Under makeshift wooden wigwams in a field above Lake Annecy 300,000 snails are snoozing. Despite that large number, snail farmer Philippe Héritier can’t keep up with demand from local chefs. His gros gris (big greys) are prized because they’re more tender than traditional Burgundian snails, and because they taste better (a fact he ascribes to letting them gorge on the rich grass of the French Alpine foothills).
Terroir is key to Héritier, who also produces biodynamic wines on a five-hectare vineyard, the Domaine des Orchis (domainedesorchis.fr). Here he grows local grape varieties such as altesse (white) for the local Rousette de Savoie wine and mondeuse (red). As with the snails, Héritier believes that his wines taste better because the vines are cultivated in pesticide-free soil that’s alive with micro-organisms and shares nutrients with wildflowers and grasses.
You are what you eat – or absorb through your roots. It’s not a new concept, but it’s one I’m happy to swallow with a chilled glass of 2014 Roussette de Savoie and a helping of snails, served sizzling in butter, parsley and garlic (plump and soft, they’re far less chewy than those I’ve tried in the past).
One of the restaurants hammering on Héritier’s door is two Michelin-starred Le Clos des Sens in Annecy-le-Vieux, where I’m heading for dinner (closdessens.com). Chef Laurent Petit’s menu focuses on fish from the lake and catapults humble veg to stardom.
Petit, the son of a butcher, crossed meat off his menus in 2015. He jokes that the decision was the result of a mid-life crisis – and having grandchildren. “I can’t cook anything you can cuddle,” he jokes, which is good news for the region’s calves, less so for snails and crayfish.
Indeed, the first course of his tasting menu features the latter three ways. A tiny spoon is smeared with a pungent fish paste – pure and punchy. A pot of raw crayfish with horseradish is lighter and fresher, and is served with a crisp cracker. A second pot, packed with four succulent chunks, tops a savoury, crayfish-packed take on a crème caramel beneath a dark fish consommé ‘tea’.
An earthy mushroom tart, meanwhile, a shot of mushroom bisque on the side, tastes like the essence of forest floor. The cheese trolley is my downfall: tomme de savoie, chevre des stasis, beaufort… and reblochon, the main ingredient of that coronary-inducing Alpine staple, tartiflette.
It is tartiflette I go in search of the following lunchtime. Skirting around Lake Annecy to legendary mountain restaurant, Chalet La Pricaz in Talloires-Montmin, I almost waiver when I see owner Pierre Favre-Felix’s bestselling reblochonnade (sav.org/pricaz). This giant wooden platter is piled with local charcuterie, thick slabs of reblochon and a glowing charcoal grill for DIY cheese-melting. But the molten mayhem of tartiflette wins: gooey farm-made reblochon, salty chunks of bacon, onion and potato and the sound of cowbells jangling encouragingly in the background.
France must be purgatory for the lactose intolerant. Back in Annecy that afternoon I stick with cheese and make my next stop Pierre Gay, a chic fromagerie (pierre-gay-fromager.fr). Through the shop’s glass floor you can peer into the cellar at racks of ageing cheeses, waiting to be supplied to chefs such as Petit.
Dubbed the Venice of the Alps and once the seat of the Dukes of Savoy, Annecy is the capital of the Haute-Savoie. Lounging languidly on the lake’s shore, it’s threaded with canals and cobbled alleys. Don’t miss the morning market here, with its stalls of honey, charcuterie, soil-caked salad leaves and gnarled cheeses; other highlights include chocolatier La Fidèle Berger (aufideleberger.fr) and Philippe Rigollot’s award-winning patisserie (philipperigollot.com).
It’s worth navigating the town’s backstreets for a beer at Artmalte (artmalte.com). At this innovative microbrewery in an old garage, Stéphanie Altermatt not only brews her own beer but offers cheese pairings to go with it at regular Friday night events. I’m drawn to a peated lager – it’s intriguingly smoky, like an Islay whisky.
Wine and cheese might be the more traditional pairing but a wave of microbreweries is sweeping across the Savoie region. The following day, just over an hour away in the ski resort of Chamonix, I tuck into a gourmet burger and a glass of Bianche des Guides, a Belgian-style beer, at the MBC brewpub (mbchx.com).
For a ski resort Chamonix’s foodie credentials are uncompromisingly good. Fondue might be on the menu but there is also a constellation of mountainside Michelin stars here. One of the best is the Auberge du Bois Prin where chef Denis Carrier not only conjures up gourmet creations in his restaurant but also grows much of its produce in an organic kitchen garden in the shadow of the Mont Blanc massif (boisprin.com).
In the nearby village of Les Houches signs lead you to Le Pain du Chibon and artisan baker, Gérard Berrux. The bakery is attached to Berrux’s house, which also hosts a bijoux farmer’s market with three other producers (charcuterie, preserves and cheese) every Wednesday. Each day Berrux mills fresh flour from wheat he’s grown himself.
Above Les Houches during the summer, another farmer, Christian Fournier, grazes his goats in the high pastures. Local restaurants serve his soft goat’s cheese and in the summer walkers follow handmade wooden signs to his auberge for a platter of charcuterie and cheese. (He’s also on the itinerary of local photographer Teresa Kaufman’s fascinating local food discovery walks: teresakaufman.com).
Chamonix may be chic, but you can still find rustic simplicity and farm-to-plate eating. Le Café Comptoir gives you the best of both (lecafecomptoir.com). In the hamlet of Vallorcine at the far end of the valley (it’s connected to Chamonix by a free train) this chalet is cosy and cheering on a winter’s day – as is its menu. For lunch I opt for Le Mystère du Chalet, the house speciality. Underneath the piping-hot pastry it’s no mystery, however: moreish molten reblochon and locally-foraged mushrooms.
How to do it:
Return flights from various UK airports to Geneva cost from around £70 (easyjet.com). Double rooms at Le Palais de L’Isle cost from €127, b&b (palaisannecy.com) and at Le Morgane in Chamonix from €280, b&b (morgane-hotel-chamonix.com). More info: lac-annecy.com, chamonix.com or savoie-mont-blanc. com
Written by Lucy Gillmore
First published October, 2016