The Auvergne is the bit – the rather big bit, as it happens – in the middle of France. It’s huge, volcanic – the best mineral waters trickle through the rock here – and there are a number of spa towns where the French government actually sends people on the equivalent of the NHS for treatment.
This is the gateway to the Auvergne. It’s the Millau Viaduct – a masterpiece of both engineering and traffic control, being the longest, highest and tallest in the world. This area is home to the Bras culinary family – they even provide special recipes for the autoroute cafes – and of Roquefort cheese – there are tastings of local produce in the villages. The idea with cheeses is that the mildest is tasted first, then the stronger – usually older – one by one. I bought a small amount of the local prizewinning stuff, which is as far removed from the rancid, prepackaged and overpriced sawdust that you buy in the Sultan Centre as is possible.
Small towns with little churches are everywhere since it’s on the pilgrim route to Compostela. The town and region of Aubrac looks almost Swiss. It’s on a high plateau so people come here in the winter to Nordic ski and even the beer pump handles are made from Aubrac cow horn.
These contented-looking fawn coloured beasts graze on verdant pastures, often wearing huge, tonkling bells. The Aubrac dairy cow is mated with the Charolais bull to bulk them up a bit, and the resultant beef is quite simply outstanding. The calves feed from their mothers for the first six months, then have five thousand square metres each of free grazing in flowery pasture. Each. Per cow.
I have eaten the marbled Kobe beef from Japan, Argentine steaks and USDA prime, but this stuff beggars description. Unless you want to leave the restaurant in a body bag, don’t ask for it to be ‘well-done’. It came with a potato dish first made by three bishops in the Middle Ages. They each brought some local produce to a kind of Diocesan Synod – one brought bread, the other cheese and the last cream. Mixed together, (the bread is now replaced by potatoes) you get ‘aligot’ which looks like very thick wallpaper paste and tastes divine. I almost heard my arteries hardening. Like the food, the people here are bulky and solid, the men having vast bellies and the women wide, strong peasant hips. With matching forearms.
An overnight in picturesque Laguiole, where some of the finest cutlery in the world is still hand-forged, the cheese wins prizes and Michel Bras (of whom Parisians speak in hushed tones) has a restaurant at 175 euros a plate, then en route for home. The radio said there were 130 km of tailbacks in total on the autoroutes into Paris. I went on the RN roads and was back before nightfall.