Awe, Altitude & Abrupt Ascent (Raclette)
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
"I'm living in the French countryside." I have no illusions about how romantic that sounds, how romantic that is. But a house this old, built by a woman who should've been the poster-child for DIY-culture, doesn't come without its quirks.
Electricity trips frequently, hot water has a mind of its own, and last week the internet went out. Really went out. No amount of "turn it off and turn it back on again" or "blow on it" would remedy this one. With English customer service days away from opening, I took to the road. Destination: Chamonix, a mountain town about which I knew only two things. That week, Chamonix would be home to one of the most challenging ultramarathons in the world, and it sits beside the highest summit in the Alps, Mont Blanc.
I chose to take back roads. A scenic drive through the country sounded, again, romantic. It didn't take long for the trip to turn into white-knuckle driving, rounding tight European turns, hugging mountainsides, and—a cruel joke given the mountain and farmland views—trying to keep my eyes on the road. Hour after hour, climb, climb, climb, slow down into the corkscrew turn, accelerate out, don't hit incoming cars, but don't swipe the barrier either, climb, climb, climb. A brief plateau. Relief. But before I fully let go of the long breath I'd been holding for the better part of the last few hours, a sharp intake. Snow-capped and soft among sharp rock-peaks, a monolith among monoliths: the summit of Mont Blanc.
On the first morning, there was nowhere left to go but up. Stepping off the Aiguille du Midi cable car into an Alpine meadow, reverence for the surroundings rushed my lungs for air once again: an expanse of dense greenery, strewn with a playground of boulders, flanked by a don't-think-too-hard-about-it drop to one side and a just-as-steep summit-stretch to the other. 7,600 feet up and somehow, still, dwarfed. Stepping in a slow, careful circle, neck craned and eyes scanning the craggy ridge like lies on a polygraph, again, left staggered by the sight of Mont Blanc. A shock of white, illusorily close, bending clouds and beckoning. On a braver day, with a bigger coat, perhaps.
To visit Chamonix without hiking would be a travesty. The Grand Balcon Nord path begins in this meadow. Tracing along the range's edge, it's made up of alpine streams, wildflowers, and choices. The smallest: picking the right rocks to keep you sure-footed. The largest: a fork in the road, a flat path around the mountain or switchbacks so steep you might miss them if not for the sign and conclave of hikers assessing energy-levels at the base.
Choose the switchbacks. The altitude and abrupt ascent act together, reminding your heart, lungs, and legs of their respective purposes. Forcing awareness of your feet, thighs, knees, back, and breath, the climb squares you firmly within your body, which is exactly where you want to be for what comes at the top. A dramatic swing of the pendulum, a rush of lightness, the pinnacle: a field of cairns encircled by a spired mountain and a serrated one, converging in a glacial valley. Silent, but for snowmelt waterfalls, the occasional exclamation of wonder, and low voices harmonizing in melodic prayer. Just hours earlier, there was no where left to go but up. Now, I could hardly conjure a reason to go back down.
Eventually, it was hunger that coaxed me away. To the utter delight of my inner glutton, the long winters in the Savoyard region make for local specialties composed of highly caloric, easy-to-store foods. Specifically: potatoes and cheese. More specifically: raclette. Though traditionally steamed or boiled, I found a combination of par-boiling and pan-searing the potatoes brought a depth of flavor that made the dish even more cozy and comforting. Par-boiling lends to a blissfully fluffy interior, and a trick from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats (roughing up the potatoes after par-boiling to create nooks and crannies) ensures the utmost color and crunch on the outside.
Simple and oh-so-satisfying after a day of alpine exercise, be it a hike or an ultramarathon, the most challenging thing about this dish might be finding that perfectly-meltable Raclette cheese. The most worthy match is Alpha Tolman from award-winning Vermont creamery Jasper Hill Farms, but a high-quality Gruyere or Comte will work, too.
Raclette (serves 4-6)
2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes
Raclette, Comte, Gruyere, or another hard, cow's milk cheese
1. Slice potatoes into 1" pieces and place in a large pot of cold*, salty-like-the-ocean water. Potatoes should be fully submerged, with room to spare. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes or until a potatoes fall off a very sharp knife when pierced, but still firm and not falling apart.
2. Drain the potatoes very well in a colander and stir forcefully with a wooden spoon to rough up the exteriors. It's important for browning that the potatoes are pretty dry before moving onto the next step. If you want to accelerate the process, spread the potatoes out on a sheet tray and press with a clean tea towel, or pop into a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes.
3. When potatoes are dry, coat the bottom of a large frying pan with olive oil and heat on high. Drop an even layer of potatoes into pan and sear for 3 minutes or until deeply golden brown. Flip and brown other side for another 2-3 minutes. You may need to do this in a few batches, as an even layer is crucial for proper browning.
4. If you have a Raclette grill, I'm jealous, use it. Sear that cheese until it's bubbly and drape it over the ultra-crispy potatoes. If you don't, turn on the broiler. Pour any excess oil out of the frying pan and pop the potatoes back in. Slice or grate as much or as little cheese as you want over the potatoes and when the broiler comes to temp, slide the pan directly under the burner until cheese is melted. Either way, sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper before serving.**
*Always start with cold water when boiling potatoes. Dropping potatoes into already-boiling water will overcook the exterior and leave the interior undercooked, while starting from cold will ensure even cooking throughout. I spent a long stretch of my life making chunky mashed potatoes before learning this basic technique that changed everything.
**Ideally in the winter, after a fulfilling day of skiing, beside a fireplace, with a glass of white wine. Or any time you're looking for an excuse to call potatoes and cheese a meal.