France

Three-star chef Michel Bras up on the wildly beautiful Aubrac Plateau in Auvergne has always understood the importance of local, seasonal food. The restaurant (and dramatic hotel) are worth a special trip any time of year, but especially in early summer…

Amongst the chefs of la France profonde – as for its winegrowers – there’s much talk of terroir. It’s a holistic term that incorporates elements of the soil, the microclimate and the particular traditions of a region. High up in Haute Savoie, Auvergne, Jura and Haute Loire, menus revolve around locally grown foods, dishes are dictated by local climatic conditions, shaped by the seasons and by the history of the place.

Meat from rare breeds, locally hunted game, fish from the lakes and streams, wild mushrooms, forgotten vegetables and fruits, wild herbs and flowers, all are combined in a coherent, firmly grounded, thoroughly French programme. There may be talk of farming in crisis – even in France – but the link between the land and the cuisine of the regions is genuine and flourishing.

Michel Bras above Laguiole in the Massif Central was one of the first to understand and promote – discreetly and without fanfare – this concept of terroir. He made the move some years ago from the family inn in Laguiole to purpose-built hotel-restaurant high on the bleakly beautiful plateau of Aubrac, where his dream was to retrieve and revive the forgotten flavours of the simple dishes of his childhood. Modest and self-effacing – rare attributes among three-star chefs – Bras has always shunned publicity. Asked about the importance of local, regional, seasonal products, the chef commented simply: “c’est viscéral, c’est dans les tripes!” (“It’s fundamental, it’s in the guts”) For him this way of cooking has only ever been a modus vivendi, never “un gadget” (a gimmick). The philosophy has been wholly espoused and carried forward by his son Sébastien.

The ultra-modern hotel-restaurant is built entirely of local materials (basalt, granite, slate), reflecting the various elements of the windswept countryside into which it skilfully and discreetly blends. Huge windows command heart-stopping views of the surrounding meadows, carpeted in springtime with wild daffodils and narcissus, pulsatillas and pansies and enclosed by grey dry-stone walls. I love this wild and beautiful landscape, one which reminds me vividly of the Dales of my native Yorkshire. Two top tips for dining chez Bras: go now, in May, when the wild flowers are at their brilliant best, and go for lunch, so you get the views from the dining room.

Lunch also brings the advantage of a very fairly-priced menu (115 euros, weekdays wild pansiesonly), whose composition changes with the seasons. My first lunch there opened with a terrine of pigeon and foie gras set on a bed of erythronium leaves followed by a pavé (slab) of barely cooked salmon served with a riot of wild greenery (wild garlic and asparagus, fennel, sorrel and spinach) and set about with a selection of flowers from the meadows outside: wild pansies, cowslips and broom blossoms. Puddings also picked up on the wild food theme: one famous ice cream was based on meadowsweet (a plant gracefully known in French as reine des prés).

On another occasion, the lunch menu led with a sliver of warm, home-smoked mackerel braced by something deliciously crusty and set on a creamy puree of celeriac. A wafer-thin slice cut from a long thin (‘crapaudine’) beetroot lounged on top, and the whole creation was served dramatically on a black Laguiole slate. Sweetbread nuggets came next, with mangetout, wild garlic, purslane and flash-fried radishes complete with their greenery. A handful of green asparagus spears, sesame-crusted, were served with an olive oil emulsion. A piece of local Aubrac beef was accompanied – obligatory in these parts – by the famous aligot, a rib-sticking territorial dish consisting of puréed potatoes with lashings of fresh tomme, a local cheese which gives the dish a comfortingly bovine flavour and chewing-gum consistency.

Puddings pursued the local food theme laced with echoes of childhood: the ice creams based on meadowsweet were still present, as was one featuring caramelised brown breadcrumbs and walnuts. The only bum note was a dessert of gorgeously perfumed gariguette strawberries, which was let down by a weird base of something dangerously reminiscent of Sugar Puffs.

The staff, led by Madame Bras junior (wife of Sébastien), supplies all the warmth that the building conspicuously – and purposely – lacks. Michel Bras is a purist. Nothing – pictures, curtains, flowers – should interfere with either the food or the view. You may like or loathe the architecture, or indeed the cuisine, though you can’t fail to fall for the landscape. None will leave you indifferent.

Michel et Sébastien Bras
Route de l’Aubrac
12210 Laguiole
Tel. +33 (0)5 65 51 18 20      
www.bras.fr

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THE ANNUAL FUNGI FEAST IN ST BONNET LE FROID
[Originally published in FT Weekend]

All over France there are small towns and villages that have carved out a niche for themselves with a particular product or local speciality. Once a year the product takes centre stage with a market in its honour – Lautrec has its garlic, Sarlat its foie gras, Nyons is into olives, and almost anywhere has its very own sausage festival.

St Bonnet le Froid, a tiny village set on a plateau over 1000 metres above the Rhone valley, is tops for mushrooms. Surrounded by beech and pine forests, chestnut groves, grazing pastures and mossy banks it’s a fungi-forager’s paradise. Every year on the weekend following All Saints Day, the whole village gives itself over to a single-minded mushroom feast.

The origins of the Foire aux Champignons are lost somewhere back in the mists of the 19th century. As the autumn weather gave way to the first frosts and the mushroom harvest drew to a close, this second weekend in November was traditionally the date when people stocked up their store cupboards as whole teams of local collectors brought in heaped baskets and crates of fungi to be sold on the Place des Champignons. In 1995 the Foire took a great leap forward when Regis Marcon, chef-patron of the celebrated Auberge des Cimes in St Bonnet, fixed it with his steady gaze and took it under his wing. Have a look at Regis Marcon’s site here, for a great description of what’s involved.

Thanks to the combined efforts of Marcon and his fellow chefs in the village, André Chatelard and Thierry Guyot, the Foire has become an essential fixture on the French foodie calendar. The size and scope has broadened since the early days and the main street of St Bonnet, closed to traffic for the weekend, is lined with stalls and stands. On sale are sacks of walnuts and chestnuts, stacks of cheeses from neighbouring Auvergne, oysters from the Atlantic, braids of garlic and strings of sausages, as well as wine, wooden spinning tops, wicker baskets, fleece waistcoats and great, thick socks in hunting green – the last two just the ticket for the aptly named St Bonnet le Froid in November.

But the chief function of the market is still the sale of fresh and dried fungi. It gets underway at 6.30 on Saturday morning when trucks large and small take up position on the square by the church and the mushroom-sellers set out their wares. Given a good mushroom year, it’s an astonishing sight: great piles of stout ceps with fat stumpy stems and burnished brown caps; egg-yolk yellow chanterelles (above), their upturned gills resembling gothic fan vaulting; weird and wonderful yellow mushrooms called canaris and lurid blue ones that look distinctly dangerous; black and sinister trompettes de la mort (horns of plenty) and the infinitely desirable morels which look like tiny brown sponges. With your provisions assured for the next meal (or the winter ahead), you can wrap your chilled hands round a steaming bowl of soupe aux champignons, a rich broth stiff with ceps and fragrant with home-made stock.

In one marquee, the assembled chefs treat fungi-festlers to a lively demonstration of mushroom dishes which may range from a traditional velouté de champignons to a more adventurous monkfish creation wrapped in local cured ham with ceps, rounded off with a distinctly racy concoction of saffron milk caps with apples. Green-robed members of the Confrérie of lentil-lovers gravely exhort selected members of the public to swear undying loyalty to the noble Puy lentil, which has been dignified with its own Appellation Contrôlée.

In the nextdoor tent a competition gets underway for the best tarte aux champignons. On a rather different scale there’s a Guiness Book of Records bid for the biggest mushroom tart in the world. One year it measured a magnificent 4.5 metres across and its ingredients included 316 kilos of assorted fresh and dried wild mushrooms, tons of tomatoes, onions, garlic and thyme, some 6 litres of hazelnut oil and 80 fat little goats’ cheeses.

At midday we sat down to our menu champignons – the composition varies from year to year, but mushrooms are de rigueur. Between 600 and 700 lunches are served in three shifts between 11.30 and 2 p.m., prepared by the three chefs of the village. We were treated to a terrine of foie gras layered with potatoes and ceps with a handful of tiny autumn salad leaves, guinea fowl with a mushroom stuffing and spelt risotto, selected cheeses from the region and an unctuous ice cream made of goats’ milk served with a steamed chestnut sponge and a trickle of honey.

Talking to our table neighbours, we found that most were faithful pilgrims who visited the Foire every year from various parts of France, some from close by in the Haute Loire, others from the Rhone valley, Lot, Perigord, and Quercy. What distinguishes St Bonnet’s foire is that in spite of a growing reputation, and the endorsement of star chef Marcon, it remains a simple country fair, dedicated – in true French style – to fine products, good food and lots of fresh air and fun.

Where to eat, where to stay
Auberge et Clos des Cimes, St Bonnet le Froid, Tel. +33 471 59 93 72, www.regismarcon.fr
Restaurant André Chatelard, Place aux Champignons, St Bonnet le Froid, Tel. +33 471 59 96 09, www.restaurant-chatelard.com
Le Fort du Pré, St Bonnet le Froid, Tel.+33 471 59 91 83, www.le-fort-du-pre.fr

Fungi foraging
Ask at any of the hotels for dates of mushroom hunts with celebrated mycologist Gilles Liège

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PIERRE OTEIZA, CHAMPION CHARCUTIER

Not long ago, Pierre Oteiza, champion charcutier from the tiny Vallée des Aldudes in France’s deepest Pays Basque, threw a party. Nothing too startling there – the Basque people are no slouches when it comes to partying. But this was no ordinary shindig. Oteiza, aided by some 200 family members, friends and fellow farmers, was celebrating his promotion to the ranks of Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s award for outstanding achievement in military or civilian life. (The party began at 11 a.m. and finished at 2 the following day.)

Oteiza’s award was made on two counts. First came his unmatched Basque hams, sausages, pâtés and conserves, which famously accompany the French rugby team on tour – no post-match buffet is complete without an array of his exceptional produce, by special appointment to les Bleus. Selected products are also sold in high-class outlets Europe-wide, including London’s arch-foodie Borough Market.

The second reason for the award was Oteiza’s conservation work in saving a rare breed of pig – the small, floppy-eared, piebald cochon basque that’s indigenous to the area. Together with a group of local farmers in the Vallée des Aldudes, Oteiza founded the Basque Native Pig Breeders Association. Their aim was to lift the numbers of cochons basques out of their endangered zone and to restore the breed to its rightful place in the local farming economy, thus enabling young farmers to stay on the land and bringing much-needed employment to this small rural area.

I tracked down Oteiza in this unspoilt and remote corner of France. It’s a stunning area of undulating pastures punctuated by sparsely wooded, gently rolling hills with small mixed farms, some crops but mainly livestock – cows, sheep and pigs. You could be in deepest Devon, save for the dramatic backdrop of the Pyrenees, their tops snow-dusted in the autumn. The border with Spain is just visible at the end of the valley – Pamplona is barely 40km away.

On arrival we were invited to tag along with a group of visiting master butchers and their wives, climbing first to the wooded hillside behind the plant to see the pigs in their natural habitat, followed by a tour of the plant where the hams and sausages are salted, cured and dried. The visit would finish in the dining room behind the shop where there would be ‘something to taste’.

“We’ll start off in various vehicles”, explained Oteiza, “followed by a short climb on foot or, for those who prefer, using 4 x 4s” (with this he indicated, straight-faced, a couple of donkeys grazing peaceably nearby).

We soon spotted the small, hardy, pink and black pigs rootling about in the undergrowth and under the ferns, their floppy black ears draped over their eyes and snouts. The animals spend at least 8 months here, wandering their steep moorland pastures and scrubby forests, munching on acorns, beechmast and chestnuts.  Their hindquarters are tattooed with the number 64 (for the Pyrenées-Atlantiques département), the farmer’s ID number and the number of the week in which they were born. These marks remain with them throughout, enabling the finished hams to be traced right back to the live animal.

Back down in the valley we donned the regulation hairnets, overalls and galoshes, ready to acquaint ourselves with the ham-curing process. First the hindquarters are salted – one day for every kilo of weight. The hams are then scrubbed to remove excess salt and stored in a ventilated, chilled room for 6-8 weeks to stabilise and firm them up.

Next they spend up to 7 months suspended in serried ranks in a special room where the temperature is allowed to undergo quite wide fluctuations. (‘Are the hams fumés (smoked)?’ asked one of the butchers’ wives. ‘No, just parfumés (perfumed)’ quipped Oteiza, eyes twinkling beneath the obligatory hairnet.)

The final step is the drying, which takes place out in the fresh air but protected from the elements. ‘The warm wind that blows through the valley from Spain is vital to our hams and sausages’, explains Oteiza, ‘it gives them a distinctive flavour and helps to dry them out.’

Our appetites suitably whetted, we trooped into the dining room where trestle tables covered with brightly striped Basque tablecloths were laden with the promised ‘something to taste’: huge platters of wafer-thin, deep red Aldudes Valley ham, chunky slices of air-dried saucissons, plump ‘Jesus’ sausages (‘so wonderful you can only bend the knee before them’ according to one enthusiast), slivers of spicy chorizo and pâtés enriched with ceps or spiked with piquant Piment d’Espelette.

The local rosé wine flowed freely, baskets of crusty country bread were passed around. After a while we pushed back our chairs and folded our napkins. ‘What a superb lunch’, we said, preparing to shake hands all round and to offer profuse and heartfelt thanks. The assembled company of master butchers, their wives and our hosts looked on aghast at what they clearly construed as les Anglo-Saxons’ miserable appetites and premature departure. “But that was just the appetizer”, protested Monsieur Oteiza.

More platters of food were wheeled in, this time steaming roasts of Basque pork and haricot beans with lashings of red wine, followed by cheese. There was undoubtedly dessert, but our nerve and our appetites conclusively failed us. We retreated, reciting excuses, reiterating our thanks – and reflecting that whatever the reason for France’s exit from the Rugby World Cup, it certainly can’t have been due to any deficiency in their catering arrangements.

To order a Basque ham (around 7.5kg costing from €172.50), or a selection of Oteiza products, contact:
Pierre Oteiza,  64430 Les Aldudes, France
Tel. +33 (0)5 59 37 56 11
www.pierreoteiza.com

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BEURRE NOISETTE, PARIS 15

Ah, the neighbourhood Paris bistro – who doesn’t get dewy-eyed at the memory of menus written in purple ink, champignons à la grecque, chunky, garlicky terrines served straight from the chipped dish, slices of gigot d’agneau with the obligatory flageolets, boeuf bourguignon, gratin dauphinois, loads of people tightly pressed into a small, smoky space that was neither spacious nor gracious, lots of fun and good value for money.

Then something happened. Either it all got a bit jaded, or we all got more sophisticated – probably both. Bistros became boring. Enter la bistronomie, the French equivalent of gastro-pubbery, which has spawned a new generation of grownup bistros with crossover appeal. Often they’re owned by talented young chefs who have worked with the stars, grown weary of the lobster-foie gras-truffle treadmill and decided to go it alone.

Chef Thierry Blanqui at Le Beurre Noisette did just that. After working at chez Ledoyen with his friend and mentor Christian Le Squer, he struck out on his own in 2001 in this tiny, unprepossessing little place in the depths of Paris’s 15th arondissement – to say it’s not far from the Eiffel Tower is kind; in fact it’s perilously close to the Porte de Versailles.

Blanqui describes his food as ‘cuisine classique revisitée’. The dishes chalked up on the blackboard sound vaguely familiar but with a cheeky twist. A pied de porc is coaxed slowly and lovingly to gelatinous perfection, cooled and thinly sliced en carpaccio and comes trotting over a bed of lentils. Succulent, flash-fried jewels of St Jacques are poised on an emerald green lettuce emulsion and served with a crackly tuile studded with sesame seeds. A hunk of tuna that’s had a brief skirmish with a hot pan comes with lentils encore; a soothing, nurseryish brandade of smoked haddock with mashed potatoes, garlic and olive oil is crowned with a perfectly soft-poached egg.

For nibbling on pensively and for mopping up Blanqui’s intensely flavoured sauces there’s criminally good bread from nearby bakery le Grenier de Félix. Summery puddings include a millefeuille of aromatic Gariguette strawberries or a fresh dish of peaches poached in a tarragon-infused syrup. The classic rum baba is a year-round favourite.

There’s a small selection of intriguing rather than show-off wines (a white Côtes-du-Rhône from Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, a nervy Cheverny from Domaine Maison), some served by the glass, others available in half-litre bottles.

Service is good-natured and deft – it needs to be with only two people for the 38 covers in the two tiny dining rooms plus 8 more on the pavement. From their descriptions of today’s specials, you can tell that they’ve tasted them, enjoyed them and would like you to share the fun. In true bistro form you’re cheek by jowl with your fellow diners but – oh joy – since France has introduced (and rigorously enforces) a smoking ban, you can enjoy your neighbours (mainly French-speaking, some English/American accents heard) without having to endure their secondhand smoke.

Beurre Noisette has a Michelin red bib, indicating aspirational food at accessible prices. At lunch you can assemble your own two-course menu for around €22 from the blackboard; three courses will set you back barely €30. In the evenings there’s a 3-course dinner menu and a surprise menu. For this, you’re required simply to own up to any allergies and rule out any dislikes, tuck your napkin around your neck, put yourself in Thierry Blanqui’s capable hands and await your fate. There are worse ones.

Le Beurre Noisette
68, rue Vasco de Gama, 75015 Paris
Tel: +33 (0)1 48 56 82 49

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