Fog as thick as clotted cream churned around us as Mathieu and I made our way through the French countryside towards the small town of Gex. Our destination: the 18th annual “Salon Vins et Gastronomie.” This much-anticipated yearly food and wine festival brings a massive crowd to this normally quiet village. Although the dreary November weather dampened us on the outside, we were swelling with internal excitement, as we hopped out of bed and bundled into one of his co-worker’s cars for a fantastic culinary excursion.
The fair brings in vendors from all across the region. While most booths sell wares from France, there is an occasional German, Italian, and even (to the delight of my husband) one Canadian booth. Our first order of business was to scout out the 10+ restaurant options, and make a reservation for lunch. The restaurants’ offerings were as varied as the vendors’. We had choices between:
- Homemade raviolis
- A French country restaurant offering frogs’ legs and wild boar stew
- The cheesy goodness of one booth’s tartiflette, raclette, mont d’or, or fondue savoyarde
- Spanish-style hot and cold tapas
- A seafood-lover’s paradise presenting whole crabs, oysters, scallops, and prawns
- Sweet or savory crêpes, cooked in front of us
- Fried filet of perch, caught in our own Lake Geneva
- Fresh-from-the-farm foie gras and duck confit
- Flammenkueche, a German pizza-like tart
- Escargot, served by the dozen and smothered in garlic-parsley butter
- Ham hock, roasted on a rotisserie for hours
We settled on the tapas, not wanting to overeat at lunch, when we knew we had scads of samples to try. After securing our reservation, we strolled up and down the aisles, being hailed by friendly wine merchants promising unique flavors. We stopped by a premier purveyor of foie gras, who spread samples of pâté on crusty slices of bread and proudly displayed his award-winning, foie-stuffed figs. A large booth near the front had tables weighed down with heaping silver bowls of exotic herbs and spices, loose-leaf teas, and dried fruits. They gave us bits of Turkish delight and candied ginger while explaining the taste difference between Himalayan and Hawaiian salt. Across from the spice tent, a robust man in a straining apron offered us morsels of his freshly made nougat, a whipped honey and roasted nut confection.
Winding along towards the edges of the market, we came across bottles of freshly-pressed olive oil, infused with basil and lemon; this booth neighbored a tent selling only Armagnac brandy, some bottles aged for over 40 years. We found cinnamon -flavored vinegar and mustard containing absinthe extract. There was fig-onion chutney, roasted garlic spreads, and jarred fresh caramel. There were tables overflowing with antipasti –tapenades, sundried tomatoes, cheese-stuffed peppadews, artichoke hearts—and booth after booth of regional cheeses. The most famous of these was the “bleu de Gex,” made in town, but there were also sellers of comte, tomme, chèvre, and morbier, a semi-soft cheese containing a thin layer of ash through its middle. We saw jars of chestnuts soaked in Cognac, artisanal beer and fruit brandy, and an entire booth devoted to smoked fish. There were chocolatiers offering bark of varying degrees of darkness, along with freshly baked macarons.
And then there was the sausage. Row upon row, stacked two-feet high or hanging from struts across the top of the booths, these meaty treats were a big hit with the customers. The vendors couldn’t slice samples fast enough, as the hungry guests passed around wooden cutting boards laden with cured meat. While most of the sausage was made from pork, a few specialists had aged and cured filet mignon. To make these delicacies, fresh ground meat is mixed with spices, herbs, nuts, cheeses, and sometimes mushrooms and then cured and hung in caves to dry for up to one year. The most plentiful goodies, aside from the “saucsisson,” were the wines and champagnes.
Representing at least seven French provinces, as well as wine varietals from Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and South Africa, the vintners beckoned to us with honey- or ruby-colored samples. We’d tell them we’d had enough and they would pour just one more taste. We’d ask to try their Riesling and they’d give us samples of all their sweet whites. We swirled and spit and sniffed (a more elegant process than these words convey) until we’d found just the right bottle.
Mathieu’s favorite booth of the day, hands-down, was the Canadian stand called “Planet Bison.” Decorated with the pelt and stuffed head of a once-real bison, these merchants flew their products straight in from the Great White North. They had rows of maple syrup, maple beer, maple cookies, and the only whiskey I’ve ever enjoyed: Sortilege, a maple-infused Canadian whiskey. They also had various bison meat, including sausage, tripe, and terrines. We came away from this glorious excursion with a two o’clock hangover and some excellent merchandise:
- Pistachio nougat
- Candied ginger
- Japanese matcha
- Hawaiian black salt
- Beaufort cheese
- Saucisson with walnuts
- Two bottles of Sortilege whiskey
- One bottle of 10-year Cognac
- One bottle of Gewürztraminer
- One bottle of Blanc Doux Cuvée Prestige
- Sweet wine vinegar
- Fig-onion chutney