One of the more fun places we ate at in Saint-Etienne was our Sunday night meal at Chez les Fondues on Rue de Marengo (see map). That's right - it was an honest to God fondue restaurant.
I've learned that traveling from west to east when there's a time zone difference of six hours or more is to get to the city you're going to in the morning or the early afternoon. Your body time will still be on what time it is back home, so more than likely you'll be pulling a 30 to 36 hour straight stay-awake shift (that is, if you're like me and can't sleep on planes). The trick is to stay awake as long as you can and to go to bed at the regular time on the first night you're there. We didn't leave to go to the restaurant until about 7:30 p.m., French time, so I wasn't certain I'd be able to stay awake at dinner.
Chez Les Fondue is a small little place that seats, maybe, 30 people. We had a party of 14 including our host, Dominic Baker, the chief engineer and international sales manager for Focal; and Jacques Mahal, the founder and president of Focal (shown above at right).
After first bringing out about four bottles of wine, they brought out all the fondue pots, along with the pots of melted cheese. Then they brought out bread and piles of cubed steak, chicken and pork. Then they brought out cubed pieces of fried potatoes (yes, they called 'em French fries).
It was like the fondue you did at home back in the 70's and 80's when it was so "hip" to fondue. You put a piece of meat on the end of a little spear, stuck in the boiling hot oil, kept it in there for three to five minutes (depending on how done you wanted your meat - I had nothing but the beef, so I was sticking it in for 90 to 120 seconds, tops), pulled it out and ate it. You'd take bread or the potato cubes and dip those in the cheese fondue pot. It was great.
Then they brought out this thing that was some sort of a melting device and they stuck this half-moon hunk of stinky friggin' cheese on it. I wasn't certain what it was, but when I tasted the cheese melting off the device I immediately fell in love with it. I was just introduced to the heavenly cheese called Raclette. It smelled like hell when it was room temperature, but it was heavenly when it was warmed up and melted.
The Raclette cheese would melt off this little contraption (similar to the one shown on the left) and you'd scrape it with this sort of narrow wooden knife. You'd put it on bread, or on potatoes, or on meat or whatever. Hell, I'll bet you could even put it on dead mice and they'd taste great. It was that good.
The name Raclette comes from the French word "racler" meaning "to scrape." I was told that Raclette began in Switzerland at the end of the 19th century. Workers who gathered grapes for the annual harvest had made a fire and legend has it that one of the grape gatherers cut a piece of cheese with a hot knife. The cheese began to melt with a golden brown color and stringy texture. The worker immediately scraped the melted cheese of his hot knife and on to a piece of bread he had in a backsack and it tasted wonderful. Raclette was born.
Raclette has long been a tradition in both Switzerland and France, although one of my colleagues told me that he'd had Raclette once before about 20 years ago at a small ski lodge in upstate New York. But he said it tasted nothing as good as this.
Chez les Fondues was so fun, the food just kept coming, the wine kept flowing. I was literally busting at the seams. I'd not eaten so much for a long, long time. All in all, it was one of the most decadent displays of gouging ones self on food that I've ever participated in.
AND THEN, just after 10 p.m. locally (3 p.m. body time - I was now up 31 hours in a row) they brought out Chocolate fondue for dessert! Holy shit! I was ready to explode from eating too much and ready to pass out from lack of sleep, and they brought out Chocolate fondue with marshmallows, peach slices, pear slices, strawberries and other things to dip into the chocolate.
Jesus, what didn't they bring out to put on a stick and put it in melted chocolate? And it was SWISS chocolate, to boot! (Saint-Etienne is about 135 miles from Geneva, Switzerland - see map.)
I was so frigging stuffed after all that food that there was no way that I could eat anything else. After many protests to my colleagues that I couldn't possibly eat another bite, I did break down and dipped a marshmallow into the warm chocolate. Oh man! I don't eat chocolate very often, but this was absolutely great. I had to have another one. And another. I was REALLY ready to explode.
You ever eat so much that your body physically hurts? That was me that night. Thank God for the slow walk back to the vans or I would have really been in a world of hurt.
Chez les Fondues was fun, but it was too much food, too much cheese, too much wine, too much chocolate. And I loved every minute of it.