Happy Cows, Happy People
With a direct view of the Mont Blanc's frosted peaks, Franck Blanchet runs a mountain chalet restaurant. Good food, life in the mountains and his cattle are the ingredients to his personal recipe for happiness.
"Veeeeeenez, venez-ici!" – "Come here, come here," Franck Blanchet loudly calls to his cows, who, at first, seem quite unimpressed. From a safe distance, the beautiful, grey-brown creatures carefully watch us with their big eyes. Perhaps their hesitation stems from the unfamiliar person – our photographer – next to Blanchet. Franck rustles with a bag of dry baguettes. The young farmer, dressed in tight trousers, a red t-shirt and leather shoes could easily pass as the member of a British indie band. Finally the first cow, a large animal with wide horns, starts moving towards us. "She's the lead cow," Franck explains; "once she signals to the others that it's okay, they will follow her." Sure enough, a few minutes later our host is surrounded by cattle happily munching away on white bread.
It took us about one hour to hike up the winding gravel road that leads from the Cote 2000 ski station to the chalet. The panoramic view that opens up before us is magical. In the west we see endless, dark green meadows spread out around Col de Véry. In the east the frozen peak of Mont Blanc rises into the blue sky.
Blanchet's family has owned and run the Pré Rosset mountain chalet for sixty years. Up here, at an altitude of approximately 1900 metres, surrounded by the rugged Savoyan mountains, Franck's grandparents and later his parents ran a small mountain farm. He spent every childhood summer up on the alp: "The games I played were simple, running with the cows, collecting wood from the forest with the horses – I adored it all," he fondly remembers.
In the meantime he's changed out of his red t-shirt and into his white chef uniform. We've taken a seat in the light and spacious pinewood-panelled main room of the chalet. A Best Of the Rolling Stones album is quietly playing in the background, while Sophie, Franck's wife, stands behind the bar. It's almost noon and the first guests will arrive soon.
About ten years ago the Blanchets decided to give up the farm and to rebuild the old chalet into a restaurant. It is nearly impossible to run a profitable farm up here, but "when we renovated the place we tried to preserve as much as possible of the original building from 1852," Franck tells us. Wherever additions were necessary, they used locally sourced, natural materials. The pine used as the panelling, for example, Franck and his father retrieved from the forest themselves.
Love for his home is an essential value for Franck Blanchet. You can feel this love in the hearty traditional Savoyan dishes he creates from all natural ingredients. "I need to know where a product is from. Because of the quality, and also so I have something to talk about with my guests," he says with a smile. After all, he is a true Frenchman: "We French people love talking about good food!" Hence the creamy, nutty Reblochon cheese in his tartiflette is made in his cousin's local dairy farm and the red wine comes from a winery run by an old friend from culinary school. The honey in his desserts is collected from beehives owned by the restaurant "Le Petit Lay", run by his family in the valley.
And then there's the meat – the heart and soul of Franck's cooking. Whether escalope or entrecote, "all the meat we serve comes from our own cows." Nearly one hundred Aubrac cattle graze on the juicy meadows surrounding the chalet. "Aubrac cattle is perfect for the mountains because they are smaller and lighter than other breeds, " Blanchet explains. The animals can move freely on more than 170 acres of pastures. And it clearly shows in the high quality of their meat. About once a month, Franck will bring one of the animals to his trusted butcher, a friend in Megève. Is that difficult for him? "Of course it isn't easy. On the other hand, I can be sure that our animals had a good life with us."
When Franck Blanchet speaks of his cows, of food, of his chalet, he radiates an enthusiasm that shows he is someone who is exactly where he wants to be, doing exactly what he wants to do. Of course, it's hard work, especially during the main season in winter, when all the skiers come. "We have to haul up everything we need with the snowmobile." Due to the exposed location, the elements can be merciless: A few years ago, for example, a storm tore away the terrace floorboards. However, he couldn't imagine any other job. "I've lived in other places, spent quite some time at the seaside, and enjoyed that, too." But at the end of the day, he needs the mountains: "…these mountains, to be exact!"
Text: David Schwarzenbacher // friendship.is
Photos: Florian Lechner // friendship.is
Nov. 7, 2016