The way Meredith Erickson tells it, “the mountains are for early risers.” We’re chatting after she’s just touched down in Valle d’Aosta (“My ears are popping,” she says), a region in Northwestern Italy which houses Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and Gran Paradiso mountains and makes up the first chapter in her new book Alpine Cooking: Recipes and Stories from Europe’s Grand Mountaintops.
In the book, Erickson cites some convincing reasons the a.m. hours in the Alps have won her heart: “Fresh snow to be skied, cows to be milked, butter to churn, the summer sun rising from behind the hilltops… all of this happens before 8 a.m,” she writes. Although she is a city dweller—splitting time between Montreal and Milan—lately, Erickson’s been in the Alps about two weekends a month, and for the last six years she’s been tirelessly researching every valley and piste (Alpine peak) across Italy, France, Austria, and Switzerland for her new book.
From Alpine Cooking, one can easily spot the features she thinks are indispensable on any Alpine trip. They include four-wheel drive and eating a schnitzel at almost every stop. In talking to her, you’ll quickly learn what parts she thinks are overrated, too. Strong among them: aprés ski, which Erickson thinks is just too big a focus of the day for visitors. In the wrong places, she says, “It can just be a lot of people doing Jager bombs. Nothing good happens in these places after 3p.m.”
Of course, Erickson is talking about a specific kind of drinker, doing a specific kind of drinking. (We’re all for warming up, winding down, and meeting people from all over the world after the slopes at cozy, authentic Alpine bars.) But just as drinking is a minor footnote in her book—she mostly focuses on a few regional drinks and the best wine cellars to get snowed in at—proper drinks are just a small part of her ideal day on the Alps. To her, the perfect way to travel there is “traditional, not trendy”, including visits to family-owned huts, chalets, and stubes that give a real taste of what it means to be Alpine.
You’ll need to get up a little early, but her genius itinerary has us convinced that hers is a day worth waking up for. When you hear about the mountaintop steam rooms and the long, cheese-filled lunches that awaits you, you’ll want to try things Erickson’s way, too.
Forgo 5 Stars and Stay at Family Hotels
To experience the real Alps, Erickson says, consider avoiding the resorts, especially in villages known for them, like Verbier in Switzerland or France’s Courchevel. “If that’s the way you like to roll, that’s the way you like to roll. But it’s not for me,” Erickson says. “I’ve had really lonely nights in some of the most expensive hotels in the world, and I’m sure you have too.” While it may take a little more time to find a great 1-star than a 5-star or chain, her recommendations in the book focus on family-owned and independent hotels. “You get the personal touch of real mountain families that have been living in isolation and elevation for years and work tirelessly seven days a week in both the winter and summer season. It’s private, it’s completely personal. Theres nothing generic about it.”
Be sure to explore the gems that make these boutique visits worthwhile, like meeting the gracious hosts, asking about the purveyors behind the food, or spending a night dining in the wine cellar instead of the dining room. Because of their remoteness, too, “It’s not uncommon for grand Alpine hotels to have workshops on premise where the hotel furniture is custom-made and repaired,” she writes. “These inner workings are the marrow of the Alpine hotel’s bones of the past: best to dig in and savor every little bit.”
Don’t Miss the Glorious Mornings
“Waking up, opening the shutters to the first light, and seeing the Alps is a morning ritual of which I will never tire,” she writes in Alpine Cooking. In our talk, she added, “It’s what you’re going to the Alps for: Fresh mountain air, lots of space, and skiing or hiking.” But breakfast is a huge sell, too. “Breakfast on the mountains is plentiful and an expression of the local products. Similar to breakfast on a farm, we win [in the Alps] because of the proximity to local dairy and livestock.” You might find fresh eggs of yogurts from Alpine producers, hyperlocal and rare mountain cheeses, or quark—“the Alpine answer to sour cream.” Don’t forget about charcuterie plates, smoked fish, muesli, brown breads and other local pastries, strong coffee, or fresh apple juice from high-altitude orchards. After breakfast, Erickson says, “Be the first person on the chairlift, ski from 8:00a.m. till 1p.m., have a delicious lunch with a great Alpine wine from 1:00-3:00, chill or spa for an hour, then eat an early, light dinner.”
Emphasize Lunch Over Dinner
“By lunchtime after skiing, I’m starved and that’s when I indulge,” Erickson says. This is also the time she—and the locals—spend the bulk of their restaurant time, out just before the aprés crowds roll in. “I’ll do a schnitzel with an egg on top or a Tyrolean hash which has bacon and onions; a green salad or vegetable (you want this for digestion); strudel or kaiserschmarrn (fluffy shredded pancakes) with a plum compote; and then brandy or schnapps, always.” She’ll spend up two hours enjoying. “That’s when, if I’m at a hotel like The Bellevue in Cogne, Italy that has an incredible spa, I’ll do a sauna or steep. It really awakens your senses.”
Try a New Town
In her book, Erickson warns that some of the premier ski destinations in the Alps can have highly marketed and often overpriced hotels and restaurants catering to tourists. But there are some real gems if you also look outside. “Lech, Austria is a great place to start, or The Dolomites offer a softest landing into the Alps because they’re Italian and so friendly. St. Moritz and Gstaad have a great reputation for their glamor,” she says, and rightfully so: “They’re stunning and super cool, the kind of places that—even if you plan on never putting on a pair of skis—you’ll still have a fantastic long weekend. There are great little restaurants and bars in the villages, and if you have a car, touring around them is super fun.” Her pro tip: Go late in the winter season, like late March or early April, and you’ll have the runs all to yourself.
Consider the Summer
“The summertime is as good as the winter in the Alps,” Erickson says. “It’s more accessible and nothing’s covered up. You can immerse yourself in the smells and sounds. It smells like cheese and animals and it’s confusing and amazing,” she adds. Some favorites are Appenzell in Switzerland or the hikes in the country’s Säntis mountains, where you can stop at delicious little rifugios, or mountain huts to rest and eat. “There are a lot of little lakes at altitude, so you can go lakeside, eat a fish, or take a map and visit all the little cheese huts nearby and buy some fresh cheeses.”
Note that there are two seasons almost everything closes down in the Alps. “May and part of June the mountains are closed, and so are most of the resorts and even the roads, which are being repaired after the winter,” she warns. “The local workers need a break, and it’s also muddy everywhere. Fuck that.” October and November, many places will also be closed to prepare for the busy season ahead.
Stacy Adimando is a cook, creative consultant, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, and the recent Editor-in-Chief of SAVEUR magazine. Her latest cookbook, Piatti: Plates and Platters for Sharing, Inspired by Italy, is a modern look at regional Italian-inspired antipasti.