THE picture above is the most beautiful looking plate of food I’ve ever eaten (it tasted good, too). It was the first course proper at a Michelin 3 star restaurant perched among the endless forests of the Auvergne.
The dish was Petit Pois, Fera et Mousserons – basically a confit of Alpine whitefish fillet, smoked in pine, on a pea jelly, in a marinade made from meadow mushrooms.
'We called in on the farm to find the entire family busy feeding their goat flock and, of course, making the cheese. Both cow’s and goat’s cheeses tasted in situ in the ageing room were exquisite'
Ah, CHAMPIGNONS. Like nearly every dish on the tasting menu at Regis et Jacques Marcon they feature in one variety or another. Regis’s culinary fame, legendary in France, is built on fungi from those forest floors. Foodies flock from Paris or, more easily, Lyon to stay and dine at the Marcons’ luxurious eco hotel built into a hillside.
We were billeted in a rather less grand (but airy and pleasant) hotel/restaurant nearby called Le Fort du Pre. Like nearly everyone in the drab one-street hill village called Saint Bonnet-le-Froid (below), its owners have benefited from the local Marcon family’s ascent into the gourmet stratosphere. The area’s on the map now.
And if Saint Bonnet occasionally feels more like St Fungus Le Bonnet Man, who can resent their fungi-fuelled good fortune? Times haven’t always been so good here in the harsh peasant environment of the Massif Central. This Haute Loire region is a far remove from the gentle orchards, vineyards and fairy-tale castles of the tourist Loire Valley further north.
Even today most visitors who venture west from the Rhone Valley come in search of outdoor pursuits. Auvergne offers white water rafting, stupendous fishing, trekking, biking or horse riding along its volcanic heights and cross-country skiing along the same routes in winter. With some of France’s top natural spa opportunities to wind down with.
The most energetic activity I managed was on the Velorail du Velay at Dunieres where a disused railway line has been converted into a family-friendly ride. Well, friendly to the two or three folk who sit in the back of the engine/buggy; the front pair are pedalling frantically. It’s only a gradual gradient on the first leg but it certainly stretches the calf muscles; the return journey you can freewheel a bit with good brakes meaning you can’t go off the rails.
Without our overnight stay (to recover) in Dunieres we would never have discovered the cheeses of Daniel Mounier. The patronne of the Hôtel Restaurant La Tour, the amiable Laurence Roux capped a smashing dinner with a cheeseboard where the stand-outs came from Daniel’s nearby Ferme des Blanchardons.
So en route for a game of Putting-Golf at Tence (see fact file) next morning we called in on the farm to find the entire family busy feeding their goat flock and, of course, making the cheese. Both cow’s and goat’s cheeses tasted in situ in the ageing room were exquisite. The quality of the hay makes the product so special – barn dried Savoie style. It’s not all not all rural idyll, mind – Daniel is happy to use hi-tech equipment – but it follows a sustainable ideal.
You won’t find The Blanchardons products on sale in Paris or across France. Daniel chooses not to spend money on branding or wrappers, content to sell at the dairy gate or at markets within a 30km radius. And it works. So if you’re ever in Ste-Sigolène, Montfaucon, St-Pal or St-Romain Lachalm on market day...
There was evidence everywhere of similar commitment to local produce (a fruit growing/jam-making co-op we dropped in on shared a similar ethos), but the commitment to tradition was best exemplified by a visit to meet the formidable Anne-Marie Besson.
The mountaintop Chambre d’hotes the vibrant sexagenarian runs is called Les Herbes Sauvages (Wild Herbs), which sums up her passion for foraging. Along a narrow stretch of of the River Clavarine she points out the incredible variety of edible wild plants and then introduces us to her biggest project – the restoration of the garden of the old Cistercian abbey at Clavas.
Nuns settled here in the 12th century and survived their original abbey being burnt down during the Wars of Religion. They had left by the time of the French Revolution when much of the buildings were destroyed. Still the church, presbytery and abbey door survive. It is a tranquil spot and a little kitchen garden has been restored in medieval style thanks to Anne-Marie and her colleagues.
Ghosts of the past are everywhere in this region. More recent turmoils are commemorated movingly at a new museum in Chambon sur Lignon, called simply Lieu de Memoire dedie aux Justes (Memorial Dedicated to the Righteous).
The remote villages of the Plateau had once given shelter to Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution and their descendants, in turn, took it on themselves during the Second World War to shelter up to 1,000 refugees, particularly Jewish children. They were provided with false papers and moved on across the Swiss border to safety, but only total silence and discretion kept them safe while they were hidden here for months from the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators.
Chambon Sur Lignon remembersIt has taken more than 20 years to create this simple museum to the memory of saviours and survivors and a garden is still under development, but the project bears poignant testimony to the great humanity of the villagers, risking their own lives to save others. Mot moving is video interviews with many involved (English translation available).
Amazingly the Chambon area was a refuge for another champion of freedom, the Nobel prize-winning writer Albert Camus, who spent a summer here during the War for his health’s sake and wrote much of La Peste in adjacent Mazet Sainte Foy (which today is worth a visit for its quirky Botanic Garden and with its array of toxic plants).
Of all the settlements we visited I liked Le Chambon the best (Auvergne townscapes can be a little grey) and, though a little out of town, its Hotel du Bel Horizon would make a great base for exploring an under-rated French region.
Of course, if I had the argent it would have to be Regis et Jacques Marcon. Regis is a charming man to discuss mushrooms and more with, but it has taken steel and drive to first gain and then hold three Michelin stars for over a decade in this out-of-the-way neck of the woods.
Jacques is the son, heavily involved in maintaining the ethereal classiness this Michelin level demands. Yet behind all the super-slick service and merchandise, the haute cuisine techniques honed to perfection and the elaborate parade of dishes (just look at the image gallery here and below), lies traditional Auvergnat peasant hospitality.
If you don’t like mushrooms (and the jury’s out on their intrusion into desserts) well this is just the place to be converted to cepes and pieds de moutons, giroles and chantererelles. Best let the restaurateurs pick them for you, though!
Neil Sowerby flew with British Airways to Lyon from Manchester via London Heathrow. www.ba.com. A hire car is essential to get to Saint Bonnet-le-Froid and surrounding villages. Expect to take at least an hour and a half to drive there from Lyon St Exupery Airport.
The public website www.rendezvousenfrance.com provides visitors with access to information on the latest news and apps, upcoming events and practical information about France. For specific information requests please email email@example.com
For full information about the Auvergne region visit www.auvergne-tourism.com
Hôtel Restaurant Le Fort du Pré
43290 St Bonnet-le Froid
Hôtel Restaurant La Tour à Dunières
Route du Fraisse, 43220 Dunières
Hôtel du Bel Horizon
24, chemin de Molle, 43400 Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
Restaurant Régis & Jacques Marcon Larsiallas , 43290 St-Bonnet-le-Froid www.regismarcon.fr/
Auberge La Riboule – old-fashioned village cafe with fine peasant-style food on the Santiago pilgimage route
43220 - Riotord this link
La Trifola Restaurant – traditional cuisine and lmushroomy artefacts
4 Route de Tence , 43400 Le Chambon sur Lignon this link
The raw materials:
Bon et Bien Manger champions local producers: www.bonetbienmanger.fr
Ferme des Blancs Chardons, Blanchard - 43220 - Dunieres this link
Red Fruit Growers, La Chalenconnière, 43220 - St-Julien-Molhesabate www.bonetbienmanger.fr/page-9-8_les_producteurs.htm
Things to do:
Memorial Visit in Chambon sur Lignon, Route du Mazet
43400 Chambon-sur-lignon this link
Vélo-rail Ride, 43220 Dunières
Putting-Golf in Tence (recommended for an upmarket version of pitch and putt), Route du Mazel, 43190 Tence
Botanical Gardens in Mazet Sainte Foy
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