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!)