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There’s no doubt about it: The French know how to dine. In the French Alps, dinner is almost always a three-hour tour de force, starting with a boozy aperitif and casual conversation and ending with a strong “shot of the house” — and with any luck, a crescendo of loud voices and laughter.
In the Savoy region of France, which stretches from Lake Geneva in the north and Dauphine in the south, the key to any meal is melted Abondance cheese — and lots of it. Abondance cheese gets its name from its origins in the Abondance (Abundance) Valley and can trace its roots back to the medieval period. To this day, Abondance cheese adheres to the strictest of guidelines to make sure that the geographical area, local cheese-making methods and traditional taste are protected and preserved.
“Abondance cheese is easy to recognize because of its beautiful, amber-colored rind and concave outer rim,” said Pascale Ducrot, communications manager for Chatel, the highest village in the Abondance Valley. “It tastes like no other: The soft, creamy cheese can have fruity flavors with hint of hazelnut. In summer, the taste can be fruitier because the cows eat a lot of flowers and new grass.”
Chatel is one of 13 resort villages in the mega ski-sports destination, Portes du Soleil. Without question, there is no shortage of restaurants serving the region’s famous cheese dishes.
What follows are some of the top stops for an indulgent meal in the French Alps.
La Ferme de la Fruitiere, MorzineUnder the watchful eye of cheesemaker Nicolas Baud, five delectable cheeses are made one-site at La Ferme de la Fruitiere — and visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at the production every Wednesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. (Private visits can also be arranged for small groups.) Indeed, the process of this age-old tradition is important to the owners. La Ferme de la Fruitiere is designed so that diners can see directly into the cheese-ripening room, with its floor-to-seating windows and row after row of cheese wheels.
The specialty of the house is its raclette dish, served with a salad, potatoes, pickled vegetables and local charcuterie. To make raclette, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese is cut into a half-moon shape and put in an electric raclette maker. The raclette maker then broils the top layer of cheese, making it bubble and blister. Once the cheese starts to brown, the cheese is swiveled to the side, and its melted top layer is scraped over a plate of potatoes. The dish serves a minimum of two people, but everyone at the table will want to get in on the action.
Insider Tip: If you’re looking for a little more character, La Ferme de la Fruitiere offers a smoked raclette dish. Just ask your server.
La Fruitiere des Perrieres, Les GetsIn the early 20th-century, La Fruitiere des Perrieres served as a cheese-ripening cellar for local farmers. Today, it’s a cozy restaurant, store and cheesemaking facility helmed by an award-winning Japanese cheesemaker known simply as Miti. He is known for his Abondance, Tomme des Gets and raclette cheeses as well as his new creation, Bleu de Gets.
The specialty of the house is fondue made with Miti’s Abondance, Gruyere and local Savoy wine. Gherkins, pickled onions, a basic salad, a charcuterie board and bite-size, day-old bread are all served alongside the dish. When the cheese gets low, ask your server for an egg — he just might just show a newfound respect for you. Only locals know to crack an egg into the fondue pot, dump in the remaining pieces of bread and coat them in the cheesy, egg mixture. It brings the fondue experience to a whole new level.
After dessert, most Alpine cheese restaurants offer a strong shot of alcohol to help guests digest their heavy meals. At La Fruitiere, the after-dinner drink has a bit of a bite — quite literally. Expect the manager to bring over a hulking bottle of “la viperine,” a clear liquor infused by, you guessed it, a viper. It’s kind of creepy watching a dead snake bob around the bottle while she doles out shots.
Insider Tip: The fondue pairs nicely with a bottle of Pierre Quenard’s Chignin Miscaron.
Le Vieux Four, ChatelChatel’s rustic Le Vieux Four restaurant is located in a former farmhouse and community bakery, established in 1852. In the 19th century, villagers in the region shared a single oven and took turns baking their bread, right where today’s diners sip and sup. Relics of the restaurant’s past life — including antique tools, hand-carved clocks and oddities — adorn the walls and give diners plenty to talk about.
Don’t miss the specialty of the house, a cheese dish known as Berthoud. The chef prepares this flavorful dish by rubbing a ramekin with garlic and lining it with thin slices of Abondance cheese. He then coats it with wine and broils it so that the cheese browns nicely.
To eat Berthoud, stab a bite-size potato with a fork and dip it in the cheese. It can sometimes be difficult to separate the cheese from the dish (the more you pull, the longer the string of cheese grows). A little twist of the wrist should do the trick.
Insider Tip: Several shops in Chatel sell Berthoud cheese as well as other cheeses made in Abondance Valley.
“In the Portes du Soleil restaurants on the slopes, you won’t find many snacks or sandwiches,” said Chrystelle Felisaz, press and communication manager at the Office de Tourisme Les Gets. “Instead, you’ll find refined cuisine. That means there’s a real art of living here, and that’s what visitors are looking for.”
2 cups of Berthoud cheese (made in France’s Abondance Valley)2 cloves of garlic1 pinch of nutmeg4 tablespoons of white Savoy wine4 tablespoons of Madeira cooking wine
Preheat oven to broil. Rub a ramekin with garlic and then line it with thin slices of Berthoud cheese. Drizzle with Madeira and white Savoy wine. Salt and pepper to taste. Brown the dish in the oven for approximately five minutes. Serve with new potatoes, salad and charcuterie.
Office de Tourisme Les Getswww.lesgets.com
Office de Tourisme Morzinewww.morzine.com