Alsatians say that the snow-capped Vosges mountains, shrouded in their legendary blue aura, guard their secrets from the prying of outsiders. Among these, hidden in the valleys of Orbey, Lapoutroie, Saint-Marie-aux-Mines, Munster, Guebwiller, Thur and Masevaux, is a little-known French country restaurant tradition called the fermes-auberges.
Le repas marcaire, the fixed menu served at these farm inns, is a mountain meal that varies little from restaurant to restaurant. The word marcaire is derived from the German melker, in French, trayeur, meaning a dairy farmer. These farmers raise cows in the Hautes-Vosges mountains for the purpose of making cheese from the milk.
Early every morning the farmer makes the day's fresh cheese for the region's classic dessert while the farmer's wife rolls out the different pastries for the meat pies and fruit tarts, chops pounds of onions and garlic and slices mountains of potatoes in preparation for the rush of noontime customers.
In the dining room of the Ferme-Auberge de Braunkopf, where I stopped for lunch, the hostess set a glass salad bowl full of soft greens dressed with mustard vinaigrette and a loaf of coarse country bread on the rough-woven tablecloth. She followed with a savory tourte de la valle'e, a nicely browned, two-crust meat pie filled with a combination of ground pork, minced onions and garlic, nutmeg and other seasonings bound together with beaten egg. With this substantial tourte came an Alsatian sylvaner, a dry, light white wine, fruity and fresh.
Next, a platter of smoked pork provided the excuse to serve what the farmers label their plat de resistance, called by the dialect name roi gabrageldi and also known as potatoes marcaire. Monsieur and Madame Wodey-Foessel, the proprietors, explained that this local specialty, cooked in an earthenware casserole, consists of layers of lardon (thick country bacon, first blanched, then fried and coarsely diced), sliced potatoes, minced onions, generous amounts of country butter and salt baked together until the potatoes turn meltingly soft and the flavors combine into something toute particulie`re. With this part of the meal went a strong, fruity, full-bodied Alsatian wine, a pinot gris (also known as tokay d'Alsace).
Dessert after this filling repast seemed impossible -- until it appeared, looking interesting and tempting. A soft, chalk-white mound of cheese made that same morning was sweetened with a sprinkling of sugar and moistened with kirschwasser -- like other eaux de vie, an Alsatian specialty -- and topped with sweetened whipped cream. This dessert cheese, siess kas, is an early stage of the inimitable munster cheese still made by hand at the fermes-auberges in the precise and demanding manner so indispensable for a quality product.
The milk, richly flavored by the mountain herbs and flowers the cows feed on, is left to stand overnight. In the morning, the farmers skim the cream and combine it with fresh milk, then heat it to begin the process that will yield the unctuous soft munster cheese renowned throughout France. After three to five weeks, the cheese is ready to eat along with a chilled gewurztraminer, a spicy-tasting, dry white Alsatian wine.
Other regional specialties, such as onion tarts, baekeoffa (a mixed-meats stew), choucroute, wild boar, country ham, rabbit and blueberry or other fruit tarts, are also served at the fermes-auberges, but after a summer hike in the mountains, a menu de marcaire seems to more fittingly represent the rural character of the Alsatian countryside.
For almost 100 years, people at the farm inns have been sharing their food traditions with city dwellers eager to taste the fresh mountain specialties. City restaurants do not offer a menu de marcaire. Part of actual working farms, the inns generate an income that helps enable the farmers to continue to carry out their primary vocations: farming and preserving the countryside. The proprietors of the 60-odd inns belong to an association of fermes-auberges and all proudly display the group's logo, which depicts a rustic table and chairs set with crockery bowls, a huge cauldron and a steaming tureen with a chicken cheerfully pecking at the ground nearby.
The fermes-auberges of the Munster Valley, its forests full of wild huckleberries, violets, deer and mountain goats, are among the most accessible, and the region, the legendary site of a meeting between the hero of the Song of Roland and the Emperor Charlemagne's daughter, is an important tourist center. From Colmar, where there is a museum honoring Fre'de'ric Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, a pleasant drive along the Cheese Route ties together all the fermes-auberges of the Munster Valley. The annual jonquil festival in May and the tourte festival in October are lively times for a visit to the area, but on a glorious summer day the region shines, and even on a gray day in winter when the vineyards are barren and the trees bare, the stark beauty of the Munster Valley and the warm ferme-auberge welcome make the trip extraordinary.
MUNSTER VALLEY MEAT TOURTE (8 servings)
1 1/2 pounds lean ground pork
1 slice white bread
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, thinly sliced
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup cold water
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
Brown pork in a skillet. Drain fat and place pork in a large bowl. Tear bread into small pieces and add to pork with onion, garlic, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well. Add egg.
Place flour, butter and shortening in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process 10 seconds or until fine crumbs form. Add water, a little at a time, until dough forms a ball on top of the blade. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
Place dough on a floured surface and divide in half. Roll out one half and place in a greased 9-inch pie plate. Pour in meat mixture. Roll out second half of dough and place on top of pie plate. Pinch edges together tightly. Brush with egg yolk.
Bake tourte in a 400-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until top is brown. ROIGABRAGELDI OR POTATOES MARCAIRE (4 servings)
1/2 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Place half the bacon on the bottom of a 2-quart ovenproof casserole. Layer potatoes, onions, remaining bacon and butter, seasoning with salt and pepper as you go along. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 1 hour or until potatoes are very soft. Place under broiler to brown top.