AS I write, the winter snows are settling on the French Alps and all that expensive ski-wear is being dusted off for another season of piste, fondue, rosy cheeks... and hoping to avoid a date with a plaster cast. So it’s time for me, as a wobbly non-combatant, to celebrate what awaits any visitor to these gorgeous high valleys AFTER the spring thaws.
Before embracing some of the best cheeses on the planet, quaffable “petits vins” and walking off the consequent over-indulgence through flower-speckled meadows... a toast to the Savoie region, mes amis, with a shot of Génépi.
'High above Apremont we picnicked and clicked our glasses, brimming first with the honeyed white called Roussette de Savoie, then with the rich and spicy Mondeuse red'
This digestif is made from the flowers and stems of alpine plants harvested in August and then macerated in pure alcohol. Acquired taste or fave apres-ski warmer, you takes your choice. The Chartreuse Monks have been distilling Génèpi for centuries with their own “secret” recipe, but lots of innkeepers make their own.
Knock it back with “une Tartiflette”. No, not the innkeeper’s lovely daughter. It’s a rich dish made with potatoes, lardons, onions and Reblochon cheese.
I made a mess making my own in a rather upmarket cookery class in a spectacular loft space high above Lake Annecy. Bocafina is the brainchild of Joyce Lamy, once a globetrotting telecom executive. Frederic Fouquet adds the gastronomic expertise to the cookery school. He’s chef at the L’Abbaye de Talloires hotel/restaurant and once worked at the legendary L’Auberge du Pere Bise.
For decades Pere Bise’s three star restaurant has been the main draw in Talloires, but it is a heavenly destination in its own right, albeit a rather busy one in high season. We were staying at a quieter time at the Hotel La Charpenterie which, true to its name, was big on pine fittings.
It was a five minute walk down to the lake, whose waters are reputed to be the cleanest in Europe. The air is just as fresh – as we had found earlier on a 20km bike ride on the opposite, western side, of the lake (The area is crisscrossed with cycle paths). If you go that way, check out the EcoMusee at Sevrier, a museum of rural heritage with interactive quizzes for youngsters.
The town of Annecy itself is hardly party central, but its cobbled ancient streets and bridges are perfect to ramble around by lamp light, listening to the rushing waters joining the lake from the mountains. Our base there, the Hotel du Palais de’L’Isle, couldn’t be more centrally placed for the medieval bit, where on Sundays a magnificent food market sets up. Nearby is the airy quay from which cruises depart.
Our obligatory cruise, though, took place down in the south west on the Lac du Bourget, France’s largest natural lake and, at 145m, the deepest. It’s known locally as Le Gris (Grey Lake). We docked at the spa town of Aix-les-Bains, having stopped off at its most-visited monument, the Abbey of Hautecombe – a sort of repository of the Soul of Savoie.
Tombs housing the Counts and Dukes of Savoy and more than 300 statues fill the church of this former Cistercian and Benedictine Monastery. It was heavily restored for nationalist purposes in the 19th century and today is home to an ecumenical Catholic movement. Gloomy and spooky, yet it has a lovely outlook on the lake, which was hymned by the Romantic poet Alphonse Lamartine in Le Lac.
ReblochonBut for me the real poetry around here is in the cheese. The region is celebrated for the aforementioned Reblochon (earthy tasting semi-soft with a washed and rubbed pinky golden rind), Beaufort (floral and nutty hard cheese, checkout the summer milk Chalet d’Alpage version, you can almost taste the mountain flowers) and Abondance (it’s the name of a cattle breed and the valley where monks originally made this meltingly fruity cheese). Then there are the orthographically separated Tome des Bauges and Tomme de Savoie. Tomme refers to the cheeses’ small round boulder shape. Again best made from summer milk, both have a slightly off-putting musty grey crust, but are delicious. The Massif Bauges is the mountain range stretching 50km between Annecy and Savoie capital Chambery
We had two quite different cheese tasting encounters, which showcased the immense quality of all these varieties. In Annecy we visited the shop and maturing cellar of Pierre Gay, the third generation of his family involved in the affinage (ripening cheese) business. He has recently won a coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France award – placing him in the elite of culinary craftsmen. The way he cradled a giant Beaufort you could see his passion for his trade.
Likewise, Bernard who sells raw milk and cheese, primarily sublime Reblochon, direct from his farm – an operation disconertingly called Milk et Bouse (Milk and Cow Poo). It lies up in the Aravis Massif, amid classic Alpine scenery of chalets, pines and ski-lifts. Oh and, of course, the sound of cowbells. And inside his surpisingly hi-tech barn the sound of contented cows munching their bodyweight in fine hay. After this visit I can now tell the difference between Tarine, Montbeliarde and Abondance cattle.
I am also better informed about the local wines, which accompany these cheeses beautifully. Production is not large and few bottles get exported, so perfect holiday discoveries.
Local wine tour guide Bernard Vissou took us up into some of Europe’s most beautiful vineyards, strewn with large limestone chunks – debris from a cataclysmic landslide 700 years ago (A church was spared in the village of Mayans, which houses a statue of a small black virgin).
Out of the blue, and purely by chance, a group of grape pickers arrived by mini-bus and set to hand-picking into baskets. A timeless scene. High above Apremont we picnicked and clicked our glasses, brimming first with the honeyed white called Roussette de Savoie, then with the rich and spicy Mondeuse red.
Mondeuse accompanied the best meal we ate on the trip (other dining suggestions in the fact file below) at the Michelin-rated Confins des Sens in the Grand Bornand ski area – with an honorable mention for the more rustic Auberge de Savières on the canal of that name linking the Lac du Bourget and the Rhone.
It’s in the hamlet of Chanaz, which is also home to an ancient watermill today pressing walnut and hazelnut oils. Well worth a visit, too.
After all this country idyll bustling Chambery comes as a shock. That’s until you discover some fabulous Italianate public buildings and the towering Chateau, which once housed the Turin Shoud. That’s until you stumble upon the fine food maket (with more oportunities to buy cheese, albeit at a heavier mark-up than on the farm). That’s until you get escorted around compact alleys dating back to the 11th century, their beauty framed by vistas of the surrounding Alps at every turn. Here you’ll find the cramped house of 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau – that great proponent of human freedom.
For me, too, the whole high altitude Savoie region is a liberating experience. Even if I have no desire ever to strap on a pair of skis.
Direct flights from Manchester to Geneva from SWISS, jet2.com, KLM and easyJet, who are operating a nine-times weekly service from December 12, 2012. www.easyjet.com
Hotel du Palais de l’Isle, Annecy – www.hoteldupalaisdelisle.com
Hotel La Charpenterie, Talloires – www.la-charpenterie.com
Hotel le 5, Chambery – www.hotel-chambery.com
Brasserie Saint Maurice – www.stmau.com
Auberge de Savoie – www.auberge-de-savoie.fr
Auberge de Savières, Chanaz – +33 4 79 54 56 16
Restaurant le Bistrot, Chambery – www.restaurant-lebistrot.com
Restaurant les Gourmands Disent, Chambéry – www.restaurant-les-gourmands-disent.com
Restaurant Confins des Sens, Le Grand Bornand ski resort – www.confins-des-sens.com
Things to do and see:
Pierre Gay Cheese Shop, 47 Rue Carnot, Annecy – www.fromage-cheese.com
Milk et Bouse cheese shop at Les Plans Farm, Forgeassoud Dessus near Saint-Jean-de-Sixt – +33 4 50 02 77 38
Bocafina Cookery School, Talloires – http://bocafina.eu
Abbaye de Hautecombe – www.hautecombe.org
EcoMusée de Sevrier – www.ecomusee-lacannecy.com
Moulin de Chanaz oil mill – www.moulindechanaz.com
Lac du Bourget Cruises – www.compagniedesbateauxdulac.fr – prices start at 11.80€ per adult and 8.20€ for children (one hour cruise). Dinner cruises available.
Chambéry – excellent guide Chantal Georges led us around. Contact the tourist office there on +33 4 79 33 42 47.
Alpes Flaveurs – wine specialist/mountanin guide Bernard Vissou arranges personalised programmes – www.alpes-flaveurs.com
For tourism information visit the following websites:
Neil flew to Geneva and back from Gatwick and is grateful for two hotel stays at the Travelodge Gatwick Central (www.travelodge.co.uk) and the new Novotel in Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NZ this link
He also used the No1Traveller Lounge at Gatwick South (www.no1traveller.com).
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