Where to stay
Ideally situated on the foothills of Lac du Bourget, this chalet-style hotel offers gourmet cuisine alongside spacious, contemporary guestrooms, most of which boast panoramic lake views. Doubles from £132. 618 Route des Tournelles, Lac du Bourget,00 33 4 79 25 01 29, atmosphereshotel.com
Château des Allues
In the middle of Savoie’s wine-growing region, this is an outstanding place to stay. Rooms are crafted with fine antiques, the gardens are manicured, hospitality is charming and dinner is eaten at a communal table using only the freshest produce. Doubles from £110. 335 Rue Audibert, Saint-Pierre-d’Albigny, 00 33 6 75 38 61 56, chateaudesallues.com
Domaine des Saints Pères
Perched above Chambéry with a great view down the length of Lac du Bourget, this is a tad snooty in the old French style (its owners also have a string of famous ski resort hotels to their name), but it’s still well-appointed and the service is always professional. Doubles from £100. 1540 Route de la Chartreuse, Montagnole, 00 33 4 79 62 63 93, domainedessaintsperes.com
Petit Hôtel Confidentiel
Rooms and suites for the star-struck, valet parking and a location in old Chambéry make this the ideal place for a naughty weekend... but the hotel is good with children and pets, too. It’s already on jet-setters’ radar and deserves to be. Doubles from £300. 10 Rue de la Trésorerie, Chambéry, 00 33 4 79 26 24 17, petithotelconfidentiel.com
Les Suites de l’Hôtel de Sautet
To feel a part of Chambéry’s ancienne ville, stay here, a B&B on the first floor of a 15th-century tenement. Rooms, which are almost as high as they are wide, are extremely comfortable and have wonderful views overlooking the old town. Doubles from £115. 6 Rue Métropole, Chambéry, 00 33 6 16 83 16 64, hotelchamberysautet.fr
Chambéry is the capital of the department of Savoie in south-eastern France’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Lyon is the nearest major airport. Flights from the UK take around one hour and 40 minutes and the time is one hour ahead of GMT. Getting to Chambéry takes around one and a half hours by train or car from Lyon. Currency is the euro. In July, the average high temperature is 27C and the average low is 14C.
British Airways flies several times daily from London Heathrow to Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport, from £102 return. britishairways.com
easyJet offers direct flights to Lyon-Saint Exupéry from London
Gatwick and Luton, from £49 return. easyjet.com
SNCF offers a regular train service between Lyon and Chambéry, from £8.50 return. en.oui.sncf
Savoie Mont Blanc covers two-thirds of the French Alps and offers a wide range of outdoor activities, pretty towns and a superlative food scene, as well as outstanding natural produce. The official tourist board of the region’s website provides inspiration and all the information you’ll need to make the very most of your trip. savoiemontblanc.com
The flight to Lyon from London produces 0. 25 tonnes of CO2. The cost to carbon-offset is £1. 88. For more details visit climatecare.org
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses and a glass of wine
or beer, unless otherwise stated
A whacky microbrewery on the outskirts of Chambéry. The beers – look out for one called Bout du Monde – are excellent and the ‘World Tour of Sandwiches’ just right to accompany them or take out for a picnic. Beer and sandwiches from £7. 95 Rue de Bolliet, Saint-Alban-Leysse, 00 33 4 79 65 91 90, archimalt.fr
Sylvain Bailly, a protégé of Alain Ducasse, took over the historic bistro next to Chambéry Cathedral a year ago. His set lunch menu is a bargain, best enjoyed on the terrace with a bottle of the local Mont Blanc (World Champion) beer. From £38. 6 Rue du Théâtre, Chambéry, 00 33 9 82 32 10 78, restaurantlebistrot.com
Carré des Sens
Eclectic modern French cooking. The chef is at his best when reverting to retro-style dishes served in generous portions. The soufflé au Grand Marnier is a model of its kind (stays up for four minutes and tastes wonderful). From £35. 32 Place Monge, Chambéry, 00 33 4 79 65 98 07, carredessenschambery.com
Chez les Copains
One of several good bistro wine bars in Aix, it focuses on hearty meat dishes. The offering changes according to the market, but the slow-cooked shoulder of lamb is special. There’s a choice of three fondues, including one with morels. From £33.4 Rue Albert 1er, Aix-les-Bains, 00 33 4 79 34 43 90
Nice little cycle café, which changes its menu daily. Smiling, courteous and unpretentious. The herb-scented soft drinks are also worth discovering. From £12. 45 Place de la Brigade de Savoie, Chambéry, 00 33 4 58 14 07 54
No-nonsense lunch spot in the middle of Aix, where the food is simple, fresh and tasty. Think foie gras terrine, honey-lavender duck and rich chocolate gâteau. From £20. 12 Rue des Bains, Aix-les-Bains, 00 33 4 79 61 38 16
La Parfumerie Cuisine et Flacons
A few metres from the waterfront at Viviers-du-Lac. The eat-anything-in-any-order menu suits the laid-back, summery theme. From £30. 204 Rue du Colonel Bachetta, Viviers-du-Lac, 00 33 4 79 54 48 90
Located in the pretty village of Bourdeau, this Michelin-starred restaurant has been handed down from generation to generation since 1964. Chef Pierre Marin, a member of the prestigious Académie Culinaire de France, has been at the helm since January 1997. Route du Tunnel du Chat, 00 33 4 79 25 01 03, Aix-les-Bains, lamartinemarin.com
- A firm, raw cow’s milk Alpine cheese at least one year old. Beaufort d’Alpage, made in chalets on high pastures, is the finest quality
- Cafés Folliet
- A major French coffee brand located in Chambéry. Its push-button machines deliver surprisingly good espresso, Americano and cappuccinos, perfect for those on the move
- Famous Trappist herbal liqueur made at Voiron, close to Lac du Bourget. Look out for Génépi, too, another absinthe-like Alpine liqueur
- Diots de Savoie
- Local sausages seasoned with nutmeg and sometimes with cabbage. Often poached in white wine and served with potatoes
- Gâteau de Savoie
- A famous sponge cake that dates back to the Middle Ages whose consistency is famously light
- Mont Blanc Beer
- World champion beers made near Chambéry, but Archimalt’s microbrewery brews some good ones, too
- Semi-soft washed rind cheese made as a disc from raw milk. Its flavour develops with age. Try it in tartiflette with potatoes
- Tomme de Savoie
- A springy, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese. Look out for Tomme des Bauges, considered to be the best of the type
- Vin de Savoie
- Altesse, Jaquère (both white) and mondeuse (red) are the three principal grape varieties of the region
Food and Travel Review
Lac du Bourget shimmers in midsummer sunshine. Bathers paddle in mid-20s heat. Paragliders scud across it. A flotilla of dinghies, multicoloured sails flapping, jive to catch the breeze. Along its borders, cyclists flex their calves mimicking a Tour de France peloton. The fitter ones attempt the sinuous climb to the summit of the Mont du Chat. Others, meanwhile, progress on to Hautecombe Abbey in Saint-Pierre-de-Curtille, perched on a promontory with its romantic Walter Scott glamour.
Hemmed in by the southernmost crags of the Jura Mountains and the lower slopes of the Savoyard Alps, the lake changes with the light. At dusk or dawn it forms a monochrome carpet. This is when fishermen go to work. They leave their nets overnight and haul them in at first light. They catch Arctic char (omble chevalier), pike, trout and zander. Lavaret, though, is the uncrowned king. Its name, a play on words, relates to its clean (lavé – washed) flesh. According to a 19th-century epicure, it tasted ‘like a creamy, white mousse that melted in the mouth’ when prepared as a savoury gâteau.
Chef Jean-Pierre Jacob, former patron of the iconic Lac du Bourget dining room Le Bateau Ivre, which recently closed, would think twice before pounding the flesh to a pulp. Instead, he’d serve it raw in maki, with crayfish broth, or as a fillet with wild garlic foam.
He grew up here in his father’s hotel-restaurant, a far cry from the Michelin two-star restaurant he successfully ran. ‘My dad would buy from two women fishermen,’ he remembers. ‘They would get up at three or four o’clock in the morning and bring him their catch.’
Then, he explains, the lac yielded another treat for those living there: tiny whitebait-sized perch. When the annual fair came to town, his father would set up a couple of fryers outdoors, cook them crisp and pile them into cornets of old newspaper.
On special occasions, Jacob will still prepare perchots, serving two or three spiked on cocktail sticks: ‘They take a lot of preparation. Each one has to be gutted through the gills with a vegetable knife. Then it has to soak in milk for half an hour. It’s cooked twice, too, once at a low temperature and then again at 200C.’
During his childhood, there was a serious risk of the lake dying: ‘Every form of sewage went into it. My mother forbade me from swimming in it, though, of course, that never stopped me. But for the last 15 years, the water has got cleaner and cleaner.’
There are now six full-time professional fishermen catching lavaret. To maintain stocks, they limit their catch. Demand outstrips supply. Not all the bistros and restaurants dotted around the lake can buy as much as they would like.
Pressed as to what Savoyard cuisine is, Jean-Pierre Jacob admits that there isn’t one as such. Instead his generation of chefs spends more time sourcing produce on which to exercise their talents.
He has plenty to choose from. The French department Savoie in the Rhône-Alpes region has three of the world’s great cheeses. The greatest of these is Beaufort d’Alpage. Bernard Robotton’s fromagerie in Chambéry’s covered market sells this Gruyère-like cheese and a sliver is enough to show that it bursts with the flavours of pastures packed with hundreds of Alpine herbs. This was the all-time favourite cheese of Robert Courtine, a venerated editor of the culinary bible Larousse Gastronomiqu.
It’s not hard to see why. By comparison, tomme de Savoie is the archetypal rustic cheese. It doesn’t have to come from a single dairy herd. Springy and mild, it’s a blend of skimmed cows’ milk from different farms. Ripened on racks made of spruce, it has a rough, brownish rind concealing a straw paste and featuring little air pockets. Reblochon, the third member of the trinity, belongs to the family of washed-rind cheese such as Époisses, Belgian Herve and Italian Taleggio. Like them, it can become powerful when extra-ripe and runny. It has an intriguing history: in the Middle Ages, local seigneurs, or lords, claimed the right to tenants’ milk. To outwit the landowner’s inspections, a peasant would part-milk the cows, wait till his steward had left and then draw off the rest to make cheese.
Tourism bypassed Chambéry until recently. First, rich leisure seekers gravitated to Aix-les-Bains, abutting Lac du Bourget. Alphonse de Lamartine wrote Le Lac, a poem taught to all French schoolchildren, after visiting the spa town.
Queen Victoria, having made three visits to the thermal resort in 1885, 1887 and 1890, bought a plot of land there. Next, the wealthy switched their affections to Annecy, which, with its own lake, became chic. Winter-sports fans prefer to crampon themselves to the slopes around Chamonix, Courchevel and Val d’Isère.
This has left Chambéry, Savoie’s historical capital, unspoilt and intact. The old town is a warren of medieval streets connected by alleys passing through granite tenements or crossing pocket-sized courtyards. They echo a past when Chambéry controlled a duchy stretching from Geneva to Nice and to Turin in the east.
Unscrubbed on the outside, the buildings can be almost palatial inside. Les Suites de l’Hôtel de Sautet, a guesthouse in an 18th-century townhouse, has rooms that would suit a Florentine palazzo. Its Chambre Comtesse de Boigne honours the wife of a general who made his name fighting against (and for) the British in India, before returning to lavish his fortune on philanthropic works.
Petit Hôtel Confidentiel, within an old town building completely gutted and made over, is unashamed five-star glamour, every room or suite primped to the limit for an interiors photoshoot. It’s a foretaste of what is starting to happen. Smart money is moving in and hidden gems are evolving into highly desirable property.
A mythical gastronomic heritage is keeping pace with Chambéry’s blossoming image. Allegedly, its gâteau de Savoie dates back to 1358. Count Amadeus VI received the Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, and as a treat for his liege lord, he told his chef Pierre de Yenne to create a cake that was ‘as light as a feather’. The cook obliged by beating the egg yolks till they whitened and the whites to a stiff froth. He poured the mixture into a wooden mould so the outside would remain tender when baked. The rest is history.
Le Fidèle Berger, in the Rue de Boigne, has an unimpeachable pedigree. It’s been a patisserie since 1832. Artisan chocolatier Cedric Pernot knows exactly how to sell his delicate little cakes. Here are a few of his slogans: ‘Good things should be accessible to everyone’; ‘There are no words strong enough to express pleasure’; ‘It’s more important for a cake to taste good than look good’; ‘Sweetness is our first experience of gastronomy’; ‘Young people come into my shop and they have a smile on their faces.’ As a member of the elite World’s Top 100 Pastry Chefs, Pernot’s creations are classics given a twist. A swirl of lemon cream tops his tarte au citron. Choux buns for his éclairs, religieuses and St Honorés have a crunchy streusel topping. Passion fruit, peanut brittle or violet-blueberry macarons compete with anything macron grand master Pierre Hermé can invent.
The other sweet-toothed legend of the town is that chocolate truffles originated here. Louis Dufour, a chocolatier, was running out of chocolate during the festive season of 1895. Using what he had, he mixed cream with cocoa powder, dipped balls of the mixture into melted couverture and dusted them with extra cocoa.
It isn’t a problem likely to trouble Stéphane Bozonnet of the Confiserie Mazet house, whose speciality toasted, sugared almonds have been sold across France since 1903. His chocolates, though (truffles included, of course), are on a higher plane. Dusty tomme de Savoie contain wild blueberry ganache. Black cherry cream fills his Duché de Savoie. Croc télé dark chocolate-coated buttons disguise almonds, pistachios and candied fruit.
La Parfumerie Cuisine et Flacons at Viviers-du-Lac is as quirky as its name hints. Its carte lets diners pick and mix anything in any order as large or small portions. The Savoyard wines bring more surprises. Dames Bise (Ladies’ kisses) sets a romantic meal off on the right track. Déchirée (heartbroken) tells another story. But what of Mé Kouilles, a thinly disguised rendering of ‘My Bollocks’? Winemaker Jean-Claude Masson in Apremont supplies all three.
In 1248, one face of Mont Granier, which towers over this rural commune at just under two thousand metres high, collapsed. Boulders, rock and marl rained down on villages and farmland. The catastrophe, on a Pompeian scale, buried five parishes.
It changed the landscape, but also created the soil and slopes where vineyards of white Jacquè re grapes flourish. A refreshing dry wine, it’s the common-law partner of raclette, the potato and charcuterie alternative to fondue. Very little travels outside France though. Rumour has it that growers once sold their crops to Champagne when it didn’t have enough chardonnay of its own. The price was right and it involved less work. That was the past. A young, dedicated generation of vignerons is making creative soil-driven wines. Les Terres Blanches from Masson’s nephew Jeremy at Domaine Dupraz is far better than easy quaffing. Sixty per cent of the grapes come from 90-year-old vines. The topsoil is shallow and they have to burrow deep for nutrients. The wine is floral and mineral with typical lemony acidity.
A short drive away is the commune of Cruet, where Philippe Grisard is winemaker and nurseryman. Audacieuse, which hails from St-Jean-de-la-Porte, is 100 per cent red mondeuse, a grape that traces its ancestry to Roman times. His crémant, a bubbly cocktail of Jacquère and altesse adds sparkle to lakeside picnics.
His mission, though, is recovering endangered grape varieties in order to re-establish them. It’s a genuine labour of love. ‘If you put economics first, you’re taking decisions for the short term. In Savoie we’ve realised that we were abandoning our heritage. What we’ve started doing is rebuilding an inheritance for our children.’ A white mondeuse he has revived – under five hectares under cultivation – or rare red persan (bottled in a tube) underline his point.
It’s an analogy, he argues, that extends to tourism. Visitors willing
to explore are going to unearth treasures. ‘It’s not just in viticulture
that we are changing. In our charcuterie, our cheese and our fruits,
we are rekindling our past as well as realising our potential.’
Michael Raffael and Sarah Coghill travelled to Chambéry courtesy of
Savoie Mont Blanc tourism. savoiemontblanc.com
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