06 November, 2007

Our First Holiday Trip - Switzerland

After getting our temporary car the other day and having some free time over this weekend due to the holidays on Thursday (All Saints Day) and Friday (All Souls Day), we decided to take a weekend holiday trip. This first trip was to a tiny Swiss town, Saignelegier which is almost 400 km’s from Luxembourg. The main attractions in this town are horse shows and beer. More specifically one of my favorite breweries, Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM). I was first introduced to their wonderful beers in early 2006, I believe, at a tasting featuring their beers at Monk’s Café in Philadelphia. The brewer, Jerome, was at the tasting and was very interesting and into his beers and into talking about them. Their flagship beer, L’Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien, was my favorite of that tasting and since then it has become a relatively hard beer to come by and at a high price. Bon-Chien averages about $30 or more a bottle in a bar and a little above $20 a bottle at a bottle shop if you can find it.
Back to the trip to Saignelgier and BFM…..

When we realized that we would have a car and no plans for this weekend, I remembered that I had read on either Ratebeer.com or Beeradvocate.com that BFM was having a special weekend party for their 10th anniversary. At first I thought it would not be possible to get there but once I mapped the route out online and talked to Paula about it, we figured a nice 4 plus hour trip through France and Switzerland would be fun.
After waiting at our flat in Luxembourg until 4:30pm on Friday for DHL to show up with all of our possessions and not having them show up, we decided to hit the road for the 4 and ½ hour drive that covers over 400 kms and has us traveling out of Luxembourg, into France for the largest part of the trip and then into Switzerland for less than an hour. Doing this trip mainly at night was not the best idea for a few reasons. First we didn’t get a chance to take in the sights on the way down and second it is harder to find a needle in a haystack when you really can’t see where you are going. We did print off detailed directions from Google Maps and also brought along our newly purchased GPS unit to put it to the test. At first the paper directions and the GPS were taking us the same way but once we got deeper into the heart of the French countryside, they started to differ. Although both sets of directions probably would have gotten us there, the GPS was a god sent for navigating the little French and Swiss roads. Like most of Europe, these countries have a big thing for round-a-bouts or traffic circles as the friendly voice on our GPS likes to call them. On the trip to Switzerland we probably passed through about 15 traffic circles. After you get used to the rules of driving through one, they are pretty fun and if you miss your turn the first time, you just go around the circle another time and get on the right exit. Just like on National Lampoon’s European Vacation….”looks kids, there is Big Ben and Parliament”.

The drive down was mostly in the dark and pretty uneventful. Oh except for when we stopped for gas and a snack. The problem with that is that I stopped for gas but I had a diesel car. I put in a few litres of gas before I realized what I was doing. After some fretting I filled up the tank with the correct fuel, diesel. I was worried that the car would crap out at some point but it drove fine all the way to Switzerland and back home.

We arrived in Saignelgier before 9pm, a bit later than we had expected but still in time to catch a few hours of the BFM fun. We checked into the Hotel Bellevue which also had a pizzeria, pub and restaurant. We didn’t have dinner yet but decided to head right to BFM. We knew the place was close to our hotel but we were not really sure where and it was getting a bit foggy. After driving around in circles for a few minutes we realized BFM was about 3 minutes or 500 meters from the hotel. We arrived, found a spot to park and were greeted by a gaggle of guys outside the brewery drinking and smoking. The brewery was hard to find as it was basically in a strip mall or small industrial building. When we walked in the party was in full swing. There were 2 main sections of the party. When we walked in there was a small section right in front where a handful of old ladies were cooking up a bunch of food items for the masses. There were about 20 items on the menu including appetizers, main courses and desserts. Across from the kitchen was a section of about 8 large beer hall type tables. There was a large crown sitting down and also at the bar setup behind the tables. On another side of the brewery was another area of 15 or so large beer hall tables and another bar. Hopefully the pictures we took do some justice to the brewery. It had a very homey feel to it as the kitchen, tables where everyone was sitting and the bars were all makeshift. We quickly grabbed the beer list and hit the bar for a few. They had 5 beers on tap including: La Cuivree – a pilsner, La Salamandre – a blanche with some fruit notes, La Meule – a blonde ale, La Mandragore – a funky stout, and La Cuvee de 10e – the special anniversary beer that was debuted at this party. They had their remaining beers in bottle as well: La Torpille, La Cuvee Alex le Rouge, La Cuvee de 9e and L’Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien 2006.

We started off with drafts of La Meule for Paula and a La Cuvee de 10e for me. Since we were hungry we ordered a cheese and meat plate that was excellent and for 10 Swiss Francs it was cheap. That translates to about 6 euros which is about $8. The beers and the cheeses and meat paired very well together. The beers were served in large special 10th anniversary glasses and were only 4 and 5 Francs, respectively. The glasses were included in the price as well which was a nice treat. Throughout the rest of the night we had a few more beers each. I think I had all of the drafts beers and a few extras during the night. The vibe of the event was really cool. We talked to some of the bartenders and got a few sample beers from them on the house which was great. When I told the one bartender that I really enjoyed their beers and we came from Luxembourg via Philadelphia, he cracked open a bottle of the Bon-Chien and gave us a big glass to sample. Later in the night I ran into a guy from both Ratebeer.com and Beeradvocate.com that was from Switzerland and I had traded some emails with during the past few weeks leading up to the event. We talked beer for awhile and then talked to a few of the friends he was with. While we were talking the crowd started to clear out a bit but the beer and the music continued to flow. At about 12:30 am it looked like things were dying down so we got a few more beers. We were actually going to leave but I was egged on by a few of our new Swiss friends so I got another La Mandragore. This was one of my favorite beers. Although I am not the biggest fan of stouts, this one was malty but had a funky taste to it as well. It tasted like something that Russian River would brew and I love their beers. While I was waiting for my beer to be poured I had a short conversation with the brewer. I mentioned to him that I had met him at Monk’s Café a year or so back for a tasting and my affection for his beers is what brought us to his brewery. He must have talked to my Swiss beer friend Bov as the brewer asked if we were the ones that came from Luxembourg and of course that was us.

It seemed like everyone at the party knew each other and a good deal of them seemed to know the brewer. I was proud that we hung with the Swiss drinkers and outlasted as bunch of them as we didn’t leave the brewery until about 1am and we had another day of drinking at BFM ahead of us.

Day 2. We woke to the sound of a horse clopping around the streets behind our hotel, which did back into a far. I think we counted more horses and cows in out travels around than the town than we did count people. After grabbing a breakfast drink at a local cafe/library, we decided to head back to BFM for some lunch, both in the liquid and solid forms. We arrived at the brewery at noon and were not really surprised to see a pretty full house again. There were more families this time around and children as well. They were not drinking, as far as we could see. We sat down in the back room up against a wall of cases of beer that went to the ceiling. What was cool about the stacks of cases of beer was that they were all in plastic crates instead of cardboard boxes. It seems like a lot of European breweries store and ship their beer in such crates. We were also right next to a stack of cages that were filled with full 750 ml bottles lying on their sides and not labeled. Within these three large cages there must have been about 1,000 bottles or more. Although I don’t have official confirmation of this, I could only believe that they were the 2007 vintage of the Bon-Chien that have yet to be released. As the 10 anniversary beer was only available on draft at this point and not yet in bottles until January 2008, my best guess was that these non-descript bottles were Bon-Chien. I guess we will have to make another trip to BFM to find out in the coming months.

After inspecting the above noted bottles for a few minutes and after taking a few pictures we settled in for some lunch. BFM was nice enough to have a coupon on their website for one free beer per person for this Saturday so we took them up on the offer and get 2 beers free. We had to purchase the glasses this time but we didn’t complain as they were very nice and only 5 Francs each (about 3 euros). Paula had another La Salamandre and I had another La Cuvee de 10e for good measure. The beers went well again with cheese and meat plate that we ordered. The BFM beer mustard was especially good with the cheese and meat. We also got some sort of bread/cream cheese thing that looked like a piece of cake. It was very interesting and helped to soak up the beers. After one or two more beers we decided to buy some beers to go and then head into the countryside to explore more than just the brewery and our hotel.

It was hard to pass by the makeshift gift shop without buying a few things so we didn’t pass it by. We purchased a few things:
1 bottle of BFM mustard
1 package of BFM chocolates
4 bottles of Bon-Chien (750ml)
6 bottles of La Salamandre (33 cl)
3 bottles of La Cuvee Alex le Rouge (33 cl)
2 bottles of La Mandragore (33 cl)
2 bottles of La Torpille (33 cl)
1 bottle of La Cuvee de 9e (750 ml)
And 1 crate to store most of these bottles in.

The total for all of the above was 154 Swiss Francs which converts to about $133 or €92. The € value is much better as that currency is worth a bit more than the Swiss Franc or the US$ but either way you look at it, it was a deal. As I mentioned before the average bottle of Bon-Chien in the US is about $30 in a bar or more than $20 at a good bottle shop, if you can find it at all. The bottles directly at the brewery were about $14 or €10 and based on that I didn’t feel so bad buying 4 of them.

After leaving the brewery and heading back to the hotel to drop off our haul and to pick up the GPS, we headed out of town in no particular direction to see the sights. We drove in one direction for about 30 minutes and encountered a few very small towns that had really nice main streets with a handful of shops and cafes on them. We also drove in another direction that took us through about 5 tunnels through the mountains which was pretty cool and a little scary at the same time. After exploring this direction for awhile, we headed back towards the hotel and went out of town in the opposite direction and found some amazing views of farms, mountains and some very deep valleys. Heading deep in the valleys at certain points I thought the car was going to stall out from coming to such a near shop to navigate some of the very sharp snake shaped turns. We stopped a few times for some pictures and then off we were again. The drive up the valley was a bit more enjoyable as I was able to play race car driver for a period of time…without falling off the edge of the mountain which was possible as there were no real guardrails on the tiny roads.

After having dinner at the hotel pizzeria we headed back to BFM for the night. It was really busy at this point and we had to sit on a bench near the kitchen while enjoying a bottle of Bon-Chien. While sitting there we were witness to all of the cooking operations and even some moments when one of the brewery cats was in the kitchen walking around the pots and pans with food in them. At one point one of the ladies cooking got a spoon full of something from the stove and fed it to the cat that was on the countertop. It was funny to see something that would hardly ever happen in the US. In general we saw a lot of dogs in the brewery and in the towns and restaurants as well. People in Europe have a much different view on having pets near their food than we do in the US and it is nice to see. Eventually we found a few open spots at one of the tables and sat down for a few more beers. When I went up for the next round I was given two new glasses and was not charged. We ended up leaving with 6 special anniversary glasses in total for the small price of 10 Swiss Francs. Not bad at all.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

Funny how the Google directions for me take me, literally, across the Atlantic Ocean (you lucky dogs!)

You've reminded me now about the BFM at TJs up in Paoli. While I'm out today, I may swing by there, have something good of their's on tap, and maybe grab a bottle of the BFM.

Sheesh, it takes someone 6 timezones away to remind me to go up the street for a beer ;-)