An Alpine Special

1 Feb

The French Alps. Having just returned from there, and for the time of year that’s in it, I think an Alpine Special is the ideal way to kick off My Grape Escape. I’ll get to the wine later, because it would be a culinary crime to ignore the mouth-watering dishes this region has to offer.

Situated in a mountainous corner of France nestled into the Swiss and Italian borders, the Savoie region of France is home to some of the most fashionable ski resorts in the world. Life was totally different here before a local named Henri Duhamel donned a pair of narrow wooden planks in 1878 and raced down a mountain, inventing a new mode of transport for local peasants. Not long later the likes of Courchevel and Chamonix arrived on the scene, firmly throwing the Savoie region into the spotlight. The region boasts a rich heritage in food and wine production. Originally during the long hard months of winter, people survived on a diet of potatoes, cheese, onions and pork products; goods which could be produced locally and stored safely for months on end. These basic ingredients have remained staples of the region’s gastronomy to this day.

For all the exertion and danger you put your body through by day, the Alps richly reward your stomach by night. What better way to celebrate another day alive! Generally for main courses one can decide between melted cheese or grilled meat. For melted cheese you can expect such delights as tartiflette, raclette or fondue. Grilled meats typically come in the form of beef or duck which you can cook yourself with either pierrade (hot stone) or braserade (table barbecue). The chef in the kitchen is also known to cook for you (but where’s the fun in that?).

Tartiflette, perhaps surprisingly, is not a traditional dish. In fact it was invented in the 1980s by the Reblochon trade union as a ploy to increase sales of the creamy cheese. Although recipes vary from village to village in the region, all contain potatoes, cheese and some sort of meat such as lardons (chopped bacon). Last year I picked up a simple recipe for tartiflette in the Sunday Times which you can find here. The outcome should resemble a gratin casserole dish, golden and bubbling and delicious as it emerges from the oven (see left). Try it with a simple dressed green salad on the side, with some charcuterie. I cooked this last weekend for some friends and it was a success. Do NOT let the cheese put you off, when I opened it to cut it up I nearly passed out with the smell, but somehow it melts beautifully into the dish and tastes great. I also used a good-quality Chablis as the white wine ingredient, and then drank it as accompaniment to the dish, with stunning results.

Raclette is a dish native to parts of Switzerland and France. It is a salted, semi-firm cheese made from cow’s milk. Raclette comes from the French word racler, which means ‘to scrape’. The cheese is usually heated in front of a fire or special machine, and scraped onto diners’ plates, where it is accompanied by boiled potatoes, gherkins, dried meats, and assorted vegetables. The emphasis here is on relaxed and sociable dining.

Gathering several people around a fondue pot is definitely one of the more pleasant experiences in Alpine dining. It originated in the late 17th century when peasants began to mix and melt leftovers of cheese, and ate it with stale bread. It was also a way of using up the bread and cheese that were produced in the summer and would go hard in winter. These days fondue savoyarde consists of processed cheese such as Emmenthal, Gruyère or Comté, combined with white wine and garlic seasoning. Diners use ‘fondue forks’ to dip their chunks of bread. Apparently if you drop your piece of bread in the pot, your co-diners will challenge you to a dare which you cannot refuse! Worth trying after a few carafes of house wine.

If a large plate of raw meat is placed in front of you, chances are you’ve (perhaps unknowingly) ordered the pierrade or braserade. A pierrade is a blazing hot stone on which you cook your raw meats; the name refers to the traditional method of cooking this way on hot rocks. The braserade is the next most likely way of injuring yourself at an Alpine dinner table – it’s like a mini barbecue on which you cook your chunks of meat on skewers. Both devices are guaranteed to scorch all those sitting around the table, perfect for getting rid of that goggle burn.

Now, on to the wine at last! The local wines of Savoie are produced relatively in small volumes. The majority of wine here is white, with grapes such as Altesse, Jacquère, and a small amount of Chardonnay. The better-known Gamay grape (of Beaujolais fame) is the most popular red grape. While the vins de Savoie are widely served in the best restaurants of the region, these wines generally lie well below the international radar, so are difficult to find outside of France.

In terms of pairing wine with the food described above, I would tend to go with local preferences. In general I like to stick by the rule that local food and local wines are the perfect marriage. For example, I would always pick Italian wine to go with Italian dishes. Similarly goats cheese and Loire Sauvignon Blanc were meant to be. Muscadet wine and shellfish also stands out as a good example.

Bearing this in mind, if I was to pick a white I would look no further than a nice unoaked Chardonnay – Chablis would be perfect. Most of the wine menus I looked at seemed to echo this – the white wine choice comprised of either the local stuff or Chardonnays. If you want to go down the red route a nice fruity number will do – Beaujolais or Fleurie (made from the local Gamay grape), or Pinot Noir. You don’t want to pick anything overly full-bodied, as the cheese will simply over-power it. For the meaty dishes however I’d go for a more powerful red, such as Côtes du Rhône.

That brings an end to our Alpine Special. Whether you have recently returned from the mountains or have plans to embark on an Alpine adventure of your own, I hope you found the post useful and informative. Next week, I investigate the offerings of our favourite late-night wine bar.


3 Responses to “An Alpine Special”

  1. Luciano Becchio February 2, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Keep mine [i]sans sauce[/i] would ya.

  2. Strider February 2, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    Nice blog! I’m new to wine and I hope you keep bloggin! You keep bloggin, and I’ll keep guzzling!!!!


  3. RuMcD February 3, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    A certain T Doorley is currently quaking in his not so nice boots…….!

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