Culinary delights in heart of beautiful countryside
There's a French novel called Le Grand Meaulnes which has accrued cult status among young people of a more romantic bent – it's about a youthful wanderer who, somewhere in rural France, comes across an estate where a party is being celebrated, he falls in love with a beautiful girl and spends the rest of his life trying to find both her and the magical party venue.
Alain Fournier's novel is a muse upon many levels – the vagaries of lost youth, the untouchable ephemeral nature of lost love – but one rather prosaic thought has always bothered me about the story…
It's this: how could anyone be stupid enough not to be able to find a place where they'd once been?
But I say this as a Westcountry person – I come from a peninsula that has marked confines of shorelines, escarpments and river systems.
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France is different. It is huge.
Nevertheless, having travelled extensively in that country for many years, the question about Le Grand Meaulnes has continued to bother me. Until now.
For I have been dallying deep inside the rural Auvergne – journeying through its most beautiful, mysterious, heady, sumptuous, bewitching, area called the Cantal. And now I know why the wanderer could never find his hallowed place…
The realisation began to dawn on me shortly after I'd arrived at Rodez regional airport – we'd driven to a village called Mourjou in the heart of the Cantal's chestnut-growing area where I'd met the writer Peter Graham – and it was the way he talked about our next destination that began to put me in mind of Le Grand Meaulnes.
"So you're going to stay at Auberge de Concasty? It's not far – near a neighbouring village just 20 minutes up the road," said Peter.
I was trying to imagine a neighbouring village in the Westcountry being a whopping 20-minutes drive away as we meandered along ridges, down valleys, across hilltops, through forests, across streams, between hayfields, past isolated farms and the occasional petit chateau. The journey went on for so long that if we'd been travelling in most corners of the Westcountry, we'd have crossed county borders.
Peter regarded the excellent Auberge de Concasty as being in the next village – because it, more-or-less, was. And every kilometre of the way I became more convinced that this must really be the world of Le Grand Meaulne – so unutterably and mysteriously beautiful was the endless countryside.
I don't get lost easily – years of walks writing has sharpened my sense of direction – and yet I'd have become instantly befuddled geographically speaking had I been dropped off in one of those endless country roads.
And, to be honest, I wouldn't have minded in the least. I can hardly recall an afternoon of travelling in the heat when I was happier.
We'd been to Mourjou, by the way, to meet Peter and to learn about the Cantal's once important chestnut industry. The village – whose name derives from an ancient term "Monjovis" meaning Mount of Joy – may only have 329 inhabitants, but it also boasts a splendid museum dedicated to the delicious and useful nut which once dominated the region's economy.
There wasn't much the locals couldn't do with chestnuts or assorted bi-products. They made everything – from flour and bread out of the flesh of the dried and pounded chestnut – to roof-tiles from chestnut wood.
All this and much more did we learn before being introduced to the charming English writer who has lived in the village for longer than almost anyone else. Peter has written a book called Mourjou, The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village – which, having bought a copy for £5 off the internet, I can warmly recommend it.
At Auberge de Concasty, Martine Causse's family have converted a large old farm in to what we'd describe as a boutique hotel. I know the French like to have their own terms – but somehow "auberge" doesn't do justice to the luxury of the place.
Martine uses words like "harmony, serenity and charm" to describe her establishment – but somehow the mix is more than that. There's a swimming pool, there's quality linen sheets, and so on – and there's a restaurant and terrace where her own cookery is served – but somehow this place is rural France at its very best.
We stayed for two nights while exploring the area. And our first full day included what, for me, was the biggest treat of all. We were to spend the morning at a country market in the town of Maurs in the company of a brilliant young chef called Renaud Darmarin.
I can't think of a better way of wiling away a few hours. The beauty of going around a proper country market with a good chef is that they will know all the very many things that you don't – like which trader is best for cheeses and why they are best, who sells the finest ripe apricots, where to buy superior fish, snails, meat and wine, and so on…
Best of all, they will cook all this stuff for you. I loved the entire experience so much Renaud gave me an open invitation to spend time at his restaurant being a general dogs body on work experience – and who knows, I might just take him up on the offer.
Here's an example of how a chef can introduce you to the wonders of an area in a way that no one else can. Announcing he now wanted to buy cheese, Renaud set off down the busy sunlit Maurs main-street passing endless classy looking stalls selling assorted dairy products.
Eventually, right down at the end of the street where the shoppers were thinning out, we came across a shabby looking van where a young woman was selling her own home-made cheese.
"She might be young," Renaud whispered to me. "But she has won every award going. Her cheeses are brilliant."
And they were. I imagine it won't be long before she is able to claim a better pitch at the market.
Anyway, after a couple of hours of Renaud explaining why this product was better than that, we headed off to his restaurant in a neighbouring village. Which, of course, meant a 25-minute drive.
Marcolès is a famous medieval village (think: Dunster in the middle of nowhere) and to be honest the Auberge de la Tour where Renaud cooks looks just like any other inn that you can find in the main square of any French community.
I won't go on about the three-hour lunch that we somehow put down after a morning of sampling everything at the market – suffice to say it was one of the three best meals I've had in 2012.
After the giant repast we travelled just a few miles from Marcolès to call on an Italian couple who run an extraordinary bed and breakfast establishment called La Clairiere.
I say extraordinary because I have rarely visited a B&B which makes you feel quite so much at home. Surgeon Alessandro – who lives there with his wife Camilla, and their children Blu and Lupo – told me why his family has left Milan for the French good life. They've certainly found it. They even have a separate garden flat in their big country house which they rent out at special low rates to anyone who has some artistic project – literary or otherwise – which perhaps I'll take for a week when I do my week's work experience with Renaud.
In my dreams. Le Grand Meaulnes style dreams, I'm afraid…
For us it was upwards and onwards – this time to the St Etienne Cantalès Lake where we were to do a walk around the Puech des Ouilhes peninsula.
The lake is in fact a reservoir – a rather beautiful wood-lined one – and it has all the usual refinements the French love to go in for. Give them a watering hole and the French will erect diving boards, float pedaloes, create artificial sand beaches, build cafes – and great gangs of well behaved teenagers will droop around looking ethereal and beautiful.
After another night's stay at the Auberge de Concasty we were off to the area's capital the next morning.
Aurillac is a splendid and ancient market town built on a river – and we were given a tour of its vast cathedral and the older districts before being taken to a perfume making place in a backstreet where I fell in love with the woman who owned it – not only because she was beautiful but because she smelled so heavenly.
Lunch at Les 4 Saisons in a quiet backstreet was a masterpiece of French cooking, primarily because the main course consisted of a huge lump of rare beef which had left this mortal coil while being part of a Salers bullock.
I'll tell you more about these first-class beef and cheese producing beasts because now it was upwards and onwards again – this time miles and miles, higher and higher, up into big hills which you could even call mountains since their peaks are over 6000 feet.
And what were we to visit in all this vertiginous glory? A special museum that extols the virtues of the aforementioned Salers cattle. At which point I must ask: why haven't we got a special museum to highlight the virtues of Red Devon cattle?
I'll tell you: because the French are much better at celebrating their natural wonders than we are – and also because they seem extraordinarily adept at persuading the EU to part with essential funding.
Anyway, the museum was interesting as it explained the transhumance which used to take place and to some extent still does – although modern farmers no longer driver their cattle up into the mountains for summer on foot, but take the beasts up in the back of trucks.
Anyway, if I liked eating Salers beef and also liked learning about the strain of cattle – I liked visiting the town which gives them the name even more.
Salers is often said to be the most beautiful village in France – sometimes it gets beaten by some place on the other side of the mountains. Think: medieval Dunster – but perched vertically above the meeting of two huge deep mountain valleys.
It's a bit touristy, for sure, but I liked the old place and all its cobbled streets and ramparts. And I loved my suite at the Hotel Saluces – one of the more elderly buildings in town – by which I mean, it probably isn't a day under 1000 years old.
The next morning we went hiking in one of the vast valleys – called the Cirque de Récusset – and then climbed higher towards the mighty Pas de Peyrol.
Up here I had one of my Le Grand Meaulnes moments – or, at least, a vibrant memory from my youth. The cow-herds who used to bring the Salers cattle up here would stay all summer tending the cows, milking them and making cheese – and in order to do so they occupied solid little stone buildings called burons.
Some 3,000 burons once peppered the hills of the Auvergne, now only three are occupied by cattlemen making cheese.
However, one isolated buron has been preserved intact and, with the help of a solar panel on the roof, even has a kind of interactive information centre inside.
The first thing you hear is the disembodied voice of a cattleman singing a truly haunting song. I recognised it instantly as being one of a collection of folk songs entitled the Chants of the Auvergne which were collated and arranged for soprano voice and orchestra or piano by Joseph Canteloube between 1923 and 1930.
In Britain this music became famous in 1972 after it was used in a well known Dubonnet TV advert – and it was the first bit of "classical" music which I went out and bought. Hearing the raw original version up here on this lonely mountainside sent pleasant shivers down my spine…
The cattle still munch on the mountain-sides – indeed, they reckon there are five to every one human in the Cantal. But, then, these people do love their cheese. In fact they like it so much it is served in places like Le Bailliage restaurant in Salers and in the Hotel Beau Site Garabit (where I spent my final night) as a special course before pudding.
And don't think of ruining your cheese with bread or crackers… The people of the Cantal just eat the stuff on its own in big flavoursome slabs.
I can think of worse ways to die. But then, I can think of worse fates than being lost forever in the Cantal.