How to be a chalet chef

Reckon you could cook for 22 hungry skiers? Veteran chalet chef Lucy Cufflin reckons she has a foolproof recipe for training up complete novices

James Bedding plating up the salmon mousse

Trying my hand at the salmon mousse

Imagine: you are in a chalet with 22 skiers and snowboarders. Their faces are flushed with today’s exertions; they look ravenous, as though they could strip the cook to the bone. You’re the cook. How do you feel?

As I peer from the safe side of the kitchen door, I diagnose my feeling as blind panic. What if I poison someone? Will anyone dare try my salmon mousse? Why am I here?

The last question I can answer: to find out what goes in to providing the hundreds of thousands of chalet dinners that British skiers wolf down every winter. Few of the youngsters conjuring up the food have any formal training; how do they cope?

I can empathise: though I am more than twice as old as the average member of a ski chalet’s staff, that advantage is not reflected in my culinary skills. The shelves of cookery books at home are testament not to my repertoire but to the generosity of family and friends despairing at facing the same dishes time and again.

As for cooking for 22 – a dinner party a quarter the size will floor me. I invariably leave preparations until the last minute – probably a journalist’s misplaced belief in the motivational power of a looming deadline. By the time guests have arrived, I’m a stressed-out wreck – and half-sozzled, thanks to the wine I’ve downed to help me cope.

So, when the holiday company Skiworld told Telegraph Travel it had devised a portfolio of menus for its chalets that were not only delicious but so easy to master that they were virtually idiot-proof, a journalistic challenge presented itself.

Which is how I find myself in the west London kitchen of Lucy Cufflin, who runs Skiworld’s catering and trains recruits at the start of each season. She is to teach me a handful of dishes that I can use to feed a chalet of 22 in the Swiss resort of Verbier for a day.

Lucy explains how she has distilled 25 years of cooking experience – from heading a kitchen at a large hotel in Tignes to many seasons of working in chalets and running a catering company in Britain – into her recipes, many of which have gone into a whopping 350-recipe book, Lucy’s Food. I confess to my difficult relationship with cookery books. “Quite normal,” she says. “On average people only ever get around to trying three recipes from any cookbook.”

The secret of a happy chalet, says Lucy, is “foolproof, fabulous recipes” that allow staff to spend less time in the kitchen and more on the snow. And happy hosts and fine food make for satisfied guests.

She hands me a sheaf of recipes, a two-week rota that cycles through the season. The recipies sound good – from a mascarpone fondue to chorizo served with a crème fraîche mash and courgettes, and desserts such as panna cotta with orange and bay syrup. Each day has a precise timetable: for my proposed dinner, I am told what to prepare in advance after breakfast, and what to do at 6pm, at 6.30, 7, 7.30, 7.45, 7.55, 8 and 8.15.

We launch into the starter: a pâté of fresh and smoked salmon. I whizz up the fish in a blender, along with some cream, milk and eggs, pour the goo into a baking tin I’ve lined with greaseproof paper, and in a couple of minutes I’m done. My first ever terrine – a doddle.

I then prepare the dill-and- cucumber dressing, and pause to taste the vinaigrette mix from a teaspoon. “Try it with a piece of cucumber instead,” says Lucy. “Tip – you never eat a dressing or a sauce on its own, so when you’re preparing it, taste it with what it goes with.”

We start on the gratin dauphinois, peeling and slicing potatoes before frying some diced onions to scatter between the layers. All the time, Lucy is bubbling over with suggestions. She shows me how to make onion-chopping less tearful by using the roots as a grip; how to fry in butter without it turning black (mix half-and-half with vegetable oil), and extols the virtues of sweating onions. “Don’t brown them over a high heat,” she says. “Cook them slowly at low temperature with the lid on, and you get the most fantastic flavour. I get chalet staff to fry onions in big batches; they keep in the fridge for a week.”

She fixes me in the eyes. “This is probably the most important thing you’ll learn all day.” I promise not to forget, while trying to figure out what I can do to stop my head exploding.

We breeze through the rest of the main course – confit of duck with a dark port sauce, carrot ribbons and broccoli florets – before tackling the dessert, a pear tart with a simple cinnamon-flavoured pastry. I am astonished how straightforward the recipes are – and how much mess I manage to make, none the less.

At the end of the day, when we taste it all, I’m happier still. I am amazed how delicate my first-ever fish pâté tastes, while the duck in its sauce of port, orange, ginger and green peppers feels luxuriously opulent – and the potatoes lush and creamy. As a dessert fanatic, I fall above all for the pear tart: the shortbread-like pastry flavoured with cinnamon partners perfectly the pears, whose flesh has turned as soft as mousse. I nearly swoon.

The team

The team

Lucy suggests I practise at least once before the big night, so back in Verbier I invite some hungry ski instructors over. I begin cooking in good time, cut myself only superficially on the tin of duck, applaud what I consider a skilful catch of a greased duck leg after it flies out of my hand, and by the time I have finished – only 15 minutes behind schedule – feel well satisfied with the extravagant mess I have created in the kitchen. My first guest looks shocked – but then he is Swiss, and the Swiss, I’ve found, aren’t great at chaos.

The food vanishes quickly, apart from the potatoes. I should have followed Lucy’s advice and checked that they were fully cooked. “How interesting,” says another Swiss guest diplomatically: “chewy potatoes.” But the rest is hailed a success, and it is only towards the end of the meal that I am remotely drunk – a personal triumph.

On the big day at 7.30am I am with Lucy in the kitchen at the Chalet Quatre Saisons, with half an hour to go before the first guests come down for breakfast. I am hyperventilating already. I halve some tomatoes, slot them in the oven with a regiment of chipolatas and start sautéing potatoes in batches. I am reassured by the presence of two chalet boys, Sam and Oli, who look very relaxed as they put out cereals, tea and coffee, and take the first orders. The third, Liam, looks even more relaxed – but then I’m taking his job for the day.

At 8am the first guests appear, and moments later Sam appears with the first of a string of orders – and from then I’m juggling hotplates, sausages, potatoes and tomatoes in between scrambling eggs.

Best of all, each time I’ve served up a batch, Oli washes the pan and offers me a clean one. I wonder if this is what has been lacking in my cookery career to date – two energetic and cheerful youngsters to do all the cleaning up.

By 9am I am exhausted – but we need fuelling, and sit down for our own breakfast instead. “I love this time of day,” says Sam. “It’s the only chance we get to sit down quietly and catch up.”

Soon, though, Sam is off cleaning bedrooms, Oli is clearing up the dining room and I am “prepping” dinner as per Lucy’s menu. Third time round, conjuring up the salmon pâté is a breeze. Cooking for 22, though, is a team activity, so Sam and Oli join in peeling potatoes for the gratin and pears for the tart.

By early afternoon all three are baked and ready, and I want to go home for a quiet coma – but Lucy will have none of it. I’m to experience the proper chalet lifestyle, she says, “and that means going out skiing no matter how tired you are, or how late you were up last night”.

So out we all go for a blast of mountain air and some energetic runs. Lucy and I watch the lads fling themselves off small cliffs. I give the jumps a miss – today is terrifying enough as it is.

At 6pm we’re back in the chalet – and the schedule says it’s time to remove the duck legs from the cans, arrange them in the roasting tins and make the port sauce. Half an hour later, it’s time to make the cucumber dressing and the croûtes for the salmon; half an hour after that, time to warm the dishes, prepare all the garnishes; and for the last half-hour before we are due to serve, the pace ratchets up steadily. I can hear my nerves fraying.

As the guests sit down, a pattern of choreography emerges in the kitchen: we are due to plate up the starters, yet there isn’t enough room to lay out 22 plates at the same time. We create a production line, Sam ferries the plates out into the dining room – and by the time he has carried the last, we are well on to plating up the next course.

The ballet continues in a similar vein for the next two courses, as a tide of white plates surges in and out of the kitchen. My mind is numb – and when the last plate of pear tart has gone out, it is a few moments before I realise the ordeal is over.

I poke my head out of the kitchen, and am relieved to see everyone is not just alive but smiling – and there’s a round of applause to celebrate.

What have I learnt? That the energy and enthusiasm of youth is miraculous; that life can be sweet if you don’t leave everything to the last minute; and that dinner parties – whether at home or on the slopes – needn’t be a nightmare. And I now have a few hundred recipes I can’t wait to try out – and this time round, I know it’s going to be fun.

Further information from Skiworld (08444 930 430 www.skiworld.co.uk).  Lucy’s Food (Hardie Grant, £20) is available from booshops and via Skiworld.

Verbier, looking out from Attleas towards Mont Blanc massif

View from the Verbier ski area, with Mont Blanc on the horizon

Recipes

Fresh and smoked salmon paté with dill and cucumber dressing

Serves 10-12
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 45 minutes – 1 hour

Ingredients
300g fresh salmon, skinned
75g smoked salmon, cut into thin strips
300ml double cream
100ml milk
4 eggs
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of dried tarragon

For the dressing:
¼ small cucumber, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dill
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon caster sugar
salt and pepper
8 slices of stale French bread

1 Put all ingredients for the paté into a blender and blend until fairly smooth to very smooth (depending on preference).

2 Line a 1kg loaf tin with baking paper. Pour in the salmon mixture and cover with foil.

3 Fill a roasting tin half full with warm water and place the loaf tin into it. Cook in an oven at 180C for 1 hour until set and firm to the touch. Cook and refrigerate.

4 Prepare little toasts using the slices of stale bread. Drizzle with oil and cook for 5 minutes at 190C. Make a simple vinaigrette with the olive oil, mustard, vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper, add the finely chopped cucumber and dill to make a little salad.

5 Remove the fish in its paper and put on a chopping board. Peel back the paper from the sides of the terrine and slice.

6 To serve, place a slice of the salmon paté on a plate, place 2 little toasts to one side, and drizzle the cucumber dressing on the other.

Confit de canard

Confit de canard

Confit of duck with dark port sauce

Serves 4
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 25 minutes

Ingredients
4 confit of duck legs
100ml of orange juice (from a carton is fine)
100ml port 100ml water
1 chicken stock cube
1 tsp green peppercorns in brine (drained and chopped finely)
2cm cube ginger, peeled and grated
salt and pepper
½ onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
25g butter
1 teaspoon cornflour mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water in a cup
sprig of fresh parsley to garnish

To heat the duck:
200ml water
1 chicken stock cube

1 Remove the duck from the tin and separate into leg portions. Wipe off as much fat as you can. Keep some of the fat in a jar in the fridge to use for cooking potatoes, etc. Put the duck portions into an ovenproof dish. Put the water and stock cube into the dish and cover with foil. Bake at 190C for 30 minutes.

2 Meanwhile, make the sauce. Put all the other ingredients apart from the butter, parsley and cornflour into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer without a lid until you have only 200ml left and then sieve the sauce.

3 Add the cornflour and re-boil. Adjust the seasoning and leave to one side. This can be made ahead of time and re-heated in the saucepan.

4 Just before serving, reheat the sauce, add the chilled butter cut into cubes and stir all the time as it melts. This will thicken the sauce further and add a gloss.

5 Put the confit of duck onto the centre of a warmed dinner plate, place a pile of carrot ribbons on top, and spoon over the dark port sauce. Garnish with a large sprig of parsley or other fresh herbs.

Gratin Dauphinois

Serves 4
Preparation time 20 minutes
Cooking time 1½ hours at least

Ingredients
½ onion, peeled and finely chopped
25g butter, plus a little extra
1 tablespoon oil
3 very large potatoes, peeled/thinly sliced
125ml milk
125ml cream
1 clove garlic peeled and crushed
100g grated Emmental cheese
salt and pepper

1 Place the onion, butter and oil in a saucepan over a gentle heat with the lid on. Allow the onions to cook for 5 minutes or until they are soft and translucent.

2 Butter the inside of an ovenproof dish and arrange the potatoes, scattering the onions between the layers.

3 Put the milk, cream, garlic, salt and pepper into the empty onion pan and bring to the boil. Pour over the potatoes so the liquid comes ¾ of the way up the sides of the dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour at 190C.

4 Lift off the foil and stick a knife into the potatoes to see if they are cooked. They should be absolutely soft; if they are not cooked through, put them back in the oven, covered, for a further 15 minutes and test again. When they are completely cooked through, remove the foil and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

5 Return to the oven, this time uncovered, for a further 30 minutes. At the end of this time the potatoes should be golden brown with a thick creamy sauce. If they look dry add a little more cream, if there is a lot of thin liquid, spoon some out and discard.

This re-heats brilliantly. Make in the morning, or well ahead of time. They can keep warm for up to an hour; alternatively, reheat at 190C for 30 minutes uncovered with the cheese sprinkled over.

If re-heating, only cook the potatoes up to the point where the cheese topping is added. The potatoes must be cooked through or they will go brown as they sit during the day partially cooked.

Carrot ribbons

Serves 4
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cooking time 2 minutes

Ingredients
4 carrots

1 Peel the carrots and discard the peelings. Once peeled, continue to use the peeler in the same way producing lots of peelings of carrot. These can be done ahead of time and stored in a bag or bowl in the fridge until needed.

2 Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and literally a couple of minutes before serving put the carrots into the pan. Bring back to the boil and drain

3 Serve immediately in the centre of a warmed plate on top of the duck leg. Serve with tender boiled broccoli florets

Pear and cinnamon tart

Serves 10
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 35-45 minutes

Ingredients

For the pastry:
250g plain flour
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
125g butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons cream

For the filling
5 well-shaped pears
icing sugar and whipped cream, to serve

1 Cut a circle of baking parchment 30cm in diameter. Put the flour, sugar, cinnamon and butter in a bowl and rub the fat and flour between your fingers and thumbs until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs in texture. Add the cream and squeeze the mix together until you get a pastry dough.

2 Turn out onto a floured surface and knead slightly. Divide the pastry in two. Roll one half out on the piece of baking parchment and lower into the 25cm diameter tin. Fold the paper behind the pastry and ease it into the tin and up the sides, pressing the pastry back into place over the folded parchment. Trim the pastry to 3cm high to stop it flopping forwards.

3 Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthways and cut out the core, leaving them in halves. Lay them on the pastry, cut side down pointing towards the centre.

4 Roll out the second piece of pastry and roll around the pin to move it. Unroll it over the pears and allow it to nestle over them. Press the edges together and trim the top piece so it fits. It does not matter if this breaks, simply push bits in where you have gaps or breaks, sticking it to the other pastry with a little water.

5 Bake at 190C for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool. This can be made up to 8 hours ahead. To reheat from chilled, pop into the oven for 10-15 minutes.

6 To serve, slice the tart through the middle of each pear so that each slice contains 2 half-pears. Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of icing sugar.

 

Chocoholic heaven

Who says you can have too much of a good thing?

Chocolate bars on display at Migros, VerbierLast year the Swiss ate 91,330 tons of chocolate, according to official figures. This is equivalent to 11.7kg per person, or 117 standard 100g tablets. The Swiss are consequently the world’s leading consumers of chocolate: three tablets ahead of the Germans, and a clear 13 tablets ahead of the British, in third place.

Does this also make them the world’s happiest people? Or those with the best taste? Or the most enviable? Or the most civilised?

These are questions you can happily ponder while admiring the cornucopia of chocolate available at any Swiss supermarket. Yesterday I was doing just that at Migros, the largest store in the Swiss resort of Verbier, as I photographed some of my favourites, jotting down details of the more inventive combinations of flavours.

Chocolate bars on display at Migros, VerbierA member of staff asked politely what I was doing. I explained that I was a journalist and, impressed by the variety of chocolate on offer in one shop, wanted to write on the subject. “This isn’t for tourists, you know” he said. “You get the same selection at any Migros of this size.” He sounded affronted at the suggestion that all this chocolate might be intended for anyone other than locals like him.

First, to debunk a myth: Switzerland needn’t be expensive. A 400g block of Frey Crémant, for example – the benchmark dark chocolate, popular for years – costs £3.15, equivalent to 79p for a 100g block. A 100g bar of milk chocolate can cost as little as 46p (Migros’ own-brand M Classic) or even 28p (the M-Budget brand).

What impresses me above all is the sheer variety of flavours. Among the best I have tried are bars with added malt; with almonds and honey; with double cream; with crushed Japonais biscuits; not to mention a host of variations on the fruit-and-nut theme – including my all-time favourite, with raisins soaked in rum.

Then there are bars in which each chunk has a filling: from pistachio to liquid caramel, and from cream of marzipan to soft almond paste (in milk, dark or white varieties) – not to mention a variety of truffle fillings, including the sublime Marc de Champagne.

In order that no one should feel left out, there are bars for diabetics – I counted at least three varieties – as well as a special milk chocolate for those with a lactose allergy. And if you like your chocolate with added feel-good factor, you can choose between at least four Fairtrade bars, including a cranberry-flavoured one.

Chocolate bars on display at Migros, VerbierMocca fans will find no less than four variations on the theme of coffee blended with chocolate: including my favourite, Sogno di caffè – latte macchiato, a “dream of coffee” that actually looks like a macchiato in two tones, with little chunks of cocoa inside.

Sometimes I find that the sheer choice can bring on a sense of bewilderment bordering on panic. If this happens to you, I’d suggest homing in on the Frey Suprême range (mostly £1.55), quirky creations by some unnamed choco-genius. Some combinations sound odd, but having tried them all over the past two months, I can vouch for each one: lemon and black pepper; crema catalana (creme caramel with vanilla); panna cotta (with strawberry); tiramisu; stracciatella; and one that took me by surprise to become my favourite, pear and caramel.

Perhaps crowning the selection are the bars whose chunks contain real liquid alcohol: from Cognac to Swiss-made Poire Williams (pear brandy) and my favourite, Kirsch (cherry brandy). Each one offers pure bliss: a bargain at just £1.30.

You do not need to be a linguist to understand what is inside each bar – with the possible exception of Migros’ own-brand “Bona-splitter”, which is actually just milk chocolate and hazelnuts (with the shells removed, one hopes). If you are unsure as to the ingredients of any particular variety, my advice is buy it anyway – you may make a happy discovery.

Box of absinthe chocolates on sale at Migros, VerbierIn fact, I would recommend eating chocolate as an excellent aid to language-learning: this being Switzerland, everything is written in German, French and Italian. So, while enjoying the sublime taste of the Frey Suprême Satin Noir (“satin dark” chocolate), you could learn a valuable lesson not just in languages but in the psychology of the people who speak them. French-speakers, for example, are told this is a “plaisir fondant” – a “melt-in-the-mouth pleasure”; German-speakers, a “zartschmelzender Genusserlebnis” – a “tender, melting pleasure experience”; and for Italian-speakers it’s a “dolce delizia”, words that sound to me as though they belong in a Verdi opera.

Personally I can think of few better ways to while away a couple of hours that to lie in a hot scented bath having the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli singing chocolate wrappers to me while being fed the contents by angels. Who knows, perhaps that’s what heaven is really like.

In all, I counted 85 different kinds of chocolate bar. And that’s ignoring all the other chocolatey goodies from boxes of pralines filled with absinthe (honestly) to choco-coated macadamia nuts and all manner of truffles by the bagful.

Leaving aside the budget varieties, these bars typically cost between about £1 for the classics to around £1.70 for the more unusual flavours. With five or six rows in a bar, that works out at 20-30p for a little taste of heaven to share with friends after a meal, over a coffee, or sitting at the side of a piste looking back on a great day’s skiing. How civilised is that?

Tart tart’s guide to Verbier

Laetitia Boumard, pastry chef at Chez Dany, with a raspberry tart and lemon tart

Chez Dany’s Laetitia Boumard with a raspberry tart and lemon tart

Indulging in a slice of slope-side cake is one of the great pleasures of a ski trip. Finding the best on offer is a quest to be taken seriously.

Some of us skiers will do anything for a quality cake. I’d say that the moment you decide, midway through a particularly satisfying run, that it is time to reward yourself with a slice of tarte at one of the mountain cafes is one of the happiest to be had on the slopes.

The restaurant Chez Dany in Clambin, above Verbier

Chez Dany

As any fanatic knows, this can lead to disappointment: all too many cakes fail to live up to your fantasy. So, in order that any readers planning a visit to Verbier can look forward to their cake with confidence, I have been doing some intensive research.

I avoided the big restaurants at the cable car and chairlift stations, focussing instead on smaller, more characterful café-restaurants that are worth a detour; all are ski-in, ski-out. The house specialities turn out to be various takes on the fruit tart; after careful investigation, I can confirm that all are superb.

One of the venues, Chez Dany (00 41 27 771 25 24), is not on a patrolled piste but a marked “itinerary” – effectively a pretty track through the forest, dotted with chalets. To find it, take the red run that leads from the Les Ruinettes chairlift down to Médran, and look for the signposted turning off to the left.

Bruno Diebold from Chez Simon, Verbiery, with the house apple tart

Chez Simon’s Bruno Diebold with house apple tart

House speciality at this cosy wooden chalet is a raspberry tart, consisting of a flaky pastry base filled with whipped cream and smothered with glazed raspberries (CHF 6). Laetitia Boumard, the pastry chef who conjures up these slices of pure pleasure, recommends savouring them with a glass of local white wine.

The other cafés are located in the sunny Savoleyres area overlooking Verbier. This is neglected by aficionados of the couloirs and powderfields on the Mont-Fort and Mont-Gelé, but it is popular with families, fans of tree skiing, leisurely lunchers and tarte lovers.

On the north side of the ridge, just above the bottom of the Le Nord six-person chairlift, is Chez Simon (00 41 27 306 80 55; www.chezsimon.ch ), a café among the trees that specialises in just one tart – in large quantities.

The tarte tatin at La Marmotte, Verbier

Tarte tatin at La Marmotte

Bruno Diebold is one of two chefs who make up to 20 big baking trays of apple tart a day (CHF 4), each providing up to 26 slices. The apples come from a village at the bottom of the mountain, Riddes: in fact this stretch of the Rhone valley is as famous for its fruit brandies as its wine. The apple tart is “as simple as you can make it”, says Bruno, “with nothing surplus”: just pastry, apples, cinnamon, sugar and a little cream. He recommends tasting it warm, with a glass of vin chaud (mulled wine).

Two other top stops lie on the sunny slopes on the other side of the ridge, a few turns below the Savoleyres Sud draglift, on the long blue Planard slope that leads across the mountain to Carrefour and to the bulk of Verbier’s ski area.

La Marmotte (00 41 27 771 68 34; www.lamarmotte-verbier.com) is a large restaurant in traditional chalet style, whose dessert menu always includes the chef de cuisine’s celebrated tarte tatin. Fabrice Girel bakes a couple of these caramelised apple tarts a day, serving them with vanilla ice cream (CHF 11). Do look out for the specials, which change every fortnight: if you visit over the next ten days, it’ll be a mille-feuille aux poires (CHF 12).

Annick Margelisch of Le Namasté with one of her husband Jean-Lou's maple syrup tarts

Annick Margelisch of Le Namasté with the popular maple syrup tart

Just a few yards away is perhaps the most idiosyncratic venue of all: Le Namasté (00 41 27 771 57 73; www.namaste-verbier.ch), a café that feels more like a cluster of cosy living rooms. The exterior is decorated with all manner of fantastical metal sculptures created out of old agricultural implements that the chef, Jean-Lou Margelisch, welds in his spare time.

The speciality here is maple syrup tart (CHF 6). Jean-Lou said he “only started baking these because I have a friend from Quebec. Now everyone asks for it.”

When it arrives, served by Jean-Lou’s wife Annick, it looks alarmingly thin, but the layer of maple syrup filling, savoured warm, turns out to be so rich, sweet and swooningly sumptuous that I was left gasping with happiness.

So, which of the tartes is the best? I couldn’t possibly say: I urge anyone with an interest to try them all, and make their own mind up. Bon appétit!

One of the sculptures at Le Namasté in Verbier made by the chef, Jean-Lou Margelisch

Sculpture at Le Namasté by the chef, Jean-Lou Margelisch

Ski instructor course 7: How to ski Verbier on a budget

Ski Switzerland without breaking the bank? It can be done – if you follow some tips from the experts

Hot chocolate and apple tart at the restaurant La Chotte de Grands Plans, Verbier

Sweet temptations at La Chotte de Grands Plans, Verbier

Is there such a thing as inexpensive skiing? Is Switzerland as dear as people say? And can you visit Verbier, one of the world’s most expensive resorts, without suffering a financial haemorrhage?

These are important questions for any skier, and after three weeks in Verbier, our group of would-be ski instructors is coming up with answers. Especially the school-leavers, who will enter full-time education this autumn, and are in training for years of penury.

So, according to the three gap-year students in my group – Becky Rosenberg, Ollie Paul and Tom Kinnins – the answer to the questions are: yes; not necessarily; and yes. But you have to know a few tricks…

First, save valuable beer money by making up picnic lunches, which you can eat in the self-service restaurants – provided you sit amongst people who look as though they have paid for lunch. For ingredients, head to the supermarket Migros and its “M-budget” range in eye-catching green packaging. A 290g packet of ham, for example, costs £2.30.

Skier on the Attelas slope, Verbier, looking towards FontanetBuy in bulk and decant. A 1.5-litre bottle of sparkling mineral water costs 18p; a pack of six 1.5-litre bottles of own-brand cola costs £2.50, enough to fill 27 of the 33cl bottles they sell at the self-service. A giant bag of crisps weighing 350g (equivalent to 14 normal packets) costs £2.30.

The Co-op also has an equivalent range called Prix Garantie, easily identifiable in shocking pink packaging. A 100g table of chocolate, for example, costs from 27p; a 500g sack of cornflakes, 98p.

So much for student/ski bum cuisine. To wash it all down, head for the supermarket Denner, where a crate of Löwenbräu lager (24 half-litre cans) costs £16.50. You can get a bottle of Swiss red wine from £1.90 (for a Gamay), French red from £1.65, and a bottle marked “Vin blanc” that could have originated from anywhere on the planet for 98p.

When it comes to drinking out, our school-leavers recommend lateral thinking. Dance on the bar during après-ski at Farinet, and before long one of the bar staff will pour a shot into your month. Ollie recommends “minesweeping”, especially later on in the evening: with many punters buying beer in jugs, you will find that your glass tops up quite easily. Tom had a particularly good night on Saturday: he paid for one beer (£3.60) and ended up drinking 11.

Becky found that giving the barman a peck on the cheek got her a drink. She also recommends asking middle-aged men “when they’re quite drunk” – for a drink, that is, not a kiss. “It’s great,” she says, “they never say no.” Another hot tip from Will Scott, the tireless nightlife reporter for verbinet.com: buy bar staff a drink, and you’ll get it back in shots.

Instructor Charlie Tate (left) with trainee ski instructors, Verbier

Charlie Tate (left) with our group of trainees

I too have come across good deals – you just have to look for them. My favourite pit-stop up on the slopes, for example, is La Chotte de Grands-Plans, where you can eat a three-course set meal for £15, seated outdoors on sofas in front of a spectacular mountain view. Tacked on to the café is a long shed that in summer houses 160 cows in smaller cubicles; in winter, one of the cubicles becomes a ski-through bar, where for just £3 you can down a dose of cocktail named Tamiflu without even unclipping your skis (vodka, curaçao and grenadine, in case you were wondering).

Not that we have spent week three of our course just eating and drinking. We kicked off with a weekend of first-aid training (blog nine), followed by days of technique training with Charlie Tate, our new instructor. He drills us on our short-radius turns, having us ski down steep slopes in a narrow corridor at controlled speed, and has us work on our giant-slalom turns, doodling huge, carved twin-track Ss across the piste.

On a couple of days Charlie videos us, and we are all relieved to see that we are kicking some of our bad habits. In our upper-body posture, for example: Tom has stopped pumping his hands in and out, so that he can no longer be compared to a “camp and tipsy accordionist on a monoboard”. Will no longer skis with arms outstretched – although I will miss the sight of him sweeping across the piste like a high-speed alpine version of Rio’s statue of Christ the Redeemer. And I no longer appear to have a coat hanger stuck in my ski jacket, nor do I pump my arms up and down like a toy robot. Not all the time, anyway.

At one of the evening video-analysis sessions, Warren, the boss, gives us a pep talk. We now have just two more full weeks of tuition ahead. “You need to be super-intense about changing your skiing. You need an attitude of do or die: nail those bad habits, otherwise you’ll reinforce them. From now on, every single turn will count. In terms of ambition, it’s time to put a rocket up your backside.” Week four, here we come…

Snowboarder near Chalet Carlsberg, Attelas piste, with Mont Blanc in the distance

The views, of course, come for free