No. 328-330: Mighty Climbers, Mont Blanc and Raclette
I love driving through France. It gives you a strong appreciation of how quickly the geography changes, and as the landscape changes, so do the people, languages and cuisines.
We just passed through the French Alps, or the Savoie, famous in the summer for her high, snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes and chic spa towns. Paragliding, hiking and climbing above and among the vast fields of wild flowers seem to be the activities of choice. With the backdrop of Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, it is indeed a spectacular part of France.
Trying to get to our next destination as quickly as possible, we were a bit disheartened to see that the wait time to travel to Italy via the tunnel burrowed through the majestic mountain was nearly 2 hours. Hungry and tired, we made a snap decision to dine in the small resort town of les Houches about 6-kilometers from Chamonix. This impromptu-pretty-village stop turned out to be a brilliant break, as the quiet town is nestled directly under the impressive mountain. Old wooden Savoyard farmhouses and restaurants dot the ski-town, and the centre ville boasts a sweet country church along with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, all with a 360-degree view of Mont Blanc.
We found a traditional resto with a warm-enough terrace (the weather is oddly cool for August), and tucked ourselves in next to a jolly young Scotsman who was bursting to tell someone about his marvelous achievement. It turns out that les Houches is the starting point of the popular ‘Tour de Mont Blanc’ trek, and our humble, but proud, Scottish lad had, after four previous attempts, just succeeded in summiting his highland foe. Although completely caught up in his enthusiasm, I was at first less than impressed that it had taken him four separate trips to the mountain to realize his dream. But as he continued to regale us with his story, I began to understand the skill and dangers involved in trekking the Alp’s highest peak. While the scenery is magnificent on the way up, the trail gets quite rugged, and the final, exposed, snow and ice-covered summit ridge sounds harrowing. En fait, not only is Mont Blanc Europe’s highest apex, it is also the deadliest. As he modestly described his dramatic high-altitude climb and final achievement, I felt so pleased for him. Proud, like a big sister delighted for her brother. He also told us about the well-appointed hut system and fabulous food to be had on the trek, which all seemed so very French to me.
This brings me of course to our own fabulous and calorific Savoyard meal in les Houches: Raclette.
If you have never had raclette, you should. Although it originated in the Swiss Alps, you can order it all over France, but it is especially delicious down here in the Chamonix Valley. There are centuries of tradition behind this simple feast (first mentioned in writings as early as 1291!), but as far as I can tell, things haven’t changed much. This semi-hard, mild, and slightly salty cows’-milk cheese (also called Raclette) was, and is still, easy to transport and yummy to eat; shepherds and farmers originally ate it over an open campfire as they broke from work. They would place a block of cheese by the fire, and as it became soft, they would drizzle the melted cheese over potatoes, onions and pickles.
“Raclette” comes from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape.” It is a bit like fondue, but you have to work a little harder and be quick on the draw to scrape the cheese as it melts from the rind. I have used the modern fancy Raclette grills at the homes of French families in Paris, but I much prefer the old-style Raclette board to enjoy this delicious fare. The warm, rich and scrumptious cheese heaped on boiled potatoes, and these days charcuterie, accompanied by crunchy pickles and healthy green salad is perfectly perfect for warming the body and soul in the cool mountain air.