When I arrived in the Vosges, I had a simple problem: I didn’t know where to go. After visiting the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Jura, what new experiences could the Vosges possibly give me?
Compared to the other mountain ranges I visited, the Vosges are confusing: they don’t follow a general direction. There is no border to follow either. Instead, the rounded mountains, “les ballons”, not tall enough to become recognisable landmarks, fragment the landscape. As I wandered along the windy roads, with the tall trees only occasionally opening up to a view, and around the valleys, I got hopelessly disorientated.
The weather was overcast, if not rainy, in this beginning of autumn. The vast expanses of forests were dense, dark, damp, foreboding in their stillness. The kind of forest Little Red Riding Hood should not have entered on her own. The impression was that of an oppressive maze. I certainly didn’t feel like stepping out into the woods and explore on foot.
For once, it took people’s mediation to unlock the landscape for me. First, I visited a confiserie, a sweet factory. Sweets from the Vosges are famous and widely available in France, but I had never made the link between them, and the forests surrounding me.
As I entered the factory, I got an olfactory slap in the face of violet. The chain consists of two workers, following the same sugar, water and glucose paste around the cooking, mixing, kneading, pressing, sprinkling machines and worktops. They were quiet, efficient and precise, a joy to watch for their love of a job well done.
I found the same close attention to plants and their aromas at the distillery. I had another slap of violet in the nose as I walked in; they too were working violet that day. It must have been the season. They are now expanding their production to whisky, but the main produce here is still eaux-de-vie and liqueurs. Traditional flavours include cherry (we aren’t so far from Germany now), plum (mirabelles from the nearby Lorraine) and blueberries.
But this distillery is also where I encountered the infinite variety of flavours and smells of the forest, through my nose and tongue. I highly recommend the experience – not that I got drunk! Some taste nothing like they smell – nothing like you expect: holly eau-de-vie, for example, evoked smoked pork to me. Fir tree liqueur has a fresh, menthol finish. Whitebeam eau-de-vie strongly smells of frangipane, but has a very mild, almost indiscernible taste.
Anyway, as I walked out – well, the day after – my eyes were open. Under the tall dark fir and pines, and the oaks covered in lichen, grow a multitude of plants and their fruits are full of aromas. It also helped that the last rain had mushrooms grow everywhere, adding new textures, colours (especially the red fly-agaric) and tastes (lovely boletes). I also ventured to the top of the mountains, where the forests open up to moors of heather, grass and blueberries. I even found a new species of broom, the winged broom, and I felt at home in the Vosges.
Once unlocked, they are a truly wondrous place to explore.