Route | Stories | Recipes
Rousseau de Poulet Chaud
Once upon a time students bought hot chicken and sat under the statue of the great man consuming their lunch with hardly a thought about the wise words he passed down to us. In the 1990s a fast-food fad caught on in supermarkets close to railway stations across western Europe – whole hot roast chicken. Generally it was good everywhere, except for one place – the Manor supermarket on the Rue Rousseau, not far from the gaze of the great philosopher – where it was exceptional, full of flavour, succulent … and greasy.
Rousseau, in quiet contemplation, never seemed to disapprove, even when you wiped your hands in the snow under this gaze. It was a running joke that when you bought hot chicken you were never served hand napkins at the chicken counter, you were expected to supply them yourself.
So we are disappointed to learn that the Manor no longer has hot chicken. That would have made a nice start to this wonderful journey.
Time to travel to the terroir!
Genève Cornavin to Coppet (train) 31 minutes
Lake Léman Express
Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw the future when he lived in the Duchy of Savoy. He predicted the potential for Geneva and the hinterland. Now that the whole region has been shrunk by the Léman public transport system, it must be said this was obvious.
We are having these philosophical thoughts because we can imagine what Rousseau would say about a railway tunnel underneath the city of his birth. ‘I am intrigued by your perspectives, none reconcile our condition.’
So we are going to follow the sensibilities of those who want to experience this urban-suburban cross-border network – six lines that connect 45 stations over 230 kilometres. Via the new underground rail link between Geneva and Annemasse we will be in that hinterland before we have time to think.
For us it is a journey through space and time. It begins in the past, continues in the present and ends, if at all, in the future! There is nothing remarkable about this journey. What is remarkable is the traditional food of the Alps. It is rooted in the past and it is fixed in the present. Every one of the Alpine countries has a strong fidelity with its food traditions, none more than the region once ruled by the House of Savoy.
Coppet to La Roche sur Foron (train) 67 minutes
Reblochon de Savoie
Here at La Roche-sur-Foron we must make a decision – remain on our Léman Express train for a ride along the plain to Annecy or exit to the bus outside for a ride into the mountains. In the sky above us is a pleasant valley where they make one of the most delicious cheeses in the world – Val de Thônes, spiritual home of the creamy cheese known as Reblochon.
The story of this cheese was legendary before it became popular. A long time ago the monks of Abondance monastery in the high mountains above Lac Léman created pastures in the Chablais valley, then developed a breed of cow that would produce high quantities of milk, to allow them to make cheese. This Alpine cheese was served at high table in Avignon during the period when the popes reigned in the 1300s. At this time farmers were obliged to pay tax based on the volume of milk produced. To pay less tax farmers in the Thônes valley partially milked their cows, then secretly went back to collect the milk used for cheese. This became known as the re-blocher method, pinching the udder a second time. Reblochon is formed into 500 gram and 230 gram rounds. Delicately arranged on thin circles of spruce, it is the essential ingredient for several traditional dishes, and we want to know why Reblochon Fermier has more taste than Reblochon Fruitier.
Our ultimate destination is Le Farto, Cooperative du Reblochon Fermier in Thônes. This is where the cow herders make Reblochon with raw milk from their own farm, fermier, compared to fruitier, which is made with milk collected from several farms.
We were told to get a Proxim iTi (proximity route) bus to Saint-Jean-de-Sixt and change to the Mont Blanc ski-bus for Thônes. We look out the window. The sky has turned grey and apparently rain is forecast. Perhaps another day.
La Roche sur Foron to Annecy (train) 34 minutes
Terroir des Alpes
We are in Annecy because we want to visit the Terroir des Alpes shop and talk to them about the short chain – producer to consumer in one link. Here they sell the produce from their farm – a range of homemade regional specialties. They also sell the products from local food artisans. Among these are the fantastic diots – smoked pork sausages and the amazing pormoniers – pork sausages made with chard, leek and herbs. [snip]
Annecy is a cute little place — a small town with a big attitude, and best of all a sensibility toward sustainability. In the grounds of the Hotel Trésoms they have numerous hives housing almost a million bees. Sponsored by local businesses, the hives provide a window into the world of biodiversity. People take part in hive life and enjoy the fruits of the bees’ labour. The wider consequence of this biodiversity is a rich culinary tradition based on wild herbs and wild plants, to produce alpine milk that makes some of the best mountain cheeses in the world. [snip]
Annecy to Bonneville (train) 52 minutes
The House of Cheese
‘If you want cheese you must go to the House of Cheese on Geneva Avenue in Bonneville,’ we are told.
That is our mind made up. Bonneville is on our intended route to the Trient Valley. Thônes we can visit another time.
La Maison du Fromage is a 15 minute walk from the railway station. Housed in a large wooden chalet it is more than we expected.
It is cheese nirvana.
A giant tub filled with Reblochon and wide shelves filled with the round mountain cheeses of France and Switzerland greet us in an area beyond the front door.
Abondance Fermier, Beaufort D’été, Chevrotin, Emmental de Savoie, Grataron du Beaufortain, Reblochon de Savoie, Tome des Bauges Fermiere, Tomme de Montagne and Raclette of every kind – all the cheeses we covet and desire.
This is artisanal cheese at its best. What we need now is someone who can talk cheese to us. That person we hope is Christophe Demol. He made magic out of the chalet when he acquired it in 1999 and turned it into a cheese palace.
‘At La Maison du Fromage, we are proud of our roots and our region. This is why most of the products you will find here have been made by local artisans with whom we have been working for many years.’ [snip]
St. Gervais (train) 92 minutes
Into the Alps
This is the gateway into the traditional food of the entire region. Whatever way you turn there is an Alpine world of enigmatic cuisine defined by the products of the boucherie, the boulangerie, the charcuterie, the fromagerie. Alpine France is a cornucopia of cured, dried and smoked meat products, of countless cheeses, of fruits and herbs and nuts and spices and leaf and root vegetables.
They come together in savoury dishes like berthoud (cheese bakes), crozets (pasta squares), diots avec pommes de terre (smoked pork sausages with potatoes), farcement (potato loaf with bacon, dried fruit and spices) and Savoyard fondue (cheese sauce).
The thought of them is mouth-watering because we desperately want to know and taste these dishes. Yet they are not apparent on the restaurant menus. Yes the ingredients to make these dishes are available in the shops that specialise in the traditional food of the region. Where are the restaurants that serve these dishes? Traditional dishes are a product of the past, wherever you go, and it is always difficult to find places that specialise in genuine traditional cuisine.
C’est la vie! We must go deeper into the mountains. [snip]
St. Gervais to Chamonix (train) 45 minutes
Restaurant Le Monchu
We were delighted to discover in the heart of Chamonix a restaurant dedicated to traditional cuisine. This is Restaurant Le Monchu – ‘Spécialités Savoyardes’ – from diots de Savoie (the amazing smoked sausages of the region) to tartiflette (reblochon cheese with potatoes, bacon and onions) and dessert coupe Mont Blanc (vanilla ice cream with chestnut purée). But it is with cheese fondue that Le Monchu excel, featuring numerous adaptations of Savoyard fondue. [snip]
Chamonix is a picture-perfect alpine town, drawfed by the majesty of Mont Blanc, resplendent in everything associated with snow culture, and now an integral component in the structure that is ‘terroir des Haute-Savoie’. [snip]
Chamonix to Aosta (bus) 112 minutes
Osteria da Nando
Aosta to Courmayeur Skyway (bus) 70 minutes
Skyway Monte Bianco
Torino Hut Restaurant
Courmayeur to Chamonix (bus) 66 minutes
RECIPE — ATTRIAUX pork meatballs
RECIPE — BEIGNETS / BUGNES sugar dusted deep-fried pastries
RECIPE — FONDUE SAVOYARDE Savoy fondue
RECIPE — DIOTS AVEC POMMES DE TERRE ET DES SARMENTS DE VIGNE ET VIN BLANC sausages on vine shoots with potatoes
RECIPE — FARCEMENT potato loaf with bacon, dried fruit and spices
RECIPE — FARÇON puréed potatoes with fruit, eggs, herbs and spices
RECIPE — FICASSÉE DE CAÏON aromatic pork stew
RECIPE — GATEAU DE SAVOIE Savoy cake
RECIPE — GRATIN DE CARDONS
RECIPE — PORMONIERS DE SAVOIE aromatic pork, chard, leek, sausages
RECIPE — RISSOLES
RECIPE — R’ZULES savoury and sweet pastries
RECIPE — SAINT-GENIX BRIOCHE
In Farcement We Trust
There has been one specific exception to our quest. The temptation of the farcement – the aromatic potato and prune cake of Haute Savoy – has followed us since we joined the Arve river valley at Bonneville and found ourselves here under the gaze of the majestic Mont Blanc.
Farcement is the embodiment of the local food culture from Cluses along to Sallanches-Combloux-Megève around to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains-La-Fayet and up into Argentière in the high Alps. At Combloux they celebrate this vaulted cake with a competition because the ingredients are not sacroscant, the arrangement is always variable, the flavour can move magnificently across the salty sweet range and the organoleptic quality is determined by the cooking temperature and the oven time.
Baked in a farcement mould that is generally round and fluted, it can be made in the style of the kugelhop with the hollow centre. It is eaten hot out of the oven and it is eaten cold, served with cured meats and sausages (diots and pormoniers), vegetables and salad. Grated potatoes, prunes, bacon, eggs, cream, flour and seasonings including nutmeg are the traditional essential ingredients. To these can be added dried pears, raisins and sultanas. Some farcement cakes can be piquant, with a little more spice than salt.
It is distinquished from its cousin – the farçon – by the thin bacon slices that can encase the entire cake. Now all we need is for someone to share their farcement and farçon secrets with us. [snip]
Chamonix to Vallorcine (train) 33 minutes
Rites of Passage
The Vallorcine train waits, like a bridesmaid without a bride. Fresh snow clings to the lower slopes of the forested mountains. Ice rivers flow from crystal peaks. The air is cold. The train is warm. We are waiting for the driver.
Suddenly there is movement.
Into the white. Past the river. Along the valley. Rising, slowly. The glint of a glacier in the distance. Townlands appear out of nowhere. Wooden chalets. A village on the hill. Above, the peaks are sharp against the sky. Ski resorts. Viaducts. Twisting roads. Fallen trees. Boulders.
These are exciting moments. This is the start of a long journey through the expanse of the Alps on short trains built for their endurance and strength. Into lands where the dialects change with the landscape and the cultures and traditions are etched into daily rites of passage.
On the faces of the people, with their colourful clothes, their irresistible homes and solid buildings, with cuisine that is as diverse as the products of the landscape, listening to those rustic dialects, warming to their genuine hospitality, people who know mountain and valley life.
This is the way into the winter wonderland that is Alpine Europe. Only the mountain goats know where the ancient paths go. Here there is beauty and diversity, nature unfolding through large windows in full colour.
And it is never still. You can never describe these high mountain peaks, divided valleys and sloping meadows because nothing remains the same.
This is what makes this journey a fabulous adventure. A slight change of perspective, a different view and the experience itself changes.
We are in the Trient Valley, crossing from France into Switzerland by the backdoor.
Travelling through Alpine Switzerland is nothing less than a remarkable journey that pays homage to past and present engineering feats, celebrates the dilemma of a modern utilitarian country and reveals beautiful ways of escape.
So we are going to get out at Salvan, have a fondue lunch and then make our way down to Martigny by foot.
SWe are going to get out at Salvan, have some lunch and then make our way down to Martigny by foot. First a reminder of the fondue they make in Haute Savoy, if only to acknowledge that this very Swiss dish comes from across the border, in Alpine France.
FIS-SKI ALPINE WORLD CUP
Travelling in the Alps by rail and road, on mountain and valley trains and buses, is an educational experience. The culture is rooted to the landscape. There is a strong feeling for place and a sense of belonging. The routes are ancient. When the railways arrived, new routes were carved out of the rock, tunnels were bored and platforms were raised to shorten the distance between alpine villages.
When skiing became a leisure (and sporting) activity, the carriers offered their services. Buses and trains were adapted to carry ski equipment, and so it has continued into the 21st century. After a while, the frequent alpine traveller notices that the names of the most famous towns and villages are synonymous with skiing, particularly alpine world cup events organised by the international skiing federation (FIS).
Chamonix and Val d’Isère in France
Adelboden, Crans-Montana, St Moritz and Wengen in Switzerland
Alta Badia, Cortina, Sestriere and Val Gardena in Italy
Kitzbühel, Lienz, St Anton and Schladming in Austria
Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany
Kranjska Gora and Maribor in Slovenia
Skiing is a tough sport, so it is no great surprise that the Alpine countries win more races than anyone else. Virtually every village on the upper slopes has a ski resort. Children learn early and are quick learners. By the time they reach their mid-20s they are ready to win races.
Traditional culture in the Alps is centred on food but it is also concerned with well-being, and skiing down steep slopes is more than just a sport, it is a way of life, etched into the faces of the people.
When you are young you ski, when you are old you hike.
Welcome to Europe’s pleasure dome.
Vallorcine to Salvan (train) 33 minutes
These are edited draft versions of the sections that will appear in the finished book.
This is a Fricot book. In the future trips like these will be commonplace because in the future the world will be sustainable and only produce that is indigenous and local will feature in the food that is brought to the kiosk and to the table. If you want to eat what the Danish or the Turkish eat you will have to travel to Denmark and Turkey, and everywhere across the world where the food is authentic. And in places where food traditions once existed there will be immense satisfaction from the pleasure of eating local produce assembled from the knowledge of history. We are what we eat and we will eat what we know and not what someone tells us we shoud eat because we have lost the culinary skills of the ancients and acquired the habits of the machine and celebrity cultures. Everyone will be used to eating food that is made from local food produce and from artisanal food products. Home cooks and professional chefs will take pleasure in producing and re-producing dishes based on traditional recipes that are rooted in the people-place-produce mantra that will ensure that no one will have to suffer starvation because someone decided that what we need to eat is a commodity. Everyone deserves to eat the food that is simply produced, fresh and local, and not from distant lands.