Steve’s Sojourn’s : Allier France
Cradle of the Bourbon dynasty the department of Allier, in the Massif Central in the most northerly part of the Auvergne, is famous for its landscapes. Its also has some of the best markets you’ll find anywhere!
Nine times out of ten if you took a map of France and stuck a pin in what you thought was the exact centre of the country you would be highlighting the Department of Allier. It is because of this positioning that the area remains relatively undiscovered by tourism and when visiting one sees a France that has changed little over the last twenty years.
Allier is the most prosperous of all the departments in Auvergne. It is also the flattest, with the countryside consisting of open fields and forests with the area being dotted with small market towns. The markets in these towns are a delight with their local produce and always guarantee visitors a particularly colourful and vibrant atmosphere. In fact the economy of the area tends to revolve around agriculture and tourism, with revenue from the latter gradually increasing each year.
It was the fact that this area is still very much France as it was twenty years ago that prompted us to visit. A short flight from Stansted brought us to Limoges and after a two-hour drive on the A20 then on the N145 we found ourselves at Montluçon. The city has long been regarded as the area’s economic driving force and is located in a valley amongst the Combraille hills.
Montluçon’s magnificent medieval old town is well worth a visit and seems to be always decorated with a colourful array of flowers. France has an annual award for the city that is best decorated with flowers and it is Montluçon always does exceptionally well in the competition. There is even a flower market held in the Passage du Doyenne on a Saturday morning if you want to join in!
You can get spectacular views of the whole area from the castle that was once the seat of the Dukes of Bourbon and we had a really good meal in one of the restaurants situated on the steep cobbled streets. Try the local Pompe aux Grattons a savoury brioche in which butter is replaced with grattons (diced pieces of fat pork browned lightly over a low heat) and is served warm as an accompaniment or for an aperitif.
Allier is a land littered with castles and chateaux waiting to be discovered and as we drove through it we noticed the wide open fields that were often filled with magnificent Charolais Cattle for which the area is famous. However you may have realized by now that like so many Francophiles the markets are where I love to find myself. We were heading for St Pourçain-sur-Sioule which I have to say is one of the best open air markets I have been to. Held on a Saturday it is situated in the town’s car park beneath the church. The original covered market is still used and sits above the car park and it’s in here you will find local meats and cheeses whilst the vegetable and fruits tend to be outside. The square has an excellent café that has that tell tale sign of quality, it’s full of locals reading the paper sitting with their children watching the world go by.
St Pourçain is also known for its wine with the original vineyards being planted by the Romans. The white is dry and fruity whilst the red is similar to Beaujolais. A popular dish is Canard à la Duchambais with the traditional Duchambais sauce being made from St Pourçain wine, liver and cream.
If you get time Le Cellier, in Boulevard Ledru-Rollin offers a good selection from the local producers. Incidentally most fine French wines are matured in barrels made of oak from the Allier forests.