Dear Uncle Al
I heard that you were vacationing in the south of France. And i was just wondering , since you and Liz are out and about in the Rolls, if you wouldn’t mind taking a little detour to Laguiole. It is only about 250 kilometers north of Montpellier, just hop on the E11 and go north to Antrenas and then east through Marchastrel and Nasbinals. There are plenty of villages along the way if you need to stop and sample the wine and cheese.
You will wind your way up 2000 feet above sea level or so as you come to this village in the Aveyron department. This department is famous world wide as the home to Roquefort cheese. Kinda fun huh? Did you know that before they figured out how to synthesize the mold (penecilium roqueforti) for the cheese they would put bread into the caves to leaven and attract the mold, scoop out the center of the loaves, make a powder out of it and add it to the goats milk to make the cheese.
On your way north you will cross the Millau Viaduct. A bridge built by a British engineer that is taller than the Eiffel tower. It is supported by 9 thin towers with steel decking and an innovative steel rope webbing to keep it all together. It is 370 meters above the ground when it crosses the river below. Just keep your eyes on the road, you will be fine, the bridge has reinforced guard rails built to hold against an 18 wheeler if one should crash. The bridge is 2.4 kilometers long so settle in for a long ride.
When you arrive in Laguiole, look for the statue of a “Bull” in the town square. This is a tribute to the main source of livelihood for the local area population for centuries. These hearty cattle are unique to this area and provide the milk for the cheese of Laguiole, a semi-soft cheese that is registered with it’s own appellation by French law. Janet Fletcher says “Historical records suggest that Laguiole originated in monasteries, and that monks transmitted the methods of production to local farmers. In the late 1800s, more than 300 cheesemaking huts, known as burons, were scattered across the plateau. Between May and October, when the high-altitude pastures flourished, farmers led their cows from the valley into the mountains to graze and made cheese in the burons along the way. The burons have all but vanished now, and virtually all Laguiole is produced by a single cooperative established in the 1960s.”
The village of Languiole is also famous for it’s special knives. First produced in 1829 the village produced the knives until the 1930’s when the competition with Thiers (the “knife center” of France) put the local smiths out of business. In the early 1980’s a local group opened a foundry and began producing the “original” Laguiole folding knife once again. The current version of the knife comes in a variety of styles, a longish slightly upturned blade, an awl for leather punching and a cork-screw. Original knives also had a cross embedded on one side of the handle which gave the herdsmen a way of saying the rosary when they were on their long summer trek to pasture their cattle. This knife was so important for the locals that it became a tradition to give one to every boy at his first communion.
Uncle Al, the reason I asked you to make this side trip is that I want an original Laguiole knife. They have a store right in the middle of the village and you can go in a look at all the offerings. The “Bee” on the top of the front bolster was (legend has it) was awarded by Napoleon in recognition of the brave persistence of the soldiers from this region. The new models come in a variety of handle types, and steels, they even have a master smith who forges damascus steel for blades on some models. Speaking of blades the authentic La Coutellerie de Laguiole has a Bull logo embedded on the blade, they will even give you a certificate of authenticity. I would prefer one with a horn handle and stainless steel is just fine, the cork-screw is a must and I will find a use for the awl. They used the awl originally to punch a hole in the stomach of a cow or sheep who got bloated on fermenting spring grass.
Anyway, Uncle Al if you would get me a Laguiole knife I would really appreciate it. I also have a pleasant surprise for you… just up the street there is a fantastic “chef-owned” hotel The Bras – Michel Et Sebastien. He is listed in the Michelin guide as one of the top 20 chef owned hotel in the world. He uses the local mixed greens and rare local herbs in his food creations. His food and lodging are said to be exceptional., so you are in for a real treat.
Speaking of knives Michel Bras has collaborated with the Shun line of fine knives to introduce a brand new Shun line in the Michel Bras tradition. Seven knives in maple scabbards looks like a gorgeous set of french knives made with exceptional Japanese steel.
Anyway Uncle Alfred, I do hope you take the little trip, the country side has many diversions to offer from churches to original Roman aqueducts and even an insect museum. The Aubrac plateau is best described by Michel , “a place that exudes silence and is filled with sunlight, where from spring to summer soft grasses of every shade of green stretch as far as the eye can see, fragrant flowers blow in the wind, and the air is heavy with the scent of herbs.”
Cheers, your loving nephew