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Franche-Comte at Christmas - A discovery of mouth-watering Christmas delights

Date Created: 15 October 2013

Pressing my nose against the window of master chocolatier Edouard Hirsinger’s emporium, I feel a frisson of festive spirit. Outside night is falling in the historic town of Arbois in the Franche-Comte region of Eastern France, but inside M. Hirsinger’s shop bright lights illuminate shelves groaning with mouth-watering Christmas delights. Beguiled by battalions of white chocolate snowmen, I coo over a crèche full of sweet pink sugar cherubs. Beside a forest of chocolate Christmas trees adorned with decorations fashioned from nougat, a celestial choir of chocolate angels hover beside rows of rotund Father Christmases. These clever confections are such works of art it would seem a sin to take a bite. Yet the temptation is too strong; I must go inside.

On entering, the scent of chocolate, dark, rich and enigmatic, pervades the busy shop and my attention is immediately drawn towards neat rows of glossy chocolates. But these are not your average sweeties. The award winning M. Hirsinger, the third generation of his family to create chocolates here, is an haute couture confectioner. Constantly experimenting with new ideas (he produces summer and winter collections each year) his latest models include chocolates flavoured with tea, saffron, chestnut, passion fruit, green pepper and even a hint of chilli. And judging by the beribboned boxes flying over the counter, there will be many a shoe (French custom favours shoes in front of the fireplace instead of stockings) filled with M. Hirsinger’s fabulous fare this Christmas.

This is just one of the reasons why Franche-Comté region is the perfect location for a pre-Christmas break. If, like me, you feel that Christmas has become little more than a frantic celebration of the great god mammon, this land of contrasts offers an opportunity to relive your childhood, complete with snow, lights, fine food, fairy stories and good old fashioned fun.

The countryside, from the snowy mountain tops to the wooded river valleys, is sumptuous. This is Courbet country after all and the views are positively inspirational. From the window of my opulent room in the Chateau Germigney situated in the tranquil village of Port-Lesney, the winter landscape features unspoilt undulating forests embracing the mercurial waters of the River Loue. This area of Franche-Comté is known as the Val d’Amour but the entire region radiates love for the good things in life.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the town of Montbeliard where the annual Christmas market is a magical event. Situated between the mountain ranges of the Vosges and the Jura, Montbeliard was a German principality ruled by the Dukes of Wurttemberg for several centuries and the region’s identity owes much to its protestant past. As Montbeliard only became French after the revolution, much of its Germanic heritage remains including the Renaissance houses in the town centre, the beamed facades of which are painted in subtle shades of ochre, saffron, yellow and rose.

The town is dominated by the chateau, once home to the Dukes and now a museum and Saint Martin’s Church, dating from 1601, the oldest Lutheran church in France. Between 24th November and Christmas Eve, this church forms the centre piece of Montbeliard’s famous ‘Lumieres de Noel.’ Every year the streets are decorated with shimmering garlands and swags suspended between the historic buildings. These starry illuminations seem somehow more unpretentious than the show off extravaganzas of Regent and Oxford Street and as night falls, fairy tale enchantment permeates the town.

This seasonal drama is enhanced when a woman dressed in national costume appears leading a donkey through the streets. Excited children skip beside her until they reach a tiny wooden house from which she hands out special Christmas chocolates called ‘papillote.’ This is Aunt Airie, the Montbeliard Good Fairy. Some three hundred years ago, so legend has it, Aunt Airie lived in a cave and was generous to all the people who came asking for help during the cold winter nights. By day, she wandered the streets distributing delicacies and promises of better times to all the children. At home in her cave, she would listen to the children’s dreams and made sure they came true at this special time. Whilst some said she was the soul of Countess Henriette, a philanthropic Montbeliard aristocrat, others believed she was the daughter of a druid. Yet, whatever the source of this charming Christmas legend, Aunt Airie is there every year with Marion, her donkey, dispensing kind words and gifts.

Such charming stories are only part of Montbeliard’s charm. The famous Christmas market surrounding Saint Martin’s church offers an opportunity to buy authentic and original gifts from a vast range of craftsmen. Strolling around the rustic wooden stalls selling hand crafted goods from wooden toys to woollen hats to jewellery is a jolly affair. Whilst children wrapped in warm clothes, their faces sticky with toffee apples and ginger cake, are captivated by toys which have no need of batteries, their parents enjoy a warming cup of spiced apple juice or mulled wine. The scents and sounds of this picture book market are evocative of a less frenetic era when simple family fun did not involve a computer or television. Families can join in a range of activities from pastry-making workshops, chocolate tastings and sleigh rides and strolling minstrels and musicians contribute to the merry atmosphere.

In the town’s produce market, I sampled some of the region’s gourmet specialities including the Montbeliard and Morteau sausages and distinctive cheeses such as the delicious Comte, Mont d’or and Morbier. The Jura region of Franche-Comte also produces a range of exceptional and unusual wines such as the celebrated dark yellow Vin Jaune and the local sparkling wine, Cremant du Jura, is a celebration in a glass.

In the unlikely location of the Peugeot Adventure Museum in nearby Sochaux, I find another perfect Christmas gift. Although a museum dedicated to the history of cars might sound like one for the boys, the Peugeot story actually began in 1810 with the humble coffee grinder. The company began making such domestic items before becoming a pioneering car producer in 1886. Surprisingly the museum is fascinating, not only in terms of design and engineering but also fashion, marketing and innovation. And in the museum shop, I bought myself a pepper mill, a Peugeot speciality, both practical and elegant.

In Besancon, Franche-Compte’s capital, I found further examples of practical elegance. The citadel, designed by the celebrated military architect and engineer Vauban, comprises various historical exhibitions including a Museum of the Resistance and Deportation which moved me to tears. The towering citadel overlooks the city rooftops, lush hills and the looping River Doub which creates a natural defence around this exceptionally beautiful city. Comprising a Roman triumphal gate, sixteenth century palace, Renaissance houses and elegant squares, it also boasts The Musee des Beaux Arts considered one of the finest art galleries outside of Paris. Besancon was also home to Victor Hugo and the Lumiere brothers who in the late nineteenth century pioneered the art of cinema.

Tucked away in a narrow street beside the St-Jean Cathedral is a hotel which encapsulates all that Franche-Comte represents. The intimate Hotel Charles Quint, dating from the sixteenth century, is a masterpiece of style and sumptuous interior design. The charming owners, Veronique and Philippe Mathieu, saved the building from potential ruin and at the same time created a unique and welcoming retreat. Every area, from the sumptuously appointed wood panelled salon to the individually designed rooms, prove inspirational. My vast room, overlooking an Italianate tiered garden and compact swimming pool, features pitched ceilings, an ornate bed head carved by the talented Philippe and a luxurious bathroom with deep marble edged bath. As night falls I throw open the shutters, breathe in the crisp winter evening air and listen to the bells pealing out from the Cathedral. There’s only one thing missing from this seasonal scene. Now where exactly did I put those chocolate Christmas angels?

Beverley Byrne travelled to Franche-Comte with Eurostar and TGV. Tel: 08705 848848 www.raileurope.co.uk

Franche-Comte tourist board Tel: 00 800 2066 2010 (from abroad free call from land line) www.franche-comte.org

Hotel Charles Quint: Tel 0033 (0) 381820549 www.hotel-charlesquint.com

Written by Beverley Byrne.

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