Friday, September 16, 2011

Journey to a High and Lovely Place (Chartreuse)

Last night, after dinner, which was not as late as it has been more recently, the night was chilly.  Dinner itself had been a family ritual of sorts, as my son rolled and cut fettucine at the marble table in the kitchen, while I melted anchovies into olive oil perfumed with garlic, toasted day old levain bread cubes to make breadcrumbs and peeled, seeded and cut the last of my heirloom tomatoes to chop and add to the olive oil for a sauce.  The making of dinner itself on a night like this is a family ritual, ripe for converse and kinship, wherein we practice our art for those we love best. The pasta was delicious, flavored with the oil, anchovies, garlic and tomatoes, seasalt and cracked tellicherry peppers, and tossed with the toasted breadcrumbs and some shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese.   We brought the big bowl of steaming fresh pasta into the dining room, candles blazing, along with a salade verte, and ate dinner listening to Italian love arias, which seemed somehow fitting for the evening's fare and sense.  But the wine and the food did not take the chill out of the air, and not wishing yet to fire up the furnace for the autum, yet shivering ever so slightly in my sheer linen sweater, it seemed just the right time for a fire on the hearth and the first autumn glass of Chartreuse.

I adore Chartreuse. Do you know this liqueur?  Soft green in color and redolent of a wild meadow, high in the Alps, it harbors an ancient story, as full of romance and mystery as they come.  As I breathed in the beguiling scent, I closed my eyes and remembered the images of the coming fall it always conjures up for me: quail on the grill (for which my daughter has been begging with unrelenting determination), with little toasts beneath catching the drippings; venison served with a sauce made from this delicious always, this puts me in mind of the book L'auberge de L'atre Fleuri, the Inn of the Flowering Hearth, and the food once cooked at that fabled place, as well as the romantic tale of  "La Vallée du Désert," the deserted alpine valley of La Grande Chartreuse, as told in that beloved book.

When I lived in Geneva, I often looked up into the alps visible from other parts of the Lake, and looked longingly in the direction of this valley.  At the other end of Lake Geneva at the time was the famous restaurant of Fredy Giardet near Lausanne, in Crissier, and I could well imagine driving up to the sign above his dining room, austere and simple: Fredy Giardet, Cuisinier.  His cookbook was published the year before I went to Geneva for graduate school, and I spent many happy hours in the little kitchen in my flat in the charming lakeside village of Versoix, the windows of which looked out over that splendid lake, learning from the master chef: his elegant soups and terrines, his truffle ravioli, his fish with tomato butter and onion compote, the masterful way he approached cooking rabbit.  Cooking with him was a revelation.  As Chez Giardet was on the way, I would imagine the perfect journey, stopping at this gastronomic mecca and continuing on to stay in the Inn high up in the valley of the Savoie, winding my way up the alpine gorge, on a ledge cut into the side of a granite cliff, until the gorge opened out onto a wide, wild valley, rising up to a high plateau.  From here, the great Alpine peaks, fortress-like and massive, rise up from the mist.   The mountain air is pure and fresh, and seems to buoy its visitors forward toward a break in the trees (can you picture it yet?) to the historic mountain town of Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, "named for its bridge over the river Guiers, which guards the secret gateway through the secret wall to our high and lovely place," writes Roy Anders de Groot in his book about the Inn.

Since reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain while still in College, I have been fascinated by this valley. Merton has long been one of my masters, and I find his writing engaging and humorous, but also tremendously wise. As a young boy growing up in France, Merton describes seeing images of the monastery at Grande Chartreuse just north of Grenoble:

“And I gazed upon the huddled buildings of the ancient Grande Chartreuse, crowded together in their solitary valley, with the high mountains loaded with firs, soaring up to their rocky summits on either side. What kind of men had lived in those cells? I cannot say that I wondered much about that, as I looked at the pictures. I had no curiousity about monastic vocations or religious rules, but I know my heart was filled with a kind of longing to breathe the air of that lonely valley and to listen to its silence.”

The Romans called this valley "desertum," meaning it seemed deserted, too inhospitable to succour human life.  DeGroot tells the story that the Romans built two tiny settlements where men could stay for a while.  "One to guard the gateway through the granite cliffs, became this village of Saint-Laurent-du-Pont. The other, on the floor of the high valley itself, consisted of a few huts which the Romans defined as catursiani.  The word meant 'a little house where one is alone in an isolated and wild place.'  The word has remained.  It became Chartreuse, and the Roman settlement is today the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse.  What follows is a romantic history of visitors, including 5th century Burgundian Knights, who used it as a stronghold in their fight against the Saracens and then founded the great landowning families of Seigneurs, leaving their serfs in La Vallée du Désert to work the land and pay the tithes.

In the 11th century, The Bishop of Grenoble, later canonized as St. Hughes, had a dream.  He had seen God building a large dwelling in the Chartreuse mountains, with seven stars showing him the way. You might imagine his surprise, when not long after, he was visited one day in 1084 by the future Saint Bruno, a professor at a local college at the time, along with six companions, who said they were looking for a "desert" where they could settle down to a contemplative life. The Bishop took them into the "desert" of Chartreuse. The itinerant Benedictine monks stayed in the valley for  long time, and over time they took the valley into their own hands and shaped it.  They began to call themselves after the original Roman name for the inhabitants of this valley: Cartusiensi, Carthusians.  They gained employ in the region by mining to pay for the rebuild of their house of silence following a huge avalanche that destroyed it, and they called their new home La Grande Chartreuse, which stands yet today.  Yet, the Seigneurs, who had first come to the valley, began to question the monks' mining rights, and so invaded the valley, attacking the Carthusians and sealing up their mines and setting fire to La Grande Chartreuse. It was rebuilt within twenty years.  It was destroyed again, and so on and so on. As de Groot writes: "There was no peace for the Men of Solitude."  Years of famine, plague and war followed as the Seigneurs were determined to stop the mining, and at the same time, all over Europe, steel was beginning to be mass produced in a way that would soon eliminate the small forges that had kept the Carthusian monks alive.  The fate of the Carthusians seemed doomed.

Just as the outlook was bleakest, the Carthusians came into possession of an extraordinary document.  In 1602, Marshal d'Estrees, companion of Henry IV of France, donated to the monks a manuscript that contained a recipe for an elixir of life.  It was a fantastically complicated recipe, involving 130 different herbs which would have to be harvested on the slopes of the mountains, macerated and dissolved in brandy.  One of the Carthusians, an apothecary, decided to make the potion, and it took him 27 years to accomplish it, as the directions were vague and difficult to follow. But what resulted was a brilliant green distilled liqueur, sweet and strong. People loved it and it was bottled and carried over the mountains in saddlebags of mules to Grenoble, where it became well known and popular, and for which people were willing to pay a significant price. So the Carthusians had something to sell again.  The long and fascinating history continued, and the tale of the famous manuscript is as riddled with mystery as the monks themselves, and went through all sorts of regrettable adventures.  The monks seemed to survive almost because of the magic elixir, which over time came to be shipped to nearly every country in the world, and changed fundamentally the valley as more and more people drove up into the high and lovely place to buy and carry away the liqueur.  Today, there are only three of the brothers who know the secret formula for the liqueur, and it is no longer produced where it began, but in Voiron. Collected originally only in the mountains of the Chartreuse, the plants now come from all over the world. 

A year or so ago, my beautiful cousin, who lives in both Switzerland and Provence, a theolog herself of no mean depth, told me about a stunning documentary film, sixteen years in the making, which chronicles the daily lives of these Carthusian monks in their valley of the Grand Chartreuse: their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions.  The film, Into Great Silence, as the critics write, "embodies a monastery rather than depicts one" and what remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light.  It is a mesmerizing and poetic chronicle of spiritual life, almost a mediation in the watching.  I bought this film and have watched it over and over, and it has renewed my long-standing interest in contemplative prayer, which has been a watershed in my own spiritual journey.  Beginning with Thomas Merton all those years ago, I have lately been reading Thomas Keating, as well as other Wise voices which echo the great monastic spiritual disciplines and traditions beginning with the early church and handed down through the centuries. While we live out our faith in relationship, one to another, it is in silence that our hearts learn to Listen and that we may offer him the space to enter in and redeem and heal us.

Fascinating as all of this is, it is only part of the story I want to tell you about this high and lovely place. In this valley of the Grand Chartreuse once stood a magic inn, a hostelrie that welcomed strangers with a gastronomy nearly lost in our rushed and busied culture today, even in Europe.  Come back and visit me, and I will tell you about the beautiful things I discovered by becoming acquainted with this inn, and we will cook together some of the foods originated from this valley of Silence.  Meanwhile, build a fire in your own hearth tonight, and have a glass of Chartreuse as a nightcap, an elixir of life. Close your eyes and dream of the picture postcard perfect valley high in the French Alps.  Take your own journey of peace and Silence. Soon you will taste its food.  Perhaps food of more than one sort, if you haven't already. Elixir of Life. I am the way, the truth and the life, He said.  Perhaps you will even find the secret gateway through the secret wall to The high and lovely place.

Meanwhile, I am off to prep for dinner. The pizza dough I made early this morning with 00 flour is rising very slowly, the length of time will deepen the flavors and make for a delicious pie. Tonight, we will have a little pate with some levain toasts to begin, along with a glass of French champagne, from a bottle I have been saving.  Then two different pizzas: one will be wild mushroom (I purchased some chanterelles at the market today, along with some other mushrooms), which I will sear first and then scatter on the pie with carmelized onions, thyme and gruyere cheese and a few little dollops of creme fraiche.  The other will be heirloom tomato with fresh basil and fresh-made mozzarella.  Both will be baked in a very hot (500 degree oven) or grilled outside, depending upon our inclination. This I will serve with a big green salad made from a selection of different greens: mesclun, romaine and butter lettuce with a very simple, garlicky vinaigrette.  Finally, a blackberry pie from the foraged wealth my son and his friend brought to me.  Happy Weekend Everyone.

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