Opening a bottle with… Angela Hartnett

The British Michelin-star chef running an Italian restaurant in the French Alps

angela hartnett
(Jeremy Wilson)
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Quizzed on how to assimilate to new cultures, travel writer and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once said: “Drink heavily with locals whenever possible.” The “Opening a bottle with…” series is about getting pickled with people far cooler than I am, in new places.

To me, booking a ski trip at the start of the year is the ultimate luxury. With my birthday falling on the first of January, when the ball drops, I feel a sense of melancholy. As hangovers descend and diets begin, I want to carry on celebrating. 

In European ski resorts, they keep the festivities…

Quizzed on how to assimilate to new cultures, travel writer and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once said: “Drink heavily with locals whenever possible.” The “Opening a bottle with…” series is about getting pickled with people far cooler than I am, in new places.

To me, booking a ski trip at the start of the year is the ultimate luxury. With my birthday falling on the first of January, when the ball drops, I feel a sense of melancholy. As hangovers descend and diets begin, I want to carry on celebrating. 

In European ski resorts, they keep the festivities going well into March. Christmas lights and religious displays stay twinkling. Fresh snow combats the winter blues. Everyone’s happy to share a bottle of good wine. Instead of tearing the tree down and starting a strict new routine, I dream of powder days and indulgent nights. This year, I booked the ticket, taking aim for Portetta in Courchevel Moriond, France.

(Jeremy Wilson)

Seconds from the Ariondaz gondola, the ski-in, ski-out mountain retreat offers thirty cozy rooms — and six expansive suites — in which to hunker down with a cheese plate and ignore your emails. But its star feature is Cucina Angelina, an Italian restaurant led by treasured British chef Angela Hartnett. 

I grabbed five minutes with her in between plating up orecchiette, côte de bœuf and sole meunière. Sommelier Florian Duarte took care of the drinks, suggesting Savoie wines, Grimbergen beer or an Aperol Spritz.

“I think my ideas about cooking are simple and come across quite naturally. It’s slightly odd to have an Italian restaurant in the French Alps but of course, we do French classics as well!”

Angela Hartnett in the HH&Co Backstage Kitchen (Jeremy Wilson)

Like me, Angela was born just outside of London. But “la cucina” is in her blood — growing up, she mastered her family’s recipes with her Italian grandmother by her side. “I’m still making the pasta the way my grandmother taught me. I might have tweaked how we do it, but everything I know about simplicity and using ingredients at the right time of year, I learned from her.”

Angela was in Courchevel to oversee her monthly pop-up, bringing over a handful of star dishes from Hartnett Holder & Co. in Hampshire, England. For ten years, she’s run the excellent Italian restaurant within Portetta’s sister hotel Lime Wood alongside Luke Holder. During our interview last year, the affable Mancunian recalled straightening his tie to meet Hartnett a decade ago, in central London — where they ate.

“We went to four different restaurants in Soho to explore cooking styles, and decide if we were a good match. That worked out well,” Angela recalled.

Their characterful restaurant is beloved for iconic dishes like black truffle polenta agnolotti and baked bream, now available in Courchevel throughout the season. Cucina Angelina classics spanning Cappellacci (pumpkin ravioli) with sage butter and amaretti, and Merluzzo (roasted cod) with clams, cannellini and parsley, revive hungry skiers.

(Jeremy Wilson)

Soon after his appointment at Lime Wood, Holder’s signature polenta ravioli with truffle and artichoke became a Harnett Holder & Co staple. Was there a particular dish Harnett wanted to mirror at Portetta? “Definitely the polenta ravioli!  We do a lovely spinach and wild herb tortelli, with this lovely wild pesto. There’s the sausage ragu with nduja. Of course, the pastas.”

I asked which dishes give her pleasure to put together. “I love making something like a parfait or a chicken country pâté. I love the fact that we can do a beef bourguignon. I like making the dishes I don’t necessarily do in the UK.”

For a few precious days, my biggest challenge was choosing between braised beef cheek and gnocchi with game ragout. I wondered whether making Italian food up a French mountain brings its own problems.

“Nothing major. There are lots of similarities in the foods — especially looking at the south and north border. Of course getting certain things up a mountain can be hard logistically sometimes, but I’d say that’s the main thing!

“We use stuff we can get hold of, nothing that’s not in season or not available — for instance, we wouldn’t import cheeses from the UK. We use all the local French cheeses for the boards. Of course we get parmesan in, but delicious local French produce is best.”

Is there a particular technique or ingredient she’s enjoyed using most?

“I like Espelette pepper. It’s a nice little French pepper; I always end up using it for crudos and carpaccio. I’ve got it in our French chicken dish — it makes it nice and spicy.”

When the kitchen closes, the team occasionally gets out into town. “There are some lovely little local restaurants in Courchevel. I tend to have things like fondue, raclette — the really local dishes.”

The hotel’s décor is completely charming; rustic medicine cabinets shipped over from India look gorgeous alongside vintage ice skate sharpeners. Large fires crackle while cocktails are shaken at the stylish long bar. Angela explained the vision for Portetta.

Photo by Jeremy Wilson

“We want it to be somewhere people can come, and have that ‘home from home’ feeling. Skiing is obviously about the physical side, but it’s as much about where you are staying. Our menu changes so frequently, people come back every day for lunch and dinner.” 

Angela’s personal taste proved predictably expansive.

“I like Asian food. Japanese. If you’re going somewhere like Japan, make sure you get lots of recommendations, because everything changes so quickly. I went a couple of years back but already my tips would be out of date.

“When I go to Italy I always come back with new ideas. New York City is fantastic, always a great place to eat. The same with California and San Francisco!”

(Jeremy Wilson)

I quizzed her on a recent meal that truly stood out.

“I love Moor Hall, in West Lancashire. I recently went there for the first time and thought it was really brilliant, a great place. It’s got two [Michelin] stars, they’re growing everything from the garden, making everything themselves. Mark Birchall is a talented chef, he worked under Simon Rogan [British farm-to-fork pioneer] for many years.”

Angela’s simple, honest food has earned her Michelin nods and an MBE, a British honor awarded by the king or queen for outstanding achievement in their field. Her parting advice to novice cooks?

“Don’t try and be too clever. Keep it simple and seasonal.

“The thing I don’t think we don’t get right in the UK is tomatoes. Everyone is always talking about UK tomatoes, but you need the sun. 

“I saw a television advert back home saying ‘we’re dropping the price of our strawberries.’ Why are there strawberries in the UK in January? They shouldn’t be there. Cook for the season and half the job’s done.”

Perhaps I’ll embrace winter and switch birthday cake for apple tart tartin every year. January wasn’t so bad, after all.

Amy was a guest of Portetta.

Seven nights at Le Portetta including dinner, bed & breakfast start from £4,263, based on 2 adults in a Valley View Double Room. Self-catered Lofts start from £12,173 including bed & breakfast for up to eight guests. Book with www.i-escape.com. Last-minute escapes between 17th-24th February receive 20 percent off. No minimum stay required.