Monday, November 9, 2009

The Knives Are Out

Laguiole is an isolated town of 1200 people sitting on the Aubrac plateau, smack in the middle of nowhere in southern France. This “nowhere” is part of the Massif Central: mountains and plateaus separated from the Alps by the Rhone River. Despite its small population, Laguiole is world-famous for 3 things: high-quality knives, a cheese that’s also called Laguiole, and an amazing restaurant, run by a family called Bras. In 2009, Restaurant Magazine's panel of food critics voted this Michelin 3-star restaurant as the seventh best restaurant in the world in its annual awards. Michèle is taking me there to celebrate my recent graduation from Algonquin’s sommelier program! Yes, I am a lucky man. Hmm, or are we really going there to shop for knives?

Laguiole is about 230 kilometres from Montpellier. It’s autoroute most of the way but, because the last part of the drive will be on twisting secondary roads along the Aubrac plateau, it should take about 3 hours to get there. Leaving Montpellier at 10 in the morning, it’s 22 degrees. As climb towards the Aubrac plateau, the temperature drops steadily, 16 degrees at 800 metres. The landscape is rocky, very dry with sparse vegetation. We travel across the Millau Viaduct, a cable road-bridge that opened in 2004, spanning the Tarn River. It’s the tallest road-bridge in the world. This morning, fog shrouds the viaduct, making it even more impressive when it suddenly appears out of the mist.

Once we reach the Aubrac plateau at 1000 metres, the landscape changes to rugged, hilly pastures of grasses and flowers. Cattle ranching is big here. There’s even a breed of cattle called “Aubrac”. They’re raised primarily for beef but their milk is also used to make Laguiole cheese. For the final 50 kilometres to Laguiole, it’s nothing but pastures and cattle. It seems hard to believe that there’s a world-famous restaurant out here. Crossing the plateau, we gradually climb up to 1400 metres (the temperature falls to 13), passing one-lift ski stations reminiscent of Camp Fortune, before descending into Laguiole.

We settle into the hotel and, first things first, go shopping for cheese knives and a corkscrew. Laguiole is an Occitan word that means “little church”. There’s no “g” sound in the Occitan language so it’s pronounced “la-yoll”. Kind of like a southern accent, y’all. The knives have a distinctive design, slim with a long blade. The basic design of the knife blade is always the same; it’s the handle where the designer can express creativity in choice of materials. The original material for the handle, and still the most popular, is the horn of the Aubrac cow. On the catch where the handle joins the blade, there’s a depiction of a fly. No one is quite sure why. (Gee, I don’t know, don’t cows draw flies?) The main drag has many individual shops and artisans dedicated to the Laguiole knife. It doesn’t take long to cover all the shops and we buy a couple of cheese knives. Can’t wait to use ‘em. I’m surprised that I can’t find what I’m looking for though: a two-stage corkscrew in the Laguiole design. Lots of one-stagers, but nobody sells a two-stage corkscrew. Disappointing.

We head over to a factory at the edge of town that makes the Laguiole cheese. On the way, there’s a gourmet shop that sells their own locally-made foie gras. They’ve won a gold medal at a Paris competition for 6 consecutive years. We buy some; it should pair well with some Muscat de Frontignan wine. The cheese factory is a cooperative, gathering milk from the ranchers across the region. Under the Laguiole cheese regulations, the cows must spend the entire summer out in the pasture and the cheese is unpasteurized. It’s available in 4 different ages: <4 months, 8-12 months, 12-18 months, 18+ months. The flavour is nutty, slightly sour, with a bit of sweetness. Reminds me of cheddar.

Back to the hotel, it’s time to get ready for our meal at Bras.

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