Chalet Food Through The Ages
Chalets were initially a way to get around Mr Wilson's annual £25 foreign exchange limit in the 1960s. Someone's uncle owned a cowshed in Switzerland, a few Henries got together to rent it from him, paying in Britain, somebody's sister came along to cook, and everyone had a jolly time.
The sister would have been pretty adept at French onion soup, boeuf bourguignon and chocolate mousse, they'd have spoofed for the washing up, the wine was undrinkable but drunk in large quantities, and everyone lived on ‘Luft und Li-ebbi' as the Swiss used to say, air and love, neither of them as sweet or pure nowadays as they were back then.
Chalets became big business in the 70s. The food was good in a sort of coq au vin and haricots verts way. Surprisingly good, since most of the chalet girls had only done a one-week bride's course after flunking their A-levels at St Mary's, Somewhere. Banoffee pie was a favourite pudding. Coffee was filtered, because that's how the Continentals do it, and generally cold, weak and bitter at altitudes where the kettle boils at 90º. The wine hadn't improved much, though plastic barrels, wine boxes and returnable litre bottles which cost more than their contents had made it even easier to consume.
In the 80s, we put a lot more effort into our food. We had to: skiers had discovered the big French resorts, where the skiing was incomparable but the accommodation was mostly in tiny flats or run-down former hotels, and seriously basic. The cooking had to compensate!
Food was getting trendy. If we weren't careful, nouvelle cuisine meant fruit or sugar in everything. Meat with jam, vegetables with honey, rice with a sweet sauce. Portions, however, were still rabelaisian. And cheese was de rigueur. Deep-fried camembert to start (with jam), cheese on the meat, cheesy potatoes and vegetable gratins, fruity cheesecake for pud and a cheeseboard to follow!
And decoration... Some fool had decreed that presentation was more important than flavour, so carrots were eaten pushed through a ring of courgette (both cold), tomatoes were only seen if they could look like roses and taste like potato peelings, and half of the contents of one's dish were inedible swans or fish that had probably gone from plate to plate for a month. The American influence was everywhere: a meal was good in direct proportion to its number of incompatible ingredients. If it didn't include olives, redcurrants, pine nuts, basil, lemongrass, anchovies and pineapple, with a raspberry dressing, it was bor-ing.
Yet somehow chalets and chalet-hotels served wonderful food in the 80s. Talented young chefs spiced up the cooking and the après-cooking (I remember one in Val d'Isère who had found that the chance to bend over his plate warmer on cold nights appealed to the hostesses). Modern British cooking was evolving, even if no-one called it that. Instead of reproducing French food badly, these young chefs were combining French and New World influences for some really interesting food.
And the French themselves were re-discovering that there is more to life than tinned green beans. I remember a Frenchman asking me why we served strange English food, such as the odd-looking thing on the end of his fork, as he peered suspiciously at a mange-tout! Our French suppliers began to be able to get anything, in season or not. Perhaps we were less concerned with healthy eating than now, so we could enjoy seconds of beignets de légumes. Perhaps our palates were just less jaded, and we were tasting so many things for the first time, but one way or another the 1980s were a wonderful time for a chalet-goer to be a gourmet and a gourmand.
At the end of that decade, there were two smart chalets in Val d'Isère. They weren't a success. There wasn't the market. They lost money. Their owner shot himself. He was unfortunate to be a few years ahead of his time, because in 90s Val d'Isère, he'd have made his fortune. A whole new clientele of younger people arrived who had the money to stay in good hotels, but didn't want to. They liked to come with their friends, and didn't enjoy whispered dinners over starched table cloths. They preferred the informality of a chalet, but weren't prepared to put up with lumpy mattresses, decrepit boilers or second-rate food. By the end of the 90s, Val d'Isère alone had a dozen chalets smarter than the original two. Now, it's nearer thirty. They have bespoke sofas and hand-made curtains, granite and limestone, saunas, jacuzzis and swimming pools, wellness centres for wifey and WiFi for hubby, plasma screens which rise from antique chests, distressed timber and unstressed customers.
And the sort of people ready to pay four figures each for a week in Val d'Isère or Verbier eat in enough top restaurants in Britain not to want banoffee pie on holiday. They know good food, expect good food, and are prepared to pay good money for good food. It is the chalet holiday company's most important contribution to their holiday. Blizzards may blow or the snow may melt. Their boots might hurt, their wife will probably ski better than them, and their children will laugh at their Arlberg Method. But dinner in their chalet can still save the day.
There are chalet holidays in Val d'Isère which cost four times more than YSE's top chalets. Like other upmarket firms, YSE consciously avoid the excessive end of the market, where Russian ‘businessmen' fly their ‘wives' in in private jets. The biggest spenders may get a flunky to help them take off their boots, in case they are too tired, old or fat, or their wife's ski suit is too tight, but they are unlikely to eat better. YSE are very surprised and unhappy if a guest says the food he ate in one of Val d'Isère's hotels or restaurants on his night off was as good as the food in his chalet on the other six nights. Their chefs and chalet girls cook on yachts, in restaurants or in hotels over the summer. Often they are combining work and pleasure for a winter season before buckling down to open their own restaurant. These young Brits and Antipodeans can cook like the French have mostly forgotten how to.
YSE staff spend a blissful month in Val d'Isère before the guests arrive, trying each other's food. Nothing gets served to a guest until it has had the thumbs-up from thirty other young cooks. No matter that some recent Young Chef of the Year has been serving this sauce with his magret all summer to the plutocrat who owned his boat: if the other staff think that Arabella's grandmother's recipe is better, he's going to have to learn it. It is rare that chefs get the opportunity to cook the same things, shoulder to shoulder, to taste each other's versions, to hear what their peers genuinely think of their efforts, or to pick up tips and techniques from every side. No-one actually gets slagged off. The question is simply asked ‘Who wants the recipe to that?' and when nobody does, that's a meal the customers won't be seeing. YSE ask every guest for their impressions before they leave, and any cook whose food doesn't get ‘The best food we've ever eaten on holiday' will make damn sure he does the following week!
The serious chalet holiday companies use top ingredients. Stewing steak has made way for fillet, pork chops for filet mignon, leg of lamb for shank. The amount saved by serving cheap cuts wouldn't pay for the garnish on the canapés. YSE serve at least one plain vegetable each evening (for the real Brits), but also one most guests won't have cooked for themselves for a while, be it Jerusalem artichoke, fennel, marrow, pumpkin, chicory or braised beetroot. Quantities are more generous in Zermatt or Val d'Isère than they would be in London, where you probably haven't just had several hours of hard exercise, but starters are designed to start you more than stuff you, main courses are mostly plated and planned to leave you replete, not recumbent, and puddings typically aren't pudding.
Guests are offered unlimited quantities of free wine with dinner. It isn't plonk any more. YSE's free wines are clarets and Savoyarde whites, and for anyone who wants more than that YSE have the world's cheapest wine list. The bottles go from Euro8 to Euro250, from St Joseph to Château d'Yquem, but are sold not at a small profit, nor even at cost price, but at less than they were bought for, because YSE reason that if guests are drinking from the wine list they're not drinking their house wine (not that there's anything to stop them drinking both!). Less than one guest in ten feels the need to go beyond the Bordeaux or Chignin.
Even the coffee is tested and argued about at length. YSE did a blind tasting of French cafetière versus Italian espresso pot. Water in a kettle boils at a low temperature in Val d'Isère. In an espresso pot it is superheated to the same temperature wherever you are. There was no contest. The difficult thing was finding a decent blend. The French talk a good coffee, but you have to cross into nearby Italy to drink one! By the time YSE had selected their beans, half of their staff had palpitations.
In a generation, chalet holidays have gone from innocent fun for a few quid to smooth professionalism for a grand, and the food has gone from your favourites from the school dining room to top restaurant standard in your own dining room. This is the golden age of chalet holidays, seventh heaven for skiing sybarites. It can't last. Bird flu or global warming are going to get us. We'll just have to enjoy it while we can!
About the Author: John Yates-Smith is a founder of Val d'Isere chalet specialist YSE and long-time resident of the area.