Mountain food doesn’t get better than in Megève in the French Alps, nestling in the shadow of Mont Blanc. Rupert Parker attends the Toquicimes Food Festival, a three day culinary event…
It’s 10 o’clock on an October Sunday morning and I’m in the main square of Megève in the Haute-Savoie department. Inside a large tent there’s a panel of chefs tasting Fondue, cheered on by a small but enthusiastic crowd. This competition is one of the many events in the annual three day Toquicimes food festival, celebrating all that’s best in mountain food. The sports complex, Le Palais de Megève has been transformed into a huge food market where I sample products delivered from local farms. Highlights include cheeses like Reblochon, Beaufort, Tomme and Raclette, plus various sausages and cured meats.
But first, a bit about this stunning French Alps village…
Megève, literally the village on the water, was a quiet farming town until the 19th century when the parish priest, Father Ambroise Martin, had an idea. Inspired by what he’d seen in Italy, he came up with a scheme to erect fifteen chapels and oratories depicting the stations of cross, on the slopes above the town. Work took place between 1840 and 1878 and this Megève Calvary began to attract pilgrims to the “Savoyard Jerusalem”. So much so that hotels and lodging houses were built to accommodate them, the beginning of tourism.
The chapels have recently been restored to their former glory and as you climb up the hill, there are tremendous views over the town with Mont Blanc in the distance. Each chapel or oratory has a different architectural style. Inside they’re decorated with frescoes and “trompe-l’oeil” paintings plus 50 life size painted wooden statues. The climax of these is a crucifixion scene, with crosses so large that the chapel was built around them.
After WW1, Baroness Noémie de Rothschild was a frequent visitor to St Moritz, but didn’t get on with the German aristocracy. So much so that she decided to establish a ski resort in France and bought a huge area of land in Megève. Together with her husband, Maurice de Rothschild, she built the Mont d’Arbois in 1921, a luxury hotel equipped with an ice rink. More chalets followed and she went on to create the first cable car in 1933, an airfield and an 18-hole golf course.
By the 1950’s Megève was one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe. It attracted many wealthy individuals and celebrities, including Jean Cocteau, Sacha Distel, Charles Aznavour and Brigitte Bardot. It features in the 1963 film Charade, where Audrey Hepburn’s Regina Lampert meets Cary Grant’s character. It’s still the playground of the rich and famous.
Henry Jacques Le Même
Architect Henry Jacques Le Même came to Megève in 1926 and one of his first commissions was to build Chalet Noemie for Baroness de Rothschild. His design was based on a typical Savoyard farmhouse, which he transformed for contemporary use. The ground floor housed the skis and cars, the first had the living rooms, with an extensive balcony, and the top floor had the bedrooms. He went on to build more than 200 chalets like this and, as a result, created a stylistic unity for the town.
In spite of its celebrity, Megève is still a thriving farming town as I discover when I accompany a herd of cows down from their summer pastures. It’s a family affair with three generations taking part in the celebrations. They tell me they’re passionate about the quality of their milk and the excellence of the cheese they produce. In all, around 45 farms supply around 75 eateries including 35 mountain restaurants. Among the elite are its four Michelin-starred restaurants which boast a total of seven stars among them.
The Flocons de Sel is one of only 27 restaurants in France to hold the coveted three stars. Here Chef Emmanuel Renaut has an “eat local, build local” philosophy and he gets up early to forage for wild mushrooms and herbs. On the night I sample his food, there are plenty of porcini, truffles and other varieties peppered among the courses. Unlike a classic French menu, vegetables feature heavily including a delightful parsnip and beetroot gnocchi in a horseradish consommé. Of course, there’s sympathetic wine pairing and the service is perfect, closely supervised by Madame Renaut.
Toquicimes food festival
The festival includes a series of tastings and cooking demonstrations as well as an opportunity to try the local products. There are also keenly fought competitions for best Fondue, Pâté Pie, Mountain Soup and Chartreuse, the local liqueur. Amateurs compete alongside professionals, with celebrated chefs like Guillaume Gomez (presidential chef at the Elysee Palace), Franck Reynaud (renowned Franco-Swiss chef) and Philippe Rigollot (famous for his pastry). Various restaurants in town offer special Menus Toquisimes, all around €35, and stalls in the streets allow you to sample some of their dishes.
The next Toquicimes Festival takes place in October 2021, details: toquicimes.com
A Spin over Mont Blanc
Even though the famous mountain is visible from the town, there’s no better way of getting up close then in a small aeroplane. The Altiport de la Cote 2000 is just outside, nothing more than a strip of asphalt amidst green pastures. There’s been a recent flurry of snow so the mountains are peak white against the blue sky.
It’s a bright and sunny morning as I climb over the wing into the small single engine Musketeer. There are two in the back but I’m up front with the pilot and he reassuringly says conditions are “impeccable”. We’re soon above Megève’s Mont d’Arbois (at 1833 metres) and make our way to the Mont Blanc Massif above the Chamonix Valley, still in shade at this time in the morning.
Our target, at 4808m looms up front, towering above its rivals, and we follow the Argentiere Glacier. A swift left turn around the Aiguille Verte brings us above the Mer de Glace, its snow pristine. There’s a certain amount of twisting and turning as we get alarmingly close to the sheer rocky pinnacles of the Aiguille de Midi. I can only hope the pilot knows what he’s doing.
He points out the mountain refuges which are used as jumping off points for the ascent of Mont Blanc and, crossing one ridge, we scatter a herd of Chamois. It’s exhilarating stuff, with perfect light, really a memorable experience. After 40 minutes we touch down back at the Altiport and I’m a little shaken, even a bit stirred. Details: Aerocime.com
A resort for all seasons
Of course, if you’re going to indulge in fine dining, it pays to get some exercise. In the winter the ski slopes are justly renowned but you can keep fit in any season. An extensive network of mountain trails and cycle tracks circle the town so I set out on an e-bike. This makes light work of the hills and I’m soon staring at Mont Blanc in the far distance. My final meal is a Toquicimes Food Festival lunch at Le Palais to raise money for the French Bocuse d’Or team. I tuck in with relish – after all, it’s not every day that I’m given the opportunity to eat for France.
Rupert Parker is a writer, photographer, cameraman & TV Producer. His special interests are food & travel & he writes about everything from wilderness adventure to gourmet spa tours. Read about his latest adventures on his website Planet Appetite.