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


Andres Chianale said...

I'm hungry now...
And a bit jealous..
Regarding the first part, the word that comes to my mind is opportunities. No?

Jeff said...

No taco stands in GVA, I'm guessing.

steven hatcher said...

You have no idea what I would give up for a taco truck or stand or, for that matter, even a single decent taco.