Imagine that, for obscure geological reasons, the Alps are not in France, Switzerland and Italy but in southern England. What victuals would be available to the skiers who flock to the region each winter, eager to perfect their turns on the pristine pistes maintained by the UK Alpine Regional Authority? It's not a happy prospect.
After a morning on the slopes, the visiting Frenchman might just manage to track down some far-flung kiosk, to be confronted by a surly woman in a grease-stained apron serving a selection of local delicacies: hamburgers and processed-cheese melts; chips'n'beans platters; fried bread wrapped in bacon. Or perhaps he'd find his way to a branch of the Happy Skier restaurant, specialising in that revered mountain staple, the Alpine Pasty. After sampling every conceivable permutation of meat-wrapped-in-pastry, our Frenchman would return to the slopes with renewed confidence about tackling that challenging black run he'd been eyeing all week . . .
I found myself imagining such a scenario on more than one occasion during my own recent skiing trip to France. What prompted that was the genuine excellence of the hospitality I encountered. I don't want to exaggerate: the Alps have their share of second-rate eateries. But there are also plenty of delightfully quirky restaurants, generally run by people with a rugged, altitudinous aspect, offering innumerable local specialities based on the five staple ingredients of the region: potatoes, lardons (bacon), saucisson (salami), bread and cheese.
In one such place, a tiny lodge presided over by a man with waist-length hair and a habit of exclaiming, "Yes, yes, yes," as he approached the tables, we sampled several varieties of croute: thick rounds of baguette soaked in white wine and cream, then smothered in cheese and fried. Toppings included foie gras, morilles and filet steak: this wasn't your ordinary cheese toastie. Also to be found was tartiflette, a gratin-type dish of sliced potatoes, onions, cheese and bacon. Or there were whole melted Vacherins, studded with garlic, injected with white wine and served in their wrapping of bark surrounded by potatoes, salami and gherkins. Naturally, too, we enjoyed more familiar specialities such as fondue, raclette and pierre chaude.
Were it not for the skiing, there is no doubt that a month on an Alpine diet would result in alarming corpulence. As a matter of fact, I became concerned about precisely this danger, for I found that the more I ate the less inclined I was to ski. Still, on my return, I was consoled by the sight of some of the specialites de Londres - the Cornish pasty stand at Liverpool Street Station, the Pret A Manger next to the NS offices. Going on a diet didn't seem too daunting a prospect.