Ski resorts the world over have a wealth of attractions off the slopes, none more so than the Portes du Soleil region on the French-Swiss border. Mark Frary discovers traditional villages, artisan industries and foodie delights during a visit to the charming area.
Turn the clock back a few decades and the Portes du Soleil region was more likely to attract smugglers than the skiers and snowboarders it does today. Currently, snow sports enthusiasts can explore 650km (400 miles) of slopes in this vast circuit of 12 resorts just south of Lake Geneva. Some of the ski villages are well known internationally – notably modern Avoriaz and pretty Morzine – but the likes of tiny Champoussin and St Jean d’Aulps are less so.
I have been to the area many times but usually to visit only one of the ski resorts at a time. On this occasion I had come in search of something more than just great skiing – to discover the villages that make up the region, its artisan communities and the traditional mountain dishes and produce that makes the area a foodies’ dream.
Cheese, cheese and more cheese…
As well as its varied skiing and boarding, Portes du Soleil is packed with fascinating places to explore and things to do; from Les Gets’ Museum of Mechanical Music to Châtel’s Smugglers and Contraband Museum.
But it is the traditional industries, from woodcarvers’ workshops and potters’ studios to the numerous small farms, that give the area its identity. Unsurprisingly for an area on the French-Swiss border, cheese is the standout product: creamy Abondance, mild Tomme de Savoie and nutty Reblochon are all produced here.
While the cheese is local, a key guardian of this foodie heritage is not. Miti Yamaguchi, the 38-year-old head cheesemaker at La Fruitière des Perrieres in Les Gets, had watched the Tour de France on television back in his native Japan and soon realised his dream of working in the pretty and mountainous region he had once seen the cyclists pass through.
I meet him in the pungent-smelling dairy where he tells me of his daily routine: getting up at first light to make Tomme, Abondance as well as blue cheese made to his own recipe. In the dairy’s damp cellars – a prerequisite for the cheese to mature – he describes how it takes 10 litres (2 gallons) of milk to make just 1kg (2.2lbs) of cheese.
A cheesemaker’s life is a solitary existence. Does he get homesick? “Not any more,” he says, “but I do miss Japanese food.” He marks his cheeses with Japanese characters that are usually unintelligible to the customers of the cheese shop and restaurant above but mean plenty to him. Miti is typical of the producers in the region, with his obvious desire to use the freshest possible local ingredients.
Visitors can explore many of the farms here to see the process from the field to the table. I pop in to see Corinne David at Gaec Barbossine in Châtel, the farm she runs with her husband Emmanuel whose family have been making Abondance cheese here for generations. As well as the farmers, I am introduced to the girls – twenty or so Abondance cows – known for their lunettes, brown circles around their eyes that make them look like they are wearing sunglasses.
Where to eat
The way to really get a taste of this region is to take to the slopes and enjoy the local specialities at one of the region’s many welcoming restaurants. It’s a real pleasure to ski up to a cosy mountain hut, meet the passionate owners and combat any post-ski hunger with good hearty dishes.
Securing a table at Le Vaffieu (Le Pléney, tel: 04 5079 0943) at the top of the Fys chairlift between Les Gets and Morzine is a challenge, so book early. The house speciality is the mille-feuille aux trois fromages, like the cake of the same name but with air-dried meat replacing the pastry and a melted goo of Tomme, Reblochon and Comté cheeses the substitute for custard. Sample such delicacies in front of the wood-burning stove while introducing yourself to Suzie, the owner’s friendly dog.
Over in Châtel, try Le Fiacre (87 route du Boude; tel: 04 5073 3046) – the tables here are jammed together to make things intimate, but that’s part of the appeal. A good choice is Berthoud, a dish of melted Abondance with lashings of garlic and Madeira wine served over steamed potatoes with dried meats and salad. My dinner companion Pascale explains how the dish is named after a local resident who could not bear to waste the last bits of his cheese and found a few leftovers to make the Abondance Valley’s signature dish.
Among the other options in the Swiss resort of Champoussin is Chez Gaby (tel: 024 477 2222), which has a beautifully sunny terrace and is renowned for its röstis, a traditional dish of grated potatoes, onions, cheese and other ingredients. While La Grange (60 chemin de la Coutettaz; tel: 04 5075 9640) in Morzine cooks fillets of fera (a fleshy white freshwater fish from Lake Geneva) with sorrel cream, and potée Savoyarde, a mountain-sized tower of three types of pork, potatoes and other root vegetables.
How to get there:
Transfers to the Portes du Soleil region from Geneva International Airport (80-minute drive) are available from Skiidy Gonzales (from €35 shared-ride), while a private taxi to the region costs around €200-220.
Where to stay:
Les Gets: La Marmotte (61 rue du Chêne; tel: 04 5075 8033) is ideal for the local slopes, has comfortable and clean traditional chalet-style rooms and boasts a spa with a stunning swimming pool.
Morzine: L’Equipe (733 Avenue de Joux Plane; tel: 04 5079 1143) is perfectly placed for access to the resort’s facilities, including the Pléney cable car. Its rooms also have a charming feature; the ceilings twinkle with coloured stars to help guests drift off to sleep.
Châtel: Le Tremplin (529 Route du Linga; tel: 04 5073 2306) is a good 3-star option with friendly staff.