The ski-bums savoring the powdery tracks at the Tremblant resort in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, sure know how to unwind after a day of slicing through snow. Picture this:
Sitting back with a group of twelve close friends, a trophy-sized glass of your favorite French wine held firmly within your fingers as you soak up the scenery around you – a cozy, wooden lodge with lighting that makes virtually any face look modelesque, and a hum from buzzed patrons that gives it the feel of a championship sporting event even though it’s only Saturday night’s dinner.
A half-moon-shaped hunk of reasonably odorous (two-day-old-armpit-level, let’s say) Raclettede Savoie cheese sits prone at a perilous 45-degree angle, stuck into a contraption in the middle of your table that looks like it’s made solely for fromage torture. Held in place mere inches from the destructive radiant energy of a powerful, but still unplugged, heat lamp, the cheese’s off-white, soon-to-be-ooey-gooey innards lie exposed for all onlookers to see, while a clean white plate lurks with callous indifference underneath the vulnerable wedge, waiting for the horrific, melty landslide of dairy demise that’s inevitably going to ooze upon it in a matter of minutes, tainting its pristine, pearly surface once the lamp’s temperature rises to an unbearable level.
The setting of cheese persecution is La Savoie, a rustic restaurant with long wooden tables,tucked into the snowglobe-turned-truth that is the Tremblant resort. And, if you’re a fan of fondue, you may recognize the machine I’m referring to as a raclette, an interesting instance in language where the apparatus has the same name as the product that’s associated with it.
The idea of raclette (or, should I say, the act of racletting?) is to use the melted Raclette deSavoie in conjunction with a variety of vegetables and a melange of meats and seafood. Our suave, goateed server, Sebastien, a native of the area whose parents also work in (and basically raised him in) the Tremblant resort, sensed our newness to the seemingly complicated (and slightly stinky) situation, so he promptly confiscated our menus and took charge so we didn’t have to hurt ourselves by thinking too hard about decisions.
In a matter of minutes, we had our glasses filled high with our choice of red or white wine (from Savoie, of course), and Sebastien got our dual raclette system fired up (I roll pretty deep in Quebec, and there was a double-figure count of ravenous, rambunctious journalists who were in dire need of their daily feed and booze infusions).
The people sitting closest to the raclettes were dubbed “Cheesemasters” by Sebastien, given the intense duty of constantly scraping the melted top layer of cheese down onto the empty plates of their demanding, hungry counterparts. While this role called for great responsibility and focus and a minor level of dexterity, it came with the extreme privilege of “First Cheese,” allowing both Cheesemasters the opportunity to indulge their palates before succumbing to the call of curds and having to serve everyone else.
Before the cheese began to melt, impatient people started slicing off sections of it for everyone to try at room temperature, and it was a great move because the flavor is somewhat different once it melts. Not to say one way is better than the other, each state of Raclette de Savoie cheese presents a different taste and texture experience, making this quite the versatile eat. The cheese is creamy, fruity and buttery in both phases, but becomes decidedly more “aromatic” (read: pungent!) and complex once it melts. If given the choice, I’d surely take a serving of both.
Soon, we had loaded silver platters placed before us with various vegetables and thinly sliced charcuterie: raw broccoli, cauliflower, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, parma ham, Rosette de Lyon (a fancy French pork salami), and grison meat, an air-dried beef with a sanguine hue and a pleasing tenderness. But that’s not all. There was also a bounty of warm, fresh-baked bread, boiled potatoes, and heaping bowls of sweet-and-sour gherkins and pickled pearl onions.
This was a serious feast.
After several rounds of raclette scrapings utilized in every imaginable permutation with the assortment of accompaniments, along with an ample amount Savoie chardonnay, I, along with everyone else, was as sauced as spaghetti. The decibel level from our corner was exacerbated by the fact that the entire collection of restaurant patrons was locked and loaded, with the other half of the dining room busting out a sloppy serenade of what I thought was “Happy Birthday” enFrancais Quebecois, which apparently uses less mouth movement than French spoken in France (maybe someone can explain this to me). It was complete madness, and nobody inside was immune.
In my mind, Sebastien began looking and sounding like how Seth MacFarlane would portray a French DJ from Quebec on one of his shows. I’m pretty sure I went and told him this almost verbatim, then I encouraged him to start making funny videos of himself and putting them on YouTube, which then led him to start dancing like a chippendale, much to the delight of the older ladies in our party. One of them began waving a Canadian 5$ bill in his direction.
I guess what happens in Tremblant stays in Tremblant.
All in all, my experience in Mont-Tremblant illustrated that the American stereotype of French Canadians being snooty and uptight is all wrong: these peeps are silly, rowdy, and know how to revel in the best of ways. Places like La Savoie exemplify how when servers give extra effort to form quick bonds with the guests at their tables and interact with them in a friendly, familiar way, they’re capable of elevating an already-great eating experience to something remarkable and unforgettable.
Contributing writer, Erik Mathes is a chef, wordsmith, and Chief Feaster @ Feasts of Fury, where he inspires readers and educates them on how to approach cooking and eating in a bold, new and fearless way. His work has been featured on such sites as Buzzfeed, Daily Meal and Yahoo! Travel.