We rolled into Saint Nectaire at 2:00 a.m. at 40 km/h in a snow-white Fiat 500 with no chain on the tires, careful not to brake on the patchwork of slush and black ice that greeted us on the road. A surprise destination, I knew nothing about the Auvergne region (except that it was half-way between Burgundy and Bordeaux) or Saint Nectaire (except that there’s a famous cheese from there). The next day we would explore this region, also famous for the thermal baths of Mont Dore and the magnificent volcanoes of the Massif Central (one of which my fiance made me hike in Uggs…). I did remember that during a project at school a friend had mentioned aligot as a culinary specialty of that region. In fact, we ended up organizing an aligot party shortly after, where the same guy prepared the stuff for our closest group of friends. On that night I learned just how much effort goes into saturating a pot of mashed potatoes with so much Tomme… So when we rolled into Clermont Ferrand to find a bathing suit for me to wear in the sauna just after, we stopped by L’Oustagou, the first restaurant in the city recommended for this special dish.
Ben got the choux farci auvergnat, curly cabbage stuffed with pulled pork shoulder and cooked in a pot-au-feu with cabbage, carrot, parsnip and potatoes. This was a very clean dish, the perfect steamy bowl of hearty vegetables and pork on a freezing cold February day. When slicing into the cabbage, the lumps of tender shredded pork spilled forth, very juicy and moist, delicately seasoned to allow the natural porcine sweetness and the subtle flavors of boiled veggies to dominate.
I ordered aligot, which came in its own individual pot, complete with a wooden spoon sticking out of the dense yellow mass. On the side was some lettuce dressed in a creamy sauce and a grilled pork sausage, most similar to the saucisson toulousienne that I had in my cassoulet that one time in Toulouse 3 years ago. It had a nice snap, wasn’t excessively greasy and was just salty enough to complement the subtle sweetness of the creamy aligot.
Aligot is a dish best eaten quickly. It’s a goopy, creamy thing that becomes stiff and lumpy as it cools, and a big part of its appeal is the way in which it warms your bones after just a few bites. Even as I transferred it to my room-temperature plate, I felt it hardening up, so eventually I abandoned this formality and ate the stuff right out of the pan. For having only two simple ingredients, aligot has to be one of the most indulgent dishes I’ve ever tried. The mashed potatoes – left a bit chunkier than the smooth puree my friend made – were loaded with cheese until the ratio reached almost 50-50. As the heat from the potatoes melts the shredded Tomme, the latter becomes a gooey, stringy liquid that blends in with the spuds, forming a gloppy, sticky and very dense paste-like substance. The flavors are very subtle and clean, as Tomme isn’t too crazy a cheese, but instead just creamy and very slightly salty. It’s more about texture here. It’s a sinfully creamy, soft, warm specialty designed to fill one up after a cold winter day in the mountains, perfect for an apres-ski, for example. With the sausage and a nice glass of old vine Gamay made from the basalt terroir of Cotes d’Auvergne, this local specialty hit the spot, providing the calorie boost I needed for the volcano trek ahead.
When in Auvergne do the following: visit a hot spring, climb a volcano, tour a cheese farm and eat aligot.