Love, lust and lipids in Les Alpes

5 October 2007

The Savoie region of France should be known for two things: its tartiflette and its women. Only a foolhardy tourist would visit without trying both, and in my case the two were seductively welded into one during dinner with Madam Sophie, as sumptuous, steamy and succulent as her cuisine, if less ripe.

For the average Savoise food is a grand name for the fuel that powers your goliath thighs up Mont Blanc and back, stopping only to stick up a chalet and rescue a Saint Bernard along the way. Nothing comes without generous helpings of cheese, and cheese is hardly worth it unless packed with several pigs’ worth of bacon. Fried in butter. All served with potatoes. In the cheaper eateries of Aravis the Saint Bernard often seems to be dished up too.

The tartiflette is no exception. From a dietician’s darkest nightmares, this heavenly concoction includes all of the above in an erotic mush of carbohydrates, calories and future cardiac arrests. If music be the food of love then tartiflette is six hours in a Turkish bath with the whole of the Ring Cycle. The average partaker leaves panting, sweaty and smelling like a dirty underwear drawer, if it’s a good one. And Madam Sophie’s certainly was.

From the middle of a quiet square in the centre of Annecy, myself, and two friends, were charmed by the buxom French matron into accepting an invitation for dinner, an easy exercise. She took us back to gorge at her apartment in the west of the city, striding ahead of us, hips swinging magnificently, hands blurring in extravagant gestures. Her hair, the colour of a ripe peach and matching her nails, formed darkened curls against her perspiring forehead. Her bosom swelled and fell like Mediterranean tides with each step. If you are to eat tartiflette, it must be prepared by such a woman.

Her apartment was as intoxicating. Garlic, bread, onions, cheese, perfume, cats, love – all mingled, swirled and condensed onto a plastic tabletop and four wooden chairs. Madam Sophie disappeared into the kitchen and I followed her. When I entered she was bent over a pot of water, about to start dicing the potatoes. For tartiflette the potatoes, peeled and chopped, are boiled as you fry finely sliced bacon, onions and garlic in a little butter. When the potatoes were soft she drained them, letting the steam roll from her hands and drip from her flushed cheeks. She returned them to the pan, added the bacon and onions, but left it off the heat. The climax of the process was at hand, she explained, opening a whole roblochon cheese. Taking about three quarters, she began to slice it into the pan and then to briskly stir it in, biceps churning, armpits darkened, breath gasping.

With that the meal was complete, destined for the table, steaming invitingly. Somewhere a cork popped from a bottle of burgundy but my attention was elsewhere, absorbed by one woman and her pot. The tartiflette was the colour of a pale morning sun over Lake Leman, soft and creamy.

Like a constipatory follow up punch, a baguette the size of my leg was dumped in the middle of the table, steaming slightly as if to herald what I’d be missing in this roughage free part of the world. Madam Sophie wasted no time in diving a large fist into one end of the loaf and wrenching it to pieces with zeal. I think one companion gasped. With that we began to eat.

All this, of course, was merely an artery stuffing precursor to the cheese course. Tomme de Savoie, robolochon, comte and demi-sec chevre were dropped on the table in front of us. I inhaled shallowly, reached for my baguette and began to digest, aided by a Savoie chardonnay that proved why even the locals head for Beaujolais, Burgundy or the Rhone for their booze.