Wednesday, 29 December 2010

MOUNTAIN FOOD

Mention the Alps and food in the same breath and most people immediately think of fondue, that warming, comforting dish of melted cheese, with or without the addition of alcohol, into which one dips chunks of  bread.

If you break fondue down to "component level", it is easy to see this is a dish constructed from leftovers: old, hard bits of cheese, and stale bread. Like many other dishes from this region, fondue is "make do" food in many ways - using up bits and pieces left in the larder. The landscape has a direct influence on the food: in the old days, before the roads were made good and kept passable during the winter, it was important for the indigenous population to feed themselves without having to traipse down the mountain every day to shop. Thus, much of the food of this region is made to last through the hard winter: cured and preserved meats, like salami and air-dried ham; bottled fruits and vegetables; pickles.

Visiting this region in the winter, you also realise that this food is meant to sustain. Coming off the slopes the other day, my face raw from the cold, despite a generous application of Dr Hauschka's Rose Creme, I was grateful for a warming dish of baked cheese, potatoes, onions, bacon and cream. This, of course, is Tartiflette, another classic dish from the region, made from sliced potatoes layered with Reblochon cheese and bacon. It is a meal in itself and needs nothing more than a fresh green salad as an accompaniment.

Another dish I enjoyed during my week in the Alps was 'Berthoud', Abondance cheese baked in a gratin dish and served with charcuterie and pickles. It's filling and hearty, and really sets you up for a long walk in the snow (as I did after lunch in a hotel overlooking the beautiful Lake Montriond) or an afternoon on the slopes.
Lake Montriond

Classic fondue is a mixture of Emmental and Beaufort cheese (similar to Gruyere), Savoie wine, garlic and Kirsch. It's a very convivial dish to enjoy with friends, with everyone dipping their long forks into the bubbling cheese mixture, and passing around the accompaniments (like Berthoud, charcuterie and pickles). These days, it is possible to buy a ready-made fondue cheese mix from the supermarket (I've seen this in Waitrose, and you can definitely buy it in France), but Fondue is not difficult to make. You do need a fondue set, however, as the little burner under the bowl keeps the cheese at an even temperature.

The local spirit is Génépi, a digestif made from several Alpine plants. It is related to Grappa and Schnapps, and, like the food, warms the body after time spent out in the snow. The vibrant green liqueur Chartreuse is the commercial version, but many restaurant owners and residents make their own. Go into a local produce shop in Les Gets, and you will find row upon row of different flavours of Genepi, including aniseed, forest fruits and violet. Another local liqueur is made from chestnuts, and makes a delicious Kir Royale when added to champagne or cava.

On my last day in the Alps, I ate a dish called Ecorce de Sapin, a whole Camembert-type cheese baked and served with boiled potatoes, charcuterie, salad and pickles. I drank a glass of very cold Rose wine with it - entirely delicious!
Ecorce de Sapin


Click this link to find recipes for Tartiflette, Berthoud and Fondue.
La Chamade - a fine restaurant in Morzine

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