The Monts-Dore, part of the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, lie about 50km southwest of Clermont. Volcanic in origin – the main period of activity was around five million years ago – they are much more rugged and more obviously mountainous than their gentler, younger neighbours, the Monts-Dômes. Their centre is the precipitous, plunging valley of the River Dordogne, which rises on the slopes of the Puy de Sancy, at 1885m the highest point in the Massif Central, just above the little town of Le Mont-Dore.
Some 27km southwest of Clermont and about 20km north of Le Mont-Dore, lush pastures and green hills punctuated by the abrupt eruptions of the puys enclose the small village of Orcival. A pretty, popular place, founded by the monks of La Chaise-Dieu in the twelfth century, it makes a suitable base for hiking in the region.
St-Nectaire lies 26km southeast of Orcival, midway between Le Mont-Dore and Issoire. It comprises the old village of St-Nectaire-le-Haut, overlooked by the magnificent Romanesque church of St Nectaire and the tiny spa of St-Nectaire-le-Bas, whose main street is lined with grand but fading belle époque hotels. Among the town’s other curiosities are a couple of caverns, and the Maison du Fromage.
Fifteen or so kilometres south of St-Nectaire, Besse is one of the prettiest and oldest villages in the region. Its fascinating winding streets of lava-built houses – some fifteenth-century – sit atop the valley of the Couze de Pavin, with one of the original fortified town gates still in place at the upper end of the village. Besse became wealthy due to its role as the principal market for the farms on the eastern slopes of the Monts-Dore, and its cooperative is still one of the main producers of St-Nectaire cheese.
The cheese of St-Nectaire has been growing in reputation ever since Louis XIV had it regularly served at his table; only cheeses made from herds grazing in a limited area to the south of the Monts-Dore are entitled to the appellation contrôlée. The cheese is made in two stages. First, a white creamy cheese or tomme is produced. This is matured for two to three months in a cellar at a constant temperature; the resulting mould on the skin produces the characteristic smell, taste and whitish or yellowy-grey colour.
There are two kinds of St-Nectaire cheese: fermier and laitier. The fermier is the strongest and tastiest, and some of it is still made entirely on local farms. Increasingly, however, farmers make the tomme and then sell it on to wholesalers for the refining stage. The laitier is more an “industrial” product, made from the milk of lots of different herds, and then sold onto a cooperative or cheese manufacturer for its final stages.