23 November 2009

Cookies for breakfast and cheese all day: A family weekend in Abreschviller

This past weekend was hands down my favorite that I've spent in France.  Hélène, Nicolas and I spent the weekend at her parents' beautiful home in Abreschviller, a tiny village near the Alsace region.  Abreschviller is about an hour and a half by car from Metz, and has a population of less than 1500.  

When we arrived at Bernard and Christianne's home, I was elated to find it exactly the way I had always pictured a French home in the country: Copper pots and floral serving platters hanging on the walls, hand painted alsatian pottery, an old grandfather clock, an ancient tiled wood burning stove, a massive handcrafted dining room table, a climate controlled wine cellar, homemade jars of jam, an old piano, and a beautiful hand carved armoire that has been in the family for generations.  Hélène's parents (whom I've already had the pleasure of meeting a few weeks ago), are incredibly warm and welcoming people, and I feel incredibly at home with them, Hélène, and Nicolas.  Over the weekend, I also met Hélène's brother, Gilles, his girlfriend Caroline, and Hélène's grandmother Marie-Joseph.  

The weekend was a succession of traditional French meals prepared by Bernard and Christianne. Bernard made sure my cup was never empty, eager to share with me his knowledge of wine from the Alsace and Lorraine regions.  Who was I to refuse his expertise?

Saturday, the family ate at an Alsatian restaurant, where lunch consisted of three types of cheese, fried potatoes, and salad.  Dessert was café gourmande, which is a cup of espresso served with a platter of several tiny desserts. Bernard would not hear of my paying for my share. "You were invited, ma cherie!" 

After lunch, Hélène, Nicolas and I decided to walk off the calories and explore Abreschviller and the nearby city of Sarrebourg, which is 10 times smaller than Metz in pop
ulation. Sarrebourg was a meaningful visit for me since it contains a chapel with a huge stained glass window by Marc Chagall.  Although the cathedral of Metz boasts several Chagall windows, they did not compare to the size and detail of this one.  The whimsical blend of animals, flowers, lovers, and the crucifixion of Christ was presented in enormous detail, in every color imaginable.  I could have stood in the chapel for hours.  

Dinner was prepared at home by Bernard and Christianne: Raclette! This was my first encounter with the deliciously calorific dish.  Boiled potatoes, ham, bacon, and onions are brought to the table, along with thick slices of Raclette cheese.  Each person prepares their meal to their own specifications on a raclette grill in the center of the table.  The result? Cheesy, potatoey, melted goodness!  After dinner, Bernard brought out a series of cheeses (brie, goat cheese and Münster.) When I joked about the crazy amount of cheese we had consumed that day, Bernard patted his gut and declared in French "If you consume good quality food, I assure you, you will will not gain any weight!" With that, he plopped another sizable slab of cheese on my plate and opened a second bottle of red wine.

After dinner, Bernard, whose father was butcher, gave me a lesson in meat cutting with a huge slab of lamb, which would be served for lunch the next day.  To demonstrate the sharpness of the knife, he glided it across his arm, leaving a patch of skin completely hairless!  Everyone laughed hysterically at my shocked reaction.

Late that night, Hélène, Nicolas and I visited with Hélène's brother Gilles and his girlfriend Caroline, where we shared conversation and homemade tiramisu while playing with the rambunctious pet ferret, Dora.

Sunday, I awoke to the sweet scent of baking, and wandered downstairs to investigate. Christianne had risen at the crack of dawn to prepare tarte aux myrtilles (a wild blueberry pie), which would be served after lunch.  "What would you like for breakfast?" Christianne asked.  I told her it didn't matter, and that I would have whatever she normally ate.  I was picturing perhaps biscuits with yogurt, or maybe some bread and jam, so imagine my surprise when she presented me with a platter of chocolate chip cookies!  I almost laughed out loud, but I realized she was completely serious.  "Merci beaucoup!" I said, grabbing a handful of cookies.  "These will go great with my tea!"  I can honestly say I've never had cookies for breakfast, and the idea of it was just so hilarious I broke into a huge smile whenever I thought about it throughout the day.  

Christianne and Bernard sing in the choir at the tiny little village church, which reminded me so much of my parents that I asked to go to Mass with them.  It was a charming little church, and I was easily the youngest person there by 40 years.  I sat with Christianne's mother, Marie-Joseph, who seemed very impressed that I had brought my French Missal with the responses highlighted. After Mass, I noticed that Bernard and Christianne greeted everyone by name as we walked through town.  Abrechviller is truly a village where 'everyone knows everyone.'

Lunch was exquisite to say the least: Lamb (cut the night before), served with mashed potatoes blended with carrots, baked beans, and salad. The meat was impossibly tender and flavorful. This was followed by a healthy serving of (what else?) CHEESE!  All this was accompanied by various red wines.  Afterwards, Christianne's glorious pie was received by a an appreciative series of "oohs" and "ahhs."  Strong coffee and vanilla ice cream were a beautiful embellishment to the pie.  When offered, I accepted a second slice of pie, joking that I would have to take up running again if I intended to eat at this pace for the rest of my time in France. Again, Bernard assured me that the ingredients were too high quality to allow a weight gain, and we all laughed. 

After lunch, Hélène, Nicolas and I went sight-seeing to the neighboring town of Saint Quirin, which has been proclaimed one of the most beautiful villages in France.  The three of us wandered through the beautiful church of Saint Quirin, explored a tiny hilltop gothic chapel from the 10th century, played with some friendly goats, and enjoyed the picturesque streets lined with homes that resemble doll houses.

I was sorry to leave, since I loved the nonexistence of time in the countryside.  There, the persisting demands of my university French class, my lesson-planning for my students, and my upcoming observation and medical exams for the French government seemed to have no power over me.  Life slows down in the country, and it was a welcome change of pace for me.

To be welcomed into a family has meant so much to me, since I've been missing my own so deeply.  Even though I live in France, a land of immeasurable beauty, architecture, shopping, and excitement, the most important things are universal.  Nothing can top being around a table with family, friends, sharing good conversation and good food and wine.  The French truly understand this importance, as meals here last hours! Slowly but surely, I'm learning to stop eating like an American, who tends to eat rather hurriedly, as if there is a need to get the meal out of the way.  I notice that when I finish my plate before others in France, I tend to attract amused expressions and am asked if I had missed a meal. Food is consumed slowly, to be savored, and conversation is the centerpiece.  This tradition is so lovely, I plan on bringing it back with me when I return home.

This morning, I approached the scale with trepidation, remembering the cheese, the wine, the cookies for breakfast, the pie, the tiramisu, the bread... did I mention the CHEESE?  I nearly fell over when I saw my weight.  It was exactly the same as the day I left for Abreschviller.

I should have known better than to doubt Bernard!

Lunch with the family at Auberge Bel-Air

The house in the countryside

Making Raclette on the special grill

Blue tongues from eating wild blueberries (myrtilles)

Nicolas, Moi, Marie-Joseph, Cristianne, & Bernard

The meat cutting lesson

Taking a stab at it myself!

How idealistically French is their house? I adore it!

Bernard's wine cellar

Home cooked French meal

Christianne's Tarte aux Myrtilles


Nicolas having a great time with his uncle Gilles and his 
girlfriend Caroline

Hilltop chapel and cemetery in Abreschviller

Church of Abreschviller

Church in Sarrebourg

Interior of church in Sarrebourg

Chagall's stained glass window in a chapel in Sarrebourg

Saint Quirin, proclaimed "one of the most beautiful villages in France"

Hélène and Nicolas praising the heavens at a 10th century outdoor Christian alter

Crucifixes like this are all over France

Saint Quirin

A friendly goat in Saint Quirin

Hélène and I in Saint Quirin

Hélène and Nicolas climbing the hill to the chapel of the Red Rose, 10th century

Homes look like doll houses in Saint Quirin!

Another view of the church of Saint Quirin

Glorious view


  1. This is an intimate view of France that most tourists can never dream of seeing. How cool is that!

  2. Oops, that was my comment above, Mom

  3. By far my favorite part was the cookies for breakfast, but the rest of your trip looked lovely too. What an amazing experience!


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