Every time I go back to Val d’Isere in the French Alps, awe is all around. There’s the immense, impossible beauty, rising abruptly from the snug, sparkly village up to 9,000 feet, then down into the splendour of its freeride paradise and backcountry routes – wild places beloved of the red kite, eagle, chamoix, ibex and sometimes, the wolf.
Except at mealtimes. Keen but kosher skiers know the drill. Up you rock to a charming little mountain restaurant after a hard morning’s skiing. There’s a blazing fire and oodles of camaraderie. But what’s on the menu? Rillettes du porc and, as we’re in the Haute-Savoie, traditional tartiflette – an Alpine extravaganza of ham, cheese, saucisson and bacon. You want a vegetarian dish? Really? Really? Very well, we have chicken. Or boudin blanc (white pudding). With lardons.
So, once again, it’s good old pizza margherita.
Named after downhill legend Jean-Claude Killy, the 300 kilometers of the glorious Espace Killy between Tignes and Val d’Isere offers more skiable terrain than anywhere else in Europe. That’s 20 green runs, 68 blues, 40 reds and 26 blacks, many of them amongst the longest pistes in the Alps – besides the uninterrupted 15 km off-piste descents into the bowls and couloirs of the untamed Vanoise national park. Open most months of the year by virtue of the two glaciers (around 11,000 feet high), this is a snow-sure venue where other resorts fail.
That’s all very well, you may say, but a bit surreal on an empty stomach. Especially at Passover, for those who ski around with the contents of a box of Rakusen’s and some coconut pyramids, reduced to a thousand pieces of grit at the bottom of the rucksack underneath the avalanche shovel.
The Alps was once awash with kosher hotels (well, at least three, and mainly in the manner of the Grand Gothic, at that). But there are options. Club Med provides a buffet whose pork or shellfish dishes a droll but thoughtful management has marked with a prominent Keep Out sign for the benefit of a large observant clientele.
For some of us, lunch perfection is a mountain hut halfway down the classic route of Cugnai, offering a simple plate of Tomme de Savoie cheese, a few vine tomatoes, an elegant salad of Gallic simplicity and a Kit-Kat – all washed down with a pichet of local Apremont.
Then there’s Chalet Le Chardon, one of a series of mountain lodges set in their own exclusive bowl with massive-scale views, just a couple of chauffeur-driven minutes from main Val d’Isere. Yes, they do lunch, and in the cause of cross-cultural relations, have been known to pipe in a troupe of chefs under Rabbinical supervision for a week. Le Chardon will change over its pots, pans and everything else for a week for vegetarian delicacies from an ever-inventive award-winning chef (wild mushroom soufflé with a pine-nut and Grand Marnier jus ).
The Chardon protests it isn’t gold standard, whatever that is (nothing to do with fixed exchange rates). Apart from its interiors of deep-patina fruitwood timbers (modern and traditional opulence), a limitless flow of Pol Roger (it’s just their ordinary old house champagne) and 36 unobtrusive staff, some of them ex-hoteliers, it’s hard to imagine what else might be brought to this party to elevate it from slummy five-star-plus status.
Le Chardon is among a series of five chalets, the first built for the winter Olympics of 1992 by an old Edinburgh family with distinguished ski-racing credentials and an eye for prime ski-in, ski-out location. Currently it offers a learn-to-race week with coaching from Olympic Bronze medallist and slalom champion Alain Baxter, who, having been wrongly accused of doping after buying a Vicks nasal spray over the counter, won his appeal to the IOC.
Around Pesach time, Val d’Isere boasts its very own Jewish Ski Week. It’s an auspicious event, headed up by Val personality Paul Goldstein, the biggest eighties importer of skiwear into the UK (Nevica, and Jean-Claude’s Killy’s own snow fashion line) and supplier to the British ski team.
The group corresponds loosely to its description, being organized by an Iranian (“He’s a wannabe Jew”) and comprising sundry Jews, but probably more Muslims. Sounds like a whole lot of fun, can I come along? Certainly not. “If I go skiing with my wife, it’s schlepping and waiting. First it’s: “I think I’ll stop for a coffee,” then it’s, “I’ll just skip the coffee and have an early lunch.”
What’s wrong with that?