“IN Aveyron we’re not renowned for our wealth - here you eat to live,” said celebrated chef Michel Bras as we gathered in the kitchens of Café Bras - he and son Sébastien's ‘bistronomie’ venture to complement his three Michelin starred restaurant, Maison Bras, in Laguiole.
The scenery has a storybook quality, a place where babbling brooks, quaint cottages, mountainous verges and winding roads aren’t just settings to a fairytale but an actual reality.
“Women take nothing and make something; less means more. For me, true cuisine is what my mother will cook: a simple meal of stuffed tomatoes with left-over stale bread. That is the soul of Aveyron. As chefs we travel around the world but you will never eat better than from our markets.”
Myself and my companions had just enjoyed a four course meal in Café Bras were revelling in this chance encounter with Bras in regional capital Rodez.
“We have a timed menu, which changes throughout the day. It is cuisine that is living – if the tomatoes aren’t ripe, we don’t do that today," said Bras via a translator.
We enjoyed grilled hake with fennel and herb vinaigrette ('le filet de merlu de ligne grillé, fenouil & vinaigrette aux herbes) and a delectable chocolate and praline tart that had me swooning like a hormonal pre-teen.
"What is the recipe for the chocolate tart?" I asked. “The secret is in the cooking,” Bras smiled.
By this point we had come to the end of our trip around Aveyron, a départment in the Midi-pyrenees of South West France which lies in the foothills of the Massif Central. It’s noted ‘as a land of contrasts’, with a mountainous landscape in the North, while the South is all undalting hills and valleys. Aveyron is also renowned for its rustic and refined gastronomy and it had felt a privilege to round off the trip by meeting one of its celebrated names in cooking.
A resident of the Rodez for 25 years, Bras had quickly summarised the spirit of our four day trip: a modest region rich with cherished traditions and an agricultural town that remains synchronised with nature.
We had arrived in mid-September and summer had not yet left the town. We were to explore four of the 10 villages that form part of the elite Beautiful Villages of France ('Les plus beaux villages de France) group.
One of my companions remarked that we’d be "squeezing in every last drop of summer” – and we would; the temperatures soared. We would keep ourselves 'hydrated' with bottles of red wine from the Marcillac vineyards, while avoiding any controversial debate with out hosts about the village's long dediation to foie gras.
Aveyron is a vision. The scenery has a storybook quality, a place where babbling streams, quaint cottages and winding roads aren’t just settings to a fairytale but actual reality. It is a modest tourist destination, with no ostentatious visitor attractions save some gorgeous churches but it's leisurely paced and peaceful.
VISIT THE ABBEY IN CONQUES
Our first beautiful village was Conques. It's a tiny with just 90 residents – it’s one school has just 11 children. Lovely, but it's the Abbey and its treasures you come here to see.
We arrived on a scorching evening, just before its few residents attended mass. The Abbey was one of the most important spiritualist centres in the Western World. Damaged during religious wars and abandoned during the Revolution, it was rediscovered in 1837. Here we’d be introduced to Aveyron's other famed local, abstract artist Pierre Soulage, who designed stained glass windows, unveiled in 1994. Light sunlight creeps in through them, creating scattered pockets of shadow and sunlight. Truly stunning.
After a short coach trip we'd prepare for our next day of exploring in Villefranche de Rouergue, a bastide town in the west of the départment. Our hotel for the night, Hotel Les Fleurines, was suprisingly a trendy modern outfit. My cosy double room had a king size circular bed and a romantic balcony - there was to be no late-night serenading for me, but it would have been the perfect setting for it.
We dined at Les Fleurines' own restaurant. Again, we gorged on four rich courses and I quickly grew accustomed to the exquisite preparations of home-grown produce. The beautifully prepared 'Lamb of Aveyron with crumbled vegetables' (below) was an agreed standout.
Thursday's the best day to tour the popular markets at Villefranche-de Rouergue. We split up and were left to follow our noses; those looking for macaroons ventured left, those wanting goat's cheeses and patés wandered right. Bras was right about the markets: the vibrant colours from the ripe pickings and enthused stall merchants (speaking in the native tongue of Occitan) had me longng me to get cooking.
THE COLLEGIATE CHURCH
Again, there is a rich architectural history to discover. Villefranche-de-Rouerge was founded in 1252 and its main square was the centre of religious life. At the heart of the medieval fortified town is The Collegiate Church with its spectacular porch bell tower. Inside we'd climb 163 winding steps that led us to a breathtaking view of the town, its surrounding hills and beyond. The town's specialist macaroons were pretty spectacular, too.
Our travels in Villefranche would also take us to La Monastere de la Chartreuse, St Sauveur – once home to 13 monks and eight lay brothers bound to a contemplative life of silence, reading, writing, prayer and limited contact with fellow human beins.
LES PENITENS NOIR CHAPEL
We'd visited Les Penitens Noir chapel, bukt for the hooded, cloaked monks of that name. The Baroque chapel has a very simple exterior, but inside was surprisingly grand. The alterpiece in sculpted wood, covered in gold leaf, represents scenes of the life of Christ. See below.
CHATEAU DE BELCASTEL
A must-visit in Averyon has to be Cháteau de Belcastel. An authentic 15th century medieval castle renovated by architect Fernand Pouillion 'stone by stone' in the 1970s. In 2005 it became home to American gallery owners, who opened it up as a musuem.
By the time you walk onto the drawbridge and enter the stunning confines of the fortress you're instantly fascinated. The lodgings it offers, both grand and romantic, are unsuprisingly a popular choice for honeymooners at 195 euros a night in the high season.
RODEZ, THE NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL, PIERRE SOULAGES MUSEUM
Rodez,capital of the Aveyron department, contains a must-see Gothic masterpiece, the Cathédral of Notre-Dame, but it offers less grand delights. Such as the Pierre Soulages museum in the Jardin du Foirail public gardens, clebrating the work of this leading figure in abstract art. It's a giant bunker of a building, home also to the aforementioned Café Bras.
Check out Soulages works from his postwar walnut stain paintings to the preparatory works for the stained glass windows in Conques. Born in Rodez, Soulage much like Bras, finds much inspiration in his hometown. He reportedly said: "When I return to Rodez, I feel a sense of belonging to the people , to its rough yet very refined farmers."
Echoing Michel Bras and Pierre Soulages, less is certainly more here. Probbaly the best time to visit is in the height of summer when Aveyron hosts a number of summer outdoor concerts and food festivals. It is not just about the ecclesiastical heritage, amazing though that is. Traditional Aveyronnais cooking is big draw but also just part of the visitor package, where you can engage with one of France's most beautiful and welcoming landscapes.
For more information visit the Averyon tourist board.
HOTEL LES FLEURINES: 17 Boulevard Haute Guyenne 12200 Villefranche-de-Rouergue
HOTEL DE LA TOUR MAJE: 1 Boulevard Gally, Rodez
L'Oréal Blackett flew from London Standsted with Ryanair Airlines to Rodez airport. No direct flights from Manchester.
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