Things to do with alpine cheeses

Germane Gruyère: Dip into these heart-warming dishes with a generous helping of rich alpine cheeses, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This is the time of the year when all you skiers head off to the Alps for your annual fix. I never really got the skiing bug, however, probably because I was never offered a skiing holiday as a kid - it was Pontins in Devon for me. But over the years, I've heard enough from friends and seen enough paintings and romantic films to get an idea of what you should and shouldn't eat on and around the slopes. I think there's something rather retro about ski food; maybe it's the thought of that fondue set, or the Gruyère cheese, which is a household word in the Alps in the same way that Cheddar is in the UK. Gruyère is a great cheese to cook with, and an aged nutty variety makes a memorable table cheese as well. Try it. And I'm not talking about the plastic supermarket stuff here.

Ski cuisine is heavily based around cheese and dairy produce, and many dishes will contain alpine cheeses such as Emmental, Reblochon, tomme de Savoie and one of my favourites, Vacherin Mont d'Or.

Alpine dishes have to be truly heart-warming to sustain hearty skiers' appetites. The travellers' standby of fondue is an ancient classic, though it was described a couple of hundred years ago by the food propagandist Brillat-Savarin as being nothing more nor less than eggs scrambled with cheese. I'm not sure how expert fondue makers would have taken to that, although they would have almost certainly approved of his other famous phrase: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."

Tartiflette

Serves 6

Apparently this is what everyone eats while skiing, but I've only seen tartiflette in markets - in fact there's a good-looking and delicious smelling stall outside Neal's Yard in Borough Market. I even heard that there was a tartiflette caravan at Glastonbury last year. Rather like a gratin Dauphinoise, tartiflette is one of those irresistibly comforting concoctions. It also makes perfect fast food.

1kg large potatoes, peeled and boiled for 20 minutes
2tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
200g streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into small dice
150ml white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
450g Reblochon cheese

Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4. Cut the potatoes into a rough 1cm dice.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and gently cook the onion and bacon for 10 minutes, stirring every so often until lightly coloured. Add the potatoes and wine and simmer for another 10 minutes, then season.

Spoon half of the potato mixture into an ovenproof dish, cut the Reblochon in half horizontally and place one half on the potatoes. Spoon over the rest of the potatoes and place the other half of the cheese, divided into four quarters, on top. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling.

Cheese fondue with mushrooms

Serves 4-6

Fondues are very Seventies - and the time always seems to be ripe for a fondue revival. It might be my imagination, but aren't fondue sets more prominent in the cookware departments these days? Fondue is a bloody good fun dish at dinner parties, especially when you have the courage to be a bit adventurous - as I did when I experimented with things like lobster thermidor fondue (which some readers might remember from a few years back), when I put the thermidor sauce in the fondue and cooked little chunks of lobsters on skewers.

You can vary the cheeses slightly according to what's available, but try if you can to keep them of the alpine variety.

A good knob of butter
10g dried ceps, soaked overnight
120g button mushrooms, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled
200ml dry white wine
100ml double cream
120g Gruyère, grated
120g Emmental, grated
60g Beaufort or Vacherin, grated or cut into small pieces
A loaf of crusty bread or French bread, cut into rough 2cm chunks and left out overnight

Rinse the ceps and chop them finely. Melt the butter in a pan and gently cook the button mushrooms, ceps and garlic clove for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Remove the garlic clove. Add the white wine and cream, bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Whisk or stir in the cheeses until they are melted. If the cheese doesn't completely melt and the mixture is still a bit stringy, don't worry, as the wine and juices will eventually evaporate and prevent the cheese from burning while you are eating. Then transfer to a lit fondue bowl or keep warm in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.

The pieces of bread are then dipped into the fondue on skewers or with fondue forks - just in case you've never done it before.

Venison stew with dumplings

Serves 4

Rich, gamey stews are the perfect skiing fodder, and this recipe will warm the cockles on a cold winter's night. If possible, try to buy a single cut of venison like shoulder, neck or a single muscle cut from the leg, as mixed cuts will require various cooking times, so if you're not careful you'll end up with a mixed bag of tender, dry and tough stew on your hands.

1.5 kg trimmed venison meat, cut into 3-4 cm chunks
750ml good red wine
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 juniper berries crushed
1tsp thyme, leaves removed and chopped
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil for frying
60g butter
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
3tbsp plain flour
1/2 tbsp tomato purée
1 1/2 litres dark meat stock (or a couple of good quality beef stock cubes dissolved in that amount of water)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the dumplings

125g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
60g suet
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp freshly grated horseradish
Water to mix
Salt and pepper

Put the venison into a stainless steel or ceramic bowl with the red wine, garlic, thyme, juniper and bay leaf. Cover and marinade in the fridge for two days.

Drain the meat in a colander, reserving the marinade, and dry the pieces on some kitchen paper. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan, lightly flour the meat with a tablespoon of the flour, season with salt and pepper and fry the meat on a high heat, a few pieces at a time, until nicely browned.

Heat the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently fry the onions for a few minutes until soft. Add the flour and tomato purée and stir over a low heat for a minute. Slowly add the marinade, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer until it has reduced by half. Add the meat stock and the pieces of venison, bring back to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 1 1/2 hours until the meat is tender. It's difficult to put an exact time on cooking braised meats: half an hour extra may be required.

Once the meat is cooked, the sauce should have thickened sufficiently. If not, dilute a little cornflour in some water and stir into the sauce and simmer for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, make the dumplings. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl and add half a teaspoon of salt. Mix in the suet, parsley and horseradish, then add enough water to form a sticky dough. Flour your hands and roll the dough into 12 little balls.

Poach the dumplings in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, then remove them and put to one side. To serve, re-heat the dumplings in the stew. Served with mashed root vegetables or seasonal greens.

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