For various, all positive, reasons the month of solitude has been unexpectedly cut short and has become a fortnight. I have the opportunity to fais le pont in Clermont Ferrand in the Auvergne and after a lengthy day of flights and transfers I finally arrived.
This is a very French place. English
is few and far between and I like that. It gives me a chance to try my language but also it means that everything is offered for the locals rather than the tourists. Clermont is a well lit town I discovered. We walked out across Place de Jaude and up to the cathedral. There are fountains lit in yellow, spectacular old shopping blocks with lit facades, LEDs in the stone pavements and the Cathedral itself is up lit to create some Gothic drama. There is a mixture of new and old which you find in real, working, cities.
My wife had booked us into Le Caveau, a small restaurant up next to the Cathedral. The unassuming entrance is down a flight of steps and through a steel door. There are no lit name boards here, only a single chalkboard with tonight’s menu.
Le Caveau itself is a single room wine cellar containing an eclectic mix of wine bottles, rugby memorabilia and books – oh and a small cooking area too. Everything is done by the owner in full view. And everything here is in French. There are only 7-8 items and variations on the menu, and only six tables. They don’t cram people in either so we had a comfortable simply-dressed table for four for the two of us. The menu could be summarised as meat, fois gras and Truffade. The specials feature different cuts of local breeds and the headline was Piece de boeuf Mystere. There was boudin, tripe and local sausage and the option to have some foie gras as an extra. We had a complementary small portion of homemade meatloaf to have with bread as we ordered. I went for Hampe which I think is flank steak. My wife chose the Coq au vin. The price is expensive here (mains were 25-35 euros each with 10 euros for foie gras) but the portions are huge. The Coq au vin came with lots of pieces of breast and thigh in a rich earthy jus. It was not my favourite but undoubtedly the real deal. My Hampe of local Saler beef was cooked very saignant and was surprisingly tender. It could have done with a tad more seasoning. As we were leaving we noticed the neighbouring table had a pot of seasoning and we should have asked.
The highlight was the Truffade. Le Caveau is reputed to serve the best in Clermont and this is the local speciality. It came in a non-stick skillet straight from the oven. It looked creamy and unctuous. Truffade is a combination of potato, bacon and Cantal cheese. The potato is cooked and softened. The bacon is just a subtle note in the background and it all comes together in a fabulous dish. The oven bake means that the base just catches and forms a light crust – the best part of any bake in my opinion.
We had a 50cl pichet of house red. In other countries I feel a cheapskate having the house wine but I find in France it is always good quality and avoids embarrassment with a wine list above my abilities. We couldn’t face a dessert but the cheese board looked amazing. For 8 euros you had free reign over a large wooden board with big slabs of well kept cheese.
Altogether our meal cost 75 euros. The meat is undoubtedly fantastic and the atmosphere is extraordinarily intimate. Even though this is definitely very French we were welcomed and the friendly staff talked to us (and helped us along).