When bad weather descends, a skiing trip to Val Thorens can at least transform into an excellent culinary journey says Marcus Maxwell
MY trip to Val Thorens began with an apéritif at Chez Pepe, a remote chalet Alpage that is today only accessible by snowmobile. It has been owned by the same family since the 1870s, when it was first built as a shepherd’s summer home. It would be another 100 years before the modern skiing resort, a few miles up the mountain, was built.
The Alps, indeed the whole of France, has seen many changes since then, but Chez Pepe hasn’t moved with the times. The delicious cheese that is pasteurised on-site is still made in exactly the same way as it was 140 years ago, each cow milked by hand.
My hotel, the five star l’Altapura, doesn’t share this nostalgia. The references to traditional mountain décor – a herd of stylised moose heads on the wall, faux fur throws – are more ironic than deferential.
The huge lobby and bar area, furnished with overstuffed sofas and dotted with iMacs is part Apple store, part up-market ski lodge. Opened in December 2011, this is the only five star joint in the resort, although it will be joined next winter by the Koh-I Nor. Like so many others, Val Thorens is chasing the luxury euro to weather these tough times.
Dinner in one of l’Atapura’s three restaurants, les Enfants Terribles, was excellent. It serves exactly the same food as the original Megève outpost, which takes its name from the Jean Cocteau novel of 1929 (apparently a member of the Sibuet family, which owns the hotel, was friends with the novelist). I had the oysters to start, followed by a perfectly cooked veal chop. The mashed potato was divine: a simple concoction made with double cream and truffle oil.
The first day of skiing was awful: poor visibility, high winds and heavy snow. If I were here for a week, I would probably have spent the day in l’Altapura’s spa, but time constraints meant I headed reluctantly for the slopes. The locals thought I was mad; the alpine equivalent of Brits who don Bermuda shorts in February.
There is a silver lining to the countless clouds, however. Val Thorens is one of the highest resorts in France at 2,300m, so at least it is snow that falls; slopes further down the mountains get rain, making the icy runs un-skiable.
Lunch at Le Chalet de la Marine began with an apéritif in a nearby yurt, heated by a wood-burning stove and insulated by several metres of fresh snow. I asked the waiter to recommend a dish: he suggested the “perfectly cooked” egg. If, like me, you think eggs are just eggs, think again. This really is perfection: a solitary hen’s egg baked at 55 degrees Celsius for just under an hour, on top of a rich chestnut and morelles sauce topped with coriander.
My ski instructor Virginie, who normally spends her days coaching professionals, was embarrassingly overqualified for a weekend avec moi, a skier who could charitably be described as debutante-intermediate. She has spent her entire life in the resort, which her father helped found, while her mother is a famous former French ski champion. If she is bored pottering around blue and green slopes, she does a good job of hiding it, but she strongly counseled against going out again after lunch. When I insisted she looked grief stricken.
Dinner at L’Epicurien, a tiny restaurant gastronomique, was an experience. A starter comprising an oyster on Brussels sprout purée is about as nice as it sounds: slimy and cloying. Things improved thereafter. A fillet of sole on a bed of wilted spinach, complemented by a light broth poured from a teapot, was remarkable for its Asian-inspired lightness – a rarity in the mountains, where lashings of cheese, cream and butter are as obligatory as ski boots. The pièce de résistance was an inventive beetroot desert, served with a nutty sorbet, which, save for a few pieces of candied beetroot, could serve as a starter.
Despite the excellent food, I will remember L’Epicurien for its maître d. Everyone has a story about a rude French waiter, but this guy was something else. He dictated our choices – quite literally: “je vous demande”, he says at one point – and rations our wine, all the while instilling a culture of fear among the junior waiting staff, controlling the whole experience with a series of foot-taps, coughs and menacing stares. Think Basil Fawlty meets tinpot dictator.
On day two, the conditions were worse. This is why people come skiing for a week: to hedge their bets. The temperature had dropped to minus 15 degrees Celsius, the snow was heavy, the wind strong, and you could barely see your nose, let alone the slopes, through the fog. My instructor tried to show me some landmarks along the way: a snow park, a ski-cross course, a toboggan run. She reliably pointed into the blinding white light, reeling off a list of names, facts and figures, but I will have to take her word for it.
During lunch at La Fruitière, we played guess the nationality. Was the table across the room Russian or Italian? (The former, it turned out). Val Thorens’ decision to go up-market has made it more popular with Russian tourists, who are greeted by the locals with a kind of open-armed snobbery. They are among the biggest-spending tourists, making them the salvation of resorts like this one, but then France has always been sniffy about new money. Panic set in when I realised I don’t even have one star, and there are just 10 months until my own thirtieth.
Dinner began with an existential crisis. The chef at L’Oxalys, Jean Sulpice, received his second Michelin star at the age of 30. The food was spectacular. The chestnut soup with Parmesan foam and truffles was rich and filling (too filling, perhaps), while a second starter of warm blue lobster carpaccio in carrot juice was zingy and lightly spicy. A locally sourced fillet of Léman lake fish in smoked haddock butter and tiny sweet onions was equally good. The lamb cutlets infused with lemon thyme are cooked rosé, as the French say, which roughly translates as “still twitching”; a kidney – rich and earthy – had not yet finished performing dialysis.
It is at this point, I stopped enjoying the food and started seeing it as a test of endurance. Bring it on, says I, what’s next? A few dainty slices of apple? A cucumber sandwich? No, a Comte cheese mouse with beetroot caramel and walnuts. I was undoing a second button on my jeans as dessert arrived: a visually stunning meringue in the shape of an apple, stuffed with apple and mountain honey ice cream. Sadly, the anis flavouring failed to cut through the 40 or so spoonfuls of sugar.
The meal was accompanied by the high-pitched screaming of a toddler in a high-chair, who had presumably found fault with the artichoke purée that comes with the lamb. French children don’t throw food, or so the mantra goes, because they are treated like adults from day one; in the République Française, there is no such thing as a child-free zone. Until now, I subscribed to this philosophy, but after an hour or so of wailing I began to think the Victorians had it right. At some point between the cheese course and desert, one of my companions approached the parents and said, “some people take a second mortgage out to eat in this restaurant, now take that child outside”.
NEED TO KNOW
Four-star hotel Le Val Thorens (levalthorens.com) has rooms from €200 a night
On the slopes:
Val Thorens is the highest resort in the 3 Valleys with the world’s largest ski area (600km). An adult ski pass costs €207 for six days.
Skiing lessons can be bought from the French Ski School (esf-valthorens.com)
Chez Pépé Nicolas (chezpepenicolas.com)
Les Enfants Terribles at the Altapura (altapura.fr)
Le Chalet de la Marine (chalet-val-thorens.com)
The Epicurien (restaurantmontana.fr)
La Fruitière at la Folie Douce (lafoliedouce-valthorens.com)