When we think of holidays in France we usually think of a food and wine filled weekend in Paris, lounging around by the sea in Nice or Biarritz, maybe a Michelin-starred city break in Lyon, but unless you're an avid skiier the chances are you probably haven't considered venturing to the Savoie, just over the border from Switzerland at the base of the Alps.
Here you'll find Alpine towns like Grenoble, Annecy, and Aix-les-Bains (called the riviera of the Alps), and cuisines spanning French (from Burgundian escargot to juicy Côte de boeuf), Swiss (all the fondue) and Italian (freshly made pasta and pizza in every town - you'll be less than two hours from the Italian border everywhere you go). Here's where we went, and what we ate, on one of the best food trips we've ever taken...
We were based in the countryside (there's lots of it around here) and our closest town was Chambéry, a 15-minute drive away. It's a typically quaint French town, with loads of restaurants, shops and a market to pick up groceries, as well as museums and historical monuments, including the former home of the writer Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Marché Des Halles, Chambéry
The central market in Chambéry is open from 07:00 - 12:00 Tuesday - Saturday, and while not as sprawling as some city markets, it has everything you'll need for self-catering, including fresh French vegetables, meat, fish, terrines, and more local cheeses than you can imagine exist.
Boulangerie Hexagone, Chambéry
One thing you won't have to look far for in Chambéry (or France in general) is bread, pastries and patisserie. Bakeries seem to be on every corner, but we recommend a stop at the seven-day operation Bourlangerie Hexagone, for sandwiches on freshly baked bread, Marie-Antoinette brioche buns, and creamy tonka bean flans.
Don't miss "the Brexit" - ham, egg and cheese in a buttery croissant-type pastry, and the display cabinet is also filled with pizzas to eat in or take home. There are a few seats outside, and serviceable coffee if you want to sit and eat, and it's a great one to have in your back pocket if you haven't made a lunch reservation, because restaurants fill up fast around here and most will wave you away if you haven't booked in advance.
La Mezcla, Chambéry
Rustic bar and bistrot La Mezcla specialises in no fuss cooking at prices that can't be argued with. A set two course lunch is €18, with three courses €22, and the short menu isn't lacking in interest. We loved the cream of leek soup with two pieces of blue cheese flan sat in the middle, the "butcher's piece" steak with chips and mushroom sauce, and the chestnut and chocolate meringue for dessert.
Staff are charming and happy to speak English, the place is busy and buzzy, and the wines were good too. They don't have a website or online booking so call to make a reservation.
Things we were told about Italoria, the restaurant in the Hôtel L'Or du Temps, a 15 minute drive from Chambéry: "They don't take reservations." "Get there at 12pm or you won't get a table." We lucked out with a very dull and rainy day, so showing up delayed (and panicked) at 12:30 resulted in success, and much sighs of relief as we had no back up plan.
At only an hour and 20 minutes from Italy, at the base of the Bauges Massif, it's as close as you can get to the real deal without crossing the border. Fresh pasta, pizza, Roman pinsas, risotto, meat and fish dishes are all on the menu, with daily specials, and a deep-fried burrata salad that was a revelation - why have we never seen this before! Get the pinsa with minced beef and mustard cream, the fettucine with duck ragu, and a glass of Montepulciano to wash it all down.
Cedric Pernot @ Au Fidèle Berger, Chambéry
Part patisserie, part chocolate shop, part historical monument, Au Fidèle Berger is the oldest shop in Chambéry and has been a pastry shop since 1832. Pâtissier Cedric Pernot moved in in 2011, and his creations will have your head spinning from side to side from the second you walk in. Entrements, petit gâteaux, macarons, chocolates, pâte de fruits - if you don't walk out of here laden down with boxes and bags we'll be worried about you.
Les Caves Du Château, Chambéry
Chambéry has more quality wine shops than you'd expect in a town of its size, and local Savoie wines proudly take centre stage everywhere. Les Caves Du Château specialises in the natural variety (our favourite), and lovely staff are only too happy to tell you about their favourites. Try local white grapes Jacquère and Altesse, or the local red Mondeuse, or treat yourself to some grower Champagne at relatively (in comparison to Ireland) knockdown prices.
Le Fournil de Victor, Chambéry
A bakery on the outskirts of town that's worth getting in the queue for is Le Fournil de Victor, famous for Tarte Tatins, raspberry tarts and lemon meringue pies (in small and large versions), and you're going to want one of each.
Freshly baked bread is cut to order, and while savoury options are limited to quiche and rectangular tartes topped with lardons, onions, tomatoes and cheese, everything in here is achingly good, and you will definitely eat too much of it.
The "Riviera of the Alps", beautiful waterside town Aix-les-Bains sits alongside the Lac du Bourget, France's biggest natural lake. In summer the lake is a hive of swimming, sailing, rowing, wake surfing, boat trips, pedal boats and fishing, but all year you'll find Alpine walkers and cyclists taking in the fresh mountain air.
Le Philybert, Aix-les-Bains
There are no shortage of restaurants in the region serving 'specialités Savoyardes', and Le Philybert on the town's main road is one place to go if you want fondue, tartiflette (potatoes, lardons and local Reblochon cheese) and escargot de Bourgogne in garlic butter.
It's the only place we came across serving fondue for one (it's usually for two minimum), and it's also a steakhouse so expect burgers, beef tartare and a variety of meat cuts, from bavette to entrecôte. The outdoor seats are the ones to nab if the sun's shining.
Takeaway only (we discovered to our dismay, then quickly recovered when we tasted the food) Momo Maisonnette is the Vietnamese eatery in town. You'll find the dishes you love like Bun Cha, Pho and summer rolls, as well as ones you might not like Mi-Xao and Pho-Xao (both noodle dishes), and everything is prepared completely fresh in front of you, so there might be a bit of a wait. Less fast food, more slow food to eat on the go, and a perfect stop on the way to or from Geneva airport.
European Green Capital 2022, Grenoble has been described as an "exemplary metropolis", taking sustainability, respect for the environment and well-controlled development of the city very seriously. But apart from all of that, it's just a stunning place to walk around, with some seriously good food to boot. Don't miss taking the cable cars up to the Bastille for some of the best views imaginable - but skip the food up here.
L'Ardoise is that perfect bistro you fantasise about when you think about going to France. Customers talk animatedly in red leather-backed booths, the menus are all on blackboards, and the service is upbeat and trés efficient.
When it comes to the food? This was the best meal we had in France. We're still scratching our heads over how this bone marrow could taste infinitely better than any we've had before, how they can do a three-course lunch including a Côte de boeuf and chips for €36, and how they can make biscuit, pineapple jam and pear mousse look exactly like a real pear. L'Ardoise was faultless in our book, and if we'd had enough time there would have been a second, third, maybe a fourth visit.
Bonnat Chocolatier, Grenoble
Sometimes you just need a hot chocolate, and when the craving strikes head for Bonnat Chocolatier. Pick from 65%, 75% or 100% chocolate, with options to add Chartreuse liquor or Chantilly cream. One pot is easily big enough for two, and there's plenty of chocolate to take home as a souvenir.
Super Ravioli, Grenoble
If you're cooking in and need a break from traditional French food, head to Super Ravioli for freshly filled pastas, arancini and sauces, as well as Italian cheeses and charcuterie. The burrata and lemon stuffed mezza luna are the pasta to beat, but it's all good in here.
Maison Bochard, Grenoble
Chocolate shop Maison Bochard are famous for their chocolate covered mandarins and orange slices, but the choices of obscenely expensive chocolates and patisserie extend well beyond those two options. Saying that, you really don't want to skip those mandarins and orange slices, you'll be throwing your money at them for more.
Picture-perfect Annecy, often called "the Venice of France" because of its canals, seems to be kept secret by people who've visited - we had more than a few messages scolding us for broadcasting about it to the people of Ireland.
Dramatic mountains rise up behind Lake Annecy (famous for its ultra clean waters), it's a cyclist, hiker and water sport enthusiasts' dream, and we can't even begin to imagine how busy it gets here in the height of tourist season, so visiting off peak is definitely the way to go.
Ying Ba, Annecy
French and Vietnamese cuisine have longtime links since France occupied Vietnam in the 1800's, so expect to find much of each cuisine in the others' country. Sometimes in France you've had enough steak, terrines and soufflés and are in desperate need of something fresher and lighter, and that's where somewhere like Ying Ba comes in. Order your nem, pho or bun cha at a screen, take a buzzer, then wait till it goes off. It's fast, it's inexpensive, and it's one of the few place you won't need a reservation for lunch. Phew.
Par Faim Bio Glacier, Annecy
Annecy seems to have more ice-cream shops than people, but if you're looking for something a bit more pure, Par Faim Bio's ice-creams are organic and freshly made in front of you. Just pick your fruit, pick your size and the owner will turn it into a refreshing cold dessert as if by magic. These are definitely more on the sorbet than the creamy side, but if it's the latter you're looking for...
Les Glacier des Alpes, Annecy
This ice-cream hatch on one of Annecy's medieval streets wasn't just the best ice-cream we tried in France, it's some of the best ice-cream we've tried ever. We dove on it and devoured it so fast we forgot to take a picture, and then had to go back up and order more (and forgot to take a picture of that too, we were practically hypnotised at that point). Chocolate, salted caramel, mango - it was all better than ice-cream should legally be allowed to taste, and if you visit one place in Annecy make it this one.
We found flights for around €130 per person via Aer Lingus to Geneva and drove from there, but Swiss fly there too and can be cheaper depending on the dates. Another option is to fly to Lyon and cram in a few Michelin-starred lunches and dinners - which doesn't sound like a bad alternative.