In the middle of le Jura, a region in eastern France: The peaks of the mountains here were once islands in a sea, islands populated with dinosaurs, hence the name Jurassic Age of course…
I guided the little Peugeot around the curves of the switchback; we weren’t in a hurry, and although these are little mountains compared to other ranges, a plunge off the edge of a little mountain would be just as much of a shock as from a big one, I figured. On the descent, the charming village of Baume les Messieurs with its Cluniac abbey lay below us in the canyon as the walls of sandy shale and black-streaked limestone rose about us.
“A plunge off the edge of a little mountain would be just as much of a shock as from a big one, I figured…”
We had decided to escape the city and head into the mountains for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Only rain was forecast and every museum and chateau was closed for COVID. Traffic the day after Christmas doubled the 3.5-hour drive from Paris.
Seven-year-old Magnus kept himself busy in the backseat by inventing the names of animals and studying a used encyclopedia of Greek mythology. The first two days it rained as planned, and we watched one of those Spielberg movies where the temple of the devil-worshippers comes crashing down at the end. This forced us to explain to Magnus what or who the devil is.
Finally, we got a few days of light snow, which made some day hikes to the nearby Cascades du Hérisson (uh-Hedgehog Waterfalls) spectacular for eye and soul. Looking across the valley we could see many whites; we had six inches of snow on our side and the trees on the ridges looked like hoar-frost on an enormous glass. A mist drifted up from the white spray of the waterfall below.
A light blanket of snow covered the rented vacation house (un gite) as well, which was just enough to purify — or at least to cover over a layer of two of sin — but thankfully not erase all one’s sins because the regional food and wine are worth a few extra years in purgatory. New Year’s Eve was a grand meal of poulet de Bresse (delicate chicken from Bresse nearby, not Brest in Britany) in a sauce from the Jura’s vin jaune (yellow wine). That’s neither white nor rosé for the uninitiated but a golden yellow.
The vin jaune is from the grape Savignin (nothing to do with Sauvignon) and you use only a little bit in the sauce towards the end of the poulet so as not to cook off the alcohol and the flavor. You can also have vin jaune as a cocktail (un apéritif) or its lighter cousin, white Savignin. Savignin is an acquired taste. Attention: the first nose is, well, not dissimilar to gasoline…. We gave a bottle to a Swiss friend recently, and he tossed out his first glass in the bushes thinking the bottle had been corked. Once initiated, though, the vin Jura has the most marvelous tang — it’s an experience all its own. In a cream sauce of morel mushrooms, it can, exquisitely, work and play well with others, too.
“ It was clear to me that life has always been more contemplative here than in the city…”
Now, on New Year’s day, we headed to lunch at a friend’s in a village about 20km (12,5 miles) distant. After descending the rock walls of the canyon and having left the snow at a higher altitude, we wound through a valley — pastures and vineyards green even in winter— although perhaps a more somber green of moss and olives bordered by the tracery of bare black branches. We passed through a series of hamlets of stone, where the relatively longhouses often featured an arched double-doorway — once used as barn doors — the people in eastern France kept livestock inside in winter to protect them and help heat the humans in the adjacent rooms.
The road brings you within inches of the doorsteps of the cottages and of the occasional carved stone of a gothic church — whose pointed arches and windows have to perhaps reach a bit farther towards heaven from down in the valley. A particularly bold 17th-century neoclassical church façade dominates the road in one village, and in another, a square medieval tower where only the cornerstones emerge from stucco serves at the church bell-tower, while the church itself is located a few blocks away for reasons no one remembers.
“The … calvaire — places of devotion that are said to have marked the territory for the new god in the way the ancient inhabitants had once erected standing stones to the old ones.”
The outskirts of some villages are marked with a calvaire — a cross, or sculpture of Christ on the cross about ten-feet high — places of devotion that are said to have marked the territory for the new god in the way the ancient inhabitants had once erected standing stones to the old ones. It was clear to me that life here has always been more contemplative than in the city, and I felt my “devout” agnosticism reawakened.
Perhaps not so the Trotskyist in the passenger seat, who restricted her comments to the beauty of landscape and architecture. As Sabine once told me, “I knew you weren’t a real materialist, but I married you anyway.” Maybe all this was why I was a bit nervous about lunch: we’d be meeting our friend Camille’s brother Gerard, a Catholic priest. I think I kept building him up in my mind as someone who would disapprove of us pagans.
“In the large kitchen, an ironwood stove served to prepare lunch and heat the entire house.”
Camille and Gerard were taking care of their mother’s place; Mom was in a center for rehabilitation for knee problems. The little stone farmhouse had once been two rooms, but later generations had added on concrete block additions, including bedrooms, a garage, and a workshop. In the salon, pink mid-twentieth-century wallpaper competed with low wood beams from some other century; in the attic, the harnesses for the horses hung in rows covered in cobwebs, and in the cave (wine cellar) hundreds of sea-green bottles from recent harvests were stored in horizontal racks. In the large kitchen, an iron wood stove served to prepare lunch and heat the entire house.
Camille is a theatre performer, a professional clown, and a director in Paris; normally even her street clothes are colorful and have something of the Harlequin about them, but here she was dressed for the farm. It was amusing to see her out of the city and in a simpler setting. Her brothers and sisters had all taken cottages in the same village as their mother. Gerard was tall, laconic, a solid dark-haired man in a blue plaid shirt and jeans just in from chopping wood for the stove; he seemed as much a part of the house as the woodpile and the massive beams. His own house nearby was his weekend place. During the week, he lead a congregation of 300 in Dijon.
For lunch, Camille and Gerard had procured local trout from a fisherman the next village over for the plat (the main dish) and a local terrine of pork, for those who ate it, for the entrée (the entrée in France is the appetizer; it’s how you enter the meal. I’ve no idea how that one got mistranslated). Me, I had a cup of lentils instead for the entrée; I just think it strange to eat mammals. After the trout and over a desert of light, airy cookies — les tuilles (roof tiles) — made this time with roasted corn flour for those eating gluten-free — the conversation drifted languorously over one thing and another. It couldn’t have been more relaxed nor farther from shop-talk, including Gerard’s shop.
Suddenly, Magnus, who had been looking up at the towering man opposite asked him, “Do you believe in God?” Ah, awkward pause from someone’s parents.
“Yes, I do,” replied a deep voice firmly and directly. “What do you believe in?”
“Well,” replied Magnus, “Zeus and Hera, Mercury and Diana, and Dionysus, and the Gorgons and all of the Greek gods, actually. And Satan.”
I began to open my mouth, a position it remained in for what seemed a very long time.
“And Yaweh of course,” added Magnus.
“Good” laughed Gerard, as did everyone.
After lunch we took the winding road through the valley, passing through the stone villages to Baume les Messieurs. Here the terrain became rocky, and we veered up the mountain road once again. I thought perhaps there are some differences between little mountains and big ones, after all.