A winter dish of sublime simplicity: creamy mashed potatoes beaten till light and fluffy with the kind of cheese that melts in strings, as prepared in the uplands of the Auvergne. Traditionally served at weddings, which makes it perfect for going down on one knee on Valentine’s Day.
Aligot is not for the faint-hearted - peasant cooking at its most robust. When the dish appears on elegant restaurant menus such as that of Michel Bras at Laguiole in the Aveyron, you can be sure the chef is from the region and had the recipe from his grandmother. The correct cheese is the local tomme de Laguiole (or d’Auvergne or de Cantal), though Emmenthal or Gruyere will do at a pinch - you’ll certainly get the strings but lack the feistiness.
I ate my first aligot on market-day in the cathedral town of Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec’s home-territory, while on the way to a birds-and-botany expedition (anemones and cyclamen, see above) in the Gorges du Tarn, a winter weekend away from Castelnaudary, where my husband Nicholas worked on his latest thriller, and our children endured a full school year in secondary school. Our little rented house lacked any form of heating apart from an open fire, the wind whistled through air-holes in the walls and the water froze in the cystern every night. But everyone ended up with a useful dose of French education, including la philosophie from the age of ten.
At the time, I was contributing to the family coffers as a natural history artist - one reason I’m always aware of landscape as the starting point for a recipe. Aligot is one of those recipes that’s strictly seasonal - mature potatoes, well-aged cheese - and is best, says Michel Bras, prepared with the young leaves of wild garlic, ail d’urse (Allium ursinum), coming soon to a damp patch of woodland near you.
A note on the recipe: beat the cheese into the potato when it’s piping hot, using a wooden spoon or spatul rather than a processor, holding the instrument high to incorporate as much air as possible. Serve in hot bowls as soon as the cheese has completely melted - it soon loses volume and digestibility. Don’t serve it with wine or anything chilled (not even water) but wait till all have eaten their fill, then pour everyone a nip of eau de vie, white fruit brandy, preferably de prunes sauvages, wild plums, the digestif of the region.
Eau de vie de prune sauvage
Allow 1k wild plums or damsons or sloes to 1 litre eau de vie to about 100g caster sugar. Give the fruits a night in the freezer to soften the skins, then prick them all over with a needle. Roll the pricked fruit in the sugar, pack them into a couple of empty wine-bottles or a kilner jar, and add enough eau de vie to cover the fruit competely. Seal or cork tightly and leave to macerate for at least 3 months - even better in a year.
Thanks for the comment, Janet - and lucky you in the Cantal! Thanks for reminding me of Peter Graham's Mourjou - terrific book. I do also remember similar comments about beating the cheese into the aligot at weddings as a task for a man (bridegrooms in particular, with much ribraldry over flexed biceps) - it is indeed arm-achingly heavy when prepared in quantity.
I think the first aligot I had, or perhaps the first one I remember was at DOM in Sao Paulo. Funny, for a restaurant renowned for its Amazonian produce that the thing that often come to memory is a French classic.