The Alps: to eat, to love
The sun has set over the French Alps and lights from 100-year-old chalets dot the mountainside. The air smells of burning pine logs, wet, black earth and chocolate. Six children’s laughter fills the house and in the distance, a cow bell rings, followed by its owner’s long, mournful bellow. It is winter in the mountain village of Morzine and everyone is happy. Except me.
“You have to get out of bed,” says my husband Florent in alarm. “It’s almost dinner time. They’re waiting for you.”
I look up from under the bedcovers. “I can’t. I can’t go down there.”
“It’s ok,” he says, sitting on the edge of the bed. “My mother said it would be light tonight.”
“What is it?”
“Foie de veau,” he says. I moan and throw the covers back over my head. Veal liver? “And gratin,” he adds quickly.
I love food, almost all food–certainly gratin dauphinois and even liver, the base of many adored patés and foie gras. Nor am I a snob. In college, I routinely chased a jumbo plate of nachos with a carton of ice cream and a glass or two of Sam Adams. Like an Italian lothario whistling from the street corner, I’ll take my food in all shapes, sizes and colors.
But I have come to believe that my in-laws culinary habits dangerously defy the laws of metabolic function. Their ability to consume fatty, starchy, cheesy, organ food for days on end is beyond human biology. Even if they are giant viticulteurs from Burgundy–lovers of wine, cheese, church and children–the stomach is only so big. My stomach is only so big.
“I can’t do it,” I whisper to Florent. “You’ll find a way to tell them.”
He looks at me sternly. “Come on. Get up.”
Five days ago, it all looked so very different. With high spirits, we arrived at the family’s mountain chalet, a place my husband spent many happy winters as a child. My sister-in-law arrived with her four life-loving children and we celebrated the holiday season by drinking pinot noir and playing whist.
But then motherhood descended, inevitable and merciless. My thirteen-month-old baby Francesca got a stomach virus. My four-year-old son Theo got a sore throat and insisted on sleeping not just next to me, but on top of me. My husband snored and Francesca’s stomach virus morphed into a cold. Suddenly, I hadn’t slept in five nights. Someone had to save themselves, so I told Florent to go skiing. I was sitting at the kitchen table washing my face with a questionable babywipe when he came in from the cold, radiating health and energy. “It’s beautiful up there!” he enthused. “Lot’s of sun.”
Our choice, at that moment, was either to argue or to have lunch and we, being laissez faire French rather than hot-tempered French, chose lunch. We headed to Praz-de-lys, a small family-oriented resort where resides possibly my favorite restaurant in France—the awkwardly named Jean de la Pipe.
We sat in front of the big wood-burning fireplace and drank Savoie white wine. The waiter smiled at the children, patting their heads with the easy familiarity, and brought an assortment of charcuterie. Theo played with his action figures; Francesca marveled at the fire. When the fondue came I fainted a little inside. I remember scooping the last bit of bubbling cheese from the pot, unbuttoning my top button and thinking, these cords were getting old anyway.
Under normal circumstances we would have stopped there, maybe had a salad for dinner in the protestant American way of purging after the binge. But we were in Catholic France, surrounded by reverent eaters, who, in all fairness, know enough about holiday eating to not strike out on their own and get unauthorized fromage. You did what? Whispered my sister-in-law in horror. Fondue? For lunch? Tu es folle.
That night the real eating began. We had ris de veau (sweetbreads) for an appetizer, civet (deer stew) for the main, followed by local cheeses — Reblochon, Beaufort and Vacherin–and bûche de Noël for dessert.
The next day it was foie gras followed by a nice creamy chapon (capon), more cheese, and blueberry pie. Then it was a variety of aspics and ham, then gigot d’agneau in wine sauce, then pintade in a ‘light’ cream sauce. Every single main course was served with gratin dauphinois and followed by a fresh round Reblochon. Vegetables were scarce.
I tried to protest to my mother-in-law in that elliptical way cultured French ladies favor. “Ooo that looks lovely,” I said as she unbundled a mountainside worth of escargots. “I hope there are no surprises for me when I get back to Paris.”
She just smiled. “It’s the mountains. You become hungry at this elevated altitude. It’s normal.”
“It’s Morzine,” I muttered to Florent. “Not Everest base camp.”
But I do have to hand it to my French family. They have figured out a way to live and eat that is uncomplicated and enjoyable. In this they are representatives of la France profonde–people from the heart of the country, who unlike neurotic, style-conscious Parisians, find no conflict in both loving the concept of food and eating it.
That night, (the night I managed to turn away the foie de veau) I went upstairs to the livingroom which gave onto the valley and looked out at glowing mountain peaks. My mother-in-law was sitting in her favorite, well-worn armchair flipping through the new Paris Match and smoking a Dunhill. My father-in- law, recently turned 80, was fiddling with his Ipad. Tomorrow they would go for a 45-minute walk through the sunny, icy mountains and the day after attend afternoon church services. As I said goodnight and walked upstairs to bed I could hear them discussing tomorrow night’s dinner.
The Alps I know
Morzine. This is a small low-altitude resort (1,100 meters) that sits about an hour outside Geneva. It is the perfect place to bring children and has ski schools that teach in English and in French. It also sits close to the Portes du Soleil a huge complex of mountains that reach into Switzerland and includes the much tougher resort Avoriaz.
Praz-de-lys. This is the ultimate family resort and high enough that it often has snow even in December. The downhill here is not particularly difficult and the cross country, I am told, is wonderful.
Jean de la Pipe. Les Molliettes 74440 Le Praz-de-lys. Tel. 04 50 34 22 08
Google “pipe” in French and you will know why we don’t really understand why they haven’t changed the name. This is a basic place with food from haute-savoie including a nice tartiflette and delicious entrecôte. If they have chapon that day, get it.