Chartreuse and the Vallée du Désert: The Elixir of Life

Massif Chartreuse  (Chamchuade) (Used with permission.)
Massif de Chartreuse (Chamchaude) (Photo credit: David Decharte)

While writing my brief “Gherkins & Tomatoes” blog post, “Cookbooks for a Desert Island, or an Autumn Afternoon,” I thumbed through de Groot’s book once more, swearing I would cook “Green Beans Sautéed in Cream” and “Potato Pancakes of the Mountains.”

The price of peace and solitude has been unending struggle.
~~Roy Andries de Groot, The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth

Auberge L'Atre Fleuri

Every once in a while, a book speaks to my soul, over and over again. Roy Andries de Groot’s masterpiece, The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, spoke to me deeply when I first read this rapturous travelogue and cookbook. Like a chef cooking down jus de lis, in this magical book, de Groot captures the essence of a place, L’Auberge de L’Atre Fleuri, a small restaurant in France’s Alpine region, where the fireplace was so large a man could stand nearly upright in it. Two older ladies, the Mesdamoiselles Artaud and Girard, worked culinary magic with their hands, creating memories so strong that de Groot wrote this tribute to them and the way of life they embodied. A way of life that no longer exists, thus making de Groot’s book an example of what culinary historians call “primary research material.”

Matt DeTurck)

I nearly cried when I came to the last page, where he says of a 1911 Cognac of Gaston Briand at the last supper he ate at the Auberge, “The soft velvet, the delicate power, the aromatic excitement of this ancient spirit are almost beyond description. It was a climatic curtain.”

The End. But I didn’t want it to end. I wanted a sequel!

From that moment, I plotted to visit the place that inspired a writer like de Groot, blind from a blast during the London Blitz, to spill such ruby-like words on the page. It amazed me that he could capture the essence of the high granite peaks of France’s Savoie area without seeing them, only relying on the words of his wife and other traveling companions.

St. Pierre de Chartreuse (Used with permission.)

Shortly before my first trip to Europe, I re-read The Auberge, insane with the emotions that welled up in me as I melted into de Groot’s sensual prose, larded with recipes and observations on the taste of this dish and that dish. Slyly, he failed to include directions or even a hint of just where L’Atre Fleuri could be found. All he mentioned was that that it is in St. Pierre de Chartreuse.

Gates to Paradise? (Used with permission.)

And so all because of one book, I found myself standing on granite gravel, under a pine tree, staring at the immense white-walled buildings of the mythical La Grande Chartreuse, and the monastery there, fittingly as austere as its surroundings.

We wound through emerald-green forests, following D912 and the Isere River in the shadows of the Alps. The morning sun blazed through the still-crisp air and spun off the jewel-like bubbles dancing on the surface of the river gleaming like clusters of the frozen grapes used to make ice wine.

After St. Gervais came Alberville and the fantastic Gorges d’Arly, through which ran the Arly River. Otherwise Alberville serves more as a crossroads, although some revival is going on in the center of town, craftspeople opening lively shops on the Grand Rue. We were actually on our way to the mythical monastery of the Peres Chartreuse, who make the liqueur Chartreuse. Before we turned off D912 to St. Pierre de Chartreuse, we passed through Chambery, the home of French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Isere River (Used with permision.)

Swinging south out of Chambery, we headed for La Grande Chartreuse and the Massif de Chartreuse (or valley of mountains). Part of the way to the monastery follows the Gorges of Guiers Morts; driving on out-of-the-way roads provided us with an awesome arrival in this incredible setting of emerald-green forests. St. Bruno founded the monastery in 1085 AD. He followed the Romans, who founded St. Laurent de Pont and a few huts in another area, which they called catursiani, meaning “little house where one is alone in an isolated and wild place.” And from this word comes “Chartreuse.”

La Grande Chartreuse (Used with permission.)

Bruno came here with six other men and started the monastery where silence still rules; no one speaks. Throughout history, the Carthusian order suffered a great deal of persecution, especially during the French Revolution and afterward, because of the identification of the Church with the ancien régime.

Yet  the monks still make the liqueur that they began making over 400 years ago, although not on the premises of the monastery. The initial money-making efforts of the monks focused on mining, but that failed and the recipe for Chartreuse came from a mysterious manuscript donated to the monks in 1602 by Marshal d’Estrées, a courtier of the French king, Henri IV. Today, the distillery—where over 130 medicinal plants go into the recipe for Chartreuse (yellow and green)—is located in nearby Voiron.
The Valley (Photo credit: David Decharte)

The Valley (Photo credit: David Decharte)

Outsiders can go only as far as La Correrie (courier’s house), the old monastery, where the monks created a museum detailing their history. The monks built a new monastery about 2 kilometers away to maintain their privacy. Visitors to La Correrie may purchase bottles and other souvenirs at the gift shop there. There, visitors see models of the stark cells where the monks live, how their food is passed through a small cupboard in the cell walls-much like prisoners actually, and the tiny gardens outside each “apartment” or cell where the monks grow flowers. A prie-dieu stands off to one side. And you see the hard wooden beds, which testify to the asceticism of these men. You see the coarse raw white wool habits the monks wear and start itching under your arms. You feel the peace of the valley and begin to understand the attraction of the place and the lifestyle. You’re ready to sign up, but, wait a minute, you can’t, if you’re female, married, or whatever.

Cloisters, La Grande Chartreuse (Used with permission of Notre Dame Architecture Library.)

Walking down the long silent cloister, a seemingly endless white-walled corridor, I saw the twelfth-century chapel with wooden seats for the monks to sit on during mass and prayers. Most people could not live like they do. I couldn’t, though a part of me longs to, to withdraw from the world, becoming monkish in isolation, free of the drama that so many interpersonal relationships bring, along with the joys.

I wondered if the Carthusian monks drank their product, cutting into the profits. After all, the founder of the Benedictine order, St. Benedict of Nursia, allowed his monks a liter of wine a day.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to sip Chartreuse, on ice, so we bought a bottle of the eponymous green variety and stashed it away in the trunk of our car, waiting impatiently for nightfall. Having learned a profound lesson the night before from a stay in a mosquito-infested, mildew-thick room, a lesson hammered home by the Holiday Inn chain—“The best surprise is no surprise”—we opted for a room in a frankly modern Ibis Hotel, similar to a Day’s Inn in the States. Not leaving anything to chance, we decided to gamble and ate in the dining room at the hotel. Huge mistake gastronomically, especially one that served as a prelude to the tasting of the Chartreuse later. The food spoke French linguistically:  the menu read tarragon chicken, hamburger steak, potato salad, beet salad, smoked herring, marinated fish. But linguistically was just about the extent of the Frenchiness of the food—we could have been eating it anywhere in the world where tourists congregate. Wine, on the other hand, which the French do well, and we chose Domaines des Causses et Eynes (a Cotes du Rhone). Not bad.

C. Bertelsen)

Back in our room, its smallness a typical specialty of bargain-basement-priced one—-and two-star French hotels (and even some of their richer three-star cousins), I scrounged up a couple of shrink-wrapped plastic glasses. I tore off the covering, grimacing at the idea of drinking a liqueur made from a centuries-old recipe out of plastic glasses. My husband rattled the ice cubes in the plastic “wine cooler” and dropped several large cubes into the plastic glasses. And then I poured the green gold over the ice cubes, the ice glinting and twinkling in the light from the bedside lamp.

The cloudiness of the glasses obscured, but only slightly, the pale green color reminiscent of the now-banned absinthe. Slightly thick, almost like the type of the thin, light sugar syrup used in making meringues, the Chartreuse hit my tongue, Suddenly my brains flashed on an Alpine meadow. The burst of 130 medicinal plants imparted a flavor amazing in its breadth. Many of the plants and herbs used in making Chartreuse originally came from the nearby Savoie region.

Words, at least in English, fail to tell the whole story of flavor and taste. English is “color-blind” that way, flavor blind. When it comes to describing the nuances of the taste of Chartreuse, the word “grassy” pops up, but not grassy like a piece of turf grass out on the front lawn. Instead, the grassiness resembles, more than anything, the smell of running through a freshly mowed field on a hot summer day, chewing anise seeds.

C. Bertelsen)

Serves 4

Regarding the history of this dish, de Groot has this to say: “This dish is obviously a first cousin of the famous rösti potato pancakes of Switzerland. As usual, the recipe was changed as it crossed the border. Which version is better? Don’t ask me to decide. France and Switzerland are both irresistible countries. Try both recipes and decide for yourself!”

4 medium russet potatoes
3 eggs
4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2 T. fresh parsley, finely chopped
½ t. fresh rosemary, finely minced
4 T. clarified butter
2 T. vegetable oil
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 T. heavy cream, more or less

Bake the potatoes until done using your usual method. When done, cut open and scoop out the pulp. Place in a 1-quart mixing bowl, mash but not too much; add eggs, scallions, garlic, parsley, and rosemary. Add cream, but not too much – you want to be able to form patty-like mounds of the potato mixture. Heat 3 T. of the butter and 2 T. vegetable oil in heavy sauté pan about 10 inches in diameter. Form patties abut ¼ inch thick and 2 inches wide. Carefully place the patties in the butter/oil in the skillet. Fry until brown and crisp on both sides. Serve hot.

Serves 4

1 lb. French-cut green beans, blanched for about 1 minute, and drained
4 T. butter
1 t. flour
¼ cup heavy cream
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten with a fork
1 T. fresh chives, finely chopped
2 T. fresh parsley, chopped
Sea salt to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat, stir in the flour, and then the cream. Add the beans and sauté them about a minute or two, coat well with the sauce. Stir in gently the egg yolks and the chives. Stir constantly until yolks thicken, about one minute or so. Remove from heat, sprinkle with the parsley and salt, and serve at once in the same pan.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen



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