AUTUMN is the perfect time to explore the Auvergne’s gourmet heritage. By Neil Geraghty
Aword of advice: if you ever visit Vulcania theme park in the Auvergne, make sure you go before eating a Michelin starred lunch rather than afterwards. I’d just spent a couple of hours enjoying a three course meal at Le Pré restaurant in Clermont-Ferrand. The exquisitely presented dishes, ranging from snails floating in a delicate lime blossom broth to tender poached trout doused in foaming sabayon sauce, had lulled my senses into a contented haze. To kick start the afternoon, Vulcania, the European Park of Volcanism, seemed a perfect choice. Packed with 3D experiences and with animated dinosaurs roaming the grounds, Vulcania is every schoolboy’s dream and feeling like a 10 year old, I excitedly took my seat for the volcano adventure Awakening the Giants of the Auvergne. Last active 7,000 years ago, the 3D film opened with a resurrected woolly mammoth which, surprised at seeing humans, shot his trunk out of the screen to give us a good sniff. The audience squealed with delight but the squeals quickly turned to screams when a geyser erupted and we were showered with water. The seats then began rattling as an earthquake struck and 10 minutes later, having endured pyroclastic flows and fiery boulders whizzing past my ears, it was the snails in my stomach that were in imminent danger of erupting rather than the volcanoes.
Regarded by the French as a remote backwater and ignored by tourists speeding through en route to the Mediterranean, the Auvergne is an often overlooked corner of France. This is a shame as the region boasts magnificent mountain scenery, towns steeped in history and a culinary heritage the equal of any in France.
From Lyon airport, I drove to Saint Bonnet-le-Froid, a village in the verdant Haute Loire hills to have lunch at La Coulemelle, a charming bistro run by Regis Macon, a renowned Michelin-starred chef. The bistro is named after the parasol mushroom, one of dozens of edible varieties found in the nearby forests. The mushroom season was in full swing and as a main course I ordered melt in the mouth duck confit served on a savoury medley of ceps, chanterelles and black trompettes; autumnal comfort food at its best.
To burn off the calories, I drove to Polignac to climb up to a vast medieval fortress that looms over the village on the crest of a dormant volcano. Historically, the volcanic outcrops of the Auvergne provided ideal natural fortifications and the hilltops of the region are dotted with ancient castles and abbeys that imbue the landscape with a mystical Dungeons and Dragons-like quality. A cobbled path winds up to the castle beneath lichen streaked cliffs and dark basalt battlements. From the windswept keep, I take in the fabulous view of Puy-en-Velay, one of the starting points of the St James’ Way pilgrim route. The town boasts one of the most striking skylines in France. Three hills rise up from a jumble of terracotta roofs, one topped by the graceful Romanesque dome and belfry of the cathedral, another by the medieval chapel of St Michael and a third by Our Lady of France, a colossal iron statue of the Virgin Mary cast from Russian canons captured during the Crimean War.
Early next morning I set out to visit Le Puy’s Saturday food market. The stalls were overflowing with colourful autumnal produce ranging from giant flame coloured pumpkins to tiny marble sized yellow Mirabelle plums. The cheese stalls were doing an especially brisk trade; the Auvergne is home to 5 AOP cheeses that range from hard buttery Cantal to soft nutty Saint-Nectaire. However, a sinister secret lurks in the speckled rind of a local cheese called Artisou. The rind is home to microscopic spiders which infuse a distinct mushroom aroma into the cheese.
Later that evening, I checked into the Domaine Saint Roch hotel, an elegant chateau located high in the mountains. The hotel is a member of the Relais du Silence chain which is dedicated to creating peaceful environments for guests. There I sat down to a relaxing dinner accompanied by soporific Bach cantatas. The meal culminated in a chariot de fromages, a trolley laden with delicious local cheeses. I couldn’t resist trying the Artisou, which to my surprise tasted like mild Wensleydale. However, I should have known better than to eat weird cheese just before bedtime. In the wee hours, my Relais du Silence deep sleep was rudely interrupted by psychedelic dreams including a rollercoaster one featuring Virgin Marys on broomsticks whizzing past smoking volcanoes. The following evening, I politely declined the cheese chariot.
• For more on on France visit www.rendezvousenfrance.com and for the Auvergne see www.auvergne-tourism.com; doubles at the Domaine Saint Roch Hotel (www.hotel-auvergne-saintroch.com) start at €90 per night