Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Auberge de Chassignolles: heart of the Auvergne

View from the Auberge

If we were in any doubt about the purity of the air in the tiny hamlet of Chassignolles we had only to look at the lichen-covered branches of trees in the surrounding forests.   Lichens are extremely sensitive to atmospheric pollution and, at 950 metres above sea level in the Haute-Loire, an exquisite filigree form decorates this part of the Livradois forest.  The perfect place for long walks to work up an appetite for the gutsy terroir cooking at the Auberge de Chassignolles.

Ingredients are sourced from the surrounding areas, their region number being chalked on a slate.  The emphasis is on seasonality and taste and the balance of the meals is perfect.  Consider a trio of croutes: Nettles; Anchovy and herb pesto; Brandade, followed by Riz au champignons, roast Canette (duck) with greens, peas and turnips, a refreshing salade des champs then Auvergne cheeses and finishing with Cherry tart with a sorbet of cherries.  The mushrooms and nettles had been foraged locally by Steve, an Auberge chef.  After meeting him the next day gathering wood sorrel, that night we ate the Auberge's charcuterie with radishes and cornichons, Leek vinaigrette with egg and wood sorrel, Roast pork with Amaranth and baby turnips, Salade des champs, Auvergne cheeses and Savarin with raspberries and Chantilly cream.  €24 per person seemed a small price to pay for a set 5-6 course dinner, even in France, and with glasses of local wine starting at €1, we were very happy.  The wine list is interesting and extensive with many natural and local wines.  Having earlier been caught in a heavy shower, Harry appropriately recommended a delicious 'Mauvais Temps' local wine which matched dinner perfectly.

Breakfast is a substantial buffet.  So often the heart sinks at the word 'buffet', but not here. The table was laden with fresh local cherries, apricots and melons, juices, yoghurts, fruit compotes, jams and honeys, crusty baguettes and buttery croissants.  With plenty of cafe au lait on offer we were set up for a day of walking but, not being the best map readers in the world, we took a pique-nique just in case.  A stainless steel tiffin box was packed with crudites, brandade, sauccisson sec, cornichons and pate, the lower section filled with fresh strawberries and apricot tartlets.  Packages of cheese, bread and langues de chat biscuits were a fine ending after all the wild strawberries and bilberries we had feasted on in the woods.

An early evening arrival was the perfect introduction to the peace and quiet of the deepest reaches of the Auvergne, south of Clermont Ferrand.  The Auberge de Chassignolles is at the heart of the village, overlooking the 13th century Romanesque church.  Swifts and House Martins sliced the air and Nora, the Auberge's Pyrenean Mountain dog, came to say hello and keep us company on the terrace as we enjoyed a glass of local Rosé.  English owners Chef Harry, and Artist Ali Lester have run the Auberge for the past 5 years, raising a family and steadily building up a loyal following.  With eight rooms, the Auberge is simply furnished, clean, comfortable, unpretentious and very welcoming.  See also Alastair Sawday's entry. You may be familiar with Harry's style of cooking from the Anchor and Hope in London.

So if you like simplicity, good food and wine, generous hosts, tranquillity - the chimes of the church bell being the loudest sound you will hear - clean air, forest walks, pathways edged by wildflowers and ribbons of cornflowers weaving through wheat fields, the Auberge de Chassignolles is the place for you.  And if you think it might be a little quiet for your taste, there are foraging and charcuterie courses later in the year so you can eat and drink well and learn at the same time.  Just before Harry drove us back to the train station, Steve and pastry chef, Elaine, gave us a taste of the wild cherries they had found which they planned to turn into a traditional Cherry Clafouti.  Maybe next time we'll sign up to learn more on a foraging course.