To lunch or not to lunch?

Chris Gill defends the skier's right to a midday meal from America's sandwich-only militants
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The Independent Travel
It's not difficult to find issues on which skiers are divided. Should you or should you not venture off-piste without qualified guidance? Are rear-entry boots a sop to softies, or the best thing since dry-roasted peanuts? Are chalet holidays a uniquely enjoyable way to go skiing, or conclusive evidence of the gullibility of British skiers? Is Verbier simply the best, or a bad joke?

But there is one issue that divides us like no other. Choose a group of skiers at random and set them off down the piste to spend the day together, and this issue will have arisen by lunchtime at the latest. I say this with certainty because the heart of the matter is nothing less than lunch itself. The issue: is lunch an integral part of a complete skiing holiday, or a waste of precious time?

The issue was brought to mind by a vigorous exchange of views in recent issues of the American magazine Snow Country. Sir David English wrote a piece in the November issue in which he was critical of American mountain restaurants. It's a common complaint among visitors from Europe, of course - and one that struck a particular chord with me when I read it, a couple of days after suffering the most grisly mountain lunch in 20 years skiing.

We were in Heavenly, on the California/Nevada border. Although it was a holiday weekend, the resort was far from full, so it was disappointing to find that the restaurant we picked for lunch - not that there was much choice - was already packed to the doors by 12.15. The surroundings were utterly functional, as usual. The food was dull, as usual. There was a background cacophony of pop music, as fairly usual.

What made the experience especially unpleasant was the queues and crowds. Not only did we queue for food, and again for a table. But we then sat surrounded by queues as we miserably munched.

Criticism of American restaurants may be widespread, but it is evidently not universally welcome. In a subsequent issue of Snow Country, Sir David's views got some local support, but also triggered some robust counter-attacks. "Real skiers (ie Americans) go skiing to ski, not eat," was the message.

"It's clear that English is no skier," said one correspondent. "I can just see the uncomfortable look on his face as his pampered English bum is subjected to the cold snow and chairlifts." Another, similarly, branded Sir David as "more interested in food and booze than skiing". Even those who registered support for his views on restaurants sought to redress the balance by wheeling out the standard and now rather outdated American view that European lift queues are as unbearable as American restaurants.

You see what I mean about this business dividing skiers. It isn't only that some skiers like a good lunch and others don't. It's that there is such mutual hatred between the two groups. In particular, the anti-lunch brigade is ever-ready to brand the opposition as "fur-wearing herbs" with no interest in skiing.

As a keen luncher, I resent this. Enthusiasm for lunch does not imply a lack of enthusiasm for skiing. I am extremely keen on skiing. What's more, I am extremely keen on skiing after lunch. It may not be politically correct to admit it - and I am sure any American skier would be shocked to read this - but I find a glass or two of wine at lunchtime is a great help in overcoming my innate fear of the fall line.

The anti-lunchers view food purely as fuel, and lunchtime as a pit-stop. Naturally, if they venture inside a restaurant (as opposed to munching a bread roll on a chairlift and sucking the occasional snowball), they prefer the place to be streamlined and functional, and don't care about the surroundings, the atmosphere or the service. The aim is to get back on the snow as quickly as possible, to maximise the amount of skiing accomplished in the day.

To a degree it's natural that Americans veer towards this view. Many of them take shorter skiing holidays than we do, because they get less annual leave. And the skiing day tends to be a bit shorter in the States, with the lifts in many resorts starting later and closing sooner than is normal in the Alps.

But even in the States there is a growing realisation that there is a place in the skiing day for rest and recreation. Some resort managers are even concerned that modern lifts are making it possible for unfit skiers to do more skiing in a day than is sensible, and are improving restaurants in order to encourage people to take more of a break at lunchtime.

The anti-lunch philosophy represents an excessive concern for quantity, and is depressingly mistaken. Even if my legs could cope with eight hours' continuous skiing each day (and they can't), I'm not sure that I would find it more enjoyable than six non-continuous hours.

When the intervening couple of hours can be spent soaking up the sun on a Zermatt terrace with a view of the Matterhorn, or savouring magret de canard au poivre vert and a glass or two of Ctes du Rhne between descents of Argentire's Grands Montets, there is no contest.

Sympathisers may wish to know that the official Where to Ski top 10 resorts for mountain restaurants are: Alpe d'Huez, La Clusaz, Courmayeur, Kitzbhel, Megve, Saalbach-Hinterglemm, St Johann in Tirol, St Moritz, Selve and Zermatt. And the greatest of these is Zermatt.