The Magic of Mountain Food
A good meal is a good meal, regardless of a restaurant's facade, which is how we found ourselves in Poco Loco in Chamonix, a tiny burger joint that, if it wasn’t for Pierre, our friend and guide to this slither of Alpine bliss in eastern France, you’d walk right past without a second thought. Eyes wide, he stops in front of its flickering neon sign, the silhouette of two men grilling and flipping visible through the steamed-up glass. “This,” he exclaims reverentially, “this is the place."
Up rickety wooden stairs beneath a roof that looks like one more big snowfall might be its last, locals are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, hunched low over burgers that, if memory serves me right, are as big as tractor tyres, but given the laws of physics and the human body, were probably a little bit smaller than that. Spotty memory aside, they more than lived up to Pierre’s wide-eyed assessment. Was it the best meal I’ve ever had? Well, it’s lunchtime as I write this, so maybe I’m not quite at my objective best, but yes… I think it just might have been.
There’s a strange kind of magic that comes attached to any meal in or around a mountain. Something happens. Is it the clean air, the view, the cold, the dim lighting and dark wood in contrast with white table cloths and the good wine? Can someone please get Rene Redzepi on the phone to explain the inner workings of this gastronomic alchemy? Whatever it is, simple food becomes imbued with an added element, an Alpine umami that turns a meal of grilled meat, cheese, bread and more cheese into a heavenly, leisurely pursuit. Take raclette, that wintery Swiss and French staple that consists, first, of a waiter quietly and efficiently hauling a strange gas burning contraption that looks like it could double as a torture device to your table, before an enormous wheel of cheese is melted slowly into a blissful puddle before your eyes. Dip in a potato, dip in some bread, dip in a tractor tyre, it's all delicious. This is a meal that only really works when you are cloistered inside a wooden lodge thousands of feet up in the Alps. A bit like a pint of Guinness in Ireland, a Negroni in Florence, chips by a stormy Northern sea and grilled octopus by the Aegean, raclette, and mountain food in general, is a cuisine that is powered specifically by its sense of place, which lends itself to a particular form of utilitarian simplicity. It's this lack of fuss, small plates as a concept and, possibly, the potent combination of thin mountain air and plentiful Gamay and Roussette de Savoie, which turns a burger, some melted cheese, a piece of bread or a little box of Chouquettes: an unfathomably delicious puff pastry that you can snatch up from any boulangerie worth its pain, into an epicurean event.
On a 2017 trip to Chamonix and Mont Blanc for his hit series Parts Unknown, the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain said these wise words about his time eating and travelling in the region. “God bless the French. They can’t go too long—not even down a mountain—without eating well.”