Thursday, 28 August 2014

Cheese recipes of the Auvergne

I first encountered aligot when I walked to Santiago de Compostela from Le Puy - the old pilgrim path which starts in the remote mountains of the Auvergne, before descending to the limestone causses, and then the fertile plains of Gascony. It's a dish that must have been invented to supply the needs of hard-working peasants or hard-walking pilgrims; full of cheese, cream, and carbohydrates, enough stodge to fill the stomach and boost your energy.

Aligot blends tomme d'Auvergne or Laguiole cheese into mashed potatoes, with the addition of butter and cream and garlic. It's cooked slowly, till all the ingredients are blended and the mixture becomes smooth, and if you put a fork into it, you can pull out thin strings of incredible strength and fineness.

Of course, pre-1492, Aligot was not made with potatoes. It was made with stale bread, instead - a bit like migas in Spain, or fattoush in the Middle East, a way of using up the odds and ends, which made it an economical way for the monks to feed pilgrims.

Now, aligot is a recipe you find in the Aubrac. But in other areas of Auvergne, around Clermont-Ferrand and down to Aurillac and Carlat, you find truffade. Again, the main ingredients are potatoes and chees - preferably Salers or tomme fraiche du Cantal - but for truffade, the potatoes are slowly fried, and then the cheese is added to make a sort of lasagne or pancake. There may or may not be garlic (depending on where you are - not in Cantal, apparently).

I've eaten truffade with just a green salad, the crunchiness of endive and lettuce neatly offsetting the waxy potato and creamy cheese. It goes well with local ham and other charcuterie. I'm told some chefs make it with fourme d'Ambert instead of tomme fraiche or Salers, the blue cheese giving it a quite different character. There are even controversies about whether you let the potatoes or the whole dish crisp up on the outside, or not. I prefer it with the little golden brown bits of crispiness, the way the Bar du Palais in Murat serves it.

Truffade has nothing to do with truffles, by the way. Trufa, in Auvergnat dialect, is a potato.

I have to say that though I'm a big fan of both, I prefer aligot. Its creaminess nicely counterpointed by that little edge of garlic, the nutty flavours of the cheese coming through strongly, the grainy and stringy textures... mmm. Very nice. How lucky the Auvergne is to have such good cheese recipes - and such good cheeses.