After some time melting my sins away in the dry sauna of our Saint Nectaire hotel, I shocked my senses awake with an ice-cold shower before suiting up in sweater, coat and Uggs and heading out again for dinner. We had made a reservation at L’Auberge de l’Âne, a charming, rustic tavern-type restaurant at an altitude of 876 m in the heart of the Auvergne Volcano Regional Park. It’s the type of place you call ahead for reservations, specifying your choice between their three hot entrees well in advance. While they also do a mean Fondue Saint Nectaire, their signature is the truffade. This is another speciality of the Auverne region, which – like its gooey cousin, the aligot – involves potatoes and cheese.
The auberge is a cozy place run by a chef named Martin and his wife who takes the orders. The menu is super simple, featuring very few ingredients, but those are sourced with care. Wines are Pinot Noir and Gamay from Côtes-d’Auvergne or Boudes, served in tiny glasses that need frequent refilling. The very limited list is supplemented by a quirky house cocktail made with blackcurrant syrup. We chose a Gamay from Caves Charmensat in Boudes and put in our order for the truffade.
The truffade arrived to the table sizzling in the very same pan that cooked it, and a wooden spatula with which to divy it up and serve yourself. We each also got a bread basket and a plate of just-for-show lettuce with some slices of ham and salami lain over the top. I’m assuming these were meant to make little open-faced sandies with in the off chance that one’s still hungry after the main event. Truffade is made by sautéeing thinly sliced potatoes in duck fat until they are beautifully caramelized on the surface, seasoning with minced garlic and then gradually stirring shredded or finely chopped bits of soft local cheese until the latter melts around the potato, sticking the pieces together and forming a viscous, stretchy mass in the shape of the pan. Bits of ham or bacon are also often added for smoky, porcine zest to round out the cheese, which can be either Tomme or Cantal. In this case, it was made with Cantal jeune from the AOC Cantal, a cow’s-milk cheese with a fat content of 45%, aged for only 1-2 months. There were also some bits of bacon mixed in.
Just what does it feel like to swallow your first mouthful of truffade after a long weekend of cold, wet snow? Pretty epic. This is a dense, creamy and luscious blob with patches of beautifully crunchy, caramelized potato, revealing an almost sandy texture on the tongue, a reflection of the duck fat in which it was cooked. Here and there, pretty pink bits hint at smoky porcine zest. But the main star of the show is that cheese, that ooey-gooey mass of Cantal, which shows off a wide array of textures across this dish. The bits on the surface caramelize in contact with the pan, drying up into a crunchy brown crust. In other areas, the cheese melts together with the potatoes, interacting with the starchy surface to form a creamy, thick mash. Poke the blob in the center, and it will ooze out pure, melted Cantal, which tastes of slightly tangy, yet very clean, butter. Like it’s brother, the aligot, this dish showcases two very simple ingredients and makes for the perfect hearty wintertime mountain meal. Also like aligot, is has to be eaten rather quickly, before the cheese stiffens and loses its swagger. All in all, a wonderful culinary experience, with the pale red and very fruity house Gamay serving as the perfect complement to this simply and satisfying dish.