After a cold day’s skiing
(or alternatively a very hot and dehydrated day’s hiking
) in the Chamonix valley
, there is absolutely nothing better than to arrive back in that welcoming warmth of home knowing that someone else is at that very moment cooking some delicious alpine meal and that all I have to do is to eat it.
Of all types of food in the world, my favourite is that which is most often associated with Switzerland, but is just as popular in the French Alps. I am speaking of course about those especially Alpine dishes – raclette, fondue and pierrade. If you have never encountered these, you have been missing out on one of the great things in life, and I shall attempt to enlighten you.
There are two types of fondue that I have tried – cheese (savoyarde) and beef (bourguignone). The general aim – even though it is not always accomplished – is, using a specially long and thin fork with barbed ends, to skewer something and dip it into some kind of liquid in the hope that some of this will stay on it long enough to be eaten. In the case of fondue savoyarde, my preferred type, pieces of bread are dipped into a pot of molten cheeses (which smells strongly of wine) and then eaten. With fondue bourguignone, pieces of raw beef are skewered, then cooked in hot oil. They are then taken out and eaten – if by me, with béarnaise sauce and, of course, chips, preferably crinkle-cut. It is also possible to get chocolate fondue – with fruit on the forks – as a pudding, but this has become unpopular in my house due to the difficulty of washing up afterwards – the chocolate seems to develop a strange affinity to the sides of the pot as soon as it is put into the sink – this is odd considering its inability to stick to the fruit dipped into it during the actual meal. (yclept tells me that ganache is the actual chocolatey substance used, pure chocolate having a tendancy to solidify when introduced to water). I have been reminded about fondue chinoise by Siobhan - this is a meat fondue using broth instead of oil, which can then be drunk after the meal. I should also add that tradition dictates that whenever someone is unfortunate enough to drop what's on their fondue fork into the pot, they must down their drink.
The other two meals are raclette and pierrade. Raclette involves molten cheese again and is named after the type of cheese used, but this time you put it in a three-inch-wide frying pan (designed to be as non-stick as possible but failing miserably) and place under a grill, or in the case of restaurants which try to recreate a rusticseventeenth century farmhouse feel, a portable miniature wood fire. Once the cheese is molten, it is poured over the new potatoes which were passed around the table while it was under the grill.
Pierrade involves simply cooking strips of meat – beef, pork or chicken – on a hotplate. It is, in most respects, a different meal, but is often served on the same machine as raclette because the grill which melts the cheese below it can also heat the hotplate above it. As before, some waiting is required to allow the meat to cook, but the time seems to fly past what with all the conversation that is made over the sound of sizzling. Oddly, this meal is very filling – as are all the others I have mentioned – even though it hardly seems as though anything is actually eaten.
As Ruskin might have once said: a society’s tourist guidebooks are generally divided into three chapters, one of which talks about the museums, one the nightlife and the other the food, the latter being the only reliable way to find out whether it would be worth going there.