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The Heart of the Country

In Laguiole, the French find that the future depends on the past

William Echikson
Posted: February 15, 2001

 
 
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The Heart of the Country

In Laguiole, the French find that the future depends on the past

By William Echikson


A six-hour drive south of Paris, beyond the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand, steep hills rise: extinct volcanoes. As the lunarlike landscape reaches 3,000 feet, signs of human inhabitation become fewer and fewer. Cattle graze on open meadows, empty but for an occasional, abandoned buron, a granite-and-slate farm-dwelling devoted to making the local Cantal cheese. This is the impoverished Aubrac plateau in the Auvergne region, the French equivalent of America's Appalachia.

Then, just outside the village of Laguiole, in the middle of the Aubrac plateau, a glass ark of a building rises on the horizon. It's Michel Bras' restaurant, a gastronomic shrine that holds three Michelin stars and draws food lovers from all over the world. Down the road lies another striking steel building, its roof punctured by a 59-foot-tall metallic knife blade. It's the famed Forge de Laguiole factory, producer of one of the world's most renowned brands of knives. On the other side of town, yet another steel building—a cheese cooperative. All three establishment testify to a renaissance that combines tradition and progress in a winning formula.

It's an important success story, and a symbolic one; the harsh Auvergnat environment has recently became a focal point in France's continuing struggle to balance its rich rural heritage and the forces of global capitalism. The region is known, for example, as the home of Jose Bove, the mustachioed, pipe-smoking farmer who, fired up by American trade restrictions on French cheese, organized the wrecking of a McDonald's under construction near his farm. Instead of being jailed, Bove won the hearts of many Frenchmen who fear American domination. He proceeded to launch a crusade against mal bouffe ("bad eating") and was a star protester at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference.

Life in the Auvergne never has been easy. Since time immemorial, farmers have eked out an existence by driving their cows to the high pasture during summer and subsisting on a rough and ready diet of aligot, a traditional dish of bread or potatoes cooked with the local cheese. During the 19th century, thousands of Auvergnats emigrated to Paris. From a high of 410,000 in 1850, the population of the region around Laguiole has plummeted to about 200,000, making it one of the most sparsely inhabited regions in all of France.

For much of the Auvergnat diaspora, the token of their homeland was a trusted, Laguiole pocketknife. "The knife became a symbol of kinship," says Gèrard Boissons, founder of the Forge de Laguiole.

A local peasant named Pierre-Jean Calmels invented the curved hunchbacked knife form around 1830. He transformed the local dagger, called the capouchadou, into a tough, folding knife of steel, meant for farm work. An awl was added to some models in 1840 as a tool for cattle farmers. A corkscrew appeared in 1880, when the sale of bottled wine became popular in France. By mid-century, Calmels and six other knifemakers were producing Laguioles by hand in the town.

Then disaster struck: the Industrial Revolution. Machine-made knives from the city of Thiers near Clermont-Ferrand flooded the market. Soon, no knives came anymore from Laguiole. Even Calmels' descendents began selling the imports. Knifemakers in Thiers, unconcerned about authenticity, replaced the traditional fly-emblem on the handle of the knives, which symbolized those that buzz about the Aubrac's famous cows, with a (more marketable) bee.

A similar unhappy fate almost destroyed traditional Laguiole cheese. In 1900, about 700 tons were produced. By 1960, blander, pasteurized, industrialized varieties had replaced the sharp, raw-milk Laguiole, and production had dropped to 25 tons. "Our patrimony was on the verge of extinction," says André Valadier, president of the Coopérative Fromagère Jeune Montagne.

During that sad time for Laguiole, the town's only tourists were expatriated Auvergnats making summer pilgrimages to the land of their ancestors. Michel Bras' father, Marcel, was a blacksmith who couldn't make ends meet, so he and his wife, Angel, opened a rustic café. "We served workers, that's all," the elder Bras recalls. Meanwhile, the town's two hotels became more and more dilapidated.

Luckily, many people in France have begun to rediscover their authentic regional foods and products. The first Laguiole tradition to be saved was cheesemaking. In 1960, Valadier formed the cooperative and successfully lobbied the Paris authorities to grant an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, meaning that the authentic raw-milk cheese could be produced only within a small geographic area around the town.

The next renaissance was culinary, drawing on a similar hunger for authenticity. Unlike most famed French chefs of his generation who apprenticed in other restaurants, Michel Bras began by cooking alongside his mother in the family café. He won his first and second Michelin stars there, in the small space at the bottom of the village. Even now, he begins his menus with a simple soft-boiled egg. "I'll never serve caviar here," Bras says. "My cooking takes its inspiration and its body and soul from age-old local traditions."

Of all Laguiole's success stories, the sharpest is the knifemaking industry. In 1987, local entrepreneur Boissons decided to try to revive the trade. He sent four local workers to northern France to be retrained in knife manufacturing. Then, through an Auvergnat contact in Paris, he recruited famed designer Philippe Starck to design the transparent, blade-topped building. Starck and other well-known designers such as Yann Pennor and Sonia Rykiel created new knife models.

"We didn't want to be a museum, just producing the old models," Boissons says. "You must update tradition to bring it alive."


For the complete article, please see the Feb. 28, 2001 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 70.

Restaurants & Hotels

Michel Bras
Route d'Aubrac, 12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-51-18-20
Fax (011) 33-4-65-48-47-02
Website www.michelbras.fr/english/sommaire.htm
Email (011) michel.bras@wanadoo.fr
Open April 1 to Oct. 31 Restaurant: Lunch and dinner, daily during July and Aug.; Sept., Oct. and April to June: lunch, Thursday to Sunday; dinner, Tuesday and Thursday to Sunday
Cost Menus $35-$100 per person without wine
Rooms 15
Rates $150-$250
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club

A meal here represents a gastronomic pilgrimage. The isolated mountaintop retreat beckons from miles around, and it doesn't disappoint.

Bras is a chef of rare sensibility and aesthetic. His restaurant/hotel has been described as "stark," but that's too harsh. It's modern and spartanly furnished, but warm and welcoming. Plump down in a plush white-leather chair and enjoy an aperitif while looking out through giant bay windows at the spectacular countryside. Enter the Japanese temple-style dining room and be pampered, from an entrée of the spectacular gargouillou salad to the warm chocolate desert.

Despite the chic decor and haute cuisine that would be at home in Paris or New York, this remains a family establishment, with Michel and son Sebastian manning the kitchen, and wife, Ginette, and daughter-in-law Veronique serving in the dining room. Michel's mother, Angel, still cooks the staff meal each day, and his father, Marcel, helps with the gardening. "I worked out of necessity, while my son works out of love," Marcel says. It's not surprising that the restaurant's prices remain reasonable.


Grand Hôtel Auguy
12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-44-31-11
Fax (011) 33-5-65-51-50-81
Open Feb. 1 to Nov. 27, except June 8-13 Restaurant: Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Menus $25
Rooms 27
Rates $40-$60
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club

This is a first-class budget hotel and restaurant. The Auguy family has been running it for almost a century, and the present husband-and-wife team has moved it gently upscale. The rooms are comfortable and modern. But the real excitement comes from the kitchen, where Isabelle Auguy turns out terrific local fare such as trout with bacon, pig's feet with lentils and juniper, and grilled sausage with aligot, a high-calorie puree of potatoes and cheese. The wine list is strong, with Bordeaux superstars, Bollinger and Roederer Champagnes and judicious budget-minded choices, such as the Chablis Vieilles Vignes from the La Chablisienne cooperative.


Hôtel Régis
Place de la Patte d'Oie, 12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-44-30-0
Fax (011) 33-5-65-48-46-44
Open Year-round Restaurant: Lunch and dinner, daily Feb. to Oct.; lunch, Tuesday to Sunday, Dec. 26 to Dec. 5; dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, Dec. 26 to Dec. 5
Cost $12-$25
Rooms 24
Rates $35-$50
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club

This family-run inn at the town's center isn't as ambitious as the Auguy, which is across the street. But the rooms are simple and clean—and there's a nice, if not heated, swimming pool, ideal for the rare hot summer days. The restaurant turns out respectable, affordable choices, and the breakfasts include fresh coffee and fine croissants. If you can't get a room at Michel Bras or the Auguy, the Régis can provide a pleasant stay.


Knives

Société Forge de Laguiole
Route de l'Aubrac, BP 9 12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-48-43-34
Fax (011) 33-5-50-44-37-66
Website www.laguiole.com
Open Daily, July and Aug., with guided visits; by request
during regular business hours, Sept. to June
Cost $15-$300 per knife; a set of six steak knives with a wooden case, $75-$450
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

The Forge relaunched the Laguiole knifemaking tradition and remains the best place to learn about and buy the knives. Visits to the factory, which is about a half-mile from the town, are free of charge. You can explore the first few rooms of the factory and see most of the manufacturing process. Models are attractively displayed, and the salespeople are friendly and helpful. The Forge also runs an attractive Philippe Starck-designed boutique in the center of town. A few other knife boutiques in the Laguiole center also offer top-quality products. One particularly interesting store is La Coutellerie de Laguiole, which assembles knives by hand. For the most part, however, the other knife stores should be avoided. The Forge is not much more expensive than the shops offering inferior knockoffs.


Baked Goods

La Fouace de Laguiole Roux
12 Rue Bardierek, 12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-44-33-30
Fax (011) 33-5-65-51-55-55
Open Daily
Cost $10 for a medium fouace
Credit cards None are accepted

This bakery has been around for almost a century, offering great baguettes and pastries and, its famed fouace, brioche spiced with a secret mixture of orange peel and liqueur. Owner Denise Roux has modernized the shop but not the traditional baking techniques.


Cheese

Coopérative Fromagère Jeune Montagne
Route de St.-Flour, 12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-44-35-54p
Open Daily, 9 a.m. to noon, 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sept. to June; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., July and Aug.
Cost $2.50 per pound
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

This cooperative offers free tasting and sells its cheese at bargain prices. It also sells fresh- and vacuum-packed versions of aligot.


Charcuterie

Maison Conquet
12210 Laguiole
Telephone (011) 33-5-65-44-33-05
Fax (011) 33-5-65-44-30-23
Cost Approx. $7.50 per pound for top-grade sausage
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

Gault Millau twice has voted the Conquet sausage the best in France. Brothers Lucien and André run the operation and mail their creations all over France. Their headquarters is a small, crowded shop squeezed between the Roux bakery and the Hôtel Auguy. Homemade pâtés and canned confit and cassoulets also are available.

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