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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)