We first found the Relais & Chateaux resort hanging above the Aubrac plateau in 2004, as we fled the food desert known as the Minervois that had been our lovely home for almost a month on our first annual “let’s spend our mythical child’s school tuition” flex-time sojourn to France. While we were utterly charmed by our house, we were almost equally devastated at the discovery all French folk did not necessarily look at food the way Patricia Wells had seemingly promised they did. Some of our longtime readers may be familiar with the story of Michelle breaking into tears at the sight of the meat in a local grocery, and many have heard us say that the gastronomic highlight in Caunes-Minervois was the weekly pizza truck visit. At the very end of our stay, balancing between Michelin ratings and geographic reality, we decided to venture several hours north to the Aubrac. There, we were introduced to the mystical, methodical genius that is Michel Bras. A year later, when we rented a home not far away in the cow-filled Aveyron, we ate at Bras four times in one month.
It is possible that, like former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, Bras is an android constructed in the French-myth-fortifying bowels of the Académie Française. (A snobby prime minister that’s also a poet? A bit too “on the nose,” if you know what we mean.) Quiet, soft-spoken and self-taught, never venturing far from his tiny town of Laguiole, Bras somehow became the inventor of the molten-center chocolate cake, proponent of perfect, simple and staggeringly amazing dishes, and legendarily influential chef and owner of a place “bathed in light, with an uninterrupted view of infinity.”
Runner in and fierce advocate of the Aubrac terroir, Bras had such an influence on us we actually searched for a particular Rowan tree that he had written about. (We never found it, but we enjoyed pretending we did.) We loved staying there, enjoying the rooms with spectacular views and to Steve’s delight the mini-bars stocked with surcharge-free stuff like elderflower soda. (Steve is constantly tempted by mini-bars.)
As this is a food blog we will leave the cows and countryside of the Aubrac to talk about the food—in short, it was amazing. Our tasting menus were simple, modern and surprising in various ways, from an edible centerpiece to an admonition to carefully tend to our Laguiole knives. Eating at Bras always included aligot, a traditional sticky, rich cheese and potato purée that’s a hat-tip to Michel’s mother (and the appetite-killing bane of Michelle’s meals there). We also enjoyed the astonishing gargouillou (you can find a .pdf of the recipe here), a plate of 50 to 60 individually prepared vegetables and herbs that compares to a composed salad the way the Pietà contrasts with your kindergarten pottery project. Bras said in a New York Times article that the culinary world-shattering dish
came to him during a run in the countryside in June 1978, when the fields and mountains were in full flower. “It was beautiful, it was rich, it was marvelous,” he said. “I decided to try to translate the fields.”
Steve remembers a slice of butter-poached beet, rendering it absolutely delicious (and remaining the only way he’s ever liked beets). Michelle remembers the bits of Romanesco broccoli and the scattering of tiny local flowers. It’s the kind of thing you have once and never stop talking about. Or even twice, or three times—to be honest, we’ve sort of forgotten how many gargouillous we had. What began as a fun, fiercely extravagant idea became a lesson in overdoing it, as the always excellent experience actually started to be a bit tiresome by the end. (We believe our somewhat confusing array of party combinations and reservations involving various visiting family and friends was a bit tiresome for Bras’ staff as well, if the truth be told.) However, we never tired of the gargouillou and were always enchanted by a truffle-laced egg custard cunningly served in a cleanly-topped eggshell cup with buttery brioche soldiers, an amuse-bouche we enjoyed with our cocktails in the Frenchily-futuristic glass box of Bras’ waiting area.
We may never get back to the restaurant, and such excesses as weekly 3-star restaurant meals are out of the question in the current economic climate. We certainly don’t have the chops to make gargouillou. But our autographed Essential Cuisine cookbook (possibly marking the first level of the Bras frequent diners club—a dozen dinners gets you a Rowan tree, perhaps) does include a variety of egg dishes, and we decided that was as close as we could come to recreating our Bras experiences. While we still won’t say soft-boiled eggs are our favorite things, we did enjoy both sweet and savory versions of this playful, tasty snack. But if Steve ever stumbles across a reliable supply of young Laguiole cheese, our next homage to Bras will probably be aligot.
SOFT-BOILED EGGS AND SOLDIERS
(adapted from Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine)
“For a mise en bouche”
Make bread fingers out of wheat or country bread, sliced about 3/4″ square and about 3″ long, and toasted in the oven.
Top the bread with onion compote (very thinly sliced onions, caramelized in butter and salt, with a little sugar and fresh thyme leaves added at the end), then with a slice of blue cheese.
Serve with a soft-boiled egg topped with more of the onion compote and garnished with fresh thyme sprigs.
“For a treat”
Make bread fingers out of brioche or challah, sliced about 3/4″ square and about 3″ long, and toasted in the oven.
Top the bread with a layer of apricot jam, then with a slice of hard cheese (preferably Laguiole, though a cheddar would do).
Serve with a soft-boiled egg topped with a bit of butter, some Demerara sugar and ground almonds.