The “Gagnaire from Puy” is no relation to the haute cuisining “Gagnaire from Paris”. That’s Pierre. This is François. And this is the Haute Loire or more precisely the fetching town of Le Puy en-Velay. The youngest-starred chef in the region (he earned the one sparkly Michelin mantle in 2006) François Gagnaire is a zealous emissary for local products, especially the green Puy lentil, France’s first AOC veggie. In Gagnaire’s hands, it becomes caviar. Seriously! Cooked in a shellfish bisque, the faux roe (dubbed Caviar du Velay) is dished up in a round tin accompanied by lentil blinis and a filmy lentil soup sucked up through a straw from a crumb-crusted egg shell. Gagnaire has an artistic eye. His deeply nourishing souris d’agneau, a knuckle of Velay lamb braised in orange peel, coriander seeds and red wine, comes with the scrubbed bone draped across a glass plate and the dark sweet meat spooned from an small casserole. On the side, a macaroni gratin and caramelised onions. Scallops from Brittany perch on a slice of wild mushroom and pork sausage surrounded by orange (pumpkin) pillows and green (pea) splashes (pictured). Roast fig appears wrapped in a candied mint strand with a Plougastel tart (buttery shortbread piped with cream and topped with raspberries) and jasmine ice-cream. Love Gagnaire’s deft mix of tradition and invention, a sommelier that takes the time to explain his choices, the cool teal-grey room with Raoul Dufy lithos and only having to clamber up a few steps to bed. The chef and his wife Isabelle updated the Hotel du Parc a few years ago, adding Ron Arad and Philippe Stark chairs, Kartell lamps and cabinets by Pascal Michalon, and have just been awarded 4-star status for their tasteful efforts. Very mod, very comfy and a perfect base for exploring the town. Breakfast is a fresh, country delight. Dinner menus at €35 (weekdays only), €58, €85, €97, €145; vegetable and fruit only menu €41.
Shrine of the Times
Le Puy en-Velay is terribly pretty although its outskirts might have you thinking otherwise. The trademark black lava stone endows a sooty, even somber air but…turn a corner and there’s a glimpse of cobbled streets, colour soaked facades and the imposing Notre-Dame-du-Puy. Pilgrims once flocked to this UNESCO-listed cathedral to venerate a statue of a Black Madonna. She went up in smoke in the 18thC but a replica lives on and the pilgrims keep dropping by – the town lies on via Podensis, one of the four routes to Compostelle in Spain. There’s lots to occupy here. Climb the 268 steps to the Byzantine St-Michel-d’Aiguilhe Chapel for 12thC frescoes and black lava mosaics. Wander around Notre Dame de France, a rather commanding statue made from 213 melted-down Russian cannons seized at the Siege of Sebastopol, and onto Pouzarot, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods. Loiter in and around the cathedral and its cloisters and in front of Roman houses on rue Rochetaillade. Ramble along the Route de St Jaques de Compostelle (Way of St James) through fields and stone-edged tracks and then back to plonk down for restorative crêpes and coffee at the very sweet Alice et Cie on Place du Plot. Buy some local goodies: mineral rich Puy lentils (either as ready-to-eat caviar or ready to cook kernels), Verviene sweeties or liqueur, (an acquired but not unpleasant taste) and a lace collar or two (bobbins have been busy here since the 17thC).