Trip Report: Ski Vacation to France Part II

After eating a wonderful meal at La Cremailliere we met up with Thomas Barnier, former professional French Freestyle skier who now works as a ski instructor. Thomas met us at the top of one of the lifts of Avoriaz. Avoriaz is part of the Portes du Soleil, one the largest ski areas in the world with 12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland and over 650 km of slopes.

Shall we ski in France or Switzerland? Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Our group of 12 was here to ski/snowboard the alps by day and eat our way through the regional specialties, especially the cheese and wine, by night. Avoriaz (pronounced “ah-vor-ee-ah”) also sounds like it could have figured prominently in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy e.g. “on the third day look north to Avoriaz for help.” Anyway, we were greeted by Thomas who was tall, had long hair, a surfer accent in French and English, and was wearing the nearly calf-length red parkas of the ESF (Ecole de Ski Française). Thomas is the close friend of a friend of mine named Sylvain, a musician who sells vegetables at the farmers market for Denis Dutruel, my former boss.

Thomas, with his duster style ski jacket, looked like some kind of ski cowboy. Photo credit Nick Green.

Thomas began our lesson by talking about the principles of carving, of edging our skis, keeping our weight forward, flexing our legs. This group was all experienced skiers and were all familiar with carving. Thomas led us on slope to watch us carve. The sloped he happened to pick (on purpose I am quite certain) had about the same incline as a road in Kansas on its way to Missouri. Lacking any speed (mostly we were poling to arrive at the lift) we had scant opportunity to carve, though we did manage. At the bottom of the “slope” Thomas greeted us each individually.
“Aaron did you feel the sensation of carving” he asked.
“Oh yeah, I definitely felt it, lots of carving going on, I love to carve” we responded (or some version of that answer).
“No you weren’t carving, I was watching you and you didn’t carve at all!” Thomas rebuked us.

“What? I thought I was carving” says Nick. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

After that he had our attention (I guess he figured that since we were all accomplished skiers we would be reluctant to accept his teaching, unless he crushed our egos a little). Luckily, he took us on some steeper slopes where we could show off our carving techniques. Then he did a mogul workshop with us, showing us how to put our weight in the front part of skis and swing the backs around. He was enthusiastic and doled out compliments, but there was always his no-nonsense side with quick, unequivocal corrections at the ready.
“The moment your weight is in your heels, its too late!” he told us.
We were preparing for a guided backcountry 20-kilometer-long descent of the famous Vallée Blanche on the Mont Blanc Massif. This is an optional day trip and is for strong intermediate or better skiers and snowboarders who have some experience skiing “hors piste” (off piste, not “horse piss” as one of group wrongly claimed). Our preparation involved skiing our way through various resorts in the Portes du Soleil area, even make a good-sized loop into Switzerland and back in a day. At the French resort of Châtel we found some good fresh powder, and everyone got a chance to work on their off piste powder skiing technique. There were some spills on a steep run through some sheltered glades but mostly the group look somewhat competent.

We were mostly getting better…Photo credit Scott Shepler.

Raclette cheese is quite mild in a solid state but when melted this creamy cheese has all kinds of delicious flavors! Photo credit Lily Zhang.

We were also preparing by eating delicious sausages, lots of pastries, some beautiful salads, and Raclette (cheese scraped onto boiled potatoes and served with huge platters of charcuterie, cornichons, and pickled onions). Raclette is from the French and Swiss Alps and was originally a dish that herders made while up in the high pastures. They would place a half-wheel of cheese with the flat (cut) side next to an open fire. When the edge exposed to the fire started to bubble and melt they would scrape (“racle” in French) the cheese onto bread or boiled potatoes.

You can use a raclette machine that holds a half wheel of cheese on an incline and has a heating element that recreates the open fire. However, most raclette machines are an electric broiler that you place in the center of the table and can place small pans containing a slice of cheese (Raclette is now a type of cheese, but others will work as well) to let it melt and bubble. When eating that much cheese, charcuterie and rich food it is important to drink enough wine. The group followed that advice to the “t”.

Scott says: “Mark, can I go on the Vallee Blanche descent? Please…” Photo credit Sue Shepler.

The descent of the Vallee Blanche is weather-dependent, and I had been in touch with our French high-mountain guides, Ludovic and Fix. Our arranged day was Wednesday and the weather was looking very promising. We had an early departure to travel the 1 hour to Chamonix. Ludovic and Fix suggested that everyone obtain skis that were at least 90mm underfoot as there was a good chance of encountering lots of fluffy fresh powder.

The entry to the Vallée Blanche is impressive and beautiful. Photo credit Aaron Schorsch.

There was a lot of excitement and nervousness in the group. To enter the Vallée Blanche requires a walk along a very narrow, steep ridge that has a fall of several hundred feet to one side and considerably more on the other side. To be continued…

I love the French Alps. I love the Swiss Alps. I love the hundreds of varieties of French cheese, the crusty baguettes, and cured sausages. I delight in the hearty mountain dishes that are some combination of melted cheese, charcuterie, lardons, onions, wine, potatoes, cornichons, and French country bread. For “Saveur the Journey’s” Ski Vacation in France we are fortunate enough to spend the week skiing (or boarding) the French AND Swiss Alps by day and working our way through the delicious cheese-based cuisine of the French Haute Savoie region.

A charcuterie plate of various hams and sausages reposes next to the post and beam architecture in our chalet from the 1820’s.

During the trip we are based in the mountain town of Morzine which gives us access to the “Portes du Soleil,” the “Doors of the Sun” (tagline: where Swiss style meets French touch), 12 interconnected resorts in France and Switzerland comprising some 650km of slopes accessible with one lift ticket. This year the group consisted of 10 Americans (from Colorado, Seattle, West Virginia and North Carolina), plus myself and two French staff, François and Caroline. After picking everyone up from Geneva on Friday we drove east along Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman as it is called by the French) to the town of Thonon-les-Bains, where I spent two years teaching English, growing vegetables, and skiing.

Caro’s “Fromage de tête with cornichon and green salad. A pile of house-made buckwheat noodles looms in the background.

The first evening of a Saveur the Journey trip I try to arrange a hosted meal with a French family. I think this is the best way to be introduced to a new place and culture, to be welcomed into someone’s house and be treated like family, or old friends. Often people are tired from their travels and appreciate the informality of a hosted meal as opposed to a restaurant. Caroline, who is a fantastic cook and entertainer, graciously welcomed us into her house.

The groups I lead with Saveur the Journey are small (12 is the maximum) and we spend a lot of time together. I try to facilitate the forming of a cohesive and supportive group through a series of “ice-breakers” and group challenges. We spent about an hour learning about each other, playing silly games, and voicing our goals and concerns. Afterwards Caroline rewarded us with Aperol Spritz’s (a trendy aperitif made with Aperol, Prosecco, and sparkling water). Conversation flowed easily as everyone mingled and relaxed. We were then treated to a wonderful meal that started with a homemade fromage de tete (which to my surprise was wolfed down with gusto from almost everyone), followed by the peasant dish Pizzocheri (handmade buckwheat noodles, with cabbage, garlic, potatoes, and cheese-just the right thing to fortify us for a week of skiing). Next came a beautiful cheese board with about 18 different cow, goat, and sheep cheeses and finally little puff pastries filled with vanilla pastry cream in the shape of swans. The group proved themselves to be easy going, quick to laugh, and great consumers of red wine.

Our driver and Haute Savoie local François did a great job introducing everyone to the Portes du Soleil and French Culture.

The next day we readied ourselves and traveled by van up into the Alps to a gondola at Ardent, serving the Portes du Soleil. Some people had brought their own skis, but most decided to rent. There were no lines at the rental shops as this trip is timed to coincide with the end of the French ski vacations. The Alps had been hit with lots of storms all year and they had a great base of snow with good coverage everywhere. Unfortunately, we were treated to rain at the lower elevations and poor visibility (but it was snowing) at the higher elevations. It was not the prettiest day of skiing, but everyone had good attitudes and a hot mulled wine at lunch did much to improve our morale. Somehow it also seemed to improve the weather as the afternoon brought a cease in the precipitation and even some glimpses of the beautiful mountains around us.

Not the greatest weather but you could still see the mountains.

We finished the day at La Ferme, a cozy restaurant/bar located at the top of the final descent back to the parking lot. It became our end of day meeting place during the trip and the servers looked out for us and took good care of everyone. After an end of the day beer or wine we returned to Morzine where we checked into Villa Solaire, our stunning and luxurious post and beam chalet that would be our home for the next week. Caroline busied herself with preparing Tartiflette, a classic French mountain dish of potatoes, lardons, onions, cream, and reblochon cheese baked together until creamy and bubbling.  Reblochon is a local raw milk cows cheese from the region that is exceptionally creamy and delicious. It is no surprise why there are bumper stickers that say “In Tartiflette we trust” or “Got Tartiflette?” Unfortunately, reblochon cheese is very hard to come by (and isn’t made from raw milk) in the USA so this simple dish is best tasted in the Alps.

Fromage blanc with raspberry and blueberry coulis.

Several of the group were transported by the cheesy Tartiflette to an alternate plane of existence, it was that good. Some of them came back, but some floated off to bed, but not before a fitting dessert of Fromage Blanc with coulis of raspberry and blueberry from La Ferme Prairial. Fromage Blanc “white cheese” is a delicious soft cheese not unlike yogurt but creamier and slightly thicker. With the tart but sweet raspberry and blueberry coulis, it made for a perfect end to another superb meal.

La Crémaillière lunch. Notice the large plates of sauteed potatoes. We left full and happy.

Caroline, our chef and resident weather worker, finally arranged for some colder weather with more snow. We took the opportunity to venture farther afield as visibility had improved. Francois lead us to the top of a ridge in Avoriaz where we were able to drop into the ski resort called Châtel. Some of group enjoyed staying on the groomed runs, preferring to carve the long slopes, while others enjoyed the off-piste skiing through the pillows of soft snow. Skiing with a large group is often very difficult and not enjoyable so we break into two or three smaller groups to reduce waiting times. From Châtel we took several more lifts up and continued skiing towards the East until we finally passed the border into Switzerland. The snow was still coming down and we only caught occasional glimpses of the dramatic, jagged, snow covered peaks that this area is known for. We all agreed the Swiss had better snow, based on the premise that they have more disposable income than the French and can therefore afford the good stuff.

If you just want a tidbit to eat you can always order the charcuterie plate…

After a brief foray in Switzerland we returned to the French side for out lunch rendezvous with the rest of the group. We ate at a fantastic restaurant called La Crémaillière where huge portions of sautéed leg of lamb with a cream sauce or grilled beef filet with foie gras, served with a gratin of squash, and sautéed potatoes were brought to us by probably the most competent and charming servers I had ever seen. One of our group wasn’t very hungry so he ordered a cheese and charcuterie board, which arrived as copious piles of thinly sliced sausages, hams, local cheeses, pickled chanterelles, and cornichon. At the end of our meal, despite the restaurant being packed with people waiting for tables (La Crémaillère has an excellent reputation) our server arrived with tiny glasses and a bottle of Genepi, a liqueur made from a local herb by the same name. We sipped the strong, slightly sweet, floral alcohol and set off into the snow for an afternoon of advanced group ski lessons with a former professional French freestyle skier named Thomas Barnier (to be continued…and….the weather gets better!)

“What the heck is Upski?”  I asked.

“It comes from your country,” responded Johan quizzically. “I think it started in Colorado and has been around for almost 30 years.”

Upski is a method used to ascend snow-covered mountains via parachute and wind.  It differs from randonée skiing in that it’s easier. It differs from kite skiing in that it is less dangerous.  Upskiing uses a harness attached to a parachute, or canopy (the preferred nomenclature) that can be completely depowered by releasing a Velcro tab that allows the wind to flow through it via an adjustable hole in the middle.  This advantageous feature hopefully helps the user avoid crashing into rocks, plummeting off cliffs, or having to cut the lines.

Catching wind with an Upski can sometimes feel like hooking a big fish!

Catching wind with an Upski can sometimes feel like hooking a big fish!

Saltoluokta is apparently an ideal place to Upski owing to the plethora of treeless, snow-covered mountains and almost constant supply of wind.  While many backcountry skiers will wax poetic about their love of skinning up mountains, most are probably lying, and too broke to afford a lift ticket. I count myself in that proverbial boat.  Skinning up is a good workout and peaceful and blah blah blah. The downhill is what puts the ear-to-ear grin on our faces and the spring in our step.  So Upskiing seems like a sweet deal; let the wind pull you up the mountain, then stow your lightweight nylon canopy in your backpack and ski back down to the bottom to do it all over again.

I had the opportunity to try Upskiing with a small group of beginners led by a Swedish mountain guide and two American Upski ambassadors, imported to introduce people to this newish sport.  In the morning, we packed our canopies and headed up the mountain holding on to a tow rope attached to the snowmobile like a ski train.

Here we come!  A momentary lack of wind causes the canopy to bounce off the ground like a helium balloon on its last legs.

Here we come! A momentary lack of wind causes the canopy to bounce off the ground like a helium balloon on its last legs.

The day started off as one of the most windless we had felt in weeks, making for perfect learning conditions that piqued our desire for more speed.  During most of the first hour we traveled slightly slower than the speed of a walking penguin. There are of course no penguins here; you are thinking of the South Pole which is spelled and pronounced differently from Saltoluokta.  There were moments of ephemeral excitement when a stray gust of wind would momentarily whip up the canopy, the lines would draw taught and we slide along for 20 or 30 meters (that’s right I count in meters now).

When the wind did arrive, our canopies eagerly jumped into the air, pulling us forward with a start.  One can steer the canopy by edging the skis and pulling on the ropes in the direction one wishes to go.  The feeling was exhilarating and with a steady wind the kilometers slip by quickly.

The straps in the middle of the canopy allow for more or less wind power.  Seeing what is ahead of you can be a bit difficult at times...

The straps in the middle of the canopy allow for more or less wind power. Seeing what is ahead of you can be a bit difficult at times…

Due to the speed created by the wind it is extremely advisable to have fixed heel skis (not cross country skis). However, cross country skis are what most people are wearing on their feet here (sometimes even in bed!).  My coworker Mats was eager to try Upskiing. Lacking the necessary equipment, he fashioned a haphazard binding system out of old telemark skis, zip ties, NNN-BC boots (not at all compatible with the telemark bindings), rubber straps, and I think I saw aluminum foil, cornichons, and bobby pins, but I might have had snow in my eyes.

The terrain where we were was only slightly uphill, so I never got to experience a wind assisted summit, but it seems like it could work under the right circumstances.  Perhaps eventually a new breed of wind skiers will be born that enjoy the Upski more than the downski.  Rich Upskiers could even engage in “Heliskiing” (Helicopter skiing). Instead of being dropped off at the top of the mountain, they would be picked up there!

If I wake up a 6:30 am I have time for a ski tour before I start work at 11 am.  I have skied most of the close, smaller, peaks around Saltoluokta, but larger peaks are visible in all directions, some of them with ideal slopes for skiing.  The biggest visible peak is Måskostjåhkå, which measures a little over 1400 m and is completely above tree line.  The approach to the base is about 5 km long over gently sloping terrain and the ascent has two steep parts and then follows a ridgeline to the pointy top.  My friend Sofia had a day off on Friday, and I rearranged my schedule to start at 3 pm instead of 11 am. Tommy, the head chef, gave us a ride in a sleigh pulled behind his snowmobile. In addition to Sofia and her border collie, Vessla, there were two other coworkers that came along for the snowmobile transport, necessitating two sleighs.  Even though the terrain was not very steep the smaller snowmobile had problems pulling the load, so we periodically had to jump off and push up the steeper parts.

Måskostjåhkkå at 1420m catches sun and beckons to be skied.

Måskostjåhkkå at 1420m catches sun and beckons to be skied.

Wind is very common in the mountains and it whipped at us as we rode in the sleighs, sitting cross-legged on reindeer skins, our backs to the wind.  Fortunately the wind was not so strong, and it was blowing in clear skies, a welcome sight.  Forty minutes of riding (and pushing) brought us to the base of Måskostjåhkkå where our two friends donned their skinny touring skis and set off back towards the lodge.  Tommy loitered for a moment; snapping pictures of us and watching reindeer make their way up a steep slope.  Sofia and I did an avalanche beacon check, strapped on our backpacks, and clicked into our skis.  We looked at the topo map and chose a route that would afford us the most protection from avalanches, opting to avoid a ravine and instead traverse a wind-scoured slope.  A group of seven reindeer had chosen the same path and were steadily traversing the slope single file. We waited for them to reach the top and then set off following their tracks.

Snowmobile transport makes the approach quicker.

Snowmobile transport makes the approach quicker.

Thousands of acres of un-skied snow awaited us; only reindeer stealing our powder turns.  Fortunately the reindeer are very considerate of powder conservation, consistently walking in each other’s footprints.  Our first traverse was the steepest of the day, but the reindeer had chosen an elegant line and the snow had a firm base with about 4 inches of soft snow on top, promising blissful turns on the descent.  At the top of the first pitch we picked our way through rock gardens on a plateau while heading towards the next pitch, which also proved to have a layer of soft snow.  At the top it became icy and windblown and we erred in our route and had to remove our skis and walk over wind exposed rocks for several hundred meters before clicking back into our skis.

Sophia and I layered up and ready to gain elevation!

Sofia and I layered up and ready to gain elevation!

The approach to the summit was gradual, but the snow was carved in windblown chunks, that looked not unlike currents in a river.   Vessla the border collie loped in front of us, occasionally pausing to roll in the snow.  We traveled along the bumpy snow for about half an hour, steadily gaining altitude until the top of the mountain was visible.  Here the snow was harder and wind-carved more dramatically and ornately, resembling sea corral in places.  The wind was strong enough to occasionally blow my hood off.  The weather had been cloudy with occasional bursts of sun, but as we reached the summit, the clouds cleared and we were treated with a magnificent view.

Sophia with lots of snow and mountains behind her.

Sofia with lots of snow and mountains behind her.

We donned extra layers and ate an early lunch out of the wind under the watchful eye of Vessla.  The decent of the upper section was much better than expected.  The wind carved snow was soft enough to break through and didn’t throw our skis off course.  We skied the bumps, occasionally getting air as we carved our way down.  We picked our way through a few rock gardens before reaching the first steep downhill.  The snow was soft and the angle was perfect for controlled turns with lots of speed.

Vessla with her snow makeup on.

Vessla with her snow makeup on.

Vessla ran hard to follow us as we gleefully made arcs.  A long traverse followed, ending at another excellent slope with great snow.  We had reached the point where Tommy had left us with the snowmobile but we were able to continue downhill for another half mile or so. We followed a shallow ravine that snaked its way through the foothills and deposited us out in a small flat valley floor.

Back down on the valley floor.Back down on the valley floor.

Skins were reapplied to our skis and we crossed the valley and climbed a small hill on the far side.  From here we could see Saltoluokta lodge below and to the east.  We removed the skins and tackled crusty snow, our tired legs fighting their way down the last long descent.  The slope eventually led into a dwarf birch forest where we found better snow.  Without the firm snow below, Vessla labored to keep up.  Sometime it looked more like she was swimming than running.  Finally the trees and slopes disappeared and we emerged onto the frozen lake that Saltoluokta fjällstation overlooks.  We skated on our skis for the final leg of the journey.

JokkmokkSpring2014 176

Back at the frozen lake!

I had time to eat a hearty lunch of moose stew with mashed root vegetables, take a shower and a quick nap before starting work.  My legs were tired but my mind was carefree and happy, a great way to start work.  Should I consider this trip as my commute?

I arrived in Saltoluokta Fjällstation on a snowy day by snowmobile transport.  By the end of the ten minute ride, I was covered in a light layer of snow.  I was shown to my new living quarters for the next three months and set about unpacking my clothes, skis, and kitchen knives.  I will be cooking food and skiing mountains at a remote mountain lodge, hence the packing list.

A few of my new co-workers on an orientation ski trip. (Photo by Mats Jacobsson)

A few of my new co-workers on an orientation ski trip (From left to right: Sophia, Elin, Tina, Kajsa). (Photo by Mats Jacobsson)

A few hours after I arrived with my friend Sophia from Jokkmokk, the rest of the Saltoluokta crew for the spring season were brought across the frozen lake by snowmobile.  Most of my co-workers are from southern Sweden, some of them have never been so far north.  Despite the fact that my Swedish is less than good, I still felt like I was less of foreigner to these northern Swedish mountains than the Swedes from southern Sweden.  I have grown accustomed to the snow and cold, the northern culture and dialect, the Sami influence, reindeer, the northern lights, and of course skiing.  Still I am a Swedish neophyte, which means many new experiences and surprises await.

A view from our lake at Saltoloukta

A view from our lake at Saltoloukta

The next day, after a delicious Swedish style breakfast (fresh baked bread, butter, jam, cheese, sliced deli meats, oatmeal, musili, nuts, lingonberries, blueberries, cornflakes, sliced veggies, soft and hard boiled eggs, Swedish caviar, orange juice, coffee, and tea) we introduced ourselves and began an orientation, which was hard to concentrate on because I only halfway understood what was being said.  Luckily, because I will be cooking, most of the information about guests, cleaning, room numbers, and reception chores didn’t apply.  I did meet the head chef who I will be working with.  His name is Tommy and he is also from southern Sweden but has worked at Saltoluokta for the past 6 years.  He is in his late 20s, loves music, and is high energy while being very laid back.  His Swedish is fast and hard to catch, even my old boss OT said he barely understood him.  Fortunately Tommy’s English is very good.

Smoked pork belly, local cheese, mixed greens, meadowsweet vinegrette.  Tommy the chef in the background.

Smoked pork belly, local cheese, mixed greens, meadowsweet vinegrette. Tommy the chef in the background.

After a long day of lectures we all sat down to a bizarre but tasty meal of “chili sin carne” which as far as I could tell was tofu chili served with pita bread, salads, crème fraiche and lingonberry juice to drink.  One of my co-workers is a vegan, thus the vegan main course.  After dinner everyone made their way down to the lakeside, where a wood fired sauna had been burning for several hours.  We enjoyed a cold craft beer while we waited for the sauna to reach the optimal temperature, about 170˚F.  The wooden sauna was hot and very relaxing, the darkness cut only by the flickering coals in the stove.  Periodically water was ladled onto the hot stove, sending up a cloud of hot steam and encouraging us to sweat freely.  People slipped out of the sauna into the refreshing coolness of the next room, or even ventured outside to roll in the snow.  When I stepped out of the squelchingly warm sauna the cool air felt like biting into a peppermint patty.

The first few days in Saltoluokta the weather was snowy and cloudy, but occasionally smooth snow covered mountains and craggy peaks could be glimpsed through the clouds.  I set my alarm for 6 am and readied my skis, skins, and gear for a sunrise ascent.  I am lucky enough to be able to put my skis on right outside my door to begin the climb to any one of a dozen peaks.  The snow was light and powdery and the trees changed from pines to birches to dwarf birches until I emerged from the tiny forest above treeline.  The sun had not risen but there was enough light to make my way upwards, the snow lightening the surroundings.  As I gained altitude I crossed reindeer tracks and even surprised a small flock of arctic ptarmigans, their white pear shaped bodies gliding in like torpedoes through the crisp morning air.

Clearing skies reveal more mountains.

Clearing skies reveal more mountains.

I set my sights on a small peak and reached the top by 7:15 am, just as the sun was beginning become visible.  The weather had cleared and I was able to see rows of mountains all around me, with a long valley winding off towards the west.  A winter paradise surrounded me.  I savored the view and investigated future climbs with my binoculars before setting off downhill on my skis, leaving symmetric squiggles in the soft snow.

Heading up in to the mountains.

Heading up in to the mountains.

When I am not skiing I am usually in the kitchen, cooking wild foods for hungry guests who are either returning from, or going, skiing.  The Saltoloukta restaurant serves local mountain foods, like reindeer, moose, arctic char, trout, and smoked whitefish.  Most of the food is served buffet style, so guests are sure to eat enough food, even if they have skied all day.  Cooking for a buffet is a new experience. For me, it is more like catering than the line cooking I am used to.  Instead of preparing each diner’s meal separately, everything is cooked together.  The kitchen here is full of big pots and pans, with almost no small pans.  My other cooking jobs have been the opposite, lots of little pans so that each guest’s meal can be prepared to order.

We bake our bread fresh each day, for both breakfast and dinner service.  I will be adding some diversity to the baking program, making naturally leavened (sourdough) boules, and open crumb “pain rustique.”  Some interesting culinary highlights have included a sea buckthorn (a yellow, tart berry, similar to a cranberry but tastes tropical, almost like passion fruit) butter with herbs, homemade vanilla ice cream with warm sweetened cloudberries, Danish rye bread baked with sunflower seeds and yogurt, salmon colored trout from the lake sautéed on lemon sea salt, sous vide moose top round, smoked reindeer heart with aged cheese, pickled chanterelles, and herb crostini.  We also served souvas, which is Sami word meaning smoked, but generally refers to salted and cold smoked reindeer meat.  The souvas we serve here I prepared while working at Utsi Ren.  It is delicious, lightly sautéed with onions and mushrooms and doused in cream (a common Swedish food treatment).  Souvas is very popular dish in northern Sweden owing to the fact that it is already seasoned, travels well, can be prepared quickly and tastes fantastic.  It was interesting to hear that my coworkers from southern Sweden weren’t familiar with it.

"Suovas" salted and smoked reindeer

“Suovas” salted and smoked reindeer

The first three weeks of work at Saltoluokta fjällstation are “family week” and the first week is the busiest week of the season.  The Stockholm region has “winter vacation” right now, so families book a week at the mountain lodge where adults can ski, snowshoe, ride snowmobiles, ice fish, sightsee, eat, drink, take saunas, and generally be merry while their children have outings scheduled every day with similar activities.  We had 45 children and 37 adults this week, which meant lots of work for everyone.  Saltoluokta takes on extra staff to run activities with the kids, while the rest of us learn a new a job while at maximum capacity.  While I only work in the kitchen, the rest of the staff rotates through different shifts including serving, reception, cleaning, and breakfast.  Reception seemed to be the most exciting of the tasks, as many of my co-workers have never worked a reception desk.  To make matters worse, the rooms are numbered in an almost inexplicable fashion.  One of the people I work with, who is a very talented linguist (she fluently speaks Swedish, Finnish, English, and French), confided in me that she had only one guest check in during her shift at the reception desk.  She explained where his room was located and gave him the room number.  A few hours later she was on her way somewhere else when she found him taking up residence in a completely different room.

This is the top of a small mountain about 1300ft of evelvation above the lake.  The descent takes 15 minutes.

This is the top of a small mountain about 1300ft of evelvation above the lake. The descent takes 15 minutes.

The earliest I start work is at 11 am, which gives me ample time to have a leisurely morning, or more often, scale a new peak and ski back to my door.  My day supposedly ends at 8 pm, but that has not happened yet. Usually I finish cleaning the kitchen at 10 pm.  The 100 yard stroll from the kitchen to my room is usually lit by stars, and occasionally aura borealis.  I have seen vivid displays, where the shimmering green lights seem to emanate from the north but flow all the way across the sky to the southern horizon.  Magical rivers of light that seem to inspire awe and wonder in all who see them, much like Saltoluokta Fjällstation itself.

The northern lights (photo by Mats Jacobsson).

The northern lights (photo by Mats Jacobsson).