Land of plenty

There are no shortages of culinary delights to be found in picturesque Midi-Pyrénées, as Anna McKittrick discovers

As the largest region in France, Midi-Pyrénées is steeped in a history rich with gastronomic and cultural traditions that continue to thrive in the modern era. Like a family, its eight departments are knitted together with the common bond of shared territory, yet they retain their own distinctive characters that make the region so varied.

Among its delights are the bustling city of Toulouse in Haute-Garonne and the soaring peaks of the Hautes-Pyrénées; the Cathar country of Ariège,and the gastronomy of Gascony; the vineyards of Tarn-et-Garonne and the valleys and plateaux of Lot; and not forgetting the two departments in the north-west of the region, Tarn and Aveyron, where I began my discovery of this delightful corner of France.

For those in search of a gentle pace of life, rural Aveyron, named after the river that runs through the undulating countryside and valleys, is a hidden gem. While the department is largely punctuated with bastide towns and quaint villages, Rodez, the largest town and administrative capital, sits proudly in the heart of the department. The jewel in the crown of the old town is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, a Gothic masterpiece dating from the 13th to 16th centuries. At 107m long, the cathedral is one of the longest in France, close in size to Notre-Dame de Paris, and features an intricately designed bell tower rising 87m above the town. The cathedral features seven stained glass windows by Franco-Swiss artist Stéphane Belzère, who won a competition in 2003 to create the contemporary religious designs. My tour guide explained that even a decade on, the modern windows are still a controversial talking point among the Ruthénois – the people of Rodez – who either like them or loathe them.

A short walk from the cathedral, the flavours of rural south-west France come alive at Rodez’s lively Saturday morning market that transforms the Place de la Cité and Place Emma Calvé into a riot of colour. Stallholders swap stories, share a glass of local red wine, and chat animatedly with customers who flock to the market to stock up on the abundance of seasonal vegetables and regional produce, including the department’s most famous cheese, Roquefort.

Browsing the market, and of course sampling the specialities of Aveyron, is a delightful way to get to know this gastronomic department in the north-west of Midi-Pyrénées. Queues form at the aligot stand as customers wait to get their hands on the delicious regional dish made from mashed potato, garlic and Tomme de Laguiole, a local cheese, traditionally served with sausage or other meat dishes. Aligot originates from the village of Aubrac which straddles three departments: Aveyron, Cantal and Lozère, and is also known as ‘le ruban de l’amitié’ (‘the ribbon of friendship’).

Another speciality waiting to be discovered at Rodez market is échaudé, an aniseed flavoured biscuit that has been cooked twice. First it’s plunged into boiling water and then it’s baked in the oven to create a crisp texture. The biscuits, which were eaten by pilgrims on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, are reputed to be the oldest biscuits still in production in Aveyron.

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Supporting local artisans isn’t just limited to gastronomy though, and a new museum, dedicated to the works of 93-year-old Ruthénois painter, sculptor and engraver Pierre Soulages is currently under construction. The innovative museum is made out of steel and is set to open in May 2014. It will feature 500 pieces from Soulages’ extensive career alongside temporary exhibitions.

Soulages’ work can also be seen in Conques, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France some 40km to the north-west of Rodez, where he designed the windows for the 11th-century Abbaye Sainte-Foy. Soulages’ stained glass windows were installed in 1994 and work in harmony with the limestone and the serene atmosphere of the sacred Romanesque building.

Conques has been a major stopover on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle since the 12th century, and today it continues to attract pilgrims and hikers following the holy route down to Galicia in northern Spain. Today there are only 90 permanent residents in the village, which receives half a million visitors every year. In 1998, two of the monuments in Conques were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status for their links to the pilgrimage route – the Abbaye Sainte-Foy and the Pont des Pèlerins that crosses the River Dourdou.

The church bells were ringing and the morning mist just lifting as I arrived after a peaceful night at Le Moulin de Cambelong, a hotel and restaurant owned by Michelin-starred chef Hervé Busset, located on the outskirts of the village.

My guide from the tourist office, Anne Romiguière, who is one of Conque’s 90 residents, welcomed me to the village and led me through the narrow cobbled streets to show the impressive reliquaries on display at the Trésor de Conques museum. The Majesté de Sainte-Foy statue dates from the first millennium and is an impressive example of the work of medieval goldsmiths. It is the masterpiece of the collections now displayed in the museum, which were saved by the people of Conques during the French Revolution.

The reliquaries would have been melted down and destroyed had the local people not hidden them in the forests surrounding the village. Every year on the Sunday nearest 6 October, the statue of Sainte-Foy is carried in a procession under police guard to the church to celebrate the festivities of Sainte-Foy.

Beautifil villages aside, Aveyron is also home to the iconic Millau viaduct – linking Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne to Béziers and Narbonne in Languedoc-Roussillon along the A75 motorway, it was designed by English architect Sir Norman Foster and is one of the most iconic sights in Midi-Pyrénées.

Another Brit who has made his mark on the region, although in neighbouring Tarn, is Simon Scott, who holds the accolade of being the only British Michelin-starred chef living in France. Simon has been living in Tarn for more than 10 years since meeting his wife, Marie-Hélène, who is from the town of Castres, while working in London where he was head chef at The Savoy and second head chef at The Ritz.

In 2011, Simon and Marie-Hélène set up Les Saveurs de Saint-Avit, which is situated at the foot of the Montagne Noire between Castres and Revel, where Simon combined his love of haute cuisine with regional flavours. “I mainly use locally sourced products and combine regional flavours with a modern twist. My favourite local dish is poumpet – a flaked puff pastry flavoured with citrus syrup and crunchy sugar. It’s not very healthy but it’s very good! Living here has changed my way of cooking, as it is very seasonal. For a few years now I have been exploring the natural side of the region and spend weekends on long trails looking for plants and flowers in the Montagne Noire,” Simon says.

Simon received a Michelin star in Saint-Avit, which he retained when he and Marie-Hélène moved to Castres in 2009 to set up another restaurant, also called as Les Saveurs. Having earned a Michelin star, Simon has more than proved himself akin to the top French chefs, but he says it wasn’t always easy.

“As a British chef in France, it was quite difficult to begin with but not anymore,” he says. “In some ways it now works in my favour. I have become accustomed to the lifestyle here, and I enjoy going to the markets, sampling the fine wines, and of course watching Castres in the rugby.”

Castres, which has 45,000 inhabitants, was established in the 9th century along the banks of the River Agout, which used to be the thriving centre of the town. Colourful overhanging houses, dating from the Middle Ages, still flank the river and offer a reminder of the town’s textile heritage when craftsmen, including tanners and weavers, inhabited the buildings and used the river to transport their wares.

In the summer, cruises run along the Agout on Le Miredames, wooden boats inspired by the coche d’eau river craft that travelled up and down the waterways until the 19th century. The 20-minute boat trips run from the centre of town to Gourjade Leisure Park, a 53-hectare space that’s perfect for picnics.

For a bird’s eye view of the gardens, head inside the Episcopal Palace, which was designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, architect to King Louis XIV, and now houses the mairie and Musée Goya. The museum features the second most important collection of Spanish paintings after the Louvre, with works dating from the 14th century to the present day.

Another important museum in the department is the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec situated 40km north of Castres in the capital city of Albi. The museum, which was founded in 1922, houses the biggest collection of work by the town’s famous son, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, best known for his Moulin Rouge posters painted while he was living in Montmartre. The museum, located in the impressive Palais de la Berbie 13th-century red-brick bishop’s palace, reopened in spring 2012 after a 10-year refurbishment project during which a 130m² original tiled floor was discovered.

Another striking example of Albi’s medieval architecture can be seen next door at the Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile. Construction began in the 13th century and took 200 years to complete, which is no surprise given that it is the world’s largest brick-built cathedral.

While Albi is the largest city in Tarn, there are smaller medieval bastide towns dotted across the department, which were founded during the Crusade in the 13th century. Cordes-sur-Ciel, established in 1222, is not only one of the oldest but also one of the prettiest fortified towns, and can be found on the hillside of the Puech de Mordagne, 25km to the north-west of Albi.

Wander through the cobbled streets of the village and explore the ateliers selling local specialities including leather goods, and an array of blue-coloured products, dyed using the leaves of pastel (woad). This yellow-hued flower grows in abundance here and has been used for dying cloth since the 16th century.

The department isn’t just known for its food, however – a short drive from Cordes-sur-Ciel lies the wine-producing region of Gaillac. With the origins of the vines dating back to the first century BC, Gaillac is one of the oldest vineyards in France, although it was almost destroyed during the phylloxera outbreak in the 19th century. Today there are only around 200 small producers making the AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) wines.

Exploring this corner of Midi-Pyrénées is something that’s not to be rushed – this is rural France at its best. Take your time, savour the traditions and flavours, and it won’t be long before it has you firmly under its spell. LF