Rodez: France's new cultural attraction

A new museum in Rodez celebrates art and local cuisine, all in one, says Philip Sweeney

The southern, sparsely populated département of Aveyron is known for beautiful scenery, from the flower-strewn pastures of the high Aubrac to lush winding river valleys. It's also renowned for excellent catering: many of the café proprietors of Paris were traditionally Aveyronnais. The region's few architectural wonders – Notre-Dame Cathedral at Rodez, the abbey of Conques and the slim white motorway in the sky that is Norman Foster's Millau Viaduct – are cerises on the gâteau. This summer however, the Aveyron acquired a new attraction that manages to encapsulate architecture, art, food, and a sort of distillation of the essence of the Aveyron terroir.

Driving up the hill to the centre of the regional capital, Rodez, you used to pass a large car park, lawns, and a 19th-century bandstand, overlooked by a 1980s mini-Louvre pyramid, the departmental seat of government. For decades this was the town's pinnacle of architectural innovation.

In place of the car park, there's now a dramatic line of giant boxes in rust-patina sheet steel, cresting a newly planted slope of moorland grasses and flowers. This is the Musée Soulages, opened in May by the President, François Hollande. It was created to house the life's work of one of France's most eminent living artists, Rodez-born Pierre Soulages, creator of huge black canvasses worth tens of millions of euros to American collectors. Post-apocalyptic fortress on the outside and brilliantly successful display space within, the gallery has elevated little Rodez to a cultural big shot.

At the same time, in an artfully distressed metal side wing, the museum's restaurant is upping the town's culinary ante. Café Bras is devoted to the work of another Aveyronnais star, Michel Bras. He is the proprietor of the region's temple of gastronomy, the eponymous Michelin three-starred restaurant perched above the cattle town of Laguiole – also known for its cheese and knives – to the north.

To experience the Bras amalgam of luxury and austerity, innovation and tradition at its most exquisite, I drove up through oak groves, hay fields and hillsides grazed by beautiful chestnut Aubrac cattle to Bras's glass-sided mountaintop eyrie, to be seated at the kitchen guest table with a helicopter pilot who'd ferried a party up for lunch.

Dinner and a show: Café Bras, at Musée Soulages Dinner and a show: Café Bras, at Musée Soulages Around us, two dozen quietly concentrated young people in white turned out an extraordinarily moist biscuit of east European kasha grain and local cheese in a sauce of truffles and "rancid" olive oil flavoured with aged lard. At a side station, a special aligot stirrer worked at the rich elastic purée of potato, cream and Laguiole cheese, a virtual emblem of Aveyronnais granny cuisine.

The same blend of old-time dishes and state-of-the-art accoutrements characterises the Soulages museum café. This is the Bras interpretation of a modern brasserie, and as at any good brasserie there was a queue when I visited. There was a new Bras invention named the miwam, a sort of stuffed waffle, and a constantly changing repertoire of traditional delights: pascades, thick unctuous pancakes flavoured with onion; three varieties of tripe, once eaten by country folk for breakfast; farçous mini-rissoles and bourriols (sweet potato cakes).

The café is not the only new outpost of the Bras empire, which is becoming something of a gourmet template for south-west France. I travelled to Rodez via Toulouse to visit the brand new Capucin Signe Bras, a rather soigné fast-food café in the chic shopping area around the Victor Hugo market. The capucin is a Bras invention – a conical buckwheat crêpe filled with daily changing combinations: aligot (mashed potato with melted cheese and garlic) with truffle sauce, Roquefort and pears. It's named after a traditional Aveyronnais cooking implement, a container used to drip fat on to grilling meat, which inspired the shape of the machine Bras designed to turn out his new fast food.

To trace the capucin's genealogy, I followed the Bras trail south from Rodez down the A75, the wonderfully empty autoroute which swoops through the Massif Central. Just before the spidery, white immensity of the Millau Viaduct, a stone-and-glass converted farm on the hillside constitutes Bras's take on motorway services, Goûter l'Aveyron. Here, the prototype capucin machine works like a Gatling gun, while cabinets display the finest produce of the region. And not just food: the famous horn-handled Laguiole knives feature prominently. Michel's brother André, director of the motorway complex, used to run the Forge of Laguiole, which relaunched local production of the knives in the 1980s.

Apart from grub, the Bras outlets offer another considerable resource for the food tourist: a personal address book of the region's food producers. Source notes may now be a cliché of every UK high-street coffee retailer, but the Bras family take their suppliers very seriously, listing by name the providers of everything from tripe to tomatoes.

The Bras drinks listing is equally impressive: the best of the local wines of Marcillac and Entraygues-le Fel, local gentiane and Ratafia aperitifs, flower infusions …. In the lovely little river town of Saint Geniez d'Olt I visited Bras's supplier, the Olt Brewery. Proprietor Sebastien Blaquiere was mulling over the plans for the derelict 19th-century café he's restoring and the bulging order book for his elderberry sodas, Aubrac beers and Aveyron cola. A black lemonade for the Soulages Museum – a homage to the great artist – is on the backburner, but the way business is shaping up in Rodez, it must be heading for the café's drinks list soon.

Getting there

Philip Sweeney travelled with Voyages SNCF (0844 848 5848; uk.voyages-sncf.com). Fares from London St Pancras to Toulouse (via Paris Gare du Nord and Austerlitz) start at £119. Rodez is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.

Visiting there

Musée Soulages (00 33 5 65 73 82 60; musee-soulages.grand-rodez.com). Open 11am–6pm at weekends, 10am-noon and 2-6pm from Tuesday to Friday, closed Mondays; admission €7.

Michel Bras: bras.fr

More information

tourisme-aveyron.com

www.toulouse-visit.com

tourism-midi-pyrenees.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
News
peopleComedian star of Ed Sullivan Show was mother to Ben Stiller
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?