Foodie Finds in France: The Wonderful World of Alpine Cheese Dishes

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Foodie Finds in France: The Wonderful World of Alpine Cheese Dishes

By Leyla Giray

If you’ve ever spent a day skiing in the Alps of France or Switzerland, you’ve probably sat with friends around a piping hot dish of fondue, a velvety mixture of melted cheeses with a bit of alcohol thrown in.

Rumor has it that fondue originated in Switzerland although the debate rages on. There’s more agreement on the origins of the fondue’s recipe: it first appeared in 1825 in Frenchman Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, the gastronomic book classic.

Don’t be fooled by simplicity though, because fondue can be so much more than cheese.

Just last week I visited the tiny resort town of Megève, about an hour and a half from where I live in the beautiful Rhone-Alpes region of France. Hidden in a cellar right in the center of town, what looks dark and gloomy from the outside is a little gem of friendliness and Alpine décor on the inside.

I had a good reason for coming here: it’s one of the few places in town with mini-fondues for one. Normally it’s a shared dish so if no one happens to want one that day, you’re out of luck.

My eyes widened at the list of various, untested varieties and came to a screeching halt at the words Fondue aux Truffes. Truffle fondue. Truffle anything will grab my undivided attention. But truffles plus cheese is simply irresistible.

Somehow the strong taste of the truffle didn’t mask the cheese, it complemented it. Bread after little piece of crunchy bread, I stuffed myself, watching the snow fall outside. It may be a cellar, but it’s built on a hill so one side is all windows.

Foodie Finds: The Wonderful World of Alpine Cheese Dishes - Fondue

Foodie Finds: The Wonderful World of Alpine Cheese Dishes – Fondue

Hot cheese dishes are ideal for chilly days like this.

I’d been up since before sunrise watching huskies and hounds gear up for the Grande Odyssée, a major international dogsledding race. If you love dogs and can handle the cold for a few hours, witnessing several hundred dogs strain against their harnesses because they desperately want to race is a feeling you might not experience again so grab the opportunity if you can.

Scrape, Scrape, Pour, Scrape

I digress. Back to the cheese.

If you’re not in the mood for bread but still want the cheese, don’t despair, raclette is near. A Swiss dish which has found widespread acceptance in France, it is basically melted cheese poured over boiled potatoes. Like fondue, it is served with small dill pickles and on occasion, a salad and cold cuts, especially cured ham and air-dried beef.

Racler, in French, means to scrape. And that’s how you eat it. In the more traditional eateries you’ll get a chunk of cheese and a small grill right at your table. As soon as the cheese melts, scrape it onto your plate.

Sometimes the scraping is done in the kitchen by the chef but that’s not half as much fun.

The raclette set many of us have at home, those little trays you place under an electric grill when friends show up unexpectedly and you haven’t cooked, is the perfect home entertainment version of this highly traditional dish which came to us from mountain shepherds.

La Tartiflette

La Tartiflette

La Tartiflette

If you haven’t opted for the fondue or the raclette, there’s every chance you’ll be eating a tartiflette, a creamy mixture of potatoes, bacon, onions and cheese with a splash of wine, all grilled to a golden brown crust in the oven.

It’s the lazy woman’s cheese dish – no dipping, no scraping, just fork it from dish in a blaze of warmth.

Another deeply traditional mountain dish, right?

Not in the least. Tartiflette is a makeover of a traditional dish, the pela, and was a promotional ploy by the manufacturers of Reblochon cheese during the 1980s. It worked beyond their wildest dreams and tartiflette is now firmly ensconced in the French Alpine culinary firmament.

And so it should be.

La Boîte Chaude

Mont d'Or Cheese is used for La Boîte Chaude

Mont d’Or Cheese is used for La Boîte Chaude

If you happen to have an apartment rental or access to a stove, the Boîte Chaude – literally, the hot box – is a delicacy you absolutely have to try.

It’s the simplest of dishes: a Mont d’Or cheese, pierced with pieces of garlic, doused with local white wine, and baked in its little round pine box until melted and browned. Like a fondue you can dip bread into it or like raclette, you can use potatoes. Or if you’re in a rush, just dive in and scoop it out with a spoon.

Don’t forget to line the sides of the box with aluminum foil or the wood may catch fire in the oven, a little more excitement than you’d planned.

The perfect winter dish and it’s just as well, since winter is the only season Mont d’Or cheese is actually made.

There are many variations on these dishes and of course my region can a number of different cheeses, so if you don’t like any of the above dishes, you can just as easily invent your own.

If You Go:

Note: Leyla was assisted in planning her visit to Megève by the Megève Tourist Office.


Leyla Giray of Women on the Road

Leyla Giray of Women on the Road

Leyla Giray is the author of Women on the Road, a travel book for baby boomer women. She lives in France and writes about travel on the blog of the same name, Women on the Road. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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