For a majority of French people, and even more so for foreign visitors, the Auvergne region remains somewhat of a mystery. Although it is surrounded by some of the most touristic areas of France (the Loire, the Dordogne, Burgundy and the Rhone valley leading to Provence), we seldom run into people who have made Auvergne their destination. On the other hand, we often hear how motorists make a point of avoiding the area by driving around it rather than attempting the infamous are-we-there-yet Lyon to Périgueux challenge. What Auvergne loses in accessibility is greatly balanced by its charm and authenticity.
It's the geography, stupid! It is hard to temper with nature, especially when it takes the shape of this old, volcanic Massif Central. The central mountains of France do not rival with the Alps or the Pyrenees height wise but proved to be harder to tame for road and railroad engineers. As a result of this isolation, Auvergne is arguably the most rural area of France. There is a tendency to think that Auvergne actually covers the whole Massif Central: historically, it was only composed of Puy de Dome, Cantal and a small part of Haute-Loire; from an administrative standpoint, it now includes all of Haute-Loire and Allier; but, in their hearts, many inhabitants of Eastern Corrèze, Northern Aveyron, Lozère, Ardèche and Loire feel closer to Auvergne than to their respective administrative regions. Sentimentally, this Auvergne is quite large. The geography is also quite varied. The Limagne, shaped like a fennel, is one of the lowest, flattest and most fertile alluvial valleys of Europe: farmers cultivate cereals, beets, excellent fruits and vegetables, even some of the oldest vineyards of France, around Saint-Pourçain sur Sioule. To the West, steep hills with rounded summits are covered with deep forests or lush pastures. Rivers carve their way toward the Atlantic. To the East, the hills become mountains, topped by over 80 volcanoes, reaching heights over 6000 feet. In winter, the Mont-Dore is a popular rendezvous for skiers; in summer, hikers marvel at the sight of the well-preserved craters, the deep lakes, and the 100-year old oak forests. Because of this volcanic activity, Auvergne provides half of the thermal spas in France, Vichy being the most famous "ville d'eaux". Lava rock has also been used to decorate buildings; sometimes, virtually entire villages were built with black lava. Ten villages of Auvergne have been designated as "most beautiful villages of France". La Route des Châteaux showcases fifty of the most interesting castles of Auvergne, from fortresses perched on top of volcanic promontories to leisure manor houses nestled in the bocage bourbonnais. And stunning examples of Romanesque architecture can be seen in over one hundred churches.
A self-sustaining region. Because of the remoteness of the area, the long cold winters and the topography of the land, the Auvergnat people long had to exist on food and other resources that could be found within walking distance of their door. Poor soil and inclement weather did not help either. Although one could usually vary from ordinary fare by fishing trout, hunting rabbits, gathering mushrooms, fraises des bois and blueberries, the farmers' wives had to make sure that meals were sustaining enough to "stick to the ribs" of hard-working men. Even today, cuisine auvergnate continues to focus on simple, rustic food: nothing fancy, only big authentic taste. Livestock has to be hardy and weather-resistant; Charolais beef is raised for its superior meat while the Salers cows give plenty of milk for cheese making; sheep can graze on sparse land and provide meat, milk and wool; just about every house raises at least one pig since they are so undemanding and every part can be used in charcuterie ("dans le cochon, tout est bon"). In fact, Auvergne is quite renowned for the quality of its pork products: the crisp mountain air is perfect for drying whole hams and cure sausages. Most of the classic recipes indeed combine pork with two staples from the garden: cabbage and potatoes. Soupe au Chou is made with cabbage, raw ham (and the bone), potatoes, lard and thick slices of country bread. Potée Auvergnate includes cabbage and potatoes, but also leeks, carrots, turnips and pork meat (ideally, the diced head of a pig). Tiny green lentils from Le Puy, grown on volcanic soil, have a distinctive and refined flavor; they hold their shape very well when they cook and are used in the famous Petit Salé aux Lentilles where they are paired with a lean piece of pork belly and a fattier cut of salted pork. Other specialties include Tripoux, little bundles of tripe and sheep feet; Mourtayrol, a saffron-flavored meat stew; Pounti, an egg and vegetable pudding that also includes prunes and left-over pork; Gigot Brayaude, a leg of lamb cooked with onions, potatoes, lardons and white wine; Aligot, an unctuous blend of mashed potatoes, garlic and the fresh curds used in making Cantal cheese, usually accompanied by grilled, fresh sausages.
Big wheels of cheese. Cantal is only one of several cheeses made in Auvergne. Traditionally, the cattle is driven from their winter quarters to the lush mountain pastures at the end of May and brought back down in the middle of October. The festive occasion is called "transhumance". During the summer months, the cows graze on flavorful grass and herbs, and produce a milk that tastes of mountain flowers; the shepherds live in "burons", the gray stone huts where the cheese is made and aged. The wheels can weight up to 110 Lbs. Several styles of cantal (a pressed, uncooked cheese) can be found on the market, depending on how long it was aged: 30 day for doux, two to six months for entre-deux, over six months for vieux. Salers, the fermier version of cantal, is made with raw, whole summer milk; cantal is made from the milk of other seasons. Laguiole (the cheese, not the knife) shares the same method of production as cantal and is aged at least four months. Saint-Nectaire has a grayish-purple rind with dots and stains of natural molds; its semi-hard pâte, uncooked and pressed, has a silky texture; the 3.5 Lb. disks are aged on rye straw for six weeks. Fourme d'Ambert, made with cow milk, is one of the mildest of all the blue cheeses; buttery and unctuous, it has an almost fruity flavor and the slightly musty aroma of the cellars where it is aged, usually for a couple of months. Bleu d'Auvergne is another blue cheese from raw or pasteurized cow milk, with a sticky, moist, crumbly pâte and a sharp flavor; the small ones (2.2 Lbs.) are aged two weeks, the large ones (4.4 to 6.6 Lbs.) four weeks.
Fromage et dessert. To finish on a sweet note, your host in Auvergne might serve you a blueberry or prune tart, a walnut cake or a chestnut flan. Other local pastries include Cadet-Mathieu, a thick apple pie flavored with orange-blossom water; Millard, the Auvergnat version of cherry clafoutis, is sometimes made with grapes; it is called Pachade when red currents or plums are used instead; Bourrioles are sweet crêpes made with rye flour; Pompe is like a huge chausson aux pommes, where apple marmalade and apple slices are encased in golden puff pastry; Fouasse is somewhat similar to a brioche and is often studded with pieces of candied fruits. Pâtes de fruits, candied fruits, preserves and jellies are specialties of the area; honeys are excellent and many people feel that pain d'épice made in Auvergne is exceptionally moist and tasty. Fruits and herbs are also distilled or infused to produce eaux-de-vie, apéritifs or digestifs. And for those who do not wish to end their meal with a glass of plum brandy or walnut ratafia, how about a warm cup of verveine tea? The wonderful wild herbs and flowers that the cows find so appealing are gathered and dried to find uses in medicine, cooking and tisanes. Another way to toast "A votre Santé"!
Our recipes from Auvergne:
Walnuts with Roquefort-Noix au Roquefort
Cheese Soup-Soupe au Fromage
Chicken Breast stuffed with Roquefort-Paillards de Poulet fourrés au Roquefort
Leg of Lamb à l'Auvergnate-Gigot Brayaude
Pork Shoulder with Green Lentils-Palette à la Paysanne
Turkey stuffed with Chestnuts-Dinde farcie aux Marrons
Green Lentils à l'Auvergnate-Lentilles à l'Auvergnate
Apple Pastry from Auvergne-Pompe aux Pommes
Chestnut Mousse-Mousse aux Marrons
Mont Blanc-Mont Blanc