Friday, August 27, 2010

Food Memoirs: "The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth"

Alpine game such as chamois or wild boar, roasted on an open hearth! Cheese made by hand in a farmhouse! Milk from high mountain pastures! Fresh produce picked at exactly the right moment! Tuna from the Mediterranean! Classic Dauphinois, Savoyard, and Provencal desserts! The best wine vintages of the 1940s, 50s, 60s! or the best wine makers' second-best years!

The joys of dining at the mysterious -- almost mythical -- Auberge of the Flowering Hearth near the Grand Chartreuse Monastery are the only focus of author Roy Andries de Groot's memoir of his experiences there in around 1970. His descriptions are vivid. Every dish sounds luscious. The two old (middle aged?) ladies who run the Auberge drive their station wagon to Burgundy for wine, to their native Provence for special produce and freshly caught fish, and around the local mountainsides for artisan's cheeses.

One of the memorable dinners (actually, they're all memorable) finished thus:
"The cheeses, of strong character, were also ideal -- for the happy purpose of finishing the wine. The first, the famous Saint Nectaire, was a cow's milk cheese from the central mountains of the Auvergne. The best types are still farm-made, but all too many factories are now beginning to dot the valleys and turn out mass quantities of le Saint Nectaire industriel. The best cheeses are matured on rye mats in cool, damp caves. They are best eaten before they are four months old and begin to harden. The young inside flesh is very smooth and creamy -- in my opinion, this is one of the best soft cheese of France." (p. 170)
Read it and wonder: will I ever eat anything like this? Every description brings up that question. In some cases, you could at least use the recipes in the second half of the book. But where would you get small game birds, wild mountain chamois, wild boar, or 1948 vintage wine? Even in France, hunting such animals is no longer legal, and wines of that era, if they exist at all, are in the hands of millionaire collectors.

The book is very enjoyable as an exercise in nostalgia, maybe for something you never had at all. I was close: we spent several months in that region of France at about the time deGroot was there. But we had no money at all so ate only a very few meals cooked in small restaurants. We rode up those mountains a few times on our motor-scooter (a classic Lambretta), but brought our own salami and bread from the student restaurant along for lunch!

Taking a step back, I find it clear that nostalgia for the artisans' food production appears in almost all descriptions of fine meals, especially in France. It drives many food writers today, but the amazing thing is that it was far from new in deGroot's time, either. DeGroot quotes a long passage from Stendhal (a local hero) who visited the Grand Chartreuse in 1837.

In this passage, Stendhal describes how he looked at the simple agriculture in the same valleys where deGroot found his Auberge 130 years later; he compared them with more highly developed regions. "In those areas of sophisticated farming,where one often sees forty ploughs working at the same time in the same field, there is the feeling of a great mass-manufacturing process." In the Alps, according to Stendhal, "one feels only the pure joy of the open land ..." (p. 148)

The feeling that agriculture and good food are changing for the worse is so far from new, that I almost distrust a writer who dwells on it! But there's such great charm in deGroot's descriptions that this is a minor point. He captures the delights of seasonal food at the Auberge. He presents the methods, shopping, and cooking of the two innkeepers throughout a typical year, explaining what's in season and how it tastes.

The book is a wonderful and classic food memoir, idealizing a moment in time and space and still appealing after 40 years. The author writes objectively, impersonally -- he inserts nothing about his personal life other than his love of the food. Most people today find it surprising when they learn that he was blind from injuries suffered during the war, but never once mentioned it. I consider this an indication of how he followed journalistic conventions of that time, very different from most current food-memoir writing.

Online, you can find an Auberge de l'Atre Fleuri in the same town, though I seriously doubt that it's a true descendant of deGroot's original. I'd love to go try it anyway.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Mae, it sounds fabulous. I definitely must put this one on the list!