Christmas in the Alps
The French don't ski. They play les sports d'hiver. And winter sports can mean anything from a leisurely slalomwith frequent stops for hot chocolate and fondueto an afternoon of strenuous boutique-hopping. Few places on earth provide a playground as beautiful as Megève in the French Alps.
A town of narrow, cobblestoned lanes in the mountainous Savoy farming region near the Swiss and Italian borders, Megève retains a small-town feel even during the holiday season. In December some of the 5,000 full-time residents, many of them farmers,work as ski instructors or give sleigh rides. In the 1950s, the winter population of movie stars, artists, European royalty and politicians earned Megève the nickname of Paris's "21st arrondissement." Although the town fell out of fashion in the 1960s and '70s as vast concrete resorts sprang up all over the Alps, it is enjoying a comeback. Playing an important role in the resurgence are Jocelyne and Jean-Louis Sibuet, owners of four of Megève's most exquisite resorts (Au Coin du Feu, Les Fermes de Marie, Hôtel Mont-Blanc and Le Lodge Park) and a growing mini empire of properties throughout France that have become known for their food. The Cour des Loges in Lyon, for instance, has a Michelin star.
Having spent most of the year preparing to launch Villa Marie in St. Tropez, the Sibuets are spending this Christmas in their chalet on the grounds of Les Fermes de Marie with their two children, 15-year-old Marie and 19-year-old Nicolas, Jean-Louis's parents and a few close friends. The Sibuets, who both grew up in Savoy, opened Les Fermes de Marie 14 years ago. The resort was one of the couple's earliest projects and probably the craziest. To create the hotela collection of eight wooden, Swiss-style chalets with shingled roofsJean-Louis bought run-down farmhouses and barns, disassembled them, numbered every piece of wood and had them rebuilt over concrete frames. "A month before we opened, one of the chalets still hadn't been built. The stress was terrible," Jocelyne remembers. Although both Sibuets come from families of hoteliers, Jocelyne had decided she wanted nothing to do with the hotel industry, until she met Jean-Louis: "I realized that if I didn't work with him, I'd never see him." Inspired by her father, a chef, she's even done a stint as a cook at one of the properties, to understand how a professional kitchen works.
At Les Fermes de Marie, Jocelyne's idiosyncratic approach to luxury is evident. She picked everything, from the cushions made from fabric used for hunters' breeches and monks' robesa specialty of the Savoy regionto the imposing, unexpectedly humorous oil portraits in the dining room, most of which she found at antiques fairs. "People ask if they're family members, and they're not. But I wouldn't take them down. I think they're part of the essence of the hotel," Jocelyne says. A painter herself, she's hung a few of her own art naïf works on the walls and used some as menu-cover designs for the restaurant.
For the family's own chalet on the resort property, Jocelyne maintained the same rustic style, filling the bedrooms and common areas with antique wooden farmhouse-style furniture pieces. The beaded-glass chandelier in the dining room adds a glamorous counterpoint and casts a soft glow that brings out the rich tones in the aged wood.
As they sip glasses of vin de pays from their vineyard in Lubéron and wait for dinner, the Sibuets enjoy the chance to relax. "We used to spend every Christmas in the hotel. Now we can finally take a step back," Jocelyne says. They've left the plans for this Christmas dinner to Les Fermes de Marie's chef, Christophe Côte. Côte has put together a menu of classic and modern French dishesall easy to prepare but luxuriouswith many of the ingredients coming from Savoy farmers. He transforms a simple-sounding roast chicken into a spectacular holiday main course by rubbing it under the skin with tarragon butter to create a superbly moist, plump, glistening bird, and serving a rich sauté of chestnuts, bacon and red grapes alongside. Côte tops his oven-roasted beef filet with an earthy ragout of morel mushrooms, sautéed whole with shallots and crème fraîche. The side dish is a riff on a traditional Savoyard gratin, typically made with potatoes but updated here with sweet butternut squash and nutty, melted Gruyère cheese. For dessert, he bakes apples in individual crusts, the pastry shaped to match the contours of the fruitcomplete with leaves and cinnamon-stick stemsand pairs them with a tangy plum compote, flavored with Armagnac.
Over dinner, the talk inevitably turns to hotels. Nicolas plans to pursue a career in the hotel business; Marielike her mother before herinsists that she doesn't want anything to do with the industry. As for Jocelyne and Jean-Louis, they're already brainstorming about their next project: "We'd like to open a resort abroad this time," Jocelyne says. "But I need a rest first." Luckily, Les Fermes de Marie has an excellent spa, La Ferme de Beauté, offering treatments like stone-therapy massage and an exfoliating scrub of brown sugar and semiprecious stones. But after dinner, the Sibuets have an even simpler option: a long soak in the outdoor hot tub.
Rosa Jackson is the editor of the TimeOut Paris Eating and Drinking Guide.