Eating Terroir in Grenoble
Culinary Pleasures in France with Locally Produced Ingredients
|Walnut orchards at the Grenoble Y.
Although many French people have become influenced by the global trend towards mass-production and live off of frozen and canned edibles during the week, that does not mean that they have buried their culinary roots in the soil for good. Neon-lit hypermarkets and multi-level parking garages have cropped up across the French countryside. Not all meals linger over two or three hours. But the French do still truly appreciate a carefully prepared meal made from fresh ingredients. The idea of terroir—locally produced ingredients or products—has become popular again, as much with older generations who only ate simple cuisine du terroir in their youth as with the young adults, seeking an alternative to open-heat-serve cooking. Grenoble and it's Y-shaped agricultural zone abounds with rich alternatives to the supermarket. Whether you want to taste the magic that local chefs work on regional staples, try a morning of market crawling, or preview what's to come at future markets, the Grenoble Y connects you to the French terroir experience.
The ADAYG and its Mission
Since 1985, the Association for the Development of Agriculture in the Grenoble Y (ADAYG) has been developing the fertile land in between the Chartreuse, Vercors, and Belledonne mountain ranges. The ADAYG, which counts urban planners, farmers, and scientists among its membership, works to maintain a delicate balance between the internationally attractive metropolis and the rural zones tilled by families or small businesses. Truly linking the city and the country, the association organizes agricultural festivals rhythmed by the harvest seasons. Come September; Sassenage, a suburb of Grenoble known for its marbled blue cheese, fêtes the fromage with its own festival, la fête du bleu de Sassenage. Go native and enjoy the veined cheese served on a slice of fresh walnut bread and topped with a carefully shelled walnut.
For the curious who prefer the company of a knowledgeable farmer, the ADAYG also compiles a list of farms that welcome visitors for snacks. Conviviality characterizes the country life.In the fields, the farmers spend time sharing their trade with visitors before serving the fruits of their labor. While handling a beehive frame at L'abeille gourmand bee farm, listen closely. Maybe the worker bees will buzz the secret of the honey sorbet or spiced bread that beekeeper Jean Sereni rewards brave visitors with after a tour of the hives.
Local Restaurants and Terres d'Ici
For those who prefer to sit down with a fork, knife, and menu, the ADAYG has branded thirteen restaurants in and around Grenoble as Terres d'Ici (Local Lands) establishments. The chefs have agreed to showcase local products in their cuisine out of respect for Grenoble's culinary and agricultural traditions. In Montbonnot, Alain Pic concocts what he calls "progressive traditional cuisine" worthy of Michelin stars. If you are lucky enough to reserve a table for a breezy summer evening, the Belledonne mountains will watch over you. The gray summits pass to gentle purple and then night as you float among creations like frog leg and fresh green asparagus salad, Trièves poultry with balsamic vapor, and a herd of cheeses to choose from. Chartreuse profiteroles close the sweet indulgence.
Splurging on the prix fixe menus ranging from 26 to 58 euros (41 to 91 dollars) may not figure on the budget traveler's agenda. At Le 5, strategically placed in the same building as the Grenoble museum of art, chef Olivier Blusset recounts his globe-trotting experience through local produce. The menu wanders far beyond the limits of traditional French cuisine, combining regional ingredients to create global dishes and even a few vegetarian choices. Skewered duck breast in honey and soy sauce or sea bream à la plancha with grilled zucchini and black olive sorbet widens the culinary horizons of the Grenoble Y while the walnut and St. Marcellin cheese salad or the Ravioles à la crème bring it all back to the source. With prices ranging from 11 to 19 euros (17 to 25 dollars), Le 5 dishes up local ingredients with an international spin and artistic presentation.
Now, to pick up a few of the ingredients that you have sampled at the Terres d'Ici restaurants, head to one of the seventy open air markets that are spread over the Grenoble Y.
Get Your Grocery List Ready
With so many markets featuring Terres d'Ici products, you should have no problem getting fresh produce direct from the farmer's earth encrusted hands. Some markets are open all week long, while others occupy the nearest public square just for a morning or afternoon once or twice a week. Of course not all markets are created equal. Some, like the St. Bruno market, seem to whisk you off to a far away land. As you elbow your way through the crowd in search of the perfect ingredients for your lunch, you might brave the masses of discounted clothes piled high on the tables, and stop by the manufactured goods or clothes stands, which are often overflowing with last season's discounted products. The cheap cookery at the neighboring stall could also serve your culinary adventure. Do not be frightened by the vendors and what sounds like a who-can-hawk-their-goods-the-loudest competition. It is all part of the fun in this market that has it all.
If you prefer a market that feels less busy, the calmer, smaller Hoche market should suit you. Every Saturday morning, shoppers show up with baskets and wheeled caddies, ready to select the ingredients that will go into their pots and pans for the week. A true farmer's market, the local farmers come in from the surrounding rural areas to display their colorful offerings. No January strawberries here—only seasonal ingredients tempt the shopper. Ripe fruits and hearty vegetables call out to be eaten, meat and chicken stands proudly display animals that were probably running around in the fields earlier that week. Whole grain breads in various shapes, sizes, and textures will certainly make the choice difficult. To finish a meal on a local note, pick up some homemade plain yogurt and sample a selection from the beekeeper to find the perfect natural sweetener. An entire meal could literally be put together from this one market.
Of course, not every day is bright and sunny. In Grenoble shoppers can still stay in touch with local producers and dodge the rain and the cold winters. At Les Halles Sainte Claire, in the oldest part of the city, fresh and ready-to-eat products beckon to passersby inside a mid-19th century covered market. Here, in a truly intimate atmosphere, you can stroll through fruit, vegetable, meat, and cheese stands knowing that Mother Nature is giving you the best choices possible. In unchanging tradition, Grenoble's markets play stage to meetings and exchanges between local people and the farmers who feed them. Like that strange looking vegetable, but not sure what to do with it? Just ask the one who grew it! These salespeople know their products, plant them and watch them grow into the makings of gratins, ratatouilles, and stews. In France, the best dishes start with fresh, quality ingredients, and in Grenoble, this means making it to the neighborhood markets.
Where Does Your Garden Grow?
So you have tasted the creations of Grenoble's chefs and were inspired to seek out the market freshness yourself. But where exactly does all of this food come from? The roads starfishing out of the city lead directly to the origins of your ingredients. In true locavore style, less than an hour's drive (in most cases) brings you into a whole other world where nature is the boss and no building reaches higher than the grain silo towering over the field. All around Grenoble, working farms cultivate the products that help keep the region's culinary traditions from becoming stale. Families continue to live from the land, much as their grandparents did before passing along the family farm.
The ADAYG helps the country and city work hand in hand. Urbanites keep in touch with the unpaved land while the surrounding agriculture contributes to the local economy, provides jobs, and educates the curious on how the food gets from field to fork. In between planting, irrigating, and harvesting, the Terres d'Ici farmers have a mission to open their lands to visitors to explain the how and why of their trade. These encounters foster real, human contacts. The week's ingredients are no longer anonymous units in a supermarket cart, but the fruit of humans working in connection with nature, not against it. As Mélanie, a farm hand at le Ferme du May, puts it, "We figure that nature knows what its doing, we just try to give it a hand every now and then."
A visit to le Ferme du May's open house gave me the chance to find out just how much work goes into getting produce brimming baskets from farm to market. With great enthusiasm, Marie-Laure, the farmer's wife, explained the recent planting of an experimental grape varietal that should yield an unheard of eighteen bunches per vine this Fall. Looking at the single, vertical vines pushing up through the sea of black and translucid plastic, the future harvest seemed a long way off. Moving on to the blackberry and raspberry patches, aisles of the thorny plants enveloped us, tempting hands to reach out and sample some of the riper fruits. Marie-Laure encouraged the on-site tasting, which we appreciated even more when she showed us how the berries are chosen for the markets. Workers must touch every single berry in order to pick only the ripe ones, as blackberries turn dark a full week before ripening. Only the slight give under the fingers tells you which ones to take.
| Growing experimental organic grape vines.
By making an appointment with one of the seven farms that host afternoon snacks, you can discover all that goes into producing everyday staples that we often take for granted. Before being spread on your toast, that blueberry jam was once growing somewhere and the ham on your open faced sandwich did not grind through an industrial chain to become your afternoon snack. As an integral part of local life, these farmers welcome you to find out for yourself where the food comes from, how it is produced, and who is involved in the process. It is a return to the sources of eating, enjoying humanity, and slowing down to savor the fruits of the earth that invariably surround a good meal. Despite today's canned and frozen cooking, the Grenoble Y still offers ways to enjoy meals much like our ancestors did.
For More Information
Grenoble has a fairly large English-speaking population, and most people who work in the tourist industry have at least a working knowledge of English.
The city's tourist office is at 14 rue de la République, in the heart of the city. For the regional tourist office, go to www.isere-tourisme.com. As Grenoble is the capital of the Isere department, the agents can give you information about the city as well as the surrounding area.
The ADAYG also has a French-only website which provides information about the association, their brand Terres d'Ici, as well as practical information on where to find local produce, how to organize an afternoon snack on the farm, and the contact information of the 53 farms that sell their products directly on site.
At Le 5 (Le Cinq), diners can enjoy seasonal ingredients in a more relaxed atmosphere. This restaurant is conveniently located in the old city center, in the same building as the Grenoble art museum.
The St. Bruno market gets its name from the square where it takes place, Place St. Bruno. Here, every morning except Tuesday, shoppers can find fresh produce from the Grenoble Y, but also a motley mix of anything from clothes to kitchen utensils to African instruments and even personal hygiene products. Fridays, the market closes at 4:30. Go when the weather is nice, as the entire event is open air. Helpful hint: if you want to try on clothes, the vendors' vans become improvised dressing rooms, just ask for la cabine.
The Hoche market takes place just once a week, Saturday from 7:00 to 1:00, but get there long before 1:00, as some fruits and vegetables can sell out by mid morning. Fruits, vegetables, meat, bread, and dairy and honey products are all available at reasonable prices and everything is guaranteed to come from the local farms.
The Halles Sainte Claire, built in 1874 of glass, brick, and a fine metal skeleton and recalls the style of the 19th century covered markets in Paris. The building itself is worth visiting and the market experience is truly magic, as this is not a tourist attraction, but a real, living market. Inside you can buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat, but also deli-style services with ready-to-eat treats made by the salespeople themselves. You can shop or visit Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 7:00 to 1:00 and Friday and Saturday from 7:00 to 9:00.
La Ferme du May hosts an annual open house in June, where you can enjoy an entirely organic meal from from produce as local as it gets. A visit of the fields, guided by the people who spend their days among the crops, ends the afternoon on an educational note. During the rest of the year, visitors can stop by the farm's shop to buy organic produce Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 5:00 and Saturday from 10:00 to 12:00.