Madame is stressed out. It’s just past dawn and well below zero on a Sunday morning and the line in her boulangerie is right out the door. Inside, the longest loaf of bread I have ever seen is being sliced and sold by the meter and in the back a teenage assistant is packaging Galettes des Rois, the famed celebratory cake of Epiphany with their feves (porcelain figurines to hide in the cake) and paper crowns (to be worn by the feve finder). This packaging person looks suspiciously like Madame and she’s not a very good packer either. I suspect this is the source of the above mentioned stress. The line up is growing now, at fair clip. The atmosphere gets tenser each second and the metered bread shorter. Frangipane filled Galettes are selling fast, despite their crumpled sacs. When I finally leave there’s less than a meter to go on the bread and a full on family feud in progress. I’m almost sorry to leave the spectacle but its Sunday and this is market day in Abondance. It’s the busiest day of the week in this mountain village and just outside the bakery stalls are piled high with a dizzying array of local alpine cheese and charcuterie. Abondance is a place that comes by its name honestly. Soon my panier is bursting with delicious mountain fare but the star of the show is a piece of alpage Abondance cheese I plan to turn into Berthoud for lunch. Along with a baguette aux cereales I bought from Madame there will be a sausisson and a bottle of Gamay chosen from one of the region’s many delicious wines. And, mais oui, a Galette for dessert, bien sur.
Abondance is one of 13 villages in the Portes du Soleil ski region which is the second largest skiable domain in the world. It is also one of the best, but ironically one of the least known. It boasts 650 km of marked pistes spread over 14 valleys. You can start in the morning at Chatel in France then ski to nearby Champery in Switzerland for lunch. Spend an enjoyable hour or two on the slopes and you end up in Avoriaz for an après ski aperitif. Here its possible to ski between towns faster than you can drive to them. Avoriaz, for instance is well over an hour from Chatel by car. The skiing is world class with lots of black runs for the experts and a plethora of kinder slopes for everyone else. As the name Portes du Soleil suggests, you can bet there will be lots of sunny days. But don’t count on much in the way of nightlife, crowds or upscale anything. The traditional mountain way of life sets the scene here and unlike the other contender for the world’s largest title, Les Trois Vallees in France, this region has few custom built developments and almost no eyesores. There are small hotels and a scattering of chalets but most of the skiers here are day-trippers living in the nearby Valais or Vaud regions of Switzerland or the Haute Savoie in France. Hotels are modest family run affairs and many of them are famous for their good restaurants offering abundant mountain fare at reasonable prices.
Here you can dine like a Savoy Duke on local mushrooms, game or cheese based dishes like Berthoud, Tartiflette or fondue. Sunday lunch at one of these places is a tradition. All year locals flock here to eat in the small village of Chappelle d’Abondance that boasts 3 Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants alone. In Champery on the Swiss side there is Café du Centre or C21 as it’s also known, Switzerland’s molecular gastronome Denis Martin’s mountain outpost. In the small mountain villages like Morgins, Chatel and Les Gets life seems to carry on pretty much as it has for centuries. Here it’s as much about cows and cheese as it is about tourism.
The Portes du Soliel is also interesting because it lies within the larger Franco-Suisse region known as the Chablais, once a province of the Duchy of Savoy. Today it belongs not only to France’s Haute Savoie but also to the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais. The Chablais has much to offer the traveler intending to do more than slap on the boards. It’s fascinating geography is formed by the Rhone River as it enters the eastern basin of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). Leman is a gorgeous freshwater lake and the Rhone provides a large fertile valley where prized apricots and many vegetables are grown. Gentle foothills terraced with vineyards give way to mountain valleys and alpine chalets where fresh air and a traditional way of life prevail. On the French side of the Chablais there are the lakeside villages like Evian and Thonon les Bains where you can eat fresh lake fish, enjoy the thermal baths or find a Casino to lose a few Euros in.
Behind Evian the mountains rise rather abruptly to the bucolic plateau of the Pays de Gavot and the Dent de Oche massif that marks the border between France and Switzerland.
Just beyond we are back in the Porte du Soliel and the Val D’Abondance. It is said Abondance was named for it’s fertile land. A microclimate caused by the proximity of the lake means cold winters followed by rainy springs promising an abundance of green summer pastures. Heaven on earth for the special breed of cow that calls this valley home and whose milk goes to make the delicious Gruyere style cheese Abondance. The picturesque village of Abondance was founded by an order of monks who taught the local peasants how to make cheese and giving them a method of preserving the milk from their cows. This brought wealth to the valley and gave France one of its most delicious cheeses. Their Abbey and Cloisters can still be visited today.
On the Swiss side of the Chablais the rise is gentler passing through some of the country’s most scenic vineyards. The landscape is littered here and there with splendid Chateaux and small yet famous winemaking villages like Yvorne and Aigle. From there the road winds up to the Mosses pass and the gateway to the Pays d’Enhaut (high country) bringing you to Etivaz, home of the splendid L’Etivaz cheese. You might say that Swiss L‘etivaz and French Abondance are first cousins, one born in the French Chablais and the other in the Swiss.
Berthoud au fromage is the typical dish made in the Val D’Abondance. It is a simple preparation requiring no fuss. If you don’t find Abondance cheese you can substitute Gruyere, Etivaz, Fontina or Beaufort. The Madiera is what makes Berthoud special.
1 clove garlic
500 grams (10 oz) Abondance cheese cut into thin slices
½ cup Madeira or other sweet wine
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Crusty French bread
Prosciutto or other Charcuterie/Salumi of your choice
Preheat the oven to 410 F (210C)
Peel the garlic and cut it in two pieces. Rub the inside of a gratin dish with the cut sides of the garlic. Layer the cheese into the gratin dish and pour the wine over it. Season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper and bake for 15 minutes or until the cheese is golden and bubbly. Serve with the potatoes, mountain ham or prosciutto, crusty bread and cornichons.
Hint For perfect potatoes