AFTER the dog-days of Provence, it was a relief and a delight to retreat to the cool, lush pastures of the Pyrenees. Despite its location between the rich and winey cuisines of the Bordelais and Languedoc-Roussillon, this area is not especially well known for its food; but we ate exceedingly well.

The strength of the region lies in its ducks, its baby lamb, its trout, its ceps; the foothills are forested, the pastures richly green, the streams run fast. Our venue was one of those discoveries made via the rocking-chair symbol in the Michelin guide, which is as reliable as one can get when it comes to peace and charm.

The Hostellerie des Sept Molles (meaning 'mills') is in Sauveterre de Comminges, about six miles from St Gaudens and 37 from Foix. When going to Spain the adventurous way, avoiding the motorways, I can strongly commend fortifying oneself there. Its owners are the third generation of Ferrans, who started in the Fifties and have slowly built up their hotel (with swimming pool and tennis court, and fine golf course not too far away). The architecture is a bit rustic-simplistic, but the service is excellent, the rooms spacious, and everything is comfortable and unobtrusive.

The food, though it lacks a star from Michelin, certainly deserves one. It may not be innovative in the sense that latter-day Michelin guides demand, but it is ample and makes splendid use of its own resources. Mr Ferran goes to market twice weekly in Toulouse, but otherwise grows almost all his own produce.

The baby pigeons on the menu hop about in a cage at one corner; the pigs - from which he makes one of the best boudin (black sausages) I have eaten outside Normandy - are his own; so are the ducks, whose foie gras was one of the delights of our stay. Foie gras de canard is not as rich as goose liver, but served warm (here in two ways: with a blueberry sauce or in filo pastry, pastis and apples) it was a mainstay appetiser.

I knew I was on to a good thing at the end of dinner on the first night when I asked our maitre, a local who spent three years in restaurants in northern England, why, if this was pig country as he said, there was no pork on the menu. He said, rightly, that pork is not especially esteemed in France, except as charcuterie, but that if we were lovers of pork he would happily ask the chef to make some. Good is the restaurant that cares when its customers care - and the resulting pork chops were light and excellent.

Baby lamb (that is, milk-fed lamb) is supposedly prohibited, but as the area is long familiar with smuggling and lesser forms of circumventing the law, the highlight of our stay was the whole leg of baby lamb that my wife and I shared on our first night. Served with white beans and lightly roasted, it was tender, flavoursome and in all respects first-class - the best I have had since I left our local shepherds in Italy. So was the magret de canard, served with braised endives.

The point of such a cuisine, and the reason for its success, lies in its modest simplicity. Mr Ferran may not be a 'great' chef in the current sense of the word - he does not play at being a star - but he knows how to prepare and serve food meticulously, using only the best ingredients and following traditions that have existed in that part of the world for centuries. Would that there were more like him.

Our meals were greatly enhanced by the Madiran that we drank with them. Madiran, which is produced about an hour away to the west, is one of the great unknowns among French wines, and one of the most delicious, especially when slightly cooled. I first came across it on another trip over the mountains into Spain and have fancied it ever since, though it is not easy to obtain.

The two that the hostellerie stocked - a light and tart and somewhat tannic Laffite Teston Vieilles Vignes, and a Chateau Montus, richer, smoother and with even more body - were far better than any I had drunk before. They are heady wines, but perfectly adapted to everything from the exceedingly rich to the absolutely simple.

I confess to a weakness for country hotels that have their own restaurants. We were slipping away from work for a few days, but even as a one-night stop-over it is much more refreshing to be in rural surroundings and well fed (with an inviting bed ready for after) than to swelter in some city centre in a hotel where at least half the staff are likely to be on holiday. So far, with my rocking- chair symbol and that loose confederation of country inns known as relais and chateaux, I have seldom gone wrong.

Hostellerie des Sept Molles, Sauveterre de Comminges (010- 33 61 88 30 87); Pension (full board) about pounds 100 per person; rooms pounds 50; dinner with wine pounds 35 to pounds 40.

Comments