Thickly forested and sliced by numerous rivers and lakes, the once volcanic uplands of the Massif Central are geologically the oldest part of France and culturally one of the most firmly rooted in the past. Industry and tourism have made few inroads here, and the people remain rural and somewhat taciturn, with an enduring sense of regional identity.
The Massif Central takes up a huge portion of the centre of France, but only a handful of towns have gained a foothold in its rugged terrain: Le Puy, spiked with theatrical pinnacles of lava, is the most compelling, with its steep streets and majestic cathedral; the spa town of Vichy has an antiquated elegance and charm; even heavily industrial Clermont-Ferrand, the biggest town in the Massif, has a certain cachet in the black volcanic stone of its historic centre and its stunning physical setting beneath the Puy de Dôme, a 1464m-high volcanic plug. There is pleasure, too, in the unpretentious provinciality of Aurillac and in the untouched medieval architecture of smaller places like Murat, Besse, Salers, Orcival, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue and La Couvertoirade, and in the hugely influential abbey of Conques. But, above all, this is a region where you come to see the landscapes rather than towns, churches or museums.
Many of France’s greatest rivers rise in the Massif Central: the Dordogne in the Monts-Dore, the Loire on the slopes of the Gerbier de Jonc in the east, and in the Cévennes the Lot and the Tarn. It is these last two rivers that create the distinctive character of the southern parts of the Massif Central, dividing and defining the special landscapes of the causses, or limestone plateaux, with their stupendous gorges. This is territory tailor-made for walkers or lovers of the outdoors.Read More
The food of the Massif Central
The food of the Massif Central
Don’t expect anything very refined from the cuisine of the Auvergne and Massif Central: it’s solid peasant food, as befits a traditionally poor and rugged region. The best-known dish is potée auvergnate, a kind of cabbage soup, with added potatoes, pork or bacon, beans and turnips – easy to make and very nourishing. Another popular cabbage dish is chou farci: cabbage stuffed with pork and beef and cooked with bacon.
Two potato dishes are very common – la truffade and l’aligot. For truffade, the potatoes are sliced and fried in lard, then fresh Cantal cheese is added; for an aligot, the potatoes are puréed and mixed with cheese. Less palatable for the squeamish is tripoux, usually a stuffing of either sheep’s feet or calf’s innards, cooked in a casing of stomach lining. Fricandeau, a kind of pork pâté, is also wrapped in sheep’s stomach.
Clafoutis is a popular fruit tart in which the fruit is baked with a batter of flour and egg simply poured over it. The classic fruit ingredient is black cherries, though pears, blackcurrants or apples can also be used.
The Auvergne and the Ardèche in the east produce some wines, though these are not of any great renown. Cheese, however, is a different story. In addition to the great cow’s milk cheeses – St-Nectaire, Laguiole, Cantal, Fourme d’Ambert and Bleu d’Auvergne – this region also produces the prince of all cheeses, Roquefort, made from sheep’s milk at the edge of the Causse du Larzac.