Inns of the high country

Today we celebrated New Year’s Day in the mountains behind our home. Last week’s rain had washed away the snows and, with them, our hopes of a New Year’s ski. But when there’s no snow, there’s a ramble to be had instead and so as the day dawned mostly clear, I decided we’d bring in the New Year with a walk around our local ski resort of Le Markstein. We could familiarise ourselves with the resort before snow’s arrival made the terrain harder to interpret and we could also get out in the fresh mountain air.

It was also a chance to finally peer inside the doors of an Alsace institution – the ferme-auberge. These farm-cum-inns dot the landscape of the high Vosges mountain range. According to the glossy coffee table book tucked under the television, there are at least 68. I find the text difficult to understand, the author couldn’t resist literary flourishes in his nostalgic and poetic description of their history and present day reality. But the photos tell it all – flower bedecked in summer, snow-iced in winter, these family-run hostelries combine farming activity with offering a warm welcome to mountain visitors, including hearty meals for hungry walkers, skiers and snow-shoers.

Auberge du Steinlebach

Auberge du Steinlebach

So my eyes lit up when I noticed our proposed walking route led right past one of them. And I was thrilled when, after a quick phone call, I could confirm that it was open on New Year’s day and serving lunch. We had a reservation for midday.

With the rosy sun touching le Grand Ballon, we headed off, backpack bulging with all the essentials for high mountain walking: jackets, overpants, drink bottles, snacks, beanies, gloves, map. Our preparations were necessary. As we arrived into Le Markstein the weather closed in and we all layered up in respect of the changeable mountain weather.

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A few backtracks and map re-reads later, we found ourselves moist and mist-haloed at our destination: Augberge S. Before pushing open the door, I read the sign “90% of all our meals are home made with our own or local ingredients. So, understand that our menu changes regularly.” Encouraging.

We stepped immediately into the dining room: true Alsace. Solid wooden chairs, red and white patterned table cloths, wood beamed ceilings and a Christmas tree in the corner awaiting the 12thday of Christmas. Our hearty host welcomed us and gave us the menu in verbal form. No need for a written version when it changes daily.

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Robert couldn’t resist the offer of escargots – snails. So I had to choose the equally French option – onion soup. For mains, we chose another local speciality of a potato and cheese dish featuring the local Munster cheese, from the eponymous town just 45 kilometres down the road.

We chatted happily with our hearty host as our meal was cooked by his wife, who came from Geishouse. And yes, he knew our neighbour, who just happened to have been president of the committee that runs Le Markstein. We talked about our neighbour’s generosity and how we had found that to be characteristic of the Alsaciens in general.

“Up in the mountains we’re all solidaire: we share, exchange and help each other out.”

“Alsace is known for its warm welcome but also for its good food and wine, beautiful countryside. That’s why it’s such a popular tourist desitnation here in France.”

Then he added with a cheeky grin: “We say that the French come to Alsace for their holidays, and the Alaciens go to France for theirs.”

It turns out that he and his small team had worked for 24 days straight. I expressed my surprise and said that sounded pretty exhausting. He shrugged and replied “but that’s what we’re here for: to serve people in the mountains.”

Our meal was tremendous: Delphine couldn’t get enough of the snails, soaking up the last remaining juices with her chunk of baguette.

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Everyone had a go at my basin of onion soup. And in the end the Munster potatoes defeated us, despite their rich, cheesy flavour egging us on to eat just another mouthful.

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It was with warm tummies and even warmer hearts that we walked away with a happy wave to our host.

“Au revoir – perhaps we’ll see you in Geishouse the next time.”

“No, I don’t think so.” He said resolutely, very much the proprietor as he stood at the entrance way to his own personal kingdom. “But I’ll always be very happy to have you back chez nous.”