LET'S get this straight up front: I'm no skier. But when my French sister-in-law and her athletic husband, who hails from Grenoble (he basically grew up on skis), suggested we meet up for a slopeside family reunion in France last January, I was just as elated as my ski-obsessed husband and children.
Why? Because while they sought the softest white powder and most challenging black diamonds in Bonneval-sur-Arc, a snowbound hamlet an hour from Geneva in the Savoie region of southeastern France, I planned to boot up for Beaufort, chèvre and reblochon. I was going to this ski paradise for the cheese.
Bonneval-sur-Arc is a town of about 255 hardy souls, a clutch of low stone cottages hunkered down against the Alpine winter like a ship in a storm. Trudging through lanes and alleys, I smelled warm hay and heard goats bleating -- an apt prelude to the busiest après-ski spot in town: the valley cheese co-op's village fromagerie.
Cheese, like skiing, is a powerful driver of the economy here. And so it was no surprise to find the line at the cheese shop snaking out the door and past the adjoining mountain heritage museum. I had ample time to read about the co-op's production facility, based in a nearby town called Lanslebourg, which makes 420 tons of Beaufort cheese a year (that's about 10,000 wheels) from the raw milk of 45 mountain-fed herds of cows.
Beaufort, a rare cousin of Gruyère that by law must be made in this region, is sought out by French cheese lovers, and I was at its source. When I finally reached the counter, stocked with dozens of local cheeses, the gruff manager, Manu Courtet, handed me a firm slice from a tire-size wheel. Buttery, nutty, even flowery, the taste lingered on my tongue long after I'd swallowed each silky bite. Like most small shop owners in France, Ms. Courtet is a highly regarded resource -- in this case, on how to best prepare fondue. Wiping her hands on her red-checked apron, she dispensed the recipe kindly, like a doctor giving a prescription.
"Rub the fondue pot with a clove of garlic," she said. "Melt chunks of Beaufort, Comté and tomme de Savoie. Add a glass of dry white wine and a splash of kirsch. Stir."
Good to know, but I wanted an expert version. And so that evening, our family decamped to the Auberge d'Oul, a basement hole-in-the-wall highly recommended by Guy Ginet, the affable local City Council member I'd met earlier in the day at the village cafe. Mr. Guy, as I took to calling the ski-loving retiree, became my official guide to all things cheese-related in town.
The Auberge d'Oul is so tiny you're quickly on a first-name basis with your fellow diners, as well as the 30-something owners: Maryse, who presides over the 12-seat dining room, and her husband, Christophe the chef. My Grenoble-born brother-in-law, enraptured by his day on "some of the best powder" ever, quickly spotted the century-old wooden snowshoes propped on the windowsill -- "just like the ones my parents used to have hanging on the wall," he said.
All talk ceased when Maryse lighted the flames under the fondue pots on our table. We tried traditional Savoyard (delicate, with a white-wine zing cutting the cheese's richness) and porcini mushroom (more savory) versions. But the winner, by far, was the Beaufort cheese soup. Basically, Maryse explained, it's a combination of melted Beaufort, cream, egg yolks and garlic. Fortunately, I was more concerned about my limited skiing abilities than about my cholesterol level.
And this was, after all, a destination as famous for its slopes as it was for its cheeses. So, the next morning I reluctantly rented skis. Mr. Guy had told me the resort's high altitude restaurant, Le Criou, made terrific tartiflette, another mountain casserole specialty that incorporates a handful of hardy ingredients with melted reblochon, a mild, creamy cheese, faintly redolent of hazelnut. Thank heavens, I thought as I crept down the steep slopes with my skis in a permanent snowplow, this is not a resort for show-offs. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived the tartiflette was sold out. My consolation? We'd soon be heading for another ski village, Le Grand-Bornand, which I had heard was ground zero for the dish.
I couldn't leave Bonneval, though, without meeting Lucien Blanc, known locally as Lulu, who makes the finest farmhouse goat cheese in the valley, according to Mr. Guy. I found him in his cheese-aging cellar, under his ancient chalet in the heart of the old village, joined by one of his four adult daughters.
Lulu has a rakish glint in his green eyes and lots of tousled hair, still all-black despite his 52 years. He told me that, continuing a centuries-old family tradition, he and his daughters accompany their 100-head herd to the high pastures above Bonneval every June, where they live until the end of August.
"In the summer, the mountains are blanketed with blossoms," Lulu said, his weather-creased face breaking into a grin as he cut into one of his firm, hockey-puck-size goat cheeses. "The milk smells like flowers; the cheese tastes of flowers. It's the taste of freedom."
The next day we left our French family members behind and headed for Le Grand-Bornand, in the heart of tartiflette country.
Soon after arriving, we met Régine Missillier, a third-generation cheesemaker. "We know the names of all our cows," she said proudly, showing us around her family's spotless cheesemaking facility (most owners give tours if you call in advance). Indeed, it wasn't long before we befriended an adorable newborn calf named Genepy. Ms. Missillier and her sister milk "their girls" twice daily, at 5 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Like all 55 farmhouse cheese producers in the village, they produce reblochon. "We sell our cheese here at the farm and also at the Wednesday morning reblochon market in Le Grand-Bornand," she said.
Le Grand-Bornand is another Alpine community that's intentionally protected itself from rampant development, preserving over 400 century-old wooden chalets. Like Bonneval, Le Grand-Bo', as it's called, is a living, working village with a good skiing infrastructure, both downhill and cross country (it's the home of several champion skiers). The slopes stretch from the 6,100-foot Tête des Annes peak near where reblochon was born, we were told, down through broad swaths of forest and clearings that, in the summer, host the grazing "girls" and their bovine sisters.
Over dinner that evening at a homey 20-seat chalet and restaurant up the valley called La Ferme de Lormay, my husband and children raved about their afternoon skiing amid ancient Alpine hamlets and past a 17th-century stone chapel, all deserted for the winter.
While they skied, I'd discovered just how cheese- and cow-crazy this spot was, from the village bakery, where Bruno Bétemps, the owner, makes reblochon-studded loaves daily, to the local museum, with its vintage cheesemaking equipment, and a hip Internet radio station called Radio Meuh (Moo Radio), run by a D.J. from La Clusaz, the très chic international ski resort in a neighboring valley.
Then we fell silent, digging into a cast-iron skillet filled with potatoes, bacon and cream smothered in melted reblochon. The chef and owner, Albert Bonamy, came by our table in front of the chalet's original 18th-century stone fireplace, where he was grilling slabs of steak twice as thick as my hand, and asked us, slyly, "C'est bon?" He had to take the huge smiles on our faces for an answer. Later, we passed a bumper sticker on a beat-up Peugeot parked outside that said it best: "In tartiflette we trust."
IF YOU GO
For more information, visit the Web sites for Bonneval-sur-Arc, bonneval-sur-arc.com, and Le Grand-Bornand, legrandbornand.com.
The Coopérative Laitière Haute-Maurienne Vanoise (36, rue de l'Arc, Lanslebourg; 33-4-79-05-92-79; coophautemaurienne.fr) offers daily cheesemaking tours.
Auberge d'Oul, Vieux Village, Bonneval-sur-Arc; (33-4) 79-05-87-99; auberge-oul.com.
Chalet-Hotel Les Fermes de Pierre & Anna, Les Plans, Le Grand-Bornand; (33-4) 50-51-54-99; fermes-pierre-anna.com.
La Ferme de Lormay, Le Grand-Bornand; (33-4) 50-02-24-29; lafermedelormay.com.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.