‘Never drink water with raclette,’ says local mountain guide, Jean-Marie, in the kind of warning tone he might normally attach to, say, climbing Mont Blanc in fog. To prevent the molten cheese congealing in our stomachs we’re better sticking to wine, he advises. Not that encouragement is needed.
Having rented one of Collineige’s self-catering chalets in Chamonix for the week, as a treat we’ve booked their in-house chef, Fraser McCarthy, to cook dinner for us and Jean-Marie one evening. Alongside velvety mushroom and chestnut soup and a raclette served with nutty potatoes, speck and a crisp salad, a bottle of Chignin Vieilles Vignes is disappearing as fast as our sunset view of the Bossons Glacier, and the Mont Blanc massif. Smart but homely rather than overly styled, with cosy, wraparound pine and a large open fire, Chalet Sciere is in the pretty hamlet of Les Tines, five minutes from Chamonix on the free local train that runs up and down the spectacular, forested river valley behind the house.
Like most of Collineige’s properties, the chalet can be booked catered but, with its large, sociably open-plan kitchen, it’s ideal for self-catering, leaving more scope to explore the area’s restaurants. Collineige’s owner and wife of Jean-Marie, Colleen, has lived in Chamonix for 30 years and her local knowledge is a big draw for guests. On her recommendation, we spend several happy days eating our way around the mountains.
For breakfast, Colleen directs us to an outpost of Boulangerie Saint Hubert, where you can buy fabulous baguettes and pastries for a few euros each from a little log cabin at the side of the road between Les Tines and Chamonix. For après-ski beers and surprisingly good burgers (€14.50) we stumble into the MBC (Micro Brasserie de Chamonix) brewpub. Two-Michelin starred Hameau Albert 1er is just down the road but, for decadent dining on a more rustic budget, we head instead to Le Cap Horn and a bargain two-course lunch of smoked salmon salad and roast lamb, €19.
The highlight of what has quickly turned into a gourmet week, though, is higher up the valley, in the village of Vallorcine. Here, just behind the train station, is Le Café Comptoir (Le Plan Envers, 00 334 50 18 72 43). If Maria Von Trapp had trained as a contemporary interior designer, this is what she would have created, a model of Alpine chic, with its roughed-up timbers, polished antlers and sheepskin rugs. The food puts an equally modern spin on local traditions – my oven-baked Savoyarde croûte montagne (€14,including a salad starter) arrives not only with tomme cheese, potatoes, garlic and white wine but also with girolles and sliced apples, and sides of speck and pickled gherkins. And a glass of local Roussette de Savoie (€4) to aid the digestion of course.
HOW TO DO IT: Chalet Sciere sleeps eight. Rental costs from £2800 per week, plus €150 for a post-stay clean (collineige.com). Ferries from Portsmouth to Le Havre cost from £158 return for a car and two passengers (brittany-ferries.co.uk). More information: chamonix.com