Relaxing in a lakeside village
One of the most beguiling spots for a vacation in all of France is the tiny village of Talloires, nestled at the foot of the French Alps on the eastern shore of Lake Annecy. Although the water is chillier and the weather is more unpredictable than along the Cote d'Azur, the scenery, with Mont Blanc perpetually crested with snow, and the regional cuisine, including a delicious fish from the depths of the lake, are unsurpassed in all of France.
For the sports enthusiast, the lake is a playground for water sports, windsurfing being particularly popular. Talloires has its own miniature port, which was full of sailboats when I was there, with halyards tinkling in the summer breeze.
If you prefer to climb in the mountains above Talloires, you can check the bulletin board in the Syndicat d'Initiative (tourist office) for notices of arranged hikes and for the schedule of the excursion boat that leisurely circles the lake. (Even in the smallest rural towns in France, you will find an SI that will be helpful in finding you a room, a good restaurant, or any other need that may arise.)
Talloires consists of little more than a few houses, shops, and some half-dozen small hotels. A winding road from the main village leads leisurely down to the lake, along which are situated three charming inns, all with noteworthy restaurants. One of these, the Auberge du Pere Bise, is among the 21 Michelin three-star restaurants in France.
Since 1901, when the grandfather of the current patron, Francois Bise, bought the small chalet at the water's edge, the restaurant has been in the Bise family. In the tradition of the day, Francois's grandmother tended to the kitchen, and her husband ran the dining room. The little place prospered, favored by Britons who came over from Aix-les-Bains, and Britons are still frequent customers today.
It was Francois's parents, Marius and Marguerite Bise, who established the restaurant's current reputation. Marius was a gregarious and charming host, but it was Marguerite who was the cook. Many dishes of her creation, such as the poularde braisee creme d'estragon (chicken cooked with cream and fresh tarragon) , are still on the menu.
Francois Bise took over the restaurant from his parents in 1960 and faced the challenge of maintaining its status as one of the best dining rooms in France. Reversing the tradition of his father and grandfather, Francois took charge of the kitchen, and his wife, Charline, took care of practically everything else. She is known affectionately among the chefs as ''General Bise,'' perhaps because she performs her job so efficiently, and perhaps because of her large, round spectacles, and hair gathered tightly back at the nape of the neck.
Francois spent three years training under the famous Fernand Point at La Pyramide. He learned to use the freshest ingredients and cook them in the simplest way to preserve their natural flavor. He took advantage of the wonderful produce of the Savoie region, particularly the fish from the deep, clean water of the lake. There are special tanks behind the restaurant to keep the fish absolutely fresh - the omble chevalier, a delicious rose-colored fish unique to this area in France, as well as trout and ecrevisses (crayfish).
From the countryside are gathered tiny, sweet fraises des bois (wild strawberries), and raspberries, and the mountains offer herbs and wild mushrooms. The cheeses in this region of France, such as the delicious reblochon , are creamy and distinctive.
Today at Pere Bise, the kitchen is in the hands of 27-year old Gilles Furtin, although Charline Bise still calmly runs the dining room, and Michel Marucco, the headwaiter, has been with the Bise family since the 1940s. The menu remains devoted to simple preparations of fresh, regional produce and is attractively served on violet-patterned china in a gracious dining room filled with roses from the Bise gardens.
A lunch or dinner here will be remembered long afterward and is well worth the price. While you can order a la carte, if you would like to fully sample the kitchen's offerings, as I did, the menu compose at 350 francs allows a choice of an hors d'oeuvre, an entree, a roti or grillade, followed by a cheese tray, fruits and sorbets, and an overwhelming cart of desserts. Be sure to have a slice of the marjolaine, Bise's version of Point's famous 4-layer hazelnut meringue filled with a bitter chocolate cream, butter cream, and praline cream.
After lunch I sank into the wicker chairs with thick, blue cushions on the porch of the restaurant, then took a brisk walk along the path that circles the lake.
Fifteen comfortable rooms are available at the Auberge du Pere Bise, but there are several other options for overnight. Just next door to Pere Bise is Le Cottage, where I stayed in a pretty third-floor room with large French windows revealing a magnificent view of the lake. The large and comfortable room was furnished with antiques and decorated in a soft shade of peach.
For more information on Talloires and the surrounding region, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020.