artists covered it. Emmylou Harris recorded the first version of the song for her 1975 album Elite Hotel.

Even more complicated is "I Come and Stand At Every Door." The Byrds recorded it for their 1966 album Fifth Dimension. I would bet dollars to donuts that the Byrds lifted it from some of Pete Seeger's Folkways Records recordings of the early '60s, so both versions are included here. More interestingly is that the song is really a poem written by the Turkish Marxist poet Nâzım Hikmet Ran. The poem was translated into English and a first version set to music showed up as a broadside in New York City in the early 1950s, just about the time when Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Odetta, Joan Baez, and all the other NYC folkies were rallying the troops.

1. The Lacemaker

2. The Apartments: Mr. Somewhere
from: The Evening Visits...And Stays For Years, 1985

3. Andialu

4. Gene Clark: With Tomorrow
from: White Light, 1971

5. Loose Joints

6. Chris Bell: You And Your Sister
from: B-side of "I Am the Cosmos" single, 1978
released posthumously as I Am the Cosmos, 1992

7. Spirit: Nature's Way
from: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, 1970

8. Pete Seeger: I Come and Stand at Every Door
from: Headlines & Footnotes: A Collection of Topical Songs, 1999

The Byrds: I Come and Stand at Every Door
from: Fifth Dimension, 1966

9. Bitter

10. Baby Ray Baby

11. Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook: Several Times
from: Sleeps With the Fishes, 1987

12. The Lacemaker II

13. Syd Barrett: Late Night
from: The Madcap Laughs, 1970

14. Ruddy and Wretched

15. Mary Margaret O'Hara: Help Me Lift You Up
from: Miss America, 1988

16. The Rain Parade: Carolyn's Song
from: Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, 1983

17. D.D. and E.

18. Rodney Crowell: 'Til I Gain Control Again
from: Rodney Crowell, 1981

Emmylou Harris: 'Til I Gain Control Again
from: Elite Hotel, 1975

19. Dreams are Like Water

20. Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos
from: A-side of "I Am the Cosmos" single, 1978
released posthumously as I Am the Cosmos, 1992

21. (Nothing but) Blood

The snow line is dropping to 1000 meters tonight.