After Christmas we made our usual pilgrimage up into the Vosges for a spot of much needed fresh air and exercise, followed by a robust lunch at a real ferme auberge. So what makes a ferme auberge real? Years ago, when I was working on my book A Taste of Alsace, I interviewed the then President of the Association des Fermes Auberges du Haut-Rhin to find out what were the criteria for inclusion. His definition was simple: the owner of such an establishment must be “un fermier d’abord, un aubergiste ensuite” – first a farmer, then an innkeeper.
The Ferme Auberge du Rain des Chênes is the real deal. Owned and run by various members of the Chaize family, fully 70% of the food prepared and served on the premises comes from the 30-hectare farm, which has 30 Montbéliarde cows (left) and 120 chubby pink pigs. Monsieur and Madame Chaize take care of the farm and make Munster and Barkas (a semi-hard mountain cheese), butter, fromage blanc and yogurt. Surplus whey from cheese making is fed to the pigs. Their son is in the kitchen, while their daughter is front-of-house.
The food is simple, copious, and reasonably priced (menus range from €18.50-€24) – expect tried and tested favourites like tourte (flaky-crusted pork pie that’s served warm), choucroute, Baeckeoffe, fresh and smoked pork in various guises, cordon bleu, some epic pommes frites mamie (Grandma’s chips/fries, hunky and disgracefully good, with skins intact), fruit tarts and the house fromage blanc battu, smooth and creamy and served with a lick of home-made bilberry jam.
To get there you need to head up the valley from Kaysersberg. While you’re in the neighbourhood, you may want to look in on this classic Alsace village, birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, with its gorgeous half-timbered, pastel-shaded houses, some decent restaurants (the Winstub du Chambard), a spectacular Christmas market – mark your card for next year – and the famous Faller family winery just outside the village at Domaine Weinbach.
Then wend your way on up into the hills to Orbey and press onwards and upwards in the direction of Basses Huttes. The Rain des Chênes is higher still (at around 750 metres above sea level), quite well signed, set beside the road in a spectacular position with sweeping views down the valley. In winter, take refuge from the elements in the cosy, beamy, chalet-style dining room; in summer you’ll want to be out on the ample terrace/deck looking down onto wild flower-speckled meadows and within sight of your lunch, which will be grazing or rooting about below (all the meat served here is raised on the farm; it’s part of the ferme auberge deal).
Countless hiking trails radiate out from the car park (with rich pickings along the way for mushroom hunters in late summer and autumn). Take a brisk walk before lunch to work up an appetite, or a gentle amble afterwards to shake things down, for in the true tradition of a ferme auberge, the portions at the Rain des Chênes are gargantuan, the welcome is warm and the eaux-de-vie (distilled variously from wild raspberry, Williams pears, marc de Gewurztraminer, sloes) are terribly tempting – for digestive purposes only, of course.