Secrets of the Jura Mountains

The spectacular Jura Mountains in France reward visitors with lovely scenery, food and wine. Whilst that’s enough to make a great holiday, dig a little deeper and you will discover their fascinating hidden secrets.

Thanks to the efficient meet and greet parking organised by Holiday Extras at Heathrow I was soon on my short flight to Geneva. Veronique met me and we headed off to the mountains.

Republic du Saugeais My first stop was the République du Saugeais. Now you may have some difficulty finding this on the map, so let me explain. Saugeais is a micro-nation of 5,000 inhabitants with its own flag and national anthem. I was cordially greeted by the President, Georgette Bertin-Pourchet.

Smoked meats and fish are a local speciality and in nearby Gilley I visited the Tuyé (smoke house) du Papy Gaby. I craned my neck to examine the 18 metre high chimney that smokes fish, ham, beef and the famous Morteau sausages. Samples were generously offered and they certainly packed in the flavour.

Absinth distillery An unusual product of the area is Absinth. The Armand Guy distillery in Pontarlier was founded 1890 and still operated by the Guy family. Visitors are told about the history and production of Absinth, shown round the distillery and then offered samples of this unusual drink; certainly something to remember, but don’t drive afterwards!

The area has many dairy farms that support the production of a wide range of cheeses. Built into a hillside, Fort Saint-Antoine in Granges Narboz is no longer used for military purposes but instead for maturing 100,000 wheels of Compte cheese. So vast is the installation that cheeses are turned and moved by robot machines. Another popular local cheese is Bleu de Gex. I visited the fromagerie in Chézery-Forens and saw the production process which dates back hundreds of years, then enjoyed sampling many of the cheeses the area produces.

Cheeses In this part of France cows have bells, so it’s perhaps not surprising that nearby Labergement-Sainte-Marie is home to the Opertino bell foundry, one of the few remaining in France. I watched, somewhat apprehensively, as molten metal was poured into moulds, wondering why the men doing this so close to me were wearing protective clothing and face coverings. After cooling, the moulds were opened, the sand removed and the new bells emerged, ready to be polished. Each one was tapped by the bell maker to ensure that it was sound.

The busy town of Morez, hemmed in by steep mountains was, from around 1860 to the early 1900s, the centre for the production of spectacles. The industry was founded out of necessity when one Pierre-Hyacinthe Cazeau broke the frame of his glasses. At the time these were imported from England but in 1796 Cazeau, a local nail maker, used his skills to create a new frame and thus the industry was born. The eyewear museum contains a prestigious collection of historic glasses – truly an amazing spectacle!

Briar pipe Nearby St Claude is famous for the manufacture of briar pipes. I visited both the pipe museum, confusingly twinned with diamonds, as well as a pipe-maker who demonstrated how a simple lump of wood is shaped, drilled, assembled with a vulcanised rubber mouth-piece and polished to create the product we are all familiar with today.

Watchmaking is another tradition of the Jura. During the long snowy winters farmers were unable to work on the land. In order to occupy their time and generate another income they turned to watch-making. Indeed, Switzerland owes some of its watch-making heredity to this area of France. In the sixteenth century, nearby Geneva gave refuge to French Protestants fleeing persecution, and they took their watch-making skills with them.

Jewellery Over time, mechanical watch movements become worn, so to strengthen them rubies, the hardest stone after diamonds, are used at key points to reduce wear, creating the requirement for the jewels. Thus the manufacture of watches and jewellery happily co-existed and I was fascinated t see how jewels are shaped and polished using traditional methods.

Many regions of France are famous for wines but the sparkling wines from Cerdon Bugey are made using the rare Ancestral method. The fermentation of the wine is stopped by cooling when the alcohol content reaches 6.5%. The wine is then bottled, capped and stored at ten degrees centigrade which gets fermentation going again. It is then removed and filtered, the bottles washed to remove any sediment, then re-bottled to produce delicious sparkling wine with light bubbles, often pink in colour. I was able to see the process and have it all explained at the Lingot Martin cellars in Poncin, who again provided generous hospitality and the chance to taste a number of different wines.

Silk factory The production of silk material was also a major local industry. Although it has now ceased,  the factory set up by Claude Bonnet is now a museum and I saw the original weaving machines, material samples and even live silk worms and moths; truly a fascinating experience.

The Jura mountains may be well known for summer walking and winter skiing, but scratch the surface and you will find so much more to discover, as well as hospitable locals happy to share their fascinating past and present with inquisitive visitors.

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Mike Pickup

Award-winning travel writer & photographer

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