The temperature was approaching -10C when I went downstairs this morning – outside, I hasten to add. This is the coldest spell we’ve had for five years. In this weather you want rib-sticking food; nouvelle cuisine doesn’t hit the spot. What better way to start my series about French dishes than with a look at one that warms you from the inside out: aligot?
What is aligot? It’s basically a thick, unctuous potato and cheese purée that accompanies meats of various descriptions. The main ingredients are potatoes, garlic and tome fraîche, young Laguiole cheese. The dish comes from the mountainous country of the Aubrac, which covers several départements, including Aveyron.
A long history
Aligot is said to have originated in the monasteries of the Aubrac during the 12th century. Then, it was made with broth, bread and tome fraîche. The monks served it to pilgrims travelling the route de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.
This gave rise to one of the possible origins of the name: the pilgrims would ask for “aliquid”, something to eat. It could also derive from the verb haligoter, which means to tear into strips. The latter is plausible, since the mixture is beaten until it forms long ribbons.
A legend puts aligot’s origins as far back as the 6th century AD. Three bishops of adjacent dioceses met in the midst of the Aubrac, each of them bringing one of the soup’s main ingredients. They left the recipe for posterity. The ‘Three Bishops’ Cross’ now stands at the junction of Aveyron, Cantal and Lozère.
This soup was adopted by local farmers, who replaced the bread with potatoes during a series of bad wheat harvests in the 19th century. Aligot’s popularity was spread during the 20th century by Auvergnat and Aveyronnais restaurateurs in Paris, who retained strong links to their regions of origin.
Formerly, Laguiole cheese was made on the hillsides by herdsmen who lived during the summer months in stone burons while their cattle grazed the lush pastures. The buronniers were employees who were not supposed to eat the cheese, but kept back a bit of tome fraîche to make aligot.
Tome fraîche is the first stage in the manufacture of Laguiole cheese. It is made from unpasteurised whole milk from the Aubrac race of cows. This unsalted cheese is best for making aligot when it’s between two and 10 days old.
You can make aligot at home or buy it ready-made, but it’s best in large quantities. It’s nicknamed ‘le ruban de l’amitié’ (lit. the ribbon of friendship), since there’s a certain theatricality in its preparation when it is stretched into long ribbons.
You often find it served at fêtes, traditionally with sausages, but also with other meats. We have enjoyed it on numerous occasions, notably during a visit to the annual transhumance celebrations in the Aubrac itself. A little goes a long way.
For 4 greedy people
1 kg potatoes
400 g tome fraîche
250 g crème fraîche
100 g butter
Several cloves garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes and mash them to a purée. Add the butter and crème fraîche and season with salt, pepper and garlic. Reheat the purée. Add the cheese, cut in thin slices. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon (very important, must be wooden). When the mixture starts to form long ribbons (filer), it’s ready. Serve immediately.
You can use any left over aligot for fried potato cakes.
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