Bordering both Switzerland and Italy, the peaks of the French Alps, dazzling white against magnificent Mount Blanc, shimmer, flanking crystalline lakes and the lush valleys of the Haute-Savoie in eastern France. Here, the winter sport pursuits are legendary, and the food is hearty at its homespun best, and exquisite on the fine dining level.
For those hitting the slopes – whether whizzing down the black routes or wobbling unsteadily on the greens, there’s little as comforting as the dishes bubbling with cheese, cream and bacon, and the warming drinks of the region - Savoyard specialties that could very well be a rigorous pursuit of their own.
Where to Eat in Annecy: Restaurants and Bistros
In Annecy, the capital of the region, admiringly dubbed “Venice of the Alps” for its canals and pretty-colored buildings, I walk through the Friday market (these rotate to the different towns along Lake Annecy), sprawled across the cobble-stone streets of the old town. At La Buvette du Maché, an old bar and bistro, students gather for coffee and tea. Produce from the market is served and a simple daily breakfast and charcuterie and cheese board of the local sausage, Tomme cheese, a crusty baguette and cornichons make for a perfect lunch. The unique terroir of the Haut Savoie is a distinctive factor in the taste and texture of the range of cheeses produced here. Since I’m travelling during the icy grip of February, the house-made spiced vin chuad, or hot wine, a specialty in the region, and a boon for skiers, is my first choice for a drink. Naturally, chocolat chaud à la Viennoise, or hot chocolate, usually made from real dark chocolate and topped with Chantilly cream in this case, comes a close second.
At La Lilas Rose, locals huddle over small caquelons, cast-iron pots suspended over a burner, stirring slowly in figures-of-eight as the content bubbles, wisps of steam rising. I order precisely what they do: fondue, the Savoyard kind. While many associate fondue with neighboring Switzerland, and rightly so, the local version is loved and protected fiercely. Historians say no one can determine with certainty where it was made first, though Swiss farmers who had perfected hard-rind cheeses (like Gruyere) were likely to have shared this knowledge with their neighbors. A combination of surplus cheese production and intensive marketing campaigns had locals melting a combination of cheeses from their areas, some with water, others with wine. There is no one pure recipe, though Comté and Beaufort – two of the finest French alpine cheeses, and Emmental or Swiss Gruyère feature, along with a clove of garlic rubbed inside the caquelon and some regional mild white wine. Dunking chunks of day-old bread until the last crusty cheese layer remains, is somewhat of an Alpine sport here.
Tartiflette, a dish of potato slices covered in Reblochon cheese, cream and dotted with crisp lardons, is another comforting specialty. Try one with disks of local goat’s cheese, or chèvre. At La Boheme, an otherwise packed touristy restaurant in neighboring village, Le Grand Bornard, I taste one of the best tartiflette of my stay in the region: savoury, creamy and perfectly browned on the top.
• L’Esquisse: a 1-star Michelin that uses local and seasonal products.
• 1er Mets – a tiny, affordable bistro run by a devoted husband-and-wife team.
• Le Lilas Rose – no frills Savoyard specialties.
• La Buvette du Maché – café that serves seasonal market produce.
• In nearby town, Veyrier-du-lac: 2-star Michelin, Restaurant Yoann Conte, formerly the kitchen of beloved French chef Marc Veyrat. Wait for the impressive cheese cart.
Where to Eat in Megeve
From the upmarket resort town of Megève made famous by the Rothschilds, where we base ourselves for a few days of skiing and snowshoeing, the Savoyard specialties are plentiful. From fondue, to raclette – also popular in Switzerland, a dish where a wide wedge of Raclette, a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese is suspended from an electric metal contraption. You control the heat and scrape the oozing cheese with a metal spatula and use it to smother bread, charcuterie, boiled fingerling potatoes, cornichons and pickled onions, until the wedge disappears and your belly sighs blissfully. One enjoys the unctuous raclette much more on a cold night with a glass of wine, after a long day on the slopes. If you fancy a little more protein, thin slices of a variety of unseasoned meats are presented alongside a pierrade or “hot stone” on which you grill the meat tableside.
French crêpes are eaten all year round, but none are as comforting as one smothered in melting Nutella at one of the restaurants on the slopes after an energetic session. When truffles are in season, as they were during my visit, expect them to pop up generously over pastas, risottos, in your mashed potatoes and infused in velvety, crumbly cheeses.
The nearby villages house many cozy eateries and fine dining establishments such as Le Refuge in the hamlet of Leutaz, Flocons de Sel and Le 1920 - all worth the little excursion outside Megève. Near a roaring fire we drink crisp Savoyard white wine and plan summer time hikes around Mont d’Arbois, while snowflakes flutter gently to the ground.
• L’Alpage – Savoie specilaities.
• Le 1920 – sublime service and food from this 2-star Michelin restaurant attached to a fine hotel, with a young chef at the helm. Try the full degustation menu.
• Flocons de Sel – exquisite 3-star Michelin fine dining in a modern set-up.
• La Petite Crêperie – for a quick and cheap meal, try the savory varieties:
• Le Refuge: a bistro in the mountains.
• Le Tigrr Indochine – intimate upmarket Asian restaurant, for a change and some spice.
• L'Alpette - unfortunately closed for the 2015/2016 winter season, the restaurant offers fine dining near the slopes with a breathtaking 360° view of the nearby mountain tops.