1914: The Cheese Fondue Settles in the Laurentians at Chalet Cochand

Chas Cochand
Chalet Cochand, 1914. Photo - Chas Cochand collection

--February 19, 2018.

larger_chalet_1914.jpg1911 was the year that Emile, born in 1890, escaped the small very rural village in the Canton of Vaud, Switzerland; embarking on the great adventure, a close to penniless immigrant. He had already distinguished himself as an athlete, now he was going to bring skiing to Ste. Agathe.

Skiing was not the rapid fire success story you might think. There were enthusiasts, and Emile was able to build a clientele of wealthy upper class afficionados.

As Emile prepared for Christmas in 1913, the ‘ski school’ had made a great deal of progress. With the help of the Montreal Ski Club and its president, Thomas Drummond, jumping competitions were organised on the slopes outside the village.

105.sm_.jpgThe Montreal Ski Club had been organising ski jumping events in Westmount since its inception and hosted the first Canadian Ski Jumping championships in 1909, and had all the right connections with other ski clubs.

It was in 1913 that Emile met someone who was to prove crucial to the future Chalet Cochand and the growth of skiing. Her name was Lea Berger, and she was a young Swiss girl on holiday in Ste. Agathe. She then came to Montreal to be a governess for children of a prominent family -- and spoke good English!

More importantly, Lea’s parents were in the restaurant business in Switzerland, at Sonveiler outside Bern, and Lea was a fine cook, a trained Cordon Bleu. It wasn’t long before they were married. Lea was to be the dearly loved and indispensable key to the struggling new ski industry. She was to draw the new skiing enthusiasts to ‘The Chalet’ by cherishing them with her food and establishing what was to become the Chalet Cochand.

Sadly, by summer of 1914, all Emile’s hard work was effectively eclipsed by the looming war. The Laurentide Inn was closed down and then taken over by the government.

Emile spoke to a friend called Jack Kerr who was secretary of the Montreal Ski Club about their problems and Jack had a small and remote property about two miles from Ste. Marguerite Station, which was one stop past Mont Rollond.

larger_chalet_-_erly_skiers.jpgNext door to Jack’s cottage there was a property of about 500 acres with a small summer cottage on it. The cottage had the essential screened veranda to keep out the voracious mosquitoes and black flies in the summer, and what is generously described as outdoor plumbing. It was very basic, was heated with a wood stove, and had no running water. It hadn’t really been built for winter use. There was also a small farm with a stable for the necessary horses.

Emile’s plan was to take up where he had left off at Ste. Agathe, and slowly build up a centre for winter sports. It meant starting again, cutting trails and talking to neighbours about fences. It also meant attracting the fast lane crowd of Montreal’s monied skiers. The first winter was diabolical. It was the first year of the war, and enormous numbers of young Canadians had joined up. If it hadn’t been for the continued support of Thomas Drummond and the Montreal Ski Club, who sent up some members to stay, and generated some cash; Emile and Lea would not have made it through the winter.

larger_img326.jpgIt was very hard with temperatures sometimes dropping to 40 below zero Fahrenheit, and the wood stove had to be kept burning almost continuously. Most of the food had to be bought in Lac Masson, the village some four miles away, and the journey there and back was complicated by the snow. The roads were ploughed by the farmers, each one doing his own stretch with a team of horses towing a wooden plough when they could. There was a daily mail service when the road was open , but life was demanding and with the road often closed, it was sometimes impossible to reach Lac Masson or the train station at Ste. Marguerite.

Despite the problems, Lea and Emile struggled on. There was no electricity, and the oil lamps had to be filled and cleaned every day. There was no running water, and Emile fetched all the water in pails from a brook at the back, breaking the ice each time with an axe. The water would be heated and a local woman who helped Lea would take the pail around the rooms offering hot water to the guests so they could wash in their basins. Conditions were little better than camping, and the young couple with the new baby were grateful for the presence of Jack Kerr, next door. The food, though simple, was very good, thanks to Lea’s skill.

larger_swiss_in_canada.jpgEmile had built up a good business relationship with Jules Laporte of Laporte Martin Import & Export Co., for the hotel’s food and requisites, and it was Jules who was able to source the all-important Gruyère cheese for the fondue. It became famous with guests, especially after a long day cross-country skiing.

The war situation didn’t improve. Yet, small groups still came up to Ste. Marguerite to ski with Emile and enjoy fondue with Lea which was so affordable to those skiing on a budget. The kitchen was Lea’s domain as master chef, and her most important role was to insure the guests came back time after time. By 1936, there would have been as many as 70 hungry skiers to feed in the evening and Lea had a staff of three or four to help.

Lea’s Swiss fondue was in Quebec to stay.

Chas Cochand grew up at the Chalet and remembers his grandparents Emile and Lea well, and loved the fondues. He now lives in the New Forest, Hampshire U.K., where he practices as a barrister, returning to the Laurentians every summer with his family.