It’s pitch dark when I board René Parpillon’s boat at the tiny French fishing harbour of Bourdeau and head out at high speed on to Le Lac du Bourget (Lake Bourget). Bats circle and swoop inches above the water and the creamy, V-shaped wake of the boat mirrors a flock of geese flying overhead. René peers at a handset that looks like a walkie-talkie, then veers towards the shore until a row of white polystyrene floats becomes visible in the darkness.
Suspended beneath them are his nets, set the previous evening, whose position is indicated by a GPS beacon, located using René’s handset. “Lavaret,” he announces, as the first haul of silvery fish swirls up out of the blackness. European whitefish, as English speakers call it, fetches €10 (£8) a kilo and is bought mainly by local restaurants.
Within minutes we’ve caught a dozen, writhing in their death throes as the sun flashes a warning of its intensity through a chink in the limestone bluff framing the lake. The sunrise is blinding, appearing to startle even a cormorant attracted by the fishy commotion. As day breaks, the distant Alps, still crowned with snow in summer, are majestic against a cornflower-blue sky.
By 8am (after a 5am start), we’ve caught seven boxes of lavarets, a large brochet (pike) with needle-sharp teeth and an ugly monster with the romantic name l’omble de chevalier — translated, more prosaically, as Arctic char. “It’s the king of fish,” René says — perhaps because it fetches €20 (£16) a kilo.
Next evening, I sample lavaret at its best at the two Michelin-starred Le Bâteau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) in the lakeside village of Le Bourget-du-Lac. Jean-Paul Jacob’s vichyssoise cream and smoked lavaret comprises delicate tubes of creamy lavaret mousse, cold smoked lavaret (pink and translucent, like fine sushi), hot smoked lavaret (flaky, like trout) and discs of ratte potato topped with creamy leeks, floating in an aromatic cream soup.
Such elegance is a world away from Savoie staples such as fondue, raclette (scrapings of melted cheese), diots (mountain sausages) and tartiflette (a gratin of Reblochon cheese, potatoes, bacon lardons and onions) — the latter a 1980s invention to promote Reblochon cheese in the nearby ski resorts of Megève, Val d’Isère and Tignes. These hearty dishes can still be seen on menus, but Savoyard cuisine has been given a refined makeover by Jean-Paul and others, bringing food-lovers flocking to the region.
Tiny Le Bourget-du-Lac alone boasts five Michelin stars, shared by four restaurants — Le Bâteau Ivre, Le Grange à Sel, Auberge Lamartine and Atmosphères. Savoie wines, too, are leaving behind their reputation as sour plonks and heading distinctly upmarket. Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide lists 20, among them the Abymes and Chignin Vieilles Vignes made by André and Michel Quenard. Their success is all the more remarkable when you visit their vineyard, on a 45-degree côteau (slope) of crumbling shale-like rock between Chambéry and the Massif des Bauges Regional Park, a craggy playground for hikers and mountain bikers. I tour the vineyards on an electric bicycle, hired from Chambéry railway station, which provides a burst of battery-powered propulsion when I least expect it but doesn’t help much with the gradients.
The Quenards grew their vines largely on the flat until the 1980s, when Michel began cultivating the côteau with its desirable southwest exposure. “Everyone thought he was crazy,” his grandson tells me. “It’s so steep, we used cows to carry the grapes.” Baked by the intense heat — it is 28C when I visit — the vertiginous slope produces a wine called Les Terrasses which is far more concentrated than a typical Chignin Bergeron — the most famous Savoie wine, with hints of mango, quince, hazelnut and honey.
From here it’s a pleasant glide downhill through bucolic villages to Le Lac de Saint-André, before pedalling back north to Chambéry via the village of Saint-Baldoph. There, the amiable, bear-like winemaker Christophe Richel treats me to a tasting of his citrussy Apremont La Combelle 2011, among others, and a stroll round his vineyard in the heart of the Apremont wine area.
In Jongieux, high above Le Lac du Bourget, I am given another warm welcome the following day at Domaine Dupasquier, where Veronique Dupasquier conducts a dégustation and her father Noël shows me a côteau as challenging as the one in Chignin. “You have to wear proper mountain boots,” he says, “and dig your heels in to stop yourself falling.”
It’s a relief to escape the heat in the cave à fromage (cheese cellar) of Denis Provent, one of the last remaining maîtres des fromages in France and a true Savoyard character. His cellar in Chambéry is filled with hundreds of wheels of Tomme de Savoie and other local cheeses. Some 3,000 are hand-washed in brine each day to cultivate the enzymes that create their distinctive flavour. “Isn’t it boring?” I ask and Monsieur Provent smiles. “You have to imagine they are your mistresses.”
Five Savoie: Food finds
1. Pêcherie Parpillon: Rise before dawn to join Olivier or René Parpillon fishing on Le Lac du Bourget. From €20 (£16), including a lavaret to take home. Chef Lieu, Bourdeau. www.pecherie-parpillon.fr
2. Laiterie Des Halles: An Aladdin’s cave of Savoyard specialities, including Monsieur Provent’s cheeses. 2 Place de Genève, Chambéry. www.denisprovent.com
3. Chambéry Wine Route: Tour the vineyards on an e-bike arranged by the tourist office from €6 (£4.70). www.chambery-tourisme.com
4. Dolin Chambéry Vermouth: Fragrant, wine-based apéritif, infused with herbs from Alpine meadows, best served cold with tonic, ice and a twist. In Chambéry shops or can be found in Waitrose. www.waitrosewine.com
5. Opinel knives: The 122-year-old Savoie outdoor knife brand, with its iconic wooden handles, has spawned a range of smart kitchen knives. www.opinel.com
Four places with a Savoie flavour
1. Le Bateu Ivre
Sharing its name with Jean-Paul Jacob’s other Michelin establishment in Courchevel 1850, this lakeside restaurant dazzles as much with its views as its culinary innovation. As the sun sets, the limestone bluff across the lake turns pink, rowing skiffs glide across the lake and the snow-capped mountains appear to glow. Lake fish feature strongly, elevated to haute-cuisine status by Jacob’s Asian-inspired deftness.
■ How much: Lunchtime menu du jour €48 (£38.80); €63 (£50.90) with wine; à la carte from €144 (£116) (four courses), tasting menus €85-€155, (£68-£125) both excluding drinks. RD 1504, Le Bourget-du-Lac. www.hotel-ombremont.com
2. Auberge de Savieres
The food here is typical – sandre (pike perch), lavaret in a Mondeuse (red wine) and almond sauce, cuisses de grenouilles (frogs’ legs), friture (small fried fish) — but not exceptional. What you come for is the dreamy canalside location in the pretty village of Chanaz. River cruisers and swans drift by, houses are bright with hanging baskets and you can visit a 19th-century water mill that’s still in use today.
■ How much: Lunchtime menu du jour €19 (£14.85) (three courses); two courses €16 (£12.50); à la carte €27-€48 (£21.10-£37.45) (three courses), all excluding drinks. Chef Lieu, Chanaz. T: 00 33 4 7954 5616.
3. Au Fidele Berger
Founded in 1832, this baroque, wood-panelled chocolate shop and pâtisserie is the place to go for a macaron, a meringue-based sweet that’s always served with a coffee. It was recently taken over by Cedric Pernot, an ambitious young chocolatier who is not afraid of using less traditional ingredients — including yuzu, lime and ginger — in his chocolates. The truffle chocolate, another bestseller here, was invented in Chambéry.
■ How much: Cup of coffee €2 (£1.60) or, with a cake, €2.40-€3.50 (£1.90-£2.85). 15 Rue de Boigne, Chambéry. T: 00 33 4 7970 2262.
In his native Chambéry, chef Gilles Hérard makes Michelin-standard food accessible. My lunch began with a potent mushroom soup and foie-gras on toast, followed by filet mignon of pork with polenta, asparagus, dried apricots and roast tomatoes, then lake fish on a bed of leek with spring vegetables. Hérard invariably comes to the table to chat.
■ How much: Lunchtime menu du jour €17 (£13) (two courses), €20 (£16) (three courses), excluding drinks; à la carte €35 (£28) (three courses), including wine; 59 Rue de la République, Chambéry. www.atelier-chambery.com
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)