The Quest for the True Fondue at Évian-les-Bains
‘La lune blanche
Luit dans les bois,
De chaque branche
Où le vent pleure…
C’est l’heure exquise!’
‘The white moon
Illuminates the wood,
O my well-beloved.
The pond reflecting
The weeping winds.
It is the exquisite hour.’
From Lyon east to Évian-les-Bains the road crosses the ever-rising foothills, climbs the Alps, summits its high passes and drops into the long valley of Lac Leman. The giant sluice gates at the lake control its level, the overflow giving rise to the Rhône. At the gates we stopped to look. To the left was Calvinist Geneva. To the right was ebullient Évian-les-Bains.
My partner, my Marisol Pilar de Froissart of the French Blonde smile, had roots in the foothills and the Alps to the east of Lyon, her now hometown, as well as in Spain. Her childhood school friend and later boyfriend, Auguste Hollande, she told me, is a beloved son of the region, bien-aimé, an artisanal stone worker in Évian-les-Bains, with his home overlooking the lake. She said he was about to propose to his longtime friend and wanted us to meet his Céleste.
“Un voyage aux Montagnes? Oui!!!? Trois jours, ou quatre?” A four-day road trip to Lake Geneva, the Alps. Yes! Of course!
Marisol’s mother sent her to school with the Sisters of St. Roch, an open school of boys and girls above the lake. That’s where she and Auguste met when they were in Third Form. A quality education, French, but also Swiss.
One afternoon at a park on the banks of the Rhône in Lyon, in my second week of living with Marisol, in this dream, she looked at me excited, almost jumping up and down, and promised me the “true” fondue if we could go to Évian-les-Bains because her friend wanted to have us meet his intended. She announced that the true fondue would be made in my honor at the cabin in her ex-boyfriend’s stone quarry. It would be prepared by Auguste! “It will be merveilleuse! You will love him and his fondue, bien sûr!”
The autoroute into the Alps from the Rhône Valley rising through long tunnels and skirting monumental granite cliffs bypassed most of the immaculate and colorful Alpine villages on the way. The half-timbered old trading city of Annecy which pressed up against sheer precipices that rose two miles into the air was in front of us. We stopped for lunch at a Relais des Camions, an inn, a worker’s truck stop, which Marisol remembered favorably. It was good plain comfort food and a lot of it. Stews, country ham and cheese sandwiches. Not a Michelin star in sight. The taste was of the mountains.
As we drove into Évian-les-Bains towards Auguste’s home, we turned up the high street. The Paul Bocuse cooking school on the boulevard showed Évian’s ties to Lyon. Évian, a cultural child of Lyon, not of the nearby Geneva, promised some of the best cuisine in the country.
Over the first long ridge were the stone workings, the cabin, and the house of her old friend. Now, as we got close in the early evening, the white moon rose across the lake, the movement of the wind reflected and shone the light through every branch. It was good to be here with my well-beloved. Marisol was rejoicing inside.
Auguste was waiting at the stone table in the yard outside his door in the twilight. Lots of smiles, Bienvenue! Kisses were rained on cheeks. Auguste shook my hand, patted me on my back as if we always knew one another.
There was no anxiety in his welcoming of me. Not a hint of any animosity at all. I was at ease. A great guy, big, bear-like, gentle. He told us of his orchard in the back that he loved like a child. We could breakfast there tomorrow if we liked.
He led us into his house and up to his newly finished apartment upstairs. This would be ours for our stay. Auguste lived in a similar space on the ground level. He planned to rent the upstairs for about 500 Euros per month. A bargain! He didn’t need the income. He designed and built it as a hobby, to show off his craft. It was very tempting considering moving in permanently, dropping it all and just doing it. “What do you think Marisol? Happily, ever after, here?”
Marisol thought of it too. She and I spoke lightly about being together for more than just the summer months in the future. Who could say? Never enough time? The moment was all.
The large three-bedroom apartment had a view of the lake and the massif to the southeast and east, a view of Lausanne across the lake. At night the lights of Geneva could be seen to the west. The place was all modern polished gray granite, but with oak beams and exquisite round marbles softening the angles, all his handiwork. Marquetry in the Swiss style graced many of the walls. His work.
We thought about it. The apartment. We discussed it the last thing before falling asleep in each other’s arms after a beautiful day of travel and welcome. The moon continued to rise high above us.
In the quiet of the night, the question came as it often did. Would this last through months of separation? I prayed that it could… yes, calling each day, but how long would that continue? Absence. Writing flourishes and mushy sonnets. I knew it would come to that. The days were counting down to the day when I would have to fly home. I promised myself to make the most of every hour with her. It was an easy promise to keep.
The summer mountain air and mountain quiet woke us along with the smell of the coffee. Breakfast was taken under a beech tree by the orchard. The fruit trees were ripe with peaches and cherries, green and fresh, each row accented with a cluster of red roses.
Auguste said he had to do a little shopping before lunch. He suggested that Marisol show me the statuary promenade in front of some of the grandest hotel spas. They lay almost one hundred meters above the lake in the Upper City. She remembered it from her youth, always one of her favorite places. She thought of the time, she said, when she and Auguste would hold hands there.
Open air, tour boats, there were dozens of small green and yellow birds chattering on the whitewashed balustrades. We walked swinging our hands as she had when she and Auguste were kids. We spent a lovely morning, and we treated each other to a chocolate truffle. At one we rode the funicular back down to the house.
Auguste greeted us and announced with bravado, “C’est finis! A Table! S’il vous plaît!” Today would be the Fondue lunch.
We walked the short path speedily in anticipation up from the house up to the cabin. Auguste trained as a chef at the Bocuse school and had friends over for just about every meal. A life being his friend was a life of great dining. For today he invited three of his old buddies, bachelors like himself, over for lunch. It would be the six of us gathered around the fondue, dipping and chatting and quaffing the same wine that was used with the cheeses, a semi-sweet white typical of the region.
The fondue pot had been rubbed down with a bit of salt and a lot of garlic. The lunch started with a fresh salade frisée and a vinaigrette. The gruyere was melting, just starting to bubble.
Marisol’s eyes were shining. It was quite a while, years, since she enjoyed a fondue by Auguste! I could see that their history was long. I dared to think sharing it with me could maybe have been part of her smile.
Our host expertly cut and tore at the baguette seeing that each chunk came with a bit of the crust on it. The fun began. The salad was rushed through in order to get at the fondue. Long forks in hand, it was every person for himself. Marisol, smiling as usual, blue eyes ecstatic, was quite the most adept, moving her fork with swiftness and grace. It was all jovial and delicious fun until my bread chunk fell off my fork into the cheese melt. A feigned look of “horreur” and calls for a “forfaît” followed as Marisol explained the custom. “If you lose your bread you have to buy the beer!” I was required to buy a case of good Alsatian beer to be shared at a future food fest. My penalty was repaid to me by all the kidding and the laughing.
“Oh. L’ Américain!”
We retired totally satisfied and still laughing to the comfortable living room in the house, digesting and waiting for the promised dessert of homemade tarte de fraises, fresh strawberry pie, and coffee. Marisol and Auguste shared photos of their school days and their lives since then. Their shared bond was a beautiful thing to see. Both been married. Both adopted children. Both were wealthy. Both were highly educated, and both were content. And for Auguste there was happiness with the widow Céleste and for my Marisol there was, for now, me.
The friends gave Auguste a hard time with “Wows” and “O-Lalas” when he passed around photos of Céleste and him in Paris and in Greece. She was lovely, big-eyed, dressed very well, latest Paris boy cut, dark hair, high cheek bones, slender. Lots of laughs, ribbings and more “O-LaLas!” But the guys were a bit jealous.
After the tarte and a café, the friends left with hugs, and with kisses on both cheeks. “It was great to meet you! Come back soon! And practice your fork technique!”
The three of us decided to drive into Geneva to see a little of the beautiful city and for a late dinner. We passed the jewel box of the Victoria Hall, wondered at the Reformation Monument, and walked by the lake in the cool summer evening.
“We’ll visit Céleste tomorrow. She has invited me. And I need a favor”, Auguste said. “Céleste and I, I believe, are getting close to the time for me to formally propose. Would you come with me tomorrow, give me support? I’m sure it will be fine with Céleste. You have to meet her! ” He showed us the diamond ring, an antique setting with an exquisite pear-shaped stone. “Bien sûr! Are you sure you want us there??”
“Mais Oui! Je vous en prie!””
The road to the city for dinner wound down by the lake over the sluice bridge. Every so often we would see a sign that read “Yes, We Have Perche!” “Perche in Season”. “Perche! Oui!”.
“Ah,” said Auguste “Tomorrow night it is Perche at the Grand Casino! The four of us! To celebrate! It holds the best five restaurants in town all inside. My favorite is le Restaurant Savannah; it is decorated to look like Africa, zebra skins and spears, the tables are made to look as if they are jungle tree houses, vines, très drôle, it is to laugh, but the cooking is French! Classique! They will certainly have la Perche! And besides, I am always lucky in the casino there at Faro!”.
The gigantic white Victorian and Edwardian spas, of which the Casino was a remodeled example, architectural piles of opulence, sit at the upper levels of the town like great angels of comfort and mercy. For two hundred years the aristocracy and the wealthy would come to take the waters. And play. It was a glorious walk along the row of spas on a bright morning. At night the lights across the lake and the bright lights of the casinos take over, brilliant but not garish. This is France, but a monied part of France near staid Switzerland just down the road.
The restaurant in Geneva was disappointing. Auguste apologized. The profiteroles, again chocolate, saved the meal.
The next day, in the afternoon, we drove to Céleste’s home on the road east from Évian. A revival Swiss Chalet, it was surrounded by sparkling mature flower gardens and shade trees. Céleste, pleasant, smiling, invited us in.
She had warm eyes and greeted us politely, but we could all feel the tension. Something wasn’t right. I could see from her glances, her face lovely but drawn, that things were not going to work out for Auguste. She knew the proposal was coming. She took him aside
Marisol and I saw his dejection and Céleste’s comforting sadness. She was trying to explain, to console him. Auguste needed support. Instead, we were witnesses to his sorrow. We three left in silence.
It was, as promised, to the Casino for perch...but without Céleste. Marisol looked at him, at his sad brown eyes.
“Auguste! It’s OK if you want to do something else.” He wouldn’t hear of it. At table Marisol asked, “Mon ami! Mon vieux! What did she say?”
“She said it wasn’t the right time. That we need to stay friends. Really close friends. She said she cares for me, that she would be honored, you know and so on… but she said it’s not right for us, not now. Not the right time… La vie, non?”
We told him we were sorry. He said, “Let’s not spoil our time together Marisol, Étienne.” Over dinner at the casino, Auguste kept a smile, asked about us, about our lives separately and together. He was being a perfect host. He kept things light. Inside, surely, there was deep sadness and regret. Embarrassment crossed his face even while trying to keep the conversation light.
Yes, the perch was special, but difficult to enjoy.
Auguste asked if we would like to go to the Grand Casino across the lobby and try our luck after dinner. Auguste won at Faro. I lost at Vingt-et-un. Adorable Marisol, the center of many of the gamblers’ attentions, won of course at Roulette.
At home that night over a small brandy we tried to console him with stories of love and hope for the future, even perhaps things changing with Céleste. She didn’t say no, just not the right time. Things always work out, mon ami. Just not the right time.
Marisol and I fell asleep embracing, holding each other tightly, not wanting to let go, knowing that for this time this was good. The future?
Two days later we took our leave promising as we left to visit Évian-les-Bains again soon. He was wonderful to us. We joked that he shouldn’t rent the apartment too soon. We could be in the market!
Relaxing at Casa Marisol overlooking Lyon, Marisol took a telephone call from Céleste.
Auguste was killed in an accident at the quarry. Marisol burst into tears. “Ce n’est pas vrai! Non!” She cried for an hour. I held her. She held on to me.
We left the next morning for Évian-les-Bains. The Alps towering, the clouds lowering. Drawing us in were the great masses of scraped gray granite against a dark sky.
The funeral was somber, well-attended by friends and town dignitaries. After, at the wake just for close friends, we savored the fondue prepared by Marisol as she remembered how Auguste prepared it with such flair.
It was just not the right time.
We were surrounded by his friends, our memories, and the weeping Céleste. Marisol said to me, “We all need to make time come to us. We should never wait for the right time. That’s why I love you Steven. We didn’t wait to kiss. We didn’t wait to make love. We didn’t wait to know that we would be together for life. Did we?”