The Vosges are a chain of low mountains that run along the western extreme of the Alsace, separating it from the Lorraine. Although these days the Vosges are much prized in the winter by skiers, both downhill and cross county, and in the summer by hikers, in the past they comprised a region only sparsely dotted with farms that specialized mainly in raising dairy cows. The marcaires or cowherds, would lead the herd into up into the mountains in early summer, where it would feed on the rich grasses and herbs of the high pastures throughout the season. During this time, the rich milk they gave was made into cheese, predominantly the two local specialties, pungent washed rind Munster and the firm tome called Barkas.
Today, dairy farming is still important, but many of the farms supplement their income by acting as ferme-auberges, working farms that also offer lodging and meals to hikers, skiers and tourists.
I had been told by friends and family that no trip to Alsace would be complete without trying the famous repas marcaire. This farm-style dinner is reputed to have originated as the meal of choice of the cow herds of the Vosges, a simple affair of potatoes roasted in the coals served with farmhouse cheese and wine. Over the centuries, the repas marcaire has grown into a multi-course meal that is one of the major attractions of a stay in a Vosgean ferme-auberge.
The repas marcaire that one finds today throughout the region, typically consists of:
Tourte a la viande, crudités – ground meat, usually either pork or, in season, game baked in a pastry shell and served with raw vegetable salads.
Porc fume, roigabrageldi, salade verte – smoked pork, usually palette, a cut from the front shoulder, served on potatoes that have been sliced, then baked for hours with butter, onions and bacon, until it is almost like a rustic mash. This course is served with green salad.
Assiette de fromage – cheeses from the farm
Dessert de la ferme – usually a tourte of fresh fromage blanc flavored with cherry brandy, or, in season, fresh fruit tart.
Obviously a lot of food, a meal that my French friends kindly described as “copieux”, with the admonition that one should plan for a very small dinner after a repas marcaire lunch.
We tried the repas marcaire for the first time at Ferme-Auberge Christlegut, where we also spent the night. This auberge is located 20 minutes above the town of Muster, on a steep hillside, and is reached by the sort of winding country lane that has you thinking you must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. But just as we began to entertain thoughts of turning around, we came to the working farm, and a sign marking the the way to the auberge above.
The repas marcaire at Christlegut was excellent and featured all the products of the farm, including their own smoked pork and charcuterie, cheese and house baked bread. The menu varied from the norm in that it featured a vegetable potage or soup in place of the standard tourte de viande, and the dessert was an outstanding tart filled with mirabelles, or tiny yellow plums. This made for a very hearty dinner, although a digestif of local schnapps, or fruit brandies, helped a lot. The auberge’s rooms are rustic but very comfortable, and the lack of television, internet connection or even the ability to get a cell signal, insured a pleasant nights sleep untroubled by day to day concerns.
The next morning, breakfast was more of the farm’s excellent county bread, with home-made jams, farm cheeses and big bowls of coffee.
The Auberge de Chaumes de Firstmiss is on the Route des Cretes, a winding highway that follows the crests of the Vosges. They bill themselves as “eleveurs et aubergistes”, which in their case means they raise dairy cows, make cheese and run a rustic restaurant. Their repas marcaire was textbook delicious. The first course tourte was filled with ground veal and accompanied by salads of raw carrots and celery root. The main course portion of smoked pork and potatoes was emense. For dessert, the tart was filled with tiny wild blueberries. Washed down with a pichet of rich local white wine made from a blend of Riesling, Sylvanner, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc grapes, we could not have hoped for better.
A visit to the Vosges was certainly a highlight of our visit to Alsace, not only for the repas marcaire but for the beauty of the countryside and the warmth of the local people as well.
Note: Sorry I can’t show any photos of the meals in the Vosges. but, truth be told, I still feel like an A-hole taking pics of my food during a meal, especially in restaurants in the countryside…old dog, new tricks, I guess.