Words: Chris Zacharia
How much snow is too much?
‘Here in the Alps, you can never have too much snow’ says my guide, Jean-Louis. ‘But this year is the most we’ve had since 1983. And more is falling’
I’m here in Tignes, one of France’s most iconic ski resorts, during an apocalyptically snowy winter. Whereas previous years have seen less and less snowfall, January 2017 has witnessed an incredible volume of white powder. Cars lie buried like little dunes; the roads rendered invisible in the blizzard; and the entire valley echoing with the sound of controlled detonations, triggering avalanches – before they set off of their own accord.
It might sound hostile, but when you’re shacked up in a nice chalet it’s simply beautiful. And if you’re staying in a chalet with charm, even better.
Rock’n’Love is as comfortable as you’d expect a boutique chalet, but with far more character. Designed by Guerlain Chicherit, a former world ski champion and rally driver, it’s full of the twists and turns you’d expect from a thrillseeker. By the time you’ve ascended the staircase the faces of The Doors’ Jim Morrison, an iconic Mini Cooper and the signed guitars of the Rolling Stones have already made themselves known. There’s an authentic Wurlitzer jukebox playing 45”s and, on the third floor, you can even sleep in a converted VW camper van.
But Rock’n’Love is no shallow gimmick. Head chef Reece, a Brummie with a nose for fusion cuisine, serves us an exquisite range of small plates which wouldn’t be out of place in a top London restaurant. Red kidney bean soup with fried dumpling, chilli and beef stock is a nod to his Caribbean heritage, a rich, chocolatey broth undergirded by coconut. With a view of the white valley that was once the main road from Rock’n’Love’s dining table, the broth becomes both warmer and more comforting.
The next day, we head up the mountain. Another full night of snowing has made enormous duvets of the slopes. Relentless snowstorms make it hard to distinguish slope from sky: but since this is only my second time skiing, I’m more than happy to blame my repeated crashes on the low visibility. At least, that’s my excuse.
Respite comes in the form of Le Panoramique. Perched on the summit like a tantalising reward, after several hours of swerving and sliding it’s heaven-sent. Panoramic views of the Alps, timber walls covered in antlers and patchwork of checkerboard tartan tiles, and a smoker wafting the smells of slow cooked beef, pork and lamb: perfect.
‘Bad food is forbidden here’ says Bouvier Senior, whose family now run two restaurants and a hotel in Tignes. He’s not wrong: from the saucisson sec to the smoked beef ribs, there’s a careful emphasis on the little details. This is traditional mountain food – big on calories, fat and smoke – but it’s full of thought.
‘We try to source as locally as possible’ says Mr. Bouvier, who, with ferocious beard and over six foot, is every bit the mountain man. ‘But the meat comes from slightly further away, because all the cows on the Alps are dairy cows’
There’s plenty besides meat, though. Dessert is a mouthwatering buffet of tartes, meringues and pastries, all baked fresh on site, towering on raised platters to form a city-like skyline of sweets. The pick of the bunch is a sticky praline tart, a shocking toffee apple pink but far more subtle than the colour suggests. It has me going back for seconds. And thirds.
Having accepted that there’ll be no more skiing after such a gargantuan lunch, I head back down on the shuttle, dozily carrying my skies. The blizzard is getting worse, and I’m dreaming of the cozy warmth of Rock’n’Love.
Half an hour later, and I’ve got Jefferson Airplane on the stereo, a mug of green tea and a beautiful view of the pristine valley, a vast rug of snow. Rock’n’Love’s bold design, brightened by splashes of colour, swirling guitars and psychedelia, effectively counteracts the sub-zero temperatures. Not only is the chalet as cosy as you’d expect – ditch your shoes at the front door and mosey about in slippers – but the vivid colours and playful decor bring a different kind of warmth. It’s as if the chalet itself is keeping you company.
Surprisingly, by the time the sun sets I’m hungry. Encouraged by our lunch at Le Panoramique, we head to another of the Bouviers’ restaurants, this one overseen by chef Clément Bouvier.
But that’s where the similarities end. If Le Panoramique appeals to the beast-slaying mountaineer in us, then Ursus is all about your inner après-ski. The Michelin Guide have visited twice recently, and if our meal is anything to go by rumours of a first star are surely prophetic.
We’re led through a procession of knobbly tree trunks to a clearing. Up above, the ceiling mirrors the arboreal blanket of the forest. White chandeliers spread like frosty bushes. Smoky log fires burn below. Weighty, trustworthy cutlery rest upon a well-worn pebble. And all the while, a blizzard rages outside.
Canapés are nestled like ripe fruit amongst ersatz grass and moss, as though we’re foraging on the forest floor. There’s jerusalem artichoke with Beaufort cheese and truffle, there’s salsify with fontainbleu cream, oaty reine du pres (‘Queen of the Grass’) with trout roe, sacks of coarse-ground lamb ravioli with cumin…it’s all magnificent. The tasting menu succeeds as a collection of individual dishes intelligently united by a single insistent theme. By the time a molten chocolate cannonball arrives at dessert, filled with salted caramel, we’re literally applauding.
Wisely skipping breakfast, the next day we drive slowly over the winding, icy roads of the mountains, slaloming our way to Morzine. Part of the Portes du Soleil, an alliance of fourteen neighbouring ski resorts accessed with a single lift pass, it’s one of France’s foremost snowsports destinations. By the time we’ve strapped on our ski boots, the sun is out for the first time since we arrived.
Suddenly the mountain seems heavenly: clear crystalline air, pine forests stretching to the horizon and plenty of powder. No wonder it’s so busy.
‘Ski is all about rhythm’ says Julian, my new instructor. ‘Today we’ll find the rhythm’
I appreciate Julian’s confidence in me, but at first he seems mistaken. I stumble my way across the ice, flat-footed and knockle-kneed, arms and legs akimbo. This is not the behaviour of a skiier.
‘Bambi, c’est moi’ I declare apologetically. Julian laughs, helping me to my feet for what feels like the Xieme time this morning.
‘Don’t worry, today is easy’ Julian replies. ‘But we have to get you to the restaurant for lunch, and there is no way to get there except by the challenging slope. So later on we are going to have a challenge – and go fast!’
The mountain doesn’t seem so heavenly after that. But suddenly, I’m getting it. When I fall over, I can get up without Julian skiing back (up the mountain slope!) to help me. I’m turning at high speed, slicing through the snow. And for the first time, I can hear the wind rushing in my ears.
By lunchtime, it’s so sunny that despite the cold we sit outside, red-cheeked and all smiles, toasting our beers. After three hours of skiing, piles of charcuterie, beaufort and tartiflette seem appropriate.
Home comforts – the warmth of a towel, the hot embrace of a shower – are never quite so strongly desired as when you’re heading home from the mountain. Your body aches, your ears are freezing, and there’s a dampness sinking into your bones.
Arriving at Chalet Joux Plane is a pleasure on many levels. This chalet’s capacity to satisfy your every need is unrivalled. Plush, intelligently designed bedrooms, partnered with sleek bathrooms with showers so powerful you could disperse a crowd with them, accented by lovely views across the valley.
Designed by Herve Marullaz, a local architect who returned from Paris with an impressive reputation to build the finest mountain accommodations, it’s one of those spaces you can’t help but marvel at. Every element works in harmony with the others.
The open-plan living space is an anthology of intelligent design touches. A glass stairway reveals the swimming pool on the floor below. Thick wooden beams, cut from local trees, buttress the ceiling, bringing cosiness with sacrificing the vastness of the slanting roof. Enormous glass panels invite the mountains and the trees into the space, enhancing the sense of place.
It’s a masterclass in interior design. Life can be lived spaciously here – especially with the top-notch service. After a day on the freezing pistes, the warmth of the welcome and the gentleness of the service feels as restorative as food. There’s a dedicated chauffeur to drive you back to the chalet, and waiting staff to fix you a drink when you arrive.
As you’d expect, the facilities in Chalet Joux Plane are just as cleverly designed as the space itself. The 23-metre indoor pool has a swim-out jacuzzi. The dining area is suspended above the living space in a floating mezzanine. A private cinema, games room and hammam spa are all understated, slotting into the chalet, each playing their part when needed.
It’s the kind of space in which even doing absolutely nothing is a pleasure. You find yourself lingering a little too long in the wingback armchairs, staring into the artistic glass firepit a little too long, conscious of the room itself relaxing you moment by moment.
Dinner is served with the deftness suggested by the surroundings. The Japanese ‘kaizaki’ menu brings dish after dish of Bansai-sized treats, from tuna tataki to doughnuts with lychee jelly.
‘Many places give lip service to the food without putting much thought into it. You end up getting the same European fare that you would anywhere else’ explains Chris, founder of The Boutique Chalet company. ‘We wanted to push the boundaries and offer something genuinely different’. Well, congratulations Chris – Chalet Joux Plane’s kaiseki menu is probably the best Japanese banquet anywhere in the Alps. And up on that glorious floating mezzanine, beneath frosted globes of light, the setting only amplifies the refinement.
Leaving isn’t easy. With the van packed and poised, we drift around Chalet Joux Plane one more time, marvelling at the wondrous spaciousness, the inviting furnishings, that unmistakable tranquility.
‘I almost wish we didn’t spend so much time skiing’ says my friend. ‘Almost’.
Visit Morzine-Avoriaz with The Boutique Chalet Company’s unique Chalet Joux Plane – prices from €19000 per week, including breakfast, tea time, dinner, drinks, and all-day driver. Sleeps up to 12 people. Short stays proposed.