The eponymous three-star restaurant and hotel in Laguiole, run by a chef described as an archaeologist’ for his interest in preserving local recipes. Clockwise from left: a chef in the state-of-the-art kitchen; a drinks trolley; locally made cutlery rests; vegetable-and-flower-petal salad; a table in the dining room; biscuit tiede de chocolat coulant with ice cream. Opposite, delivering breakfast
in this high plateaux country, and balance on dry stone walls for an even better view.
I first visited Laguiole a quarter of a century ago, after reading in a food magazine that yet another of those old-style provincial cafes had been taken over by the son of the house who had learnt to cook by watching his mother in the family place, Lou Mazouc. By the late 1970s, he had enlarged the dining room and was serving a mixture of traditional fare and dishes that could be sublime but sometimes simply did not work.
We ate extremely well for a ridiculously cheap price, talked to the cook’s wife about the wine list that she supervised and went upstairs to a huge attic in which our children took one enormous bed and my wife and I snuggled into another – all for F30. Breakfast was meagre. The chef, we were told, was off running. We nodded as if that had significance. As it turned out, it did.
For Michel Bras, running is a passion – he once finished around 5,000th out of 40,000 in the New York marathon. During his runs he collects wild herbs you would taste nowhere else. A visit to his hotel and restaurant, Michel Bras, these days is somewhat different from the time of Lou Mazouc. Bras has moved to a super-modern ensemble on the hill that looks like a spaceship. The bedrooms are equipped with all the latest chrome-and-glass bathroom ware. The beds lie low on the floor, and the kitchen resembles a laboratory, with winking lights and a computerised control system.
Still, you can’t take the humanity away from a man who talks of his food as having the fluidity of jazz, and of the alpine fennel plant as summing up his love of taste, of cooking and of life’. With his round glasses and shy, quizzical smile, Bras looks more like a schoolteacher than a chef awarded three stars by Michelin. In true country fashion, he only supplies one knife for the whole meal, expecting clients to wipe it clean on the bread between courses. A Laguiole knife, naturally. Nobody makes a better version of the regional cheese classic, aligot. One famous dish, a combination of young vegetables, herbs and seeds from the Aubrac known as a Gargouillou (a bubbling’ in the local patois), contains three dozen ingredients that are prepared in 27 different ways.
When the food guidebooks call Bras an archaeologist, they mean it in the best possible way – without him who would know about the Gargouillou except food historians? One meal I had was perfection: pork loin with foie gras, big prawns with a sublime orange sauce, roast lamb, aligot, local cheese and an amazing fig tart – all accompanied by wines from the South-west at prices you would never find in any other three-star establishment. If the set menus do not tickle your taste buds, the a la carte had turbot with mangetout, superb beef and sweetbreads with unique sauces, and sorbet a la verveine-citronelle.
Michel Bras restaurant on a hill overlooking Laguiole Photo Gallery