Things to see and do - French Alps
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The Region Today
The Region Today
Decision-making in France was once highly centralised, each département headed by a government-appointed prefect, in addition to a locally elected general council (conseil général). But in 1982, the national government decided to decentralise authority by devolving a range of administrative and fiscal powers to local level. Regional councils were directly elected for the first time in 1986.
Administrative units with a local government consist of 36 779 communes, headed by a municipal council and a mayor, grouped in 96 départements, headed by a conseil général and its president, grouped in 22 regions, headed by a regional council and its president. The centre of administration of a département is called a préfecture (prefecture) or chef-lieu de département, which is usually geographically central to the départment.
The conseil général as an institution was created in 1790 by the French Revolution in each of the newly created departments (they were suppressed from 1942 to 1944). A conseiller général (effectively a local councillor) must be at least 21 years old and either live or pay taxes in locality from which he or she is elected.
The conseil général discusses and passes laws on matters that concern the department; it is administratively responsible for departmental employees and land, manages subsidised housing, public transportation, and school subsidies, and contributes to public facilities. The council meets at least three times a year and elects its president for a term of three years, who presides over its ‘permanent commission’, usually up to 10 other departmental councillors. The conseil général has accrued new powers in the course of the political decentralisation that has occurred in France during the past thirty years.
Different levels of administration have different duties, and shared responsibility is common; for instance, in the field of education, communes run public elementary schools, while départements run public junior high schools and regions run public high schools, but only for the building and upkeep of buildings; curricula and teaching personnel are supplied by the national Ministry of Education.
In the French Alps, the départements are, north to south: Haute Savoie (préfecture, Annecy); Savoie (Chambéry); Isère (Grenoble); Hautes-Alpes (Gap) and Alpes-de-Haute Provence (Digne-les-Bains).
For hundreds of years, Alpine economy was based on agriculture and handicraft until the region witnessed two economic revolutions: the first, happened as a result of the discovery of hydroelectric power, and led to the industrialisation and urbanisation of the valleys; the second, was the rapid development of tourism, and led to drastic changes in high mountain landscapes. These two phenomena, however, saved the region from the population drift to the cities, which threatened its future prosperity.
Today, the northern Alps are already a very dynamic region with important towns such as Grenoble and Annecy, whereas the southern Alps are changing at a slower pace and retain a strong economy centred on small and medium-sized towns such as Briançon, Sisteron and Digne. The creation of large nature reserves has not only protected native plants and animals, but contributed to the strong growth of all-year tourism.
Forestry and cattle farming have long been the mainstays of rural life in the Alps. Farms, fewer in number, are growing larger and must share space with tourist resorts. Farming in this reduced space has become highly specialised. Orchards and nut groves dot the landscape and the broad valleys of the Combe de Savoie and Grésivaudan are given over to cereals, as are the Gapençais, Embrunais, Buëch valley and Plateau de Valensole to the south. Vegetables and flowers are grown around Grenoble, in Bièvre-Valloire and in the lower Arve valley. In the valleys where dairy production is traditional, the only crop grown today is hay; In many areas, especially on the steeper slopes, farmers still make hay by hand, scything grasses and binding up bales. Coniferous forests, rapidly taking over from pastures, are exploited for pulp, lumber and speciality furniture wood.
In mountainous regions, south-facing slopes are devoted to pastures and farming whereas north-facing slopes are covered with forests. For a period it seemed that the dairy industry would abandon the high Alps, but determined effort has saved this tradition. Seasonal migration of cows from the villages to high mountain pastures is now mostly by truck, although some cattle still make the trek , called “transhumance” from low prairie to mid-level pastures and finally, in June, to the high Alps. High-altitude chalets dot the mountains, where cheese is made according to old traditions. High quality cheese is also produced in the fruitières (cheese cooperatives): Reblochon from the Bormes, Vacherin from the Bauges, Beaufort from the Beaufortain, Tomme from Savoie, Bleu de Sassenage and St-Marcellin from Dauphiné.
Cattle – Alpine cattle, famous for their sturdiness and ability to walk long distances, are also generous milk-producers. The most traditional breeds are the Tarine and the red-and-white Abondance , whose milk is essential to the best traditional cheeses. These breeds co-exist, however, with the black and white Holstein , the blond Aquitaine , and particularly the Montbéliarde from nearly Franche-Comté.
Sheep – Sheep farming is one of the main economic activities of the Alpes du Sud and Haute-Provence départements. These specialise in the production of lambs fattened quickly and sold when they reach the age of three months. In summer, the resident population is joined by sheep (led, traditionally, by goats, with donkeys to carry the lambs) migrating from lower Provence in search of greener grass. This migration, known as transhumance ,begins around mid-summer until the end of September. Transhumance inspires many festivals, where the traditional Provençal shepherd skills are celebrated.
Sheep from Haute-Provence do not migrate since they can roam freely over vast areas during the warm season and take shelter in large sheds known as jas when winter approaches.
Forestry – In recent years, the policy of reforestation, which is intensive in some areas, has been helped by the restrained use of high pastures and the discontinuation of mowing at high altitude. In fact, forests now cover more than a third of all usable land, and even half in the Préalpes and the northern Alps. They are essentially made up of conifers with deciduous trees at low altitude.
Even though the northern Préalpes boast some splendid specimens of beech, which thrive in humid countries, forests of conifers predominate as in the rest of the Alpine region. Spruce is the most common conifer of the Salève, Faucigny, Aravis and Bauges areas, whereas fir trees grow most happily in the Chartreuse, Vercors, Beaufortain, Maurienne and Grésivaudan, as well as in the Diois and Préalpes de Digne; in the high mountain areas of the southern Alps, such as the Briançonnais, Queyras, Embrunais, Ubaye and Mercantour areas, there are mixed forests of fir trees, spruce and larch.
Many Alpine areas owe their prosperity to their forests; some have retained the traditional practice of “affouage,” which consists in allotting a certain quantity of wood to each household within the precinct of a given municipality.
Whole areas of Haute-Provence have been reforested since the middle of the 19C and forests, which are now protected, are not used for industrial purposes.
Lavender and lavandin – The delicate scent of lavender is characteristic of Haute-Provence. At the beginning of the 20C, the picking of the flowers of this wild plant represented an extra income. Then, when it became necessary to replace cereal crops, lavender was cultivated on the plateaux and high slopes. Well adapted to the climate and calcareous soils of Provence, this plant helped many farmers to survive when they were about to give up.
Later on, lavandin, a more productive but less fragrant hybrid, was cultivated on the lower slopes and in the valleys.
Superb fields of lavandin can be spotted on the Plateau de Valensole and along the road from Digne to Gréoux-les-Bains . The harvest takes place from July to September according to the region: most of the picking is now mechanised but some fields are still picked by hand. After drying for two to three days, the picked lavender is sent to a distillery equipped with a traditional still.
Olive trees and olive oil – Olive groves traditionally mark the northern boundaries of the Mediterranean region. The production of olive oil, which represents more than two thirds of the national output, comes mainly from the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Luberon area. Following the hard winter of 1956, when almost a quarter of the olive trees growing in the Baronnies area died, olive groves were renewed with hardier species. There are many varieties and the flavour varies accordingly; the type of soil and picking time are also important; tradition holds that several varieties should grow in the same olive grove. The harvest begins as early as the end of August, depending on the area. Olives are picked by hand when they are intended to be eaten whole or, for processing at the mill, gathered with a rake that is run through the branches; formerly, they were shaken into nets. Olives from Nyons ( tanches ) were the first to have been granted an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) seal of origin; other varieties now have this rating. Olive oils from the Baronnies (Nyons) and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (Digne, Les Mées) are considered among the best.
Truffles – The truffle, or rabasse in Provençal, is an edible, subterranean fungus which develops from the mycelium, a network of filaments invisible to the naked eye. They live symbiotically with the root of the downy oak, known in Provence as the white oak. These small stunted oaks are planted in fields called truffières. The Vaucluse département is the main producing area of the Mediterranean region, followed by the Luberon, Riez and Forcalquier areas as well as the upper valley of the River Var. Truffles, known as the “black gold” of Haute-Provence, are harvested from mid-October to mid-March, when they are ripe and odorous. Pigs are traditionally used to sniff out truffles, but they are being replaced by dogs, easier to train and less greedy. Once the animal has found a truffle, it is carefully dug up by hand. A white variety of truffle, harvested between May and mid-July mainly in the upper valley of the River Var, is used as a flavouring in cooking.
Hydroelectric Power and Industry
In the French Alps, industries were at first intended to satisfy local needs, but then they undertook to work for the rest of the country and even for the export trade. This led to the development of clock factories in Cluses, several silk factories in Lyon, paper mills in Dauphiné, cement factories in the Préalpes, glove factories in Grenoble and steel foundries in Ugine.
Hydroelectric power – Known as houille blanche (literally white coal), this was the fuel which drove Alpine industry forwards. During the late 1860s, a factory owner called Amable Matussière, who wished to increase the driving power of his mills, called on two engineers, Fredet and Aristide Bergès . The latter deserves credit for having harnessed the first waterfall at Lancey in 1869. At first, the power of the turbines was used mechanically, but by 1870 the invention of the dynamo by Gramme, followed by the building of the first power lines on an industrial scale, made the new power stations switch to the production of electricity.
The Alpine relief lends itself to the production of hydroelectricity: the combination of high mountain ranges and deep valleys creates numerous waterfalls. Engineers began by using waterfalls with a low rate of flow, situated high above the main valleys. They then tapped the main valley rivers, which had a much higher rate of flow, thus creating a concentration of industries along these valleys. During the 1950s, engineers conceived complex projects embracing whole massifs and involving water storage. The flow of water, channelled through miles of tunnels and sometimes diverted from the natural river basin, is collected in huge reservoirs like that formed by the Tignes and Roselend dams or ducted into neighbouring, more deeply cleft valleys.
Today virtually all possible hydrorelectric sites are being exploited. Most of the turbines are linked to the EDF (Électricité de France) network.
There are basically four main types of dam. Gravity dams withstand water pressure by their weight alone; examples include Chambon and Bissorte. Arch dams , graceful and economic in design, have a curved structure with its convex side upstream which transfers the pressure of water laterally to the steep sides of the gorge, as at Tignes, le Sautet, St-Pierre and Monteynard. Buttressed dams are used when the width of the dam does not allow the use of an arch; they are a combination of gravity and arch dams and can be seen at Girotte, Plan d’Amont and Roselend. Riprap dykes , which simply close off a glacial dam and are barely visible, are found at La Sassière, Mont-Cenis and Grand-Maison.
Industry and water power – Electrometallurgy and electrochemistry were the two industries that benefited most from the use of hydroelectricity. They settled near the power stations built by the industrialists themselves, but the cost of transport of raw materials is a major handicap in the mountains. In the face of stiff world competition for steel and aluminium, industry has become highly specialised. Mechanical engineering and electrical engineering have become vital aspects of the industrial landscape of the Alps, while the traditional clock industry is still going strong in Annemasse.
Traditions and Folklore
In spite of harsh living conditions, the Alps have always been densely populated, with a well-structured social life following the rhythm of the seasons and strongly attached to its traditions, each valley having its own customs, dialect and costume.
Traditional life in the Alps was regulated in two ways: by the main events of life (birth, marriage and death) and by the impact of the seasons on the environment.
Birth – A mother’s first visit after the birth of her child was to the local church to express her gratitude to God, but before the end of her confinement, tradition demanded that she eat several dozen eggs, which the child’s godmother would bring to her. Children were christened very soon after being born.
Marriage – Many rituals were linked to marriage: in some areas, young maidens prayed to the local saint to provide a husband for them, in Entrevaux, girls would make a clay figure of the ideal partner. There were also all kinds of symbolic customs before a wedding: in the Embrunais area, the young man would offer his fiancée some jewellery on the Sunday preceding the ceremony. In the Hautes-Alpes region, a young man who married someone from another village had to cross a symbolic barrier, usually a ribbon or a decorated log, on the day of the wedding, whereas a young maiden in the same situation had to buy a round of drinks for the young men of her village in order to make amends for not having chosen one of them.
Funerals – When a death occurred, the whole village would take turns to watch over the body while members of local brotherhoods sang the de profundis and Miserere. A funeral banquet took place after the funeral. In high mountain areas it was impossible to bury the dead in winter because the ground was frozen, so the bodies were kept covered with snow, on the roof of the house, until the thaw came.
The seasons – In the Alps, the year was divided in two: summertime, when people worked in the fields and looked after the animals, and wintertime, when all outdoor activity ceased.
Summer was a busy time because the haymaking and harvesting season was short. Bread was made once a year by the whole village, the large loaves having to last a whole year; only with the introduction of the potato in the 18C was the fear of food shortages at the end of a hard winter diminished. Cattle and sheep farming were the main sources of wealth; the herds were taken from the stables to the summer pastures where they were looked after on a private or collective basis.
In winter, village folk usually stayed at home and lived on what had been stored during the summer: wood for heating, bread, dry vegetables, smoked meat, charcuterie and cheese. Men would repair their tools and make furniture and other objects such as toys, while women were busy at their spinning-wheels. Many men however left their homes to wander from region to region, selling the seeds of Alpine plants and herbs, sweeping chimneys, or finding temporary employment in the valleys as masons and builders. The Queyras and Briançonnais regions even had a reputation for “exporting” wandering schoolmasters, hired by villages for their food and lodging and a small wage. Those travellers who could read and write wore a feather in their cap, teachers of arithmetic wore two and the few who could teach Latin proudly added a third.
A shawl, an embroidered bodice and belt, and an apron brightened up the long black skirt women wore, and still do on festive occasions. In St-Colomban-des-Villars, the number of blue stripes sewn onto the dress indicated the size of the dowry which a husband would receive, allowing bachelors to plan the most advantageous match. Headdresses were extremely varied and consisted of a lace or linen bonnet decorated with ribbons and worn under a felt or straw hat. Most remarkable of all was the frontière : worn by women from the Tarentaise area, it was richly adorned with gold and silver braid and had three points framing the face like a helmet. Gold belts and necklaces were the most popular pieces of jewellery; in some areas, women wore a ferrure , a gold cross and heart hanging round their neck from a black velvet ribbon, as a token from their betrothed.
Men’s costumes were simpler, consisting of a loosely fitting jacket of dark ordinary cloth, a pair of black trousers, a white shirt with a touch of lace around the collar, a black tie, wide woollen belt and a large felt hat.
The devil of Bessans – For all his proverbial cunning, the devil was outwitted by a native of Bessans who sold his soul to him in exchange for supernatural powers. As death drew close, the man went to see the Pope in Rome and asked for his pardon. He obtained it on the condition that he would hear mass in Bessans, Milan and St. Peter’s in Rome on the same day. He therefore used the powers he still had to get from one place to the next in a flash. Since then, the men of Bessans have been carving devils.
The seven wonders of Dauphiné – These seven wonders, which are the pride of the people of Dauphiné, are sites or monuments steeped in mystery and strange myths: Mont Aiguille, known as the mount Olympus of Dauphiné, is a kind of “table mountain” dominating the Vercors, once believed by local people to be inhabited by angels and supernatural animals. Fairies were thought to live in the Grottes de Sassenage near Grenoble, but it was the devil who haunted the “fontaine ardente” near the Col de l’Arzelier. Between Grenoble and St-Nizier, a ruined keep still bears the name of “Tour sans venin” because, according to the legend, no snake can get near it since the lord of the castle brought back some magic earth from the crusades. Candidates for the remaining wonders include the remarkable Pont de Claix , built by Lesdiguières, the Grottes de la Balme and the Pierre Percée , a rock shaped like an arch.
Ancient beliefs from Haute-Provence – Legend has it that fairies live in the rocks overlooking Moustiers-Ste-Marie. On the other hand, the people of Arvieux were, for a long time, divided into two groups: the “gens du Renom,” who were thought to have gained their wealth through a deal with the devil, and the “gens de la Belle,” who invented all sorts of rituals to protect themselves from the former, marriage between the two groups being, of course, strictly forbidden.
Paganism and Christian belief were often combined in the many traditional feasts of the Alpine communities, where religious fervour was mixed with superstition. Today, these events have become folk festivals. Most villages still celebrate the feast-day of their own patron saints, as well as various events linked with work in the fields, not forgetting pilgrimages. Non-religious events also form part of the festivities, among them the Provençal bravade ,which is a kind of mock attack organised by the local youth. The curious sword dance known as Bacchu Ber , performed in Pont-de-Cervières every year on 16 August, features young men representing death, the stars and the rising sun. Entrevaux has its feast on Midsummer’s Day, when the hero of the day, St John, is carried in effigy from the cathedral to the chapel of St-Jean-du-Désert, out of town and back.
Every Provençal festival has its costumed musicians, playing the flute and the tambourin. In Moustiers-Ste-Marie, a group of musicians, known as the Diane , wakes the community every night around 4am with its lively music, during the nine days of the Moustiers festival.
The densely forested Alps have, for centuries, produced enough wood to keep local craftsmen busy during the winter evenings, thus maintaining a strong wood-carving tradition which blossomed between the 17C and 19C.
Wood-carving in Maurienne – The region was famous for its carved religious furnishings: pulpits, altars, statues. Bessans was known as early as the 17C for the skill of its craftsmen.
Chests and toys from Queyras – Wedding chests are an ancient speciality of the Queyras region. Carved out of larch with chisels and gouges, they are made up of four panels and a lid. Inside, there is often a small compartment meant for silverware and precious objects.
The people from Queyras made numerous other pieces of furniture which testify to their considerable woodworking skills: dressers, chairs, salt-boxes, cots, kneading-troughs/cupboards as well as a wealth of objects for daily use such as spinning-wheels, lace hoops, bread seals (which enabled a housewife to distinguish her own bread baked in the communal oven), butter-boards and boxes of all shapes and sizes.
Provençal furniture – In Haute-Provence, furniture is mainly made of walnut and decorated according to the prosperity of the area. In addition to chests, tables and beds, there are dresser cupboards, crédences and kneading-troughs.
The dresser cupboard has two double doors separated by two drawers. This massive piece of furniture is sometimes decorated with foliage, grotesque and diamond motifs. A crédence is a kind of sideboard with two drawers, sometimes with an added crockery shelf. The kneading-trough or bread box was the most common piece of furniture, it was used to store food.
The word faïence means earthenware in French, and comes from the name of an Italian town, Faenza, already renowned for its earthenware production before the 15C. The earthenware tradition in Moustiers could never have developed without the town’s plentiful supplies of clay, water and wood, but the turning point came in the 17C, when a monk brought back from Italy the secret process of earthenware making. Manufacture stopped altogether in 1873 and though later revived in the 1920s, now only serves the tourist trade.
There are four main types of faïence:
– the blue monochrome earthenware (1680–1730), influenced by the Nevers and Rouen traditions,
– the Bérain decoration (early 18C) named after the artist who introduced new motifs,
– the refined polychrome decoration imported from Spain in 1738,
– the “petit feu” (low temperature) decoration (late 18C), with bright colours.
They are the symbol of Provençal handicraft. These small earthenware figures, intended to represent the villagers of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, are in fact typical Provençal villagers dressed in regional costume and representing 19C village trades. There is a famous annual fair ( foire aux santons )in the village of Champtercier .
Food and Drink in the Alps
Alpine cuisine owes much to the quality and freshness of local produce. Cheese from the rich Alpine pastures, fish from the lakes and rivers, mushrooms from the forests, crayfish from the mountain streams, game, potatoes and fruit form the basis of most Alpine dishes. As for Provençal cuisine, its main characteristic is the generous use of garlic and olive oil, the latter replacing the butter so liberally used in the north.
Fish – Fish from the lakes and mountain streams are a must in any gastronomic menu: arctic char, pike and trout are prepared in many different ways: meunière (dipped in flour and slowly fried in butter), poached in butter sauce or braised.
Meat – Beef from Dauphiné is particularly famous, and delicious served en daube (stewed) with herbs from Provence. Lamb from the Sisteron area is said to be more tender and savoury than anywhere else, and there is a whole range of charcuterie available, such as ham cured with herbs and spices from the Mont Ventoux region, known as jambon aux aromates de Ventoux . Rabbit is appreciated by gourmets, particularly lapin en cabessol , stuffed and cooked in a white wine sauce.
Cheeses – Made from cow’s, ewe’s or goat’s milk, cheeses vary a great deal according to the manufacturing process. Alpine pastures of the Beaufortain and Tarentaise areas produce Beaufort , one of the tastiest kinds of Gruyère, whereas Reblochon ,an Alpine farmhouse cheese, is a speciality of the Aravis. Among the wide selection of Tommes – the name means “cheese” in Savoyard dialect – available in the northern Alps, “Tomme de Savoie” is the best known. The small Saint-Marcellin is the most popular cheese of the lower Dauphiné area. Originally made from pure goat’s milk, it is now processed from mixed goat’s and cow’s milk. Several regional dishes are based on these tasty cheeses, one of the most famous being the fondue savoyarde , which successfully combines Gruyère cheese with the local dry white wine.
In the southern Alps, Picodon from the Diois area is a sharp goat’s cheese matured for at least three months, while Banon is a rustic, strong-tasting cheese from the Montagne de Lure.
Herbs – Either growing wild or cultivated on sunny slopes, herbs are essential ingredients of Alpine cuisine, especially in Haute-Provence. The general term “herbes de Provence” includes savory ( sarriette ) used in the making of goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses, thyme ( thym ) used to flavour vegetables and grilled meat or fish, basil ( basilic ), sage (sauge), wild thyme ( serpolet ), rosemary ( romarin ) which helps the digestion, tarragon ( estragon ), juniper berries ( genièvre ), used in the preparation of game dishes, marjoram ( marjolaine )and fennel ( fenouil ).
Specialities and Recipes
Gratins – The universally known gratin dauphinois is a delicious mixture of sliced potatoes and milk; gratin savoyard , topped with Tomme de Savoie is a similar dish in which milk is replaced by broth.
Tarte au Beaufort – This tart is filled with fresh cream mixed with Beaufort cheese and served hot.
Tartiflette – Cut a whole Reblochon cheese in thin slices, having first removed the rind. In a flat dish, arrange alternate layers of sliced potatoes and Reblochon; add chopped garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Cook in the oven for 30min, adding fresh cream 5min before the time is up. Serve with smoked charcuterie and a dry white wine from Savoie.
Raïoles – A favourite dish to the north of Annot, these “ravioli” from Haute-Provence are stuffed with a paste made from dried walnuts and saffron and served with spinach and pumpkin.
Aïoli – This is a rich mayonnaise made with olive oil and flavoured with plenty of crushed garlic, intended to be served with hors-d’œuvre, poached fish and various other dishes.
Fougasse – This kind of flat bread dough cooked in olive oil and topped with crushed anchovies is sold in most baker’s shops in Haute-Provence and served as a snack or hors-d’œuvre.
Raclette and fondue – These simple dishes are linked in most people’s minds with alpine chalets and dinner after a hard day’s skiing. Raclette, which is basically cheese melted at the table and served with potatoes, pickles and viande de Grisons (thin strips of dried beef) or other charcuterie , depends totally on the quality of the cheese. As for fondue, every household has its secret recipe, with comté, emmenthal, beaufort or vacherin cheese added to give texture, and garlic rubbed on the pot or a few spoonfuls of Kirch added for colour.
Farcement – Basically a brilliant answer to the slim choice of ingredients available to alpine cooks, farcement consists of old potatoes from the end of the winter, bacon and dried fruit melded together to form a bread-like main course.
Desserts – Strawberries, raspberries and bilberries are used to make delicious tarts. Gâteau de Savoie is a light sponge cake, unlike the rich walnut cake from the Grenoble region.
Fruit is abundant in the southern Alps, particularly in the Durance Valley. Plums are the most popular filling of the traditional tart, known as tourte, which rounds off many family meals.
Thirteen desserts – Traditionally served for Christmas, in honour of Christ and the 12 apostles, these desserts include raisins, dried figs, several kinds of nuts, apples, pears, nougat (made from honey), prunes stuffed with marzipan, melons and dry cakes flavoured with orange blossom.
Wines and Liqueurs
Vines have been growing in Savoie since Roman times and wine-growing is today one of the most dynamic activities of the region; this is a remarkable feat considering the drawbacks of the local climate. In fact vines grow in areas enjoying a microclimate (south-facing slopes up to an altitude of 500m/1 640ft or on lake shores) and where the soil is well drained and stony (moraines). There are several types of local vines; one of these, the Mondeuse , with its delicate bouquet, produces one of the best red wines of the region, which matures very well. The area produces light, dry white wines, which must be drunk while they are still young.
White wines from Seyssel and Crépy (on the shores of Lake Geneva), both AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, guaranteeing the quality) are fruity and go well with fish; they are at their best when they are between two and four years old.
The label “Vins de Savoie” includes several wines from the Massif des Bauges; Abymes, St-Badolph, Chignin, Apremont, Cruet, Azye, an extra dry sparkling wine from the banks of the Arve, as well as reds from Chautagne on the Lac du Bourget, and Arbin, where the mondeuse grows.
The wine production of Haute-Provence has considerably declined and there are now fewer quality wines. However, two AOC wines are among the most palatable: Côtes du Ventoux from the Bédoin area and Côte du Lubéron, from the mountainous area of the Luberon.
Among the liqueurs produced in the northern and southern Alps, Chartreuse, known as the “elixir of life” is undoubtedly the most famous; its formula, dating from the 16C, includes the essence of 130 different plants to which are added alcohol distilled from wine and honey.
Others include gentian liqueur, marc from Savoie, “Origan du Comtat”, made from herbs from the slopes of Mont Ventoux, and above all absinthe, based on a medicinal plant, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), well known in the Alps. The success of the liqueur is principally due to its digestive and tonic properties. White, green or brown depending on the ingredients used, the liqueur is between 30 and 40 per cent proof.