Winter among Europe’s peerless peaks offers high points of all kinds. Choose from our options to fuel up on authentic mountain food, walk with beautiful St Bernards, ski in the shadow of an icon, explore remote villages, and soak in a wilderness full of rare wildlife
WORDS: OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS: MATT MUNRO
An age-old cuisine is making a comeback in the shadow of Mont Blanc
Les Vieilles Luges is a wholly improbable place. Perched halfway up a mountain in an old chalet, it’s reached only by detouring off a ski run or taking a 20-minute walk uphill through snow-laden pines, bright mountain caps peeking between their trunks. And yet, on a typical afternoon, the restaurant is packed with diners. Lazing on the terrace or settling in its low-beamed rooms, they dig into cheesy crumbles and sugar-dusted tarts as owners Claude and Julie Battendier dart in and out with dishes and enthusiastic greetings. Like their restaurant, the couple is charming – and somewhat unlikely.
“It’s part luck and part destiny,” says Claude, as he pours a glass of wine at a weathered wooden bar, the hum of conversation drifting through the room. A Frenchman, he met Julie when they were both working in the Snowy Mountains of her native Australia. After years of back and forth, they decided to settle in the Chamonix Valley, where his ancestors had been for over 500 years. The family’s derelict farm – where they once eked out a living in this harsh environment, grazing cattle and making cheese – struck Claude and Julie as the perfect place at which begin a new adventure. They spent a year turning the building into a home and restaurant, and Julie taught herself the local cuisine from scratch – a trial by fire in more ways than one.
“When we started, I was here with my mother-in-law,” she recounts during a break from service. “I didn’t speak a word of French, or she a word of English.”
That was 13 years ago, and the couple has never looked back – except for inspiration. Les Vieilles Luges is full of reminders of its humble past: cattle stalls transformed into dining booths, an antique stove simmering with mulled wine, old photographs and mementoes salvaged from family attics – including Claude’s school-day sledge. The menu pays tribute to the traditional cuisine of the Chamonix Valley, and the larger region of Savoie. This is the heartland of French mountain cooking: rich, flavourful dishes concocted from local staples like cheese, pork, fruit and potato – plus Swiss and Italian inventions such as fondue and polenta, thrown into the mix courtesy of Savoie’s neighbours. “Savoyard cuisine is generous, and that’s also what we’re about,” says Julie. “We built this with all our heart, and we still put all of it in.”
She makes everything on the chalkboard menu from scratch, cooking up her take on classics like spicy diot sausages and cheesy, wine-soused croûte au fromage – not to mention the local specialty farçon, rarely seen on menus as it’s so labour-intensive. A soft cake of potatoes, bacon and dried fruit cooked for hours in a special water bath, it was the traditional Sunday dish for the valley’s families – they’d prepare it in the morning, adding a smattering of whatever they had on their farms, pick their way to church and return, ravenous, to lunch. “Every family has its own version of the recipe, and they all swear that theirs is the right one,” says Julie with a smile.
A commitment to getting the classics right is something of a local obsession: over at La Ferme des Violettes, Olivier Marin-Cudraz and Catherine Allard make the local Reblochon cheese using methods little changed in 800 years. Their dairy farm, overlooking a pine-thick valley, is one of dozens sitting on the gentler slopes of the Massif des Aravis, west of Chamonix.
Twice daily, the two milk their herd of 30 Abondance cows – mahogany brown creatures with white faces and clownishly circled eyes – the first step in the month-long process required to create a roundel of AOP-certified Reblochon. The milk is then curdled, poured into cloth-covered moulds and pressed by hand into soft, flat discs, before being aged on wafer-thin spruce. The result is a creamy cheese with a rich, slightly nutty flavour. Taking a bite amid the lowing cows and snow-submerged slopes of Ferme des Violettes, it feels like the taste of another age.