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This Alpine dish is down to earth

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March 19, 2008

Imagine you're in the French Alps. It's cold, maybe snowing. Perhaps you've just finished skiing. You're hungry, but eating isn't just a matter of quelling hunger; it's a generator of warmth, comfort. Look no further than the rich Alpine dish tartiflette. And the best part is you don't need to be in the Alps to enjoy it.

The origins of tartiflette lie in the French region of Haute-Savoie, which borders Switzerland. It is essentially this region's interpretation of a potato gratin, made with the beloved Haute-Savoyard cheese Reblochon. This and a couple of other ingredients - namely, bacon and onions - are what distinguish tartiflette from its better-known cousin the gratin. And Reblochon has an interesting, clandestine history that sets it apart from more mainstream French cheeses such as brie and Camembert.

In the late Middle Ages, Alpine dairy farmers had to pay taxes to the owners of pastures based on their daily production of milk. To avoid paying in full, they would milk their cows most of the way and just pay taxes on that yield. They would then milk the cows a second time at night, drawing a richer milk. This milk was perfect for cheese-making, and was used for Reblochon (from "reblocher," meaning to milk a second time). Reblochon is soft and has a nutty quality, as well as an extremely pungent odor similar to that of a barn. Its raw-milk classification makes it difficult to find in the United States. Whole Foods, however, sells a version that has been aged longer than Reblochon sold in France, to meet FDA requirements; the odor is a little more muted than what is typically found in Haute-Savoie.

Tartiflette is based on an ancient Haute-Savoyard recipe called "pela" but is said to have been created in the 1980s by the Reblochon trade union to promote sales of the cheese. Not only has it become wildly popular among people of the region, it is now ubiquitous on menus at ski resorts in the Alps, where it is an integral part of après-ski.

I was introduced to tartiflette last summer while living with a family in Annecy, the largest city in Haute-Savoie. They made an effort to prepare as many of the regional dishes for me as possible during my one-month stay. They were anxious to serve me tartiflette - what American wouldn't love a crunchy, creamy concoction consisting of layers of potatoes, bacon, caramelized onions, and cheese? Though summer is not the best season to enjoy tartiflette, it got chilly enough one night to justify serving it. As I savored the rustic Haute-Savoyard flavors and textures - earthy, oozy Reblochon; sweet, slippery caramelized onions; crispy, salty bacon; and starchy, buttery potatoes - I considered never going home.

Half a year later, my summer host-brother, Charles, had moved to Boston for a year to do an internship. I was certain that a tartiflette made here would not taste the same as it did in France, but using his mother's recipe, we gave it a try. We substituted thick-cut bacon for French lardons and used Reblochon we bought at Whole Foods. Charles was skeptical as we slipped the caloric casserole into the oven, but the familiar smell that soon wafted through my house subdued any doubts. The finished product was just as good as in the French Alps. The view wasn't, though. - LUKE PYENSON

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