This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Over a beer and a dish of tartiflette, one of the many delicious combinations of potato, bacon and melted cheese that are the specialities of the Savoie, south-east France, Ewan Hill described how his professional career has evolved over the past decade.
Hill, a Scot, has spent the past 20 years as a ski instructor across the Trois Vallées and had just demonstrated how he could ski backwards far more elegantly than any of us could ski normally. But nowadays apparently instructing his pupils on where best to eat and drink has become an integral part of his job.
‘I have become something of a restaurant guide, I suppose, and I’ve learnt a lot about food and wine from those who have hired me. I never ever thought when I grew up that “helilunching” would become a part of my working day,’ he added with a smile.
While Hill’s skiing style made me green with envy, I was able to have the same effect on him as we parted company when I told him that our group of eight would be heading off the next day for lunch to La Bouitte in the hamlet of St Marcel. Hill countered by saying that the last time he had eaten there he had arrived by helicopter.
It certainly did not seem helicopter weather as we walked the two kilometres up from St Martin de Belleville to the restaurant. Clouds were closing in on all sides and the ‘white out’ predicted for that afternoon seemed all too imminent. Complete justification, one of our party added, for an afternoon at the table rather than on the slopes.
Our arrival was greeted by a smiling receptionist and a somewhat sterner Madame Meilleur, wife to René and mother to Maxime, who as father and son chefs run the kitchen side by side. She whispered ‘Table 2’ to her colleague as soon as we gave our name and we were whisked through to what was to prove to be a table with fascinating views in every direction.
But before describing what made these views so special, on top of the excellent food and Savoie wines, let me skip three hours to the end of lunch. The head sommelier approached and asked whether we would like to have coffee round the table or join the Meilleurs in the restaurant’s reception area. We chose the latter.
What followed was a most engaging half hour. Maxime did most of the talking and the sense of pride, camaraderie and love he obviously feels working alongside his father and mother was obvious.
He described how his father had started here in 1976 when the restaurant was no more than a potato field. They have, he said with some pride, added to it over the years, doing the building themselves when the restaurant, that now boasts 10 bedrooms, is closed. He explained how his team of 40 now serve 90 customers in the restaurant most days. And, recognizing our English accents, he went on to disclose how until quite recently they had been planning a major development with the directors of Liverpool Football Club and captain Steven Gerrard to build what would have been a significant, new resort nearby.
Listening to Maxime’s story set the lunch we had enjoyed into even clearer perspective.
Sitting at Table 2 would have proved exciting just for the views as the dining room has been constructed with windows on to Nature on three sides and a broad, sliding glass door into the kitchen on the other where the Meilleurs are the only chefs not wearing white berets embroidered with the jumping cow that has become La Bouitte’s logo.
Our meal veered between the formality, dictated by Michelin which awards La Bouitte two stars, and the less constrained friendliness of this region.
The former was evident in the unnecessarily strict manner in which the manageress took our order after we had decided on the €99 three-course ‘surprise menu’ as, when quite rightly asking for anything we did not like, she failed to pick up on one guest’s equivocation over the pigeon main course.
Amends were made via the small glass of intense onion soup topped with the local Beaufort cheese that came as one of the three ‘amuses bouches’ and a first course of a small round of sautéed foie gras on a creamy sweetcorn pancake. This relatively common association was highlighted by a stunning sauce of local honey and reduced balsamic vinegar.
Although the main course of pigeon breast, an intense ragout of pigeon including the liver and a smear of wild spinach was good, it lacked a sauce to make it taste like more than a sum of its parts. But the tall, young sommelier definitely made amends by recommending a 2011 Cuveé Octavie made by Andrien Berlioz from Persan, a rare local grape variety grown down the valley, that proved to be fuller and richer than most Savoie reds.
The ultimate local hero was, however, to prove the wooden, four-tiered cheese trolley that rotates on a central axis and which Meilleur’s team treat with due deference by wheeling it in and out of the restaurant to ensure the cheeses stay at the correct temperature. The very sight of this was enough to make us succumb to a cheese course at an extra €22 and fully justified an afternoon not on the slopes.
Hotel-Restaurant La Bouitte, Hameau de Saint Marcel, 73440 Saint Martin de Belleville, France, +33 47 90 89 677, www.labouitte.com