Beef Cheek Stew — a Light Lunch in France

In France, a sandwich for lunch is a sign of both culinary and moral failure. Of course, living in the Geneva countryside you can sometimes sneak in a peanut-butter-and-strawberry-jam-and-bacon-sandwich and no one will ever be the wiser—except, perhaps, your tattle-tale ever-expanding waistline.

So, attention must be paid, and proper French lunches addressed as often as possible. In fact, you can eat almost nothing, and it can be delicious.

Once upon a time, in the south of France the old mother of a friend used to cook for us. Protesting at her bustling morning activities—up early to the market for fresh products, working in the cool kitchen for an hour or two—she explained that what she produced was entirely ephemeral.  The soup was just water. The spinach soufflé was just air. The gigot was just the thinnest of slices. The fromage frais was medical (calcium). As was the fruit (vitamins).  There was a big basket of fresh bread on the table, just in case anyone was hungry.

Sitting down to eat is healthy, as are starched tablecloths and napkins. A serious lunch is eaten indoors where you are protected from the sun, insects, and deadly draughts. Only tourists, children, and bohemians eat outside. Knives and forks keep reflexes sharp and wrists and fingers strong. Bubbles in the water promote digestion and a glass of red wine successfully fights many many diseases.

12_Course_Table_SettingMenus are highly coded and there are a few basic traps.  For example, both façon grandmère and à l’anglaise means boiled in water which is often not so good.  We once had pork chops and vegetables cooked in this manner and the slop on our plates was exactly what we had ordered. You learn quickly.

Of course, there are occasional hideous surprises. A lunch in a small rather shabby mountain-village restaurant recently offered beef cheek stew as their plat du jour.  The cook (who hitchhikes to work) hadn’t been offered a ride early enough, and his cheeks had not spent a sufficient amount of time in the pot. They were extremely chewy and we spent some time trying to swallow them whole.

I was working on flattening them out and hiding them under my mountain of rapidly-cooling pasta spirals when a lady at the next table called over the owner/waiter/manager, and explained, pleasantly, that her knife could not cut the meat.  He dropped everything and tried to saw apart a big rubbery chunk. He failed, and then, along with the whole table, burst into laughter. The meal was officially inedible which was jovially accepted as an accident of life.

Relieved, and then restored and fortified with a café gourmand (a strong black French espresso surrounded by three little delicious deserts) we left happy and sincerely promised to return.

A French lunch out is a meal of hope and possibility. It takes time, and, occasionally, tolerance. And you must always keep in mind that if your beef cheek stew is tough today, it will probably be much better tomorrow.

The Queen of Switzerland

There is a canton in Switzerland called the Valais. I once had a female colleague who came from there, and she went back to “her country” every single Friday afternoon. Having just spent a weekend in the Val d’Hérens, I am thinking of emigrating myself.

It’s all about attitude, of course. The real people of the Valais have perfected a potent mixture somewhere between a cowgirl and a Hummer: courage, independence, pride, strength, a grouchy exterior, an ironic interior and, often, a glass of génépi define a true Valaisan.

The landscape of the Valais is mixture of the Himalayas (now that there are yaks and this summer’s huge outdoor walking path photo exposition of Zanskar*) and The Sound of Music. You snuggle into the wild and the gentle, the rough and the soft and, amazingly, feel right at home.

You’re scared to leave a crumb on your plate of steak and cheese-rösti (with rinds), as the chignoned-madam-owner of the Vieux Mazot would be sure to openly disparage your finicky appetite and picky town ways. Packed tight into her Valaisan dress you’re greeted with a hauteur bordering on disgust. Having proved your appetite and your manners, you are given a handshake anCowDSC_0036d a half-smile on the way out.

You want to belong to the Valais. You want to be part of them. But you need credentials. Being a city slicker foreigner does not endear you to the crusty old men with morning wine-breath and sturdy cow-sticks.

You explain your presence at the foggy Inalp (the early-summer migration of the cows up to the high alpine pasturages) by telling the story that you once, some 35 years back, tended a herd of cows up in the Val de Réchy. It snowed in July. Food had to be helicoptered in. There were holes between the stones of the hut where you stayed. The cat caught and ate a mountain rabbit. It left the ears. The child had to be rescued from a mountain stream. Another ear (with identification tag) had to lopped off a cow who had fallen off the rocks to her death.

This cinches matters, of course, and once your Canadian identity is established you’re part of the gang of pipes and caps and canes. An ancient one pulls out his list of cow owners and points out #2 who is Queen of the fighting cows. Proud, and strong, and still, and black. Much like a Hummer with horns. You don’t want to look her in the eye.

In the evening from the hotel balcony you view the night-lit church steeple across the road. The doors are not locked, and the pub-girl waters the flowers. There is a single village shop which the hotel lady calls a souk. She says you can buy anything there: rumour has it, even a bride.

We bought a corkscrew and a bottle of Heida. Next time I’m going to buy a Valais passport because I want to live next door to the Queen of Switzerland and keep a baby yak in my garden.

*check it all out at  or


Fresh Slices of Tourist Hell

It is Sunday July 10 in the Haute Savoie and I am a prisoner of the Tour de France bicycle race. Not the real one—the pretend one. Today, if I chop off a leg with the chain saw, fall through the hole in the upstairs floor or blow myself up while applying fire-starting gel to the BBQ coals, then I’m a goner with a capital G.

Medical assistance is not an option, as 15,000 people dressed in almost identical silly spandex clothes are riding their fancy bicycles in the summer heat over four mountain passes to complete one of the difficult mountain stages of the Tour de France.

And so, our escape road from mountain to city is officially completely closed.


These amateur cyclists are leaving in large packs at about 5-minute intervals. They make a road block 68 kilometres long and each has a yellow number attached to his/her handlebars.

(By the way, the REAL Tour de France comes through next week and takes about 5 minutes. I know as I’ve seen it. Once, sitting on a bench in front of the church gossiping with my old farmer neighbours and the priest, it zipped past in an almost silent buzz of energy.)

So, on this day of enforced physical and emotional stasis I am taking stock of my valley.

At the top stand the mountains strong and still – the Aiguille Verte, La Tête à l’Ane and the Mont Blanc catch the early morning sun.

Half way down, the yellow building cranes stand inactive on the new Club Med construction site that has (now that there is no snow anymore and global warming is firmly established) finally been given the green light at the ski resort across the valley. Soon more than 1,000 tourists will be able to come and cavort there in the winter rain and mud.

Further down the mountainside there is the latest landslide that suddenly opened up a couple of months back. Everyone is waiting for the condemned house at the edge to finally fall into the abyss. The insurance man has asked me to give him a call if I see this happen.

So, on this action-packed day of high summer in the mountains, I will set myself up beside the sand heap and the cement mixer. I will get out the green and white parasol to add a festive touch. I will read my book, and doze, and sip mountain-cold spring water. I will try to stay out of trouble and will wait for the evening and its freedom that I will no longer desire.

But right now … if someone could just get me the binoculars.