From Laguiole, it is an easy drive back to Rodez, with stops to see the medieval military machines at Chateau de Calmont d’Olt, to eat a final meal at the excellent restaurant of Le Mejane, in the riverside town of Espalion, and to peer at the strange fault line of the Trou de Bozouls, with houses perched on either side of a horseshoe-shaped ravine.
Alternatively, there is a long drive across the southern Massif Central to the borders of the Ardeche. This crosses wild countryside where a mythical beast is said to roam, and passes through the plateau around the hardy Protestant town of Chambon-sur-Lignon, where a woman teacher from London and
the head of a local girl-guide troop helped to hide thousands of Jews during World War II. The journey ends at a hotel and restaurant almost as good as Michel Bras, and with equally bracing walks: the Auberge et Clos des Cimes in the village of Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid in the Haute Loire department. Its two-star chef, Regis Marcon, is a child of local cafe owners who worked in London before returning and making the windswept village a gastronomic temple. His speciality is mushrooms that grow in great variety and abundance all around. The first time we visited the Auberge et Clos des Cimes, one dish consisted of cepes in vinegar that were so acid as to be virtually inedible. Now everything is in order, in this high country where the regions of the Ardeche and the Vivarais meet – from the roast pigeon with morilles and girolles and the foie gras with almonds and mushrooms to the chestnut souffle and the exceptional breads – all washed down with some fine Cotes du Rhone.
In Laguiole, Michel Bras inscribed a book of his recipes for me with a quotation from St Augustine to the effect that those who lose themselves in their passions have lost less than those who have lost their passions. In Britain, that might condemn him as a culinary pseud, but, in the heart of France, it rings true, nowhere more so than amid the winding roads, endless horizons, gastronomic temples, hidden villages – and the cooks of the heartland who are nothing if not themselves. O
Eat your heart out
Auberge et Clos des Cimes, Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid (00 33 4 71 59 93 72).
Two Michelin stars. Menus ‚29-‚92 (about £45-£55); menu degustation £65. Doubles from £90. Closed Monday dinner, Tuesday, January and February Hotel Beausejour Restaurant Puech, 15340 Calvinet (00 33 4 71 49 91 68; www.cantai-logis.com/calvinet/hotelbeausejour). One Michelin star. Menus about £15-£30. Doubles from £30. Closed Mondays and during January Le Mejane, 8 rue Mejane, Espalion (00 33 5 65 48 22 37). Michelin Bib Gourmand for good value. Menus about £10-£30. Closed Sunday dinner, Monday lunch, Wednesdays, 15 February-15 March and last week in June. Michel Bras, route de I’Aubrao, 12210 Laguiole (00 33 5 65 51 18 20; www.michel-bras.fr). Three Michelin stars. Menus about £30-£80. Doubles from £90. Closed Monday, Tuesday lunch, Wednesday lunch, November-April Restaurant Gouts et Couleurs, 38 rue de Bonald, Rodez (tel/fax: 00 33 5 65 42 75 10). One Michelin star. Menus about £10-£25; menu degustation £35. Closed Sunday, Monday
Laguiole Map Photo Gallery