Elephants, skiers and power

Elephants, skiers and power

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com

Elephants, skiers and power
Looking up at the mighty mountains I couldn’t help but think: How could he do that? How could that happen? How did all those elephants cross the Alps?

I was trying to picture the scene: The army of the legendary Carthaginian general Hannibal, on his campaign against the Romans, marching through the French Alps with dozens of gigantic, powerful-looking but tired elephants coming all the way from North Africa via the Iberian peninsula, slowly pacing their way uphill under the silently falling snow, their dark weary skin contrasting with the whiteness of the mountains. It is hard to believe in history sometimes!

It was just the beginning of April last year when I was in Val Cenis, wondering about the elephants. It was gently snowing, covering all the slopes under a blanket of fresh snow. Apparently the skiing season is longer than one thinks here in the Haute Maurienne region of southeast France. Now that the Winter Olympics is in full swing, we are in the mood to return to the mountains again. Luckily, we’ll soon be having our own miniature mock Olympics among skiing journalists from about 30 countries. The Ski Club of International Journalists (SCIJ) was founded in 1955, and since its foundation the club members have continued to meet at a different venue every year to ski, to race in slalom and cross country, to discuss issues concerning journalism, and most important to try to get to know the hosting country. Last year it was Val Cenis in France, this year it will be Pamporovo in Bulgaria.

Val Cenis is located at the very spot where Hannibal must have marched his elephants. The region is so untouched and has preserved its original beauty, avoiding all the negative aspects of tourism development, that it is somehow easy to imagine the Roman army there - minus the elephants of course. The village of Bonneval-sur-Arc is almost frozen in time with its charmingly preserved slate stone buildings. Inhabitants also keep their modest, true-to-nature lifestyles: Tend their cattle and milking the cows, producing their cheese and honey, operating small restaurants, and during peak season working as ski instructors or similar.

The blue cheese of the town, Bleu de Bonneval is legendary, its sharp moldy tang contrasting beautifully with the fine honeys of the mountains, especially the complex Miel de Montaigne or Châtaignier, the chestnut honey. The chestnuts of Val Cenis are also turned into a wonderful sweet condiment, a cream so rich that after having a piece of toast smeared with it one feels ready to cross the Alps in one go.

The valley has five villages and a total of 28 pistes amounting to 125 km in total. What is particularly exciting about Val Cenis is that the peaks are not all for expert skiers; blue pistes for intermediate skiers go all the way up to highest points, making the magnificent views accessible to all. And when I say high up, it is really high up: From a 1,330-meter altitude one can go up to 2,800 meters, a whopping ascent of 1,500 meters. To explore all those peaks and pistes one needs an elephant’s appetite to survive and combat the mountains. Fortunately, Val Cenis is not short of wonderful local foods and dishes, all promising a power boost fit for an elephant!

Naturally, being in France, the region has wonderful cheeses. Abondance, made from the milk of the variety of Abondance cows, has wonderful melting properties, turning into a fluid power pack when grated and melted in an oven-proof plate rubbed with garlic. Bleu de Termignon - or Bonneval - is steely blue, as cool as the bluish stone slates of the town. Beaufort, made from raw cow’s milk, is the local favorite, the joker cheese of the valley appearing everywhere from dishes to cheese platters. Pyramide de Haute Maurienne is for sheep’s milk lovers, Tomme de Chèvre (or Chevrotin) for goat cheese fans. Last but not least, one needs to mention Reblochon, a cheese that has almost caused a national dish to develop. Reblochon has similar meltingly oozing qualities when fully ripe, pretty much like Camembert and Brie; it (or rather its producers) are solely responsible for a dish name tartiflette, the ubiquitous dish of the valley.

It was back in the 1980s that the Union of Reblochon Cheese Makers thought of creating a dish, making use of a whole round of cheese. The recipe is inspired by a humble potato and onion dish, but without cheese. According to the recipe, the cheese disk is cut in half horizontally, half of it goes into the dish, the other half is nestled on the dish, rind side up, and the whole thing goes into the oven until it sizzles into a molten lava of cheese melting into the hot potatoes and translucently soft onions. The name is thought to have been inspired by the word “tartiflâ,” the name of potatoes in the local Franco-Provençal Arpitan language. The starting point is the local mountain dish “péla,” a gratin of potatoes and onions cooked on open fire in a “péla,” a long handled pan. It seems that the invention was a success, as when one goes to Val Cenis there is no escape from a hot sizzling dish of tartiflette. After all, one needs to beat the slopes and have the super-power of Hannibal’s elephants!

Recipe of the Week: There are several varieties of tartiflette, but here is what is claimed to be the original recipe. Boil or steam 1 kg of potatoes in their skins. Meanwhile, chop two large onions, add a pinch of salt, and fry in a few tablespoons of butter until translucent and soft. Take care not to burn the butter and the onions. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon leaving the butter in the pan. Cut the potatoes leaving the skins on, into chunks or rounds, and gently toss and fry in the same frying pan. Take a deep ovenproof dish and arrange a layer of potatoes using half of them, salt and pepper to taste, add half of the onions, add cubes of lardons or bacon (use half of a 450 gram piece), pour in a few tablespoons of cream. Repeat the process to finish all the ingredients. Cut a round of Reblochon cheese horizontally, place the disks rind side up on the dish, so the surface of potatoes is covered completely with the cheese. You can cut one disc into quarters to arrange according to the size of the dish. Put into a hot oven for 20 minutes until the cheese is completely melted and golden. Serve with a green salad.

If you’re lucky to get all the way to Val Cenis, here is another quick recipe. It is almost too powerful, but worth preparing if you want to beat the slopes. Take equal amounts of Beaufort, Comté and Tomme de Savoie. Cut into chunks and melt in an earthen pot or oven proof dish rubbed with a clove of garlic. Add a glass of dry white wine. Pour another glass of wine for yourself and drink it. Stir the cheese to mix in with the wine. Add a shot of kirsch to the melted cheese. And serve with lots of bread.

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