"You have to beat the Belgians!" people say, seriously, hostilely, as if a bizarre conflagration has finally turned Belgium into the actual enemy, after so many wars in the crossfire. But it turns out that they're talking about getting on the southbound roads to the Alps before the Belgians arrive from the north. Since all the ski lodging on this continent seems to operate on the same schedule—weekly rentals that begin on Saturday afternoon and end the following Saturday morning (with presumably an explosion of frenetic cleaning in between)—everybody who’s skiing, in all of Europe, is also driving on Saturday. Ergo, you have to beat the Belgians.
Having done so with a wily move of spending the night at a rest area (!; more on this another time), here we are, in a village called Avoriaz in the Haute Savoie, 50 miles east and a long way into the sky from Geneva. The sunshine is brilliant. I am reclined in a canvas sling-back chair, sipping a pression—a tap beer—in the medium size, flatteringly called serieux. It is the last week of February, and this chair sits at an altitude of 5,000 feet; I have shed my jacket, my helmet and goggles, my gloves; I have pushed the sleeves of my thermal shirt up; the beer is cold. But despite all these presumably cooling factors, I am warm, from the sun, the snow’s reflections, the effort of skiing down the slopes. It is a better-feeling warmth than the beach's: a warm shot through with exertion and cold.
Everything about this place is fantastic. Avoriaz was manufactured from scratch in the 1960s in a preposterous location, perched on a plateau atop a massive cliff, towering over other ski resorts of the more normal type—that is, resorts that are actual towns—down in the surrounding valleys and canyons, in a sprawling series of interconnected ski areas called Portes du Soleil (the doors to the sun; indeed). Over the course of the week, we ski the pistes of maybe a half-dozen, hopping over the shoulders of a string of mountains into Switzerland, then back to France. The lift lines are short or nonexistent, the weather is perfect, the scenery is spectacular: these snow-blanketed Alps just go on and on, their summits cragged outcroppings with names like the White Teeth and the Giant's Head (not to mention, 20 miles south, Mont Blanc). The Alps are one of those European things (like Bavarian villages, like Paris) that look exactly as you'd imagine they should; they're caricatures of mountains, the mountains drawn by 5-year-olds.
To add to the imaginary scenery, there are no cars here: you get around on skis and in ski-lifts, or riding in sleighs, bells ringing, horses galloping through the snow, trailed by their aromas; literally, the taxis you hail are horse-drawn carriages. There are a few dozen buildings, many of them pointy and ten-ish stories tall, all clad in wood and draped snow, creating a jagged wooden skyline that looks like the Alps themselves. There are scores of restaurants. A couple supermarkets. A movie theater, a bowling alley, a skating rink. It is impossible to tell if any lodging is nicer than others, if any restaurant is better; Avoriaz seems completely egalitarian in its combination of luxury and lack thereof. There is no glitz, and there are no dives.
And there’s no one here except tourists and the people catering to them; the community is a wholesale fabrication. Yet it feels real; it's honest about its artifice. It’s a family place—the only people in their twenties seem to be the ski instructors and other staff—and fittingly the center 0f the village is the children's ski school, a football-field size bowl called the Village des Enfants. This is where we deposit Sam and Alex from 9:30 till 4:00 every day, and where, despite what appears to be endless standing around (we spy on them, whenever we can), they really do learn to ski from their abundantly pierced instructor, Vivien. Toward the end of the week, after school, I am skiing down the street beside Sam. He says to me, “Daddy, if you want to go faster”—and this is what Sam always wants—“you do this.” He leans forward, tucks his elbows into his body, rests his palms above his knees, and smiles. He is, as promised, going faster.
a savoyard recipe: croziflettes
I haven’t skied all that much in my life, and I’ve done none of it well. I don’t really know good slopes from bad, and I don’t care. Après-ski, as far as I’m concerned, should begin before noon, then recur regularly throughout the day.
France, of course, is more than welcoming to this ethic. Across from our apartment is a shop that sells 20 types of dried sausages, plus the other things you'd expect to find alongside 20 types of sausages. Almost none of the slope-side eateries are self-serve: you don’t stand around in your ski boots, carrying a tray and slopping chili into a plastic bowl. No. You sit at a cloth-topped table, and the staff who walk by say “Bon appétit.” You have wine or beer, then coffee and dessert. It is civilized.
At lunch in the sun one day, Madeline ordered a tartiflette, a potato-cheese mixture that’s widely available up in Luxembourg. But I was intrigued by the unfamiliar and unexplained croziflette variation. Turns out the potatoes are replaced by tiny squares of pasta—miniature dumplings, really—called crozes, layered (inevitably, one might say) with lardons, onion, and cheese, then baked, and utterly irresistible. I think crozes are probably impossible to find outside the Savoie; I certainly couldn’t find them in Lux. At an Italian specialty shop, I bought a small square pasta called quadrucci, but these lacked the luscious toothsomeness of the crozes. No matter what the pasta, though, this is a delicious plate of oozing richness—another heart-attack-with-every-spoonful (just look at this ingredient list!), as I hope you’ve come to expect from these missives.
½ pound crozes or any tiny pasta or dumpling that has some body to it
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ pound unsmoked lardons, pancetta, guanciale, or even good old ham, diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ wheel Reblochon, rind grated, paste coarsely chopped
¼ pound Comté, Gruyère, or other sharp alpine cheese, grated
2 tablespoons crème fraiche, mascarpone, or heavy cream
Preheat the oven to whatever high temperature suits you. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, cook your pasta or dumplings till al dente, drain, and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, put a tablespoon of butter and your diced pork in a pan over medium-low heat and cook for 10 minutes, until the pork’s fat has rendered and the meat has firmed up. Add the onion and cook for 10 minutes. Season with pepper, and set aside.
Use the remaining tablespoon of butter to grease a gratin dish that’ll contain the eventual glorious mess. Pour half the pasta into this dish. Spread all the pork-onion mixture over the pasta (it’s going to be hidden between layers, a cholesterol variation on the girl who jumps out of the cake), then top with half the Reblochon and a quarter of the Comté. If you’re using crème fraiche or mascarpone, scatter a few small dollops around; for heavy cream, sprinkles. Pour the rest of the pasta over this layer, and top with the remaining half of the Reblochon and three-quarters of the Comté.
Slide this treasure into the oven. Let cook for 20 minutes, until the moist parts are bubbling and the top of the Comté is beginning to gratinize. Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before serving, ideally accompanied by either (a) a lot of crisp fresh vegetables, to be reasonable, or (b) a cold lager and peasant bread, to be Savoyard.