Following our adventure at the Lac de Plagnes, a few days later, together with some friends, Mr R and I explored the Col de Bassachaux, another Geopark site in Chablais.
From Pré-la-Joux, which is 5km from the village of Châtel and the entry point to the huge Portes du Soleil ski area, we took the Pierre-Longue chairlift directly to the hamlet of Plaine-Dranse in the mountain pastures. From there we weaved our way through the mountain bikers to get to the Rochassons chairlift, which took us to the top of the mountain. On arrival, we lingered at the start of the Fantasticable to watch a flight set off on its journey on the two-stage zip wire, which flies you 240 metres above the valley at up to 100km per hour. Hmm, no thanks! (See video at bottom of blog).
From there we wandered down the path on the other side of the mountain just in time to see a young farm boy and his collie herding cows back to the pastures after milking. We made a stop at the farmhouse to buy some Abondance cheese, which the farmer cut directly from a round of cheese in her kitchen. Nearby, we could watch through a glass door new cheese churning in a big copper vat. The farmer offers cheese making demonstrations as well as a soirée Berthoud on Wednesday evenings in July and August, which also includes a mini tour and explanation of the cheese making process. Berthoud is an Abondance Valley dish with, of course, Abondance cheese at its heart, and is served with potatoes and bread (see recipe at end of blog).
Made with raw, whole milk, Abondance cheese has enjoyed a registered designation of origin (AOC) since 1990 and a protected designation of origin (AOP) since 1996. Its history dates back to the 14th century when the monks of Abondance Abbey selected the Abondance breed of cattle and set up pastures to start the production of this high quality cheese.
From the farm we joined the ‘sentier des oiseaux’ (the bird walk), where information is provided on how to recognise around twenty species of mountain birds, the most impressive being the Golden Eagle, their habitats and nesting habits. We continued along the mountain ridge, from where we could look down upon the beautiful emerald green lake of Montriond, which sits at the foot of steep cliffs. There is a Geopark information board which tells visitors about how the lake was formed, surprisingly quite recently in the 1500s, when part of the Nantaux mountain fell away. The landslide created a natural dam in the existing river which became the lake that we see today.
The Col de Bassacaux is a high mountain pass at an elevation of almost 1,800m above the sea level, located in the region of Portes du Soleil, in Haute-Savoie. Being close to the Swiss – Franco borde, it is also an old smugglers route. Another Geopark information board told us the story of how smugglers would risk their lives, not only from border guards but also the austere alpine winters, taking charcuterie and sometimes cattle over into Switzerland to trade for tobacco, coffee, sugar and spices. This took place from the 1800s up to as recent as the 1950s. In the early 1940s, the smuggling took on a more urgent turn, when the cargo was often Jewish families looking for safe passage into Switzerland.
The other side of the pass looks down on to the Abondance Valley and again there are information boards ready to inform interested visitors of how these landscapes were formed following the last two glaciations.
The Col de Bassacaux is full of varied and ofttimes beautiful flora which we enjoyed immensely as we headed up to the Col de l’Aup Couti at 1812m. On the way back way we paused for half hour, well equipped with a Tupperware boxes, to pick the local myrtilles. Myrtilles – bilberries in English, or Whortleberries in Somerset, grow on high ground and love acidic, poor nutrient soils. The low-lying shrubs have dark green leaves and produce wonderful small purple-black berries, which are ready for picking from early August through to September. They are ubiquitous in Savoyard gastronomy, served in tarts, crepes, ice cream and in various other sweet recipes. In addition to their addictive fragrant sweet and sour taste, myrtilles are a source of antioxidants and claim many health benefits (another blog to follow on the myrtille!).
We finished our walk with a late lunch at the Haute Bise restaurant that sits at the top of the Bassachaux pass. It has no mains electricity and opens only in summer. We enjoyed a 3-egg omelette with chips and salad, whilst the providers of the eggs pecked quite happily around our feet. Bon appétit!
Recipe for the ‘Berthoud’
150 g of Abondance cheese
Madeira or white Savoyard wine
Place the Abondance cheese, cut in thin slices, in a stoneware dish or in little ramekins that have been rubbed with garlic.
Then moisten with the Madeira or white wine and sprinkle with pepper.
Brown in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.
This recipe is typical of the Chablis region and is usually served with potatoes or bread.
Associated blog: Geotourism in the French Alps – part one