From the sublime to the not so ridiculous: food in the French Alps
March 25, 2010 § 2 Comments
I’m fresh back from my annual ski touring week which this year was a traverse of the Vanoise National Park. Our group comprised me, David, a Glasgow-based classical music composer and Matteo, a Milanese financier now settled in London. We were led by mountain guide Bruce Goodlad together with aspirant guide Phil Ashby.
For the skiers amongst you, our trip involved setting off from the Val Thorens lift system on Sunday morning and arriving in Val d’Isère five days later on Friday afternoon. Accomodation and most importantly meals were in a different alpine hut or refuge each each evening.
This might sound like hardship but we ate some fabulous food on the trip with the only dud meal being an indifferent tartiflette down in the valley in Moutiers on the Saturday night before our team set off into the wilderness.
After a relatively gentle start to the trip (a short climb followed by a long ski down) we arrived at the Roc de la Pêche hut at the head of the Pralognan valley. This is more mountain hotel than hut with running water and hot showers in the dormitory rooms. We had not really worked up sufficient appetite to do justice to our huge platefuls of jambon à l’os, sauce madère, gratin savoyarde and grilled sweet peppers. Afterwards, we felt like the pet hut St Bernard must have done in the picture below:
Our second night in the Dent Parrachée hut was the real deal. This is a wilderness cabin at the foot of the majestic striated mountain which gives the hut its name. We were given a warm welcome by hut guardian Franck and his Sherpa assistant Kaptan, known affectionately as the “Prince of the Vanoise”. They sound like characters created by Hergé for an episode of Tin Tin.
Franck invited us to the inner sanctum, his kitchen table for an apéritif of local white wine accompanied by delicious olives. Dinner then followed: a first course of vegetable soup followed by a main course of local sausages, diots, braised in white wine and accompanied by a generous dish of gratineéd rice and vegetables. Salad, a wedge of reblochon and Kaptan’s freshly baked apple tart completed the meal. Hearty and delicious, just right after a long day in the mountains.
Here’s a picture of our convivial dining table as the soup is served. The presence of a Bordeaux winemaker in the group meant that Franck raided the cellar for a superior bottle of red.
Here’s a link to the Dent Parrachée recipe for braised diots this time cooked with potatoes.
Day 3 took us the the Arpont Hut in the heart of the Vanoise national park, perched on the moraine of the Arpont glacier. With no guardian arriving until the end of the month we were staying in the hut’s winter room and cooking for ourselves. This felt like the real wilderness experience emphasised by the golden eagle and ptarmigan we saw along the way.
Arriving at the hut in glorious late afternoon sunshine we set to work chopping the wood, lighting the fire, melting snow and brewing a cup of tea. Having made ourselves at home, we set to work to produce a four course meal: first soup – dehydrated vegetable but tasting good after a long day out. Next the pièce de résistance, chilli con carne with rice. How did we do it? The rice was long-grain boil-in-bag which after 12 minutes was cooked to perfection – tender separate grains. The chilli con carne was a dehydrated meal in a foil pouch – just add boiling water, leave to stand for 10 minutes and your meal is ready ta da! If dried food brings back memories of Vesta curries, then think again.
Our chilli was made by high tech German firm Simpert Reiter marketed under the brandname Travellunch. It’s proper food, nutritionally balanced, packed with calories and actually tastes quite decent. This was the not so ridiculous element of our diet this week.
Here’s a link to the website if you’d like to see the full Travellunch range and read the nutritional data:
We followed the chilli with Beaufort cheese and, for the greediest member of the group (me!) a Travellunch pudding – vanilla dessert with raspberries – an upmarket version of Angel Delight packed with almost 500 calories. The rest of the group sensibly chose to eat their puddings with muesli for breakfast the following morning.
The meal was completed with a delicate tisane prepared for us by guide Bruce and drunk by flickering candlelight. I rather like the Rembrandtesque lighting of this photo:
Next day, an arduous trek up the glacier was followed by a satisfying ski down to the Col de la Vanoise hut. Here we were welcomed by a charming gardienne who could easily have passed for a vendeuse in a chic Parisian boutique. She plied us with locally brewed organic Chardon beers and then produced the most delicious creamy sauté of chicken with tarragon. A surprisingly refined dish to find in the mountains.
I’d be hard pressed to choose whether this was our best meal of the trip or whether that prize should go to the team at the Femma hut the following evening.
We didn’t reach the Femma hut until 5.00pm – this is a long day in ski-touring terms – normally you might expect to arrive at the hut around 2.30pm. We were tired and hungry and looking forward to a good meal.
The comfortable modern Femma hut is blessed with running water from the river running through the valley but despite its large size it still has bags of character. It’s run by a team of mountain women who really know their stuff. After a fresh leek and potato soup they produced the most fantastic deeply savoury dish of braised pork with prunes, garlicky green beans and a generous helping of crozets, a rustic square cut buckwheat pasta typical of the Savoy region.
This was followed by not just a single wedge but a whole board of local cheeses including an unpasteurised soft cows’ milk one made by the hut guardian’s sister as well as the (by now) more usual Beaufort, Reblochon and Tomme.
By the narrowest of margins, we collectively decided that the Femma hut took the prize for best meal of the week.
Having eaten and slept well, we were well set-up for the last push over the col and back to civilisation in the form of Val d’Isère. After a not so short, sharp climb up to the col we admired the magnificent view over to Mont Blanc before our final descent into Val d’ Isère.
A most satisfying end to my ski season this year. Thanks guys for a great trip. Standing on the scales back home I see I’m exactly the same weight as when I left – success!
Refuge Roc de la Pêche
Tel +33 4 79 08 79 75
Refuge Dent Parrachée
Tel +33 4 79 20 32 87
Tel +33 4 79 20 51 51
Col de la Vanoise
Tel +33 4 79 08 25 23
Tel +33 4 79 20 33 00