I was interested to read in various papers recently about a man named Jean-Claude Baumgartner, who was jailed for more than two years last Friday for fraud.
Baumgartner was involved in at least two ski-related businesses, and in relation to one of them, the Satski – a GPS device for the slopes – he appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2010 and secured investment to the tune of £230,000 from Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis. You can watch his stint on the programme, nearly two years ago, here.
Baumgartner’s other venture, which he co-founded, was Picnics on the Piste. I met him in spring 2007 when I visited Val d’Isere with half a dozen other journalists, the main aim of the trip being to sample POTP’s services and write an article about it for the Sunday Telegraph. I remember him as publicity-savvy, talkative (with one of those “been all over the world” accents) and pleasant.
Before the article I wrote could be published, POTP folded, and today the company, like Satski Limited and one other where Baumgartner held a directorship, is listed by Companies House as dissolved.
So I never thought that binned article would see the light of day, but now, I suppose, it might hold minor interest. So with apologies that it’s not exactly a masterpiece, here it is, complete with a few snaps…
When the weather is fine enough to ski without long johns and a thermal vest I like to take a picnic up the mountain. Much as I enjoy eating tartiflette, Gulaschsuppe or salade savoyade at an alpine restaurant, there’s something satisfying and slightly intrepid about filling a rucksack with goodies from the supermarket and stopping for lunch whenever and wherever one likes.
In France, the core of my feast is usually a wedge of Beaufort or Comté cheese; in Austria pairs of Landjäger sausages; in Switzerland viande sêchée or, in one resort, raw Bratwurst sausages, to cook on wood fires the pisteurs light every morning in cow-sheds. Wherever I am, I carry a bar of whichever chocolate I’m addicted to that week (last spring’s favourite was red-packaged Lindt, which melts to exactly the right texture during a sunny morning’s skiing).
Jean-Claude Baumgartner poised to feed us in Val d'Isere
So finely have my usual skiing friends and I perfected the art of alpine picnicking that I was sceptical at first when I heard about a new company – launched last season in France – that delivers picnics to hungry skiers up the mountain. Could they assemble as tasty a spread as we can? Would it be expensive, compared to doing one’s own shopping? Would you have to book ages in advance, and be subject to the whims of the weather?
The company, Picnics on the Piste, was set up by two regular visitors to Val d’Isère: Englishman Mark Strachan and Dutch-French, Australian-based Jean-Claude Baumgartner. Their backgrounds are in computer games and marketing, but they are keen mountain picnickers – and determined characters, it seems, too, as they first had to take on the Val d’Isère commune in court after locals resisted their plans. “We found support as well as resistance, and we’re not really a threat to anyone because most of our customers only have a picnic once a week,” Baumgartner told me.
Last season, their “trial period”, POTP’s 20 staff served 2,000 picnics in Val d’Isère, Tignes, Méribel and Courchevel, 70 per cent of them to British guests, and to parties of up to 80 as well as small groups, couples and families. This season the service expands to Verbier, Val Thorens, La Tania, La Plagne, Les Arcs and St Anton.
A “green” picnic (picnics graduate to the ski-run colours of blue, red and black as you pay more), with hot soup, baguette, Babybel cheese, ham, fruit, crisps, chocolate and water, costs £9.99 per head. Supplies come from local firms – meat from a Val d’Isère butcher, general food from the wholesaler Cash Hotel 2000 and cakes from Maison Chevallot pâtisserie – although foreign produce, such as Cheddar, nevertheless creeps in.
Picnic-hands and their wares
We didn’t have the excuse of a corporate outing, birthday or marriage proposal (all of which Baumgartner’s customers have celebrated with a POTP), but we opted for the elite “black” picnic (£29.99 each), complete with table and chairs, Bollinger (£29.99 extra per bottle) and a skidoo ride to a scenic plateau away from the whizz and whirr of the ski area. Not a cloud had been spotted for weeks and the snow was turning to slush by midday, so we felt confident, first, that we’d be warm enough, and second, that we’d happily curtail our skiing day with a leisurely lunch.
We set out from beneath the Tommeuses chairlift, piloting the shiny skidoos ourselves after watching a cursory demo – luckily, driving was as easy as it looked – and dismounted a few minutes later next to a wooden picnic table (there was too little snow left for a dug-out “snow table”). Our waiters – cheerful young Antipodeans clad in black hoodies, combats and sunglasses – distributed plastic glasses of fizz.
Well, if you insist...
Picnics on the Piste’s off-piste lunch venue is a sensational spot, and one that few would come across unless they are brave enough to negotiate one of the couloirs above, named “les Oreilles de Mickey” after a radio mast on the ridge that resembles the cartoon mouse’s ears. As we squinted up in awe there was no action; just a few faded snowboard tracks. In the valley lies an expanse of deep turquoise – the dam, Lac du Chevril – and in the distance the hump of Mont Blanc. To one side are the slopes above Tignes Les Brévières and Les Boisses, the concrete of Lac de Tignes just peeking into view; to the other, the shoulder of Bellevarde and the more distant Solaise. What a contrast to elbowing one’s way among hordes of sweaty holidaymakers in the hunt for a space in a mountain restaurant.
We piled into firm, buttery foie gras, quiche, bunches of grapes and creamy patisserie and chocolates. Everything was cold, apart from soup and coffee, and of the “can’t go wrong” ilk – Camembert, smoked salmon, salami and a somewhat un-alpine Greek salad. It was a treat to picnic on delicate, squashable food that I wouldn’t normally risk or bother carrying; in fact, we ate so well that back at our base, Chalet Santons, we had no room for afternoon tea. I was impressed, too, that someone had thought to put a proper pepper-grinder on the table, although if I’d packed the hamper myself I’d have thrown in salad dressing as well.
We had our glasses filled and our mess cleared up, but picnickers who opt for piste-side delivery – meeting their meal at an accessible spot within the ski area – put their rubbish in a plastic bag (which can be worn like a rucksack) and take it to a bin.
What about the weather? POTP operates on the basis that there will be 50 days per season that are fine enough to eat in the open, and takes bookings until 10am so that clients can decide to picnic the same morning. Baumgartner and his crew also build igloos – for use during bad weather as well as for candlelit picnics – using a giant inflatable mould and a snow-blasting machine. Bizarrely, the structures have to be inspected and certified by the local fire-brigade.
A POTP is fun and convenient, but is it value for money? Well, yes and no. A green picnic comes cheaper than a soup, sandwich, crisps, chocolate bar, apple and drink at a self-service mountain restaurant, but dearer than at the local Spar. A black picnic is only marginally cheaper than a four-course lunch at the top-tier mountain restaurant La Fruitière, although POTP clients save on alcohol, with wine at £10 and Bollinger £30: La Fruitière’s cheapest wine is £14; its Champagne from £43.
For the black picnic, too, you could assemble most of the ingredients yourself from the shops for less money. But you’d struggle to carry it all morning, especially getting on and off Val’s super-swift chairlifts and squeezing into funiculars and telecabins, without bruising grapes, leaking soup or coffee, cracking plastic glasses and decimating those scrumptious Chevallot cakes.