Summers in Haute-Loire may be warm and sunny but winters can be harsh and quality sustaining food forms the basis of much of the region’s rustic cuisine. Haute-Loire’s most famous staple food and culinary export, the Puy green lentil, is certainly energy packed; full of proteins, carbohydrates and minerals, less starchy and sweeter than other lentils, high in fibre and trace elements. No wonder these lentils have been called a ‘steak vegetable’ and the ‘poor man’s caviar’, even becoming the first vegetable in France to received the coveted AOC award for quality. Puy green lentils have been grown for over 2,000 years around Puy-en-Velay where the sheltered micro-climate protects crops from high winds. Local chefs use them in many ways including a salad starter or accompaniment to fish and meat, both cold and hot. You may even spot green lentil beer!
Have a go at making this simple soup for yourself using 500g each of green lentils, chopped onion, shredded lettuce and sherry vinegar and 20g each of coriander and garlic. Bring the lentils to the boil in cold water for just one minute then strain and add to the other vegetables (apart from the sherry vinegar). Cover with boiling water and simmer for 30 minutes then blend and add sherry vinegar with salt and pepper to taste.
Beef wintered on mountain hay, charcuterie, forest mushrooms including cepes and griolles and traditional Auvergne dishes like ‘potee auvergnate’ (pork, potato and cabbage hot pot) are all excellent here. Auvergne has 5 AOC cheeses. Try one of France’s oldest – Cantal – dating from pre-Roman times and tasting of rich pastures.
Locally sourced fish dishes use trout and salmon from pure rivers and lakes, though sadly fabulous Atlantic salmon from the River Allier may not be available due to a temporary fishing ban.
Popular desserts are apple tart and fruits of the forest like raspberries, myrtles, blackberries and strawberries in season. The National School of Bakery is in Yssingeaux.
Sample herbal teas, sip Cotes d'Auvergne wines and savour Haute-Loire's special plant and fruit-based aperitifs and liqueurs like Batavia made from yellow gentians, cherry-based Maurin and Pages green Verveine liqueur made from verbena. The tower of Pages original mid-nineteenth century distillery can still be seen on boulevard Marechal-Fayolle, Le Puy. The new distillery in Blavozy industrial zone offers guided tours and tastings. Tel: (00 33) 4 71 03 04 11. Open 7 days a week July and August and Tuesday - Saturday other times.