Chamonix poses a dilemma for people like me. There’s no question that skiing is the main attraction but, well, this is France; food is pretty important, too. Even with its small population, Chamonix boasts nearly as many Michelin starred restaurants as Milan. Everywhere, the prospect of boozy, afternoon-demolishing lunches beckons. The trick, of course, is finding time for it.
There’s about 18 inches of fresh power on the mountain, with the snow continuing to fall, as my group of three sets off for Les Houches, a part of Mont Blanc-Chamonix that can be reached by a short ride on a free shuttle from our base near Brévent-Flégére. With plenty of glades runs, and relatively low elevation, we expect the visibility to be good despite the continued heavy snowfall.
Indeed it is. Our morning is punctuated with laugh-out-loud moments of getting caught in knee- or thigh-deep powder. We complain, exuberantly and gratefully and not very seriously, about how difficult it is to ski in such deep powder. And it is difficult: Turning sometimes requires gargantuan effort. Falling over is very easy; getting up is very hard. But each run also brings with it the sheer, unbridled ecstasy of a perfect turn in perfect powder. On a run called Kandahar, which shoots into Maisonneuve, the pitch isn’t terrific but with well-spaced glades and fresh tracks galore, it’s still the stuff of dreams. The falling snow is non-stop, and the turning and scraping of skiers and snowboarders has no effect on the mountain; it’s as pristine at noon as it was at nine.
Someone else will have to take over that pristine challenge, though: Our bellies are rumbling. We spot Les Vieilles Luges, a restaurant in a 250-year-old log cabin, which can only be accessed by skiing off-piste, or hiking in. A food challenge? We’re on.
Around 1 p.m., we wind our way through an easy glades run, and emerge at the shack. Built into the mountain and covered by snow, the restaurant is far bigger than anticipated. Busy servers buzz around as lively conversations in French, English, German and Russian fill the room. The log cabin’s small windows offer an extra-large and frankly beautiful view of the mountains surrounding us.
Finally, I get a server’s attention. “Avez-vous une réservation?” she asks, with three empty wine bottles in hand. “Un reservation?” This remote log cabin in the middle of the woods takes reservations? They have a phone? (Well, yes, and, I now know, a web site.) It is, I learn, rather normal to make a booking at one of the very many fine restaurants on the mountain. The concept is foreign to me, but I love it. Today, we luck out: We’re seated in a mere 15 minutes.
The menu, scribbled on a narrow chalkboard by our table, is a dream: duck confit, honey-glazed pork ribs, braised lamb shank. For a supplementary $10, you can have your dish with le farcement, a local speciality consisting of potatoes, dates, raisins and bacon. Always a sucker for the things I can’t get elsewhere, I opt for les diots — a local, smoked sausage — and le farcement.
While we wait, I inhale a can of Kronenberg, which tastes exquisite in the way that only cold beer in the mountains can. Then, the main event. The sausage is outlandishly good. Made with natural casing, it has that slight snap as I bite into it. It is smoky and salty and distinctly fresh, the sausage equivalent of a freshly picked raspberry, warmed by the sun. The flavours are vivid. Accompanied by a glass of Pinot Noir and the salty-sweet farcement, the meal is not merely fit for a king, but for a god.
As I clean my plate, Steph and Clare are slowing down. I sample some of Steph’s beef bourguignon and then move on to Clare’s tart. Surrounded by flaky, buttery pastry, and filled with gooey, sharp but subtle local cheese, it isn’t a light dish, but it’s a damn tasty one.
With no room for dessert (read: the girls vetoed dessert), and the team eager to return to the mountain (read: the lift closing was imminent), we opt for a quick espresso then hit the road. An hour and 45 minutes after we enter Les Vielles Luges, we exit. By the front, we pass a group of well-lubricated 20-something French diners who were well into their meal when we arrived. They appear to be in no rush to leave.
Our afternoon of skiing, meanwhile, has evaporated. As we were sitting inside, feasting, a mountain covered in glorious, epic powder was sitting outside, waiting. Did we spend our time poorly? As we strap in and make our way to the base — our first run after lunch, and our last before dinner — I feel sluggish and a bit drunk. But regretful? Not a chance.
Image courtesy of Stefan Kemp.