Find out all you need to know about regional specialities in our Alpine guide to Local Cuisine in the French and Swiss Apls.
Possibly the most well-known of Alpine dishes is the fondue, a sturdy pot full of melted cheese into which you dip chunks of crusty bread. A favourite dish in the mountains of France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland the exact recipe will vary according to where you are. The cheese melt is a concoction of a variety of local cheeses (often reblochon, gruyère, comté, beaufort or emmenthal), a little garlic and seasoning, a glug of alcohol (kirsch, white wine, or some local liqueur) and a bit of flour for thickening. You can then get variations that may contain nuts, mushrooms, tomatoes, chillies, and other flavours. There are also dessert options made of melted chocolate into which you dip fruit.
A similar dish is the raclette; a half moon of cheese that you melt in front of a small table-top grill and spoon over your plate of potatoes, meats, salad and pickles. It can also be served in slices that you put into small individual pans and hold underneath a grill.
If that’s not enough cheese for you, you could always opt for the Tartiflette! A heavy dish of potatoes layered with cheese, cream and pieces of bacon this is an-ever popular dish in the mountain restaurants. Individual portions will usually be cooked and served in an earthenware dish, but you may also see it being cooked in enormous skillets (usually in self-service mountain restaurants) and dished up with a green side salad. It is perfect skiing food due to it being hot, tasty and extremely filling – although it may put an end to further activity for a few hours!
Pierre-chaud, braserade and meat fondue are strictly for committed carnivores. The pierre-chaud is a hot rock on which you sizzle a selection of raw meats and the braserade is similar to a table-top BBQ; both normally come accompanied by a selection of sauces and potatoes or fries.
The meat fondue works along the same principal as the cheese version – a cauldron heated over a small burner that you dip into using long forks. Instead of a melted cheese sauce the cauldron is filled with hot oil into which you dunk pieces of raw meat until they are cooked to your liking; there may be a selection of seasoning or sauces to flavour your meat.
After all this dunking, melting and sizzling you may have come to the conclusion that Alpine cuisine all sounds a bit DIY! However, there are a number of regional dishes besides the usual cheese-fests that are worth seeking out. Fricasée de caïon is a very traditional dish that is being revived in some Savoyard restaurants; it is a type of rich slow-cooked casserole made of pork marinated in onions, seasoning, pig’s blood and wine. Pork is a popular meat out here and as well as the jambon (ham) and lardons (small pieces of bacon) that flavour many dishes there are also a variety of pork sausages and dried or salted meats to try. Diots are one of the most common sausages and are often cooked in white wine with crozats, which are tiny squares of pasta. Farcement is a very unusual dish that combines sweet and savoury ingredients such as bacon, onions, prunes, raisins, potatoes and cream. All the ingredients except for the bacon are combined; a mould shaped like a small beach bucket is lined with the bacon and then filled with the mixture. The covered mould is then placed in a pan of boiling water for around 3-4 hours so that when it is tipped out the mixture has cooked and set almost like a cake. It is served cut into slices.
Although you might think that the Alps are too far from the coast for the fish to be worth a try there are a few local species that come from the clear waters of the Alpine lakes.
Lavaret is related to the salmon and lives at the bottom of cold lakes, particularly the Lac du Bourget; it has a delicate white flesh which is often served whole and cooked in butter or in fillets with sorrel or au gratin. Fera is often seen on Savoyard menus and is the big brother of the Lavaret, it will sometimes be served in fish pie.
Perch is widely fished in the summer and can often be found in restaurants, either as fully grown fish or eaten whole and deep-fried like whitebait.
Char, like the lavaret, is similar to salmon and likes the deep cold waters of alpine lakes; it is often called omble-chevalier on French menus and is considered the finest of the Savoie lake fish. You will often see fish cooked ‘meuniere’ on menus; this means that they have been dipped in flour and cooked in a simple sauce of butter, parsley and lemon (almonds are also often added).
Alpine cuisine is rich and calorific through necessity. In years gone by mountain villages could be isolated from roads and other regions for months on end, especially during a harsh winter. Instead of relying on fruit and vegetables to be brought in from warmer areas, or fish to be transported from the coast; they survived on what they could produce themselves and what would preserve well throughout the winter. Meat and dairy products from goats and sheep are common as they are hardy creatures that are well adapted to mountain life. You will also often see rabbit and game birds on menus, as they were plentiful and cheap. Dried, salted and smoked meats are common along with a variety of meat and game pates, as they were nutritious, tasty and kept well.
With all this cheese to choose from you may want to know what the difference between them all is; here are a few of the most prevalent.
- Reblochon is the cheese most often used in Tartiflette; it is made from raw cow’s milk and is a soft cheese with a gentle nutty flavour. It is produce in the Aravis massif, with Thônes being the centre of production. This cheese originated in the Savoie in 13th as an early form of tax avoidance. Farmers used to avoid milking their cows fully while the landowner was present as they paid a tax on their produce. When he had gone they used to milk the rest and quickly turn it into cheese before it went off; the second lot of milk was often thicker and richer than the first and the cheese was often made while the milk was still warm. The name reblochon comes from the local word for milking a cow ‘blocher’ to re- blocher was to milk it again. It can be enjoyed with a Vin de Savoie Pommard.
- Beaufort is one of the most well-known Savoie cheeses. It is a hard yellow cheese with a sharp flavour, similar to gruyere (but without the holes) and is made from the full-cream milk of Tarentaise cows. Beaufort d’Alpage is produced in alpine chalets and you can often watch it being made and buy it fresh from the farm shop. It goes well with Seysel and Chablis wines.
- Beaufort Emmenthal is a member of the Beaufort family – it is the biggest cheese made in the Savoie and a wheel can measure
up to 70kg. You can sometimes feel as if you’ve eaten a whole one after a particularly hearty raclette… It can be complimented
with a white wine from the nearby Jura region.
- Abondance has been manufactured since the Middle Ages by monks who settled in the Chablais region and is named after the small commune from which it originates; it is made exclusively from Abondance cattle and has been granted an AOC. It is a semi-hard cheese with a sharp fruity flavour; it is best to remove the crusty rind before eating.
- Chevrotin is a farmhouse goat’s cheese that has been made since the 12th century in the Chain des Aravis. It is a soft, creamy and very tasty cheese with a slightly pink rind covered in fine white mould.
- Tomme de Savoie is the oldest and most popular of the Savoie cheeses. It is made from the skim milk left over after the cream has been used to make butter or a richer cheese; it is, therefore, quite low in fat. It has a mild salty flavour and can taste different depending on whether it was made from the milk of cows that were fed on hay during the winter or fresh meadow grass during the summer. To preserve its authenticity every tomme produced in the Savoie must have its name printed on the rind.
Either a Vin de Savoie or a Cotes de Beaune would wash it down nicely.
- Vacherin de Bauges is a very ancient cheese that was a favourite of the Savoyard dukes during the Middle Ages. It is made in the Bauges Mountains using cow’s milk and is a soft cheese with a slightly sweet flavour. When you buy vacherin it is presented in a round wooden box. You can leave the cheese in the box, warm it through and then dip into it like a fondue with whatever crudités take your fancy.
Although the Alps are not renowned for their blue cheeses there are two that are locally produced ; Bleu de Termignon from Lanslebourg in Les Arcs and Persillé de Tarentaise, a veined goats cheese which is hard and crumbly.
Wines & Aperetifs
Savoie wine has acquired a bit of a dubious reputation, probably due to the cheaper varieties offered in some chalets and budget ski-hotels over the years. However, if you want to try some local wines without incurring a bad head there are plenty that are worth discovering – look for the AOC on the label for a start. There are four departments that make up the Savoyard appellations – Savoie, Haute-Savoie, Ain and Isère.
White Wines - Most Savoie white wines are light, dry and best enjoyed young.
- Chignin is a dry white wine combining fruit flavours such as apples with the scent of white flowers such as acacia. Along with Apremont, Abymes and Montmelian it is one of the most common white wines on a typical Savoyard ‘carte du vin’. They are all dry and fruity with a fresh fragrance.
- Crépy originates from the hillsides just south of Lake Geneva and is a light dry wine made from Chasselas grapes. It has a unique flavour with elements of hawthorne and flint stone. Other wines from the Lake Geneva region include Marignan, Marin and Ripaille.
- Rousette de Savoie is either made exclusively from the Alsette grape variety, or sometimes blended with up to 50% chardonnay. It originates from Cyprus and it thought to have been introduced to the Alps during the crusades. It has a high acidity and is a full bodied dry white with flavours of minerals, bergamot, honey and hazelnut.
- Seyssel is a sparkling white wine dating back to the 12th century. It is renowned to be of excellent quality and is marked as brut, dry or demi-sec.
- Ayse wine is produced on the banks of the river Arve, in the district of Bonneville.
Red Wines – there are only really two notorious Savoyard red wines
- Gamay bears the name of the vine from which is it produced, the most famous variety is the Chautagne. It is a lively full-bodied red wine with a fruity flavour.
- Mondeuse also bears the name of its vine and the best is reputed to come from Arbin. It matures well and has flavours of strawberry, raspberry and violet.
The local digestif, Genépi, is made with a plant found at high altitude, and you’ll either love it or loath it. It is a strong liqueur with a flowery, herbal flavour. The genepi plant is protected in many parts of the Alps and the picking of them is often restricted.
Chartreuse is another one to try. It has a long history and was originally distilled by the monks of the Grand Chartreuse Monastery as long ago as 1605, after whom it was named. It is flavoured with 130 herbal extracts and has such a wide spectrum of flavour that it can taste entirely different depending on the temperature at which it is drunk. A few drops can also be added to flavour cocktails.
In some restaurants meals are traditionally finished off with a Grolla, a wooden dish with pouring spouts to drink from that originated in the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy and has spilled over into some parts of the Alps. It is filled with hot coffee and alcohol before being passed around the table for everyone to sip from a different spout - watch out as it’s lethally strong!
Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)
The appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) is the certification granted by the French government to ensure that all wines, cheese and agricultural products are produced in the region of their origin, in the traditional manner, using specific ingredients. For example a sparkling white wine by only be called a champagne if is produced in the Champagne region of France using specific grapes; and a Beaufort cheese may only bear that name if it has been made from the milk of Tarentaise or Abondance cows in the region of Beaufort in the time-honoured fashion.
There is a strict labeling policy which means that only items that adhere to the guidelines can bear the AOC seal on its label or rind. This ensures a certain amount of quality control and protects the heritage of many quintessentially French products.
What's your favourite dish or place to eat local specialities? Let us know in the comments box below.