Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Besançon

19 August

After breakfast and finishing repacking my bag, I checked out of the Colmar hostel around 10 am.  The typical Alsatian sunny summer weather finally decided to show its face - for the first time since I arrived in Alsace four days earlier, the weather was gorgeous.  I took the bus to the train station, and then hopped on a train to Mulhouse where I had an hour to kill before continuing on to Besançon.  It was around noon, so I stopped in a sit-down restaurant for a pleasant lunch.  I ordered standard French lunch fare, a quiche lorraine:


Lorraine is the région of France immediately to the West of Alsace, and since I was on my way out of Alsace (Mulhouse is at the southern tip of Alsace, while Besançon is in Franche-Comté) I figured this was as close as I was going to be to Lorraine and I ought to try some of their most famous namesake dish.  Ordering a quiche lorraine means that you'll be getting a quiche with bacon in it.  This one had plenty of bacon - more than I would have predicted - but when is having extra bacon a problem???  The quiche was served warm, and while it was not particularly exciting, it was a great simple lunch.  It also came with a simple salad and a glass of Riesling, which was nice but not as complex as the excellent Riesling I had tasted the day before at the Domaine Viticole de la ville de Colmar.

After lunch, it was a quick 1-1/2 hour train ride into Besançon.  The countryside was breathtaking - this région borders Switzerland, and once again I found myself passing through breathtaking verdant rolling hills, crystal rivers, and rocky cliffs - pretty awe-inspiring stuff.

Now, before I continue, I think I should talk a little bit about how I ended up in the unlikely tourist destination of Franche-Comté on my way to Besançon.  I had not originally anticipated stopping in this region, and while I had done some research on the traditional foods and culture of most places I visited, I knew basically nothing about Besançon.  Not that I could have easily found out much, anyway - I was traveling without a computer (or any other means to access the internet), and the guidebook I had with me didn't even mention the town (lame, Fodor's, very lame).  I think I assumed that it was a small, industrial town largely reconstructed post WWII - don't ask me how I got this into my head.

However, my senior year at Hopkins, I met a wonderful exchange student who had grown up in Besançon.  I had spoken to Elise before coming to France this summer, and we happened to get in touch while I was in Strasbourg.  Long story short, Besançon lies right in between Colmar and Dijon, and I had an extra day I was planning to spend in Bourgogne, so when Elise invited me to come and spend a night with her in Besançon, we both made last-minute changes to our plans.  I am so glad that I did - Besançon was nothing like I mistakenly anticipated, it is beautiful and charming.

WWII memorial, just outside the train station
When I arrived at the train station, I got a map of the city from the information desk and then found my way to the office where Elise was working over the summer.  Besançon sits in the middle of a boucle of the Doubs - that is to say, the Doubs river almost makes a complete circular loop around a steep hill, and the city is situated in the middle of this loop on the hill as well as on the opposite bank.  To get to Elise's office, I wended my way around the river:



The tall hill and unusual river loop must have made for a very strategic location; atop the hill sits the Citadel, and remnants of walls and fortifications are visible all over the city.  When Elise got off work, we headed to her apartment to drop off my luggage, and then headed up to see the Citadel.


As always, the effort of a hike was rewarded with some incredible vistas of the surrounding countryside:


During our walk through the city, Elise pointed out all of the famous landmarks and monuments.  It's wonderful to visit a town with a native tour guide who knows about all of the history and can explain what makes the city special and unique.  When we finally got up to the Citadel, we passed over the former moat to get inside the first set of walls:

See the fence on the bridge?  Take a good look, because that's probably the only guardrail in France.
I say the first set of walls because there is, in fact, a second set of walls within the first set.  Elise told me that inside the second walls, there is a zoo.  You had to pay to go into the zoo, so we chose to instead enjoy the gorgeous summer evening on a lawn within the first set of walls, overlooking the city and a stage where a group was - loudly - preparing for a concert that evening, checking their sound system or something like that.


We sat and chatted for an hour or two as the sun sank lower and the band kept playing.  Eventually we decided to head down again to find some dinner.  We passed again over the old moat:


And I happened to look down, and are those... monkeys???


Why yes, yes they are.  Evidently not all of the animals reside within the confines of the zoo.  There was a sign posted along the fence (and now we know why a fence was necessary - to prevent the children from falling into the monkey habitat) stating that this is "the most important group of males in the world."  (I can think of some other males who would do well to learn that these monkeys are in fact the most important members of their sex in the world - but I digress.)  Apparently, there are only about 200 members of this species left, all in captivity.  However, a number of zoos across Europe are working on a serious breeding program to increase their numbers.  In Besançon, they have seven males who are "retired" - that is, their genes appear too frequently in the current gene pool to still be useful in the reproduction program, so they have come here to be old bachelors together, who desire nothing more than just an ordinary chance to live exactly as they like and do precisely as they want, just average males are they, of no eccentric whim, who like to live their life, free of strife, doing whatever each thinks is best for him - just ordinary males.  (My Fair Lady?  Anyone???)

One final view over the city before we head down to find something to eat:


When Elise found out I was coming, she asked around to find the best traditional Franche-Comtoise restaurant in town, and a friend recommended an excellent restaurant to her.  We found the restaurant, but hélas!  It was closed for the rest of August for summer vacation.  So we had to look a little further.  We examined a lot of menus, and finally decided to go with Lucullus, which offered an authentic traditional Franche-Comtoise prix-fixe menu.  It began with the salade de Comté:


The salade had cubes of Comté cheese (which, I should note, is evidently the most popular cheese in France), toasted cashew slices, and grapes.  The cheese was mellow with a nutty sweetness that spread throughout the mouth without overwhelming the palate.  The grapes added a fresh sweetness to the salad while the nuts brought a satisfying crunch to the bite.  The lettuce was dressed in a great tangy vinaigrette.

Before we move on, I need to talk about the wine.  One of the three départments of Franche-Comté (kind of like how US states are divided into counties) is Jura.  The wine from Jura is not red or white - it's yellow.  I mean really, this is called vin jaune.  The preparation of this wine is pretty intense - it is made from Savignin grapes using a production method similar to that of Spanish sherry, though it is not a fortified wine.  It is aged for at least six years in a barrel under a layer of yeast which gives it eponymous golden amber color.  At the end of the long aging, only 62% of the original wine still remains in the barrel, the rest having evaporated.  The wine is bottled in unique 62cl bottles (the standard bottle in France is 75cl) called a clavelin.  This wine was unlike any other I tasted in France - the nose almost seems fortified, and the taste is had notes of caramel, walnuts, and... gasoline?  Though not fortified, it had a lot of round, deep flavor not unlike a Spanish sherry.  It pairs excellently with Comté.  Definitely something to try the next time you find yourself in the Jura!

For my plat, I ordered the Saucisse de Morteau au vin jaune et cancoillotte:


Before going to dinner, Elise said to me, "On mange des légumes au sud.  Ici, on mange de saucisson, de pomme de terre, et de fromage."  (We eat vegetables in the South.  Here, we eat sausage, potatoes, and cheese.)  It's true - this is a far cry from the crudités and ratatouilles on offer in Provence - this is much heavier, heartier fare.  Saucisse de Morteau is a sausage from the nearby village of Morteau.  In this case, the au vin jaune means that the yellow wine was used when cooking the sausage.  Cancoillotte is a local runny cheese, typically served melted as it was here.  The dish also came with crisp roasted potatoes.  The sausage and potatoes were to be dipped in the cancoillotte, which added a wonderful tangy creaminess to the bold meatiness of the sausage and the perfect golden sweet bite of the potato.  This is not food for the faint of heart (or for those looking to avoid blocked coronary arteries!) - the flavors were intense and an excellent match for the strong vin jaune.  Yum.

Finally, for dessert I opted for the simple pots de crème:


These decadent bowls of thick creamy custard were delicious in their simplicity.  The flavor was a perfect sweet vanilla - a vanilla that stood up and loudly announced its presence.  The crème was served cool, but not cold.  Lovely.

It was a fun meal, and it was wonderful to get to share it with Elise.  It wasn't every night that I was so lucky as to have a local citizen dine with me to tell me if the meal was up to snuff with what they grew up eating!

After dinner, we headed back to the apartment and crashed pretty quickly.  Before you think I'm too lame, I should remind you we probably didn't get to the restaurant till 8:00 pm or later, and we must have left around 10:30.  When we got back to the apartment, it was probably close to 11:00, which, after the longggg days of this trip, was a pretty standard bed time for me!

20 August

We woke up the next morning and headed out to a few boulangeries to look for something local for breakfast.  Finally we found our winner in a bakery tucked on the way out of town, next to the river.  After picking up something to nosh on, we sauntered along the banks of the river as it jogs its way around the hill - note the citadel on top of the bank to the right in the picture below!

Coucou, Elise!
It's a pretty spectacular walk.  There are pathways along the bank of the river (which Elise told me had been totally covered in water a few days earlier - the rain I had in Alsace was here, too, but I'm so glad the water level had receded in time for me to enjoy the paths!), interspersed with plenty of benches and the occasional small park.  After walking for a ways, we sat down on one of the benches facing the river to eat our galettes comtoises:


This was a thinnish (maybe as thick as an American pancake) round pastry, about 18 cm in diameter.  But don't let the shape fool you - this is much closer to the European standard for a pancake than the American counterpart.  The texture was dense and eggy, and the flavor was custard-like with a strong fleur d'orange kick.  Actually that sounds pretty great, I'll have another one now, please!

Following our late breakfast, we headed back to the apartment to grab my baggage, and then Elise walked with me to the train station before heading to work for the afternoon.  It was great to get the chance to see Elise and her hometown briefly - I am so glad that our timing worked out and we could make it happen!  Elise, tu me manques !  J'espère que tout va bien en Allemagne.  Je t'embrasse très fort !

Coming soon: Dijon part I, where the children play in fountains, and the eggs are poached in wine, and after dark we all head to the Place or Parc Darcy.

A bientôt,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

How nice to have had Elise to show you around and share some time with you!

I would eat sausage and potatoes and cheese........

And ... I'm Just an Ordinary Man. :-)