Tuesday 23 February 2016

Hail the Sacred Pig

Big skies have been our dramatic backdrop all day today. Although the morning began in quaint rural villages, straight roads through massive fields as per the previous day, by the time we approached the truly spectacular Clermont-Ferrant something atmospherically curious had happened to the landscape. It was as if we had entered a different country. Herefordshire had given way to the Black Mountains of Wales, if you will. 

But this is getting ahead of myself. 

There are food stories dying to be told; of flying orange pips, and penis shaped potatoes. Sacred pigs...and more hysterical giggling than you can probably bear. 

The morning started well with a recalcitrant hot water machine. The tea pot failed to catch any of it and the lovely hotel man of no English - also having breakfast with his young assistant - came to the driver's rescue. Apparently the ditzy one was still très fatigue. A perfect excuse for incompetence with French and hot water. 

After successfully rounding up a hearty breakfast from the fabulous buffet, we discussed the route of the day. We changed our minds about Limoges and Toulouse. 

The shock of this plan change made me loose control of the satsuma I was eating, and a pip flew across the table. The hotel chaps looked across at the two ladies of uncertain age in fascination as we dissolved into giggles again. All we needed was me reading the newspapers and it would have been a standard morning in Contrary Towers. 

So a route was disagreed upon, and we decided to head for Montpellier via Clermont-Ferrand and, most excitingly, the highest bridge in Europe. This needed the motorway so we decided to break out rule of no péage later in the day. The skipper checked the weather for later and it seemed fair to good. 

As the rain got harder outside we decided to skip the cathedral and alchemy of Bourges unfortunately, and instead headed out across miles of agricultural land. Did I mention how many fields we've seen? We hit the major metropolis of Thaumiers pre-mid-morning coffee time and every man and his tractor was heading out. So we were thoroughly splatted by huge muddy tires. 

The miles whipped by and it was going swimmingly. Research and history was being related. Yes, it was raining hard. We were going through yet another charming village and I saw a snack bar-bistro-bar just off the main square in Montmarault. We hurtled to a halt, parked up outside a cave du vin, and took a brisk walk back to it. Starbucks eat your heart out for two fresh coffees at €2.80. 

By this point food was very much on my mind. It was about midday and the snack bar's menu of rabbit terrine and country sausage had rather whetted the appetite. Deciding to press on for another hour seemed like a plan, a combination of what Google maps suggested, and where was open between there and Clermont. 

After driving through what can only be described as the most stunning scenery, we couldn't believe how different the terrain was from earlier. We were ear poppingly climbing and the roads getting more hair raising. The sky was also clearing and the rain had stopped. But none of the tiny places we drove through had anything of any culinary interest. Finally we reached Le Pont de Menat and the incredible vista of the ruins of Chateau Rocher perched high up, a place which I would love to revisit.

Google maps had an auberge coming up in Piory, so we decided to give it a try. We had no idea what an auberge was - my GCSE French 'auberge de jeunesse' was unhelpful here - but there were cars outside, a menu, and a welcoming bar. 

We were pointed through a door by a bemused lady, and shown to a table in a well appointed barn-kitchen-refectory. There was only one choice so we wisely went with that, and the starter arrived. Cold slabs of ham, boiled egg and frisée lettuce salad with hot lardons and mustard dressing. Mountains of fresh crusty bread to die for. So far so delicious, with a carafe of rather drinkable red. 

It was impossible to not notice we were once again objects of interest. The room was populated by workers, farmers, labourers and the only women were waiting staff. So there we were, London ladies who lunched. We were also sat at a sunny table, so utterly conspicuous, by light, laughing and Englishness. By the time we'd demolished the second course - a man size portion of grilled pork and bean cassoulet - we knew we were sitting ducks for attention. 

As the cheese course arrived - same plates and cutlery obviously - as did a gentleman from the other table. To be honest I'm still not sure whether he was selling potatoes or offering to buy sex. Or both. All I know is, he was very proud of his deformed potatoes and his photos of them looked like Baldrick's thingy. Or thingy shaped turnip. By this point we were dying of laughter. 

Now my French isn't great. But I can normally get the conversational gist but it was trying to understand my Hereford family. Utterly impenetrably accented. So until the others started talking about les charmants Anglais on the phone to god knows who...too funny. 

By the time we'd disposed of the cheese course - a Roquefort and something else - a piece of plum tart and a coffee, we had the entire table next to us telling us how wonderful and elegant we were, shaking our hands and wishing us a lovely sunny afternoon. Anyway we finished up, and headed into the bar to pay the princely sum of €26 for the best lunch in a very long time. 

After demolishing so much pork over the past day or so it seemed entirely fitting that one of the saints in the curiously black cathedral of Clermont had a pig sat at his feet. St Antoine was clearly a man who liked his bacon sarnies. I have a feeling that this is not going to be the last time I'll be demolishing dishes of pork - especially as we'll be disappearing into the north of Italy fairly soon. 

So if we reached the geographic centre of France yesterday, today we have tasted the hospitable and gastronomic centre.  The rest has been scenery, bridges, mountains and national parks, descending clouds and torrential rain, and many, many miles. But here we are on the cusp of the Mediterranean in Montpellier, with a gentle day pootling down the coast planned. 

Bouillabaisse, anyone?

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