Saturday, April 28, 2012

Say Cheese in the French Alps

Reblochon is a key ingredient in fondues and in the local dish tartiflette, a comforting baked potato and cheese concoction

The French Alps are renowned for valleys sprinkled with story-book chalets, chic ski resorts, and impossibly pretty scenery. They are also famous for their food: sturdy stews and soups, diots (little sausages), mushrooms and game from the forests, and dairy produce from the rich alpine pasture: the Haute Savoie alone has more than 30 different varieties of cheese.

The snowy summits and icedipped peaks of the French Alps have long lured skiers chasing powder thrills and downhill speed, nourished in their conquest of the slopes by honest, robust French mountain food.
The Savoie, vestige of a kingdom that ruled this corner of Europe for eight centuries, sits at the heart of the French Alps. Divided into Savoie and Haute Savoie, it is home to many of France’s most stylish ski resorts – Chamonix, Courchevel, and Val d’Isère – and some of its finest cheeses. These came long before the folks in chunky boots and salopettes. The first skis – simple wooden planks – made their debut in 1878, while local farmers were making cheese in the Middle Ages.
Thus, cheese has always been a mountain staple.
Reblochon de Savoie, Abondance, and Beaufort are acclaimed local cheese celebs, while the region’s most legendary dish is the dippy fondue Savoyarde (Beaufort cheese melted with local dry white wine and Kirsch).
Cheese is intrinsically linked to the gloriously scenic landscape. Beaufort, named after the pretty Beaufontain region, trumpets the flavors of the Savoie.
In summer, the Tarentaise cows graze on alpine grasses high up on the mountains around the town of Beaufort, infusing the cheese with flowery-herb flavors. In winter, they remain in the barns on a diet of hay. Thus, the color and aroma of the poetically named Beaufort d’Alpage (literally “Beaufort from the high mountain pasture”) is completely different from the ghostly winter Beaufort.
The region’s next most famous fromage is the delicate-tasting Reblochon, from the eastern slopes of the Haute-Savoie; almost two-thirds is produced in the magical Aravis Massif, a stone’s throw from Lake Geneva. In winter, the snow-covered slopes around the villages of La Clusaz and Le Grand-Bornand are the domain of skiers, but come spring, the dairy godmothers trot out to reclaim the grassy slopes. Again, the local diet bestows a unique taste to the cheese.
Lake Annecy, with its lofty backdrop and blue, blue water – dubbed “the purest in all of Europe” – is proof that lakes and mountains are inspiring cohorts.
At its northern tip, the town of Annecy itself, former seat of the Comtes de Genève, makes a good base for exploring the country roads and fromageries of the Haute-Savoie. A trip to Chamonix will give skiers and mountain-climbers the wide open slopes they crave: this was, after all, the birthplace of mountaineering, as well as the site of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924.

Moving at an imperceptible pace, the mighty Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”) glacier travels down the valley it has carved in the rock

Three Days in the French Alps
Annecy makes an excellent base: its public transportation links around the region are good, but taxis are also plentiful and car rental is available.
 Explore Annecy’s medieval quarter with its atmospheric canals and arcades. Visit the turreted Château d’Annecy to see traditional arts and crafts. In fine weather, opt for a three-hour guided bicycle tour of the town. Bird-fanciers can explore the Sentier de découvertes des Roselières around the lake to spy water fowl.
 Visit a traditional fromagerie (see overleaf) to see how cheese is made.
Farms around the village of Grand-Bornand make Reblochon, and Beaufort is charming. In summer, listen out for the clang of cowbells on the mountains .
 Head for Chamonix and take a cable car up to Aguille du Midi, 12,300 ft (3,842 m) high, for sweeping views. Take a train up to France’s longest glacier, the 4.3-mile (7-km) Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice). Spoon down tartiflette – potato, bacon, onion, and cream topped with melted cheese – at La Bergerie to ward off the chills.

Getting to French Alps

Trains run frequently from Lyon and Paris to Annecy. Buses serve the closest major airport, Geneva, with daily flights also from Paris to Annecy’s Meythet airport.

Where to stay in French Alps

Hôtel Les Cimes (inexpensive) in Annecy has a warm, chalet feel.
Hameau Albert 1er (moderate) offers old-style comfort in Annecy.
Auberge du Père Bise (expensive) has views over glorious Lake Annecy.

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