Words by Matt Hampton
You will, of course, work up an appetite doing winter sports... and mountain food is haute cuisine in the most literal sense. There’s more to the Alps than cheese, but without their cows they’d be a very different place – the farmers who built the first dairies here, centuries ago, carved a living from the mountains that still exists. Their legacy: the astounding variety of cheese we enjoy here today. Reblochon, Beaufort, Tome des Bauges, Chevrotin, an abundance of Abondance… such is the stuff of life in the mountains.
Try Reblochon in a tartiflette – the hearty mix of potatoes, cream, lardons, onions and lashings of the mild, milky cheese. Raclette is the name of the cheese and both the method of scraping it, melted, over potatoes and charcuterie. Beaufort is the prince of Gruyères, its name quite literally meaning ‘good and strong’. Of the two varieties (winter and summer), winter is stronger, reflecting the herd’s switch from meadow grass to hay in the winter months.
And what good is all this cheese without a little ham? Saucisson, typically made from pork but also from wild boar, venison or even rabbit, is a speciality of the Alps. These hard sausages are flavoured with local herbs, garlic, pepper, fruit or nuts or anything else that takes the chef’s fancy. Slices are often served as hors d'oeuvres or simply as an accompaniment to a meal. So too are the cured hams such as jambon de Savoie, which must be air-dried for at least a year at altitude.
But these are not the only local treats. This tough but rewarding terrain also produces wonderful fruit: apples, pears and berries in particular, plus mushrooms including ceps and chanterelles which grow in the forests and are harvested before winter. Shop for them in resort and even if you miss market day, Carrefour and smaller supermarkets stock a wide variety of local produce.
It’s not all high living and l’art culinaire in the Alps – the French have embraced the street food trend like everywhere else, and if you want a quick bite before getting back on the piste, you’re well catered for. Food vans are starting to pop up and casual delis with snacks to go, such as the Épicerie du Midi next to the Aiguille du Midi cable car in Chamonix, are a growing trend. And trust the French to bring a gourmet twist to the humble hamburger. Picking up on the posh burger trend from around the world and running wild with it, choices now include a reindeer with girolle mushroom option at the Caron Freeride Café in Val Thorens and an outrageous Rösti Burger at Les Crozet in Val d’Isère. This is made with horse steak on a potato base and must be ordered a day in advance.