I was in Haute-Savoie last week – part of the ancient kingdom of Savoy – that mountainous corner of France around Mont Blanc and south of the Swiss city of Geneva. The name Savoy comes from the latin sapaudia – fir forest – an origin still heard in the French word sapin (fir tree).
Long an independent duchy, the area was occupied by Napoleon’s troops from 1792-1815. After a period as part of Sardinia, Savoy was annexed by France in 1860.
The region has strong associations with Piedmont in Italy, and with French-speaking Switzerland (Turin and Geneva are both much nearer than Paris). The local dialects reflect old mountain French with a smattering of Italian.
But the food doesn’t reflect Italy or France. Savoie is a stronghold of Alpine cuisine. Don’t expect delicate French dishes – this is the home of solidly calorific monster feasts to fuel any long day on the slopes.
Alpine cuisine owes its character to the sheer isolation of mountain communities. Access along the tortuous valleys was difficult in summer, and impossible through the deep snow and ice of winter. Supplies of vegetables, salad and fruit may form the basis of great Mediterranean cooking, but here they simply couldn’t get through.
So the mountain folk survived on foods they could produce locally and store safely for months on end. Just like Switzerland, Savoy is famed for its rustically robust dishes of meat, sausage, cheese, and potatoes.
We found all of these on the menu at Chez Pierrot in Flaine. As you might expect, fondue is a standard here – this year we chose fondue à cèpes, rich with the flavour of mushrooms.
Then a pile of thinly sliced steak – which we cooked right at our table. In southern Savoie and the Italian Piedmont Alps they use a pierrade – historically a hot stone, these days a massive block of superheated iron wrenched straight from the oven.
But a stone cools eventually, and further north in Haute Savoie they favour a braserade instead. To translate this as ‘table barbecue’ just doesn’t do it justice.
It’s more of a mini-brazier of red-hot coals. Potentially lethal in the wrong hands, this safety-spurning contraption will grill everyone around the table as well as your food, firing a memorable glow to the cheeks of all who are eating.
Here in Savoie they go one better, with a sublime oven-baked dish of diced potatoes all cooked up in cheese: they call it tartiflette, which we can translate as pure tattie heaven. Around 10,000 calories a bowl, at a conservative guess.
What else might we need? A green salad (after this heavy menu, a small concession to healthy eating) laced with a fine French dressing? Bien sur.
To drink? A pale dry Provençal rosé, or a generous grande pression (large draught beer)? More probably both.
So, hey – our ski-ing was good. April in the Alps served up a deep pile of powder. And we found mountains of food.
114. Mont Blanc morning – Flaine, France
171. A splash of Burgundy in winter
63. Henry VIII’s consumption and the rocky road to running ruin
118. The scales of truth
139. Snow patrol – Holmenkollen, Oslo