Experience Auvergne, France – Culinary delights of an ancient volcanic land by Chris Zacharia
‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it’ is a good philosophy, especially when it comes to food. But right now I’m having a hard time. In front of me is a slice of L’artisou cheese, whose ‘special flavour’ comes from an edible crust filled with live microscopic spiders. Snails I was expecting, but spiders? Auvergne food has a few surprises.
Standing in a bustling French market, with the cheesemonger eyeing me expectantly, I have no choice – without betraying my doubts, I take a bite of the arachnid-filled cheese. An acidic, tangy flavour, subtle and waxy, engulfs my mouth. It’s good. Bon, I declare, reaching for another piece.
I’m in the Auvergne, a mountainous region of France where, even by the impossibly high standards of the French, the locals eat very well. I’m here in search of culinary delights. From highbrow flourishes of cheffy excellence to the kind of hearty peasant fare which makes you long for the olden days, the Auvergne and Auvergne food in particular has a great deal to offer for those willing to explore. There are many good reasons to travel, but food is surely one of the best.
After my tempestuous encounter with the legendary spider-cheese, I explore the rest of Le Puy-en-Velay’s Saturday market. Judging by its liveliness, food culture in the Auvergne is thriving. The bustling, picturesque squares throng with shoppers, chatting away with vendors, comparing the produce on offer, catching up on the local news. Aside from the plentiful fromages – the Auvergne has four P.D.O.-designated cheeses alone – there’s artisanal honey, fresh vegetables and handmade saucisson. It feels intimate, homely, somehow insulated from the tumult of the wider world.
Le Puy is more than just a market town. An important religious centre and point of pilgrimage, it carries far more significance than a population of 20,000 might suggest. Like many French towns, its past has been meticulously preserved, allowing us visitors a captivating glimpse of the country’s mysterious past. From atop an enormous volcanic neck sits a striking twelfth-century chapel, Saint Michel d’Aighiule, towering over the city as in a fairytale. Less than a mile away stands a bright red iron statue of the Virgin Mary, made from melted cannons seized from the Russians during the Crimean War. Together, the twin peaks of chapel and statue watch over Le Puy, forming one of France’s most striking skylines.
If that sounds foreboding, the town is anything but – charming, lively, and buoyant, Le Puy is both well-kept and down to earth. Tradition is important. On the weekend of my visit, the town is preparing for its annual Renaissance fair, the streets garlanded with bunting, the piazzas bracketed by ancestral flags.
Famished from our tour of the town, we visit Tournaye, the kind of neighbourhood restaurant everyone wishes was down the end of their road. Housed in a former chapel, our guide Thomas announces that it is his favourite in the region; big words in this part of the world. A compact menu displays consistent flair, with each dish giving off the air of a champion, as if having fended off countless contenders to secure its place. Amuse-bouche of cherry tomatoes served glazed in sugar and sesame seeds, like grown-up toffee apples, and sea-salt seafood macaroons, hit all the pleasure centres at once.
Meanwhile, langoustines with trompettes (dark, long-stemmed mushrooms with an irresistible nutty flavour) and a tender, yielding poached egg is wonderful. Typically, it’s predicated on a handful of simple ingredients, intelligently united, to form a far more complex and satisfying whole. An Auvergne cheese wagon, groaning under the weight of several wheels of Blue d’Auvergne, Petit Basque and Saint Nectaire, ends the meal on a high note that has us vowing to return.
We abandon the comfortable environs of Le Puy for the unforgiving mountains. Driving away from the town, the horizon is repeatedly interrupted by enormous volcanic domes, whose eruptions (though long past) have shaped the region irrevocably. Volcanic activity has enriched the soil, helping to explain the Auvergne’s unusually impressive harvest. It owes its larder to the harsh volcanic landscape. Puy lentils, the town’s most famous culinary export, rely on the richness of the volcanic soils for their unique peppery flavour. Known as the ‘caviar of the poor’, Puy lentils are a staple of both traditional peasant fare and cutting-edge fine dining, and you can’t get far here without seeing a humble sack for sale. And it’s not just the food. Auvergne wine also draws its character from the distinctive terroir. Volcanic soil and basalt in the vineyards brings a spicy, lean style, clean and refreshing.
We travel to the top of the highest volcanic peak, Puy de Dôme, for centuries a site of spiritual significance. The ruins of a Gallo-Roman temple, dedicated to the god Mercury, loom large against the granite sky, giving the summit an ancient grandeur. From here, you can see dozens of broad-shouldered volcanic mounds accenting the horizon, physical manifestations of prehistoric chaos. Dominated by its untamed volcanic landscape, the Auvergne is one of the most sparsely-populated areas in Europe. There’s a sense of remoteness here, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.
Perhaps it’s because of its wild, rugged terrain that the Auvergne feels so isolated. And yet it’s a region disproportionately well-represented in France. You can quickly see why. Every village, it seems, possesses a clutch of restaurants of which any global metropolis would be justly proud. Entire communities seem devoted to elevating the art and science of cooking to new heights.
Take Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, a tiny commune of just 200 people, over one thousand metres above sea-level, which also happens to be home to Regis et Jacques Marcon, a three-Michelin star restaurant. We visit La Coulemelle, the Marcons’ bistrot, which even on this Thursday lunchtime is full. A seasonal menu makes the most of the Auvergne’s star-studded hamper, especially with wild mushrooms – the name La Coulemelle refers to a favourite fungus – which find their natural home in several dishes here, either as the main attraction or as a limelight-stealing sidekick.
Escargot are another foraged ingredient elevated by some clever touches. Served in what the menu calls a biscuit, a cake-like bread with the texture of good brioche, the snails are baked within the bread, forming little whirlpools of rich savoury pleasure. They have a surprisingly meaty texture, with the tenderness of scallops and the bite of king prawn. Later, there’s a creative incarnation of veal, an impossibly rich and creamy white bean soup, and a chocolate mousse with sugar glass which easily surpasses every previous incarnation of mousse I’ve yet come across. Despite the undeniable flair on display, La Coulemelle is an unassuming, straightforward place, with a convivial atmosphere forged from the happy conversations of contented regulars.
This relaxed approach to food, as far as possible from the legendary pretensions that surround French cuisine, is evident even in the Auvergne’s most celebrated restaurants. Le Pré, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the outskirts of regional capital Clermont-Ferrand, brings together audacious culinary flourishes with an unaffected atmosphere. A minimalist decor reminds you that the focus here is purely on the food. Rightly so: the lunchtime set-menu is a parade of complex, confident dishes transforming locally-sourced trout roe, pigs’ trotters and delicate cod into dishes that are intelligent, articulate and utterly irresistible. Best of all is a dish centred on an immaculately soft organic poached egg with local hand-picked mushrooms, paired with smoked mash potatoes (culinary revelation of the trip?) and a colourful supporting cast of aubergine, mint, Marigold, and tangerine. It’s the kind of dish which has everyone talking, prodding, debating. Each forkful is unique, pirouetting right across the spectrum of sweet and savoury.
Fittingly, Michelin itself – the tyre company synonymous with exceptional food – is based right here in Clermont-Ferrand. Having never properly understood the improbable connection between the immortal food guide and the Michelin man, I make my way to L’Aventure Michelin, a state-of-the-art exhibition about the town’s most successful business. Their restaurant guide , a stroke of marketing genius, is characteristic of Michelin, who grasped the power of branding way ahead of their time.
Despite masterminding several key innovations in the development of the tyre, Michelin quickly realised that people still weren’t buying enough of them. So they set about improving the driving experience in every way imaginable, from providing the very first road signs, labelling and naming the fledgling roads of France, to producing the first non-military map of the country. Creating guides, including its famed list of outstanding restaurants, was just one part of this strategy. The more people drove to places, the more they would use up their tyres. Beautifully simple, Michelin’s far-sighted plan enabled them to prosper. The exhibition itself is impressive. Filled with a whole variety of beautifully preserved vehicles dating from the early 20th-century, it’s an engaging anthology of mechanical ingenuity, full of surprises. It’s the perfect way to work off a few of the excess calories which have undoubtedly been taking their toll.
Eager to experience the untouched splendour of the countryside, I spend my final morning exploring the stunning villages which surround Clermont-Ferrand. A good number of them are included in the prestigious ‘Prettiest Villages in France’ list. One such village, Montpeyroux – literally ‘stony-hill’ – is about fifteen minutes from Clermont-Ferrand, and yet a whole world away. Constructed entirely from characteristic averose stone, each and every building in the commune contributes to a sublime consistency. Sitting fortress-like atop a mountain, the views of the fields below take you by surprise; turning the corner of a narrow street suddenly brings you face-to-face with the undulating hills and yawning valleys of the surrounding countryside, sloping unevenly like pie crust in the golden sunshine.
During our final evening, we eat at Auberge de la Moréno, a family-owned former farm dating from the 19th century. Cosy, warm and convivial, the farmhouse is an excellent place to relax after a long walk and enjoy a well-deserved meal. The lava fire-place is roaring, delicious smells of roasted meat waft in from the kitchen, and the staff have that telltale familiarity with the locals. Enormous portions of hearty, traditional fare are the specialty. There’s pounti, a savoury prune cake with cured ham and spinach; potée auvergnate, a rich pork and potato stew, and pig’s trotters with truffade, a velvety potato bake. As we wind down with a local hazelnut digestif, sated and happy, the owners come and sit around our table, sharing their stories. This togetherness, this fellowship of food, is what I came to the Auvergne for, proving that good food is can bridge cultures and bring people together. Even when it’s filled with microscopic spiders.
For more information about visiting the Auvergne, visit www.auvergne-tourism.com
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Auvergne Food France – Culinary delights of an ancient land by Chris Zacharia