My first google search of Auvergne generated hundreds of green images: sprawling, grassy fields climbing oddly shaped hills I later found out were extinct volcanoes; Le Puy-en-Velay, a village with a Roman cathedral and a statue of the Virgin towering on top of a sugarloaf mountain, or “suc” as they call it here, reminding me of a long lost medieval ancestor of Rio de Janeiro, sleeping in the foggy mountains of central France. With its important concentration of volcanoes, Auvergne is one of the places that gave birth to the continent of Europe. Millions of years of eruptions and convulsions formed this land. That’s why I see Auvergne as a place of beginnings, origins, where an epic story of a continent – and later a civilization – began.
Le Puy-en-Velay (puy is an old Provençal word, today referring to a volcanic hill) happens to be one of the starting points in the Camino de Santiago. Every summer, pilgrims flock to this town to begin epic foot journeys towards Spain. Many punctuate their journey with a hearty lentil meal. Lentils are an integral part of the Velay’s terroir. The oldest recorded lentil cultivation in the region dates to 1643, when they were known as lanthiles, but their history probably goes back to much earlier in the Roman era. Today, the “Le Puy green lentils” are an A.O.P. (Appellation d’Origine Protégée / Protected Designation of Origin), meaning they are considered cultural property of the region, and must go through a strict certification process in order to be labeled “Le Puy green lentils”. Just as Champagne has to come from the Champagne region, Bordeaux wine from the Bordeaux region, Le Puy green lentils only come from Le Puy.
Lentils are an edible pulse, a legume rich in fiber, protein and iron. Once known as “the poor man’s caviar”, they are today the pride of Auvergne and lentilles vertes au petit salé, (lentils with sausage) is this region’s signature dish. We find it a great example of slow cooking and slow eating. Tasty and healthy, it perpetuates a certain kind of tradition, in which a dish is shared by many and made in large quantities so that it lasts several days and feeds several mouths. Like the gratin dauphinois (potato gratin), this course only gets better as you reheat it.
As we prepared this dish, Adélaïde actually told me that back in her childhood, she and her grandmother used to lay a few lentils on a wet cotton pad on a small plate to watch them grow over the next few days. Slowly, stems would sprout out of each lentil and grow into a tiny, tender green forest. They used it to decorate the nativity scene at home for Christmas time.
Slow-cooked Le Puy green lentils, Auvergne sausage
& streaky bacon | Serves 4
- 500g green lentils (ideally “Le Puy”)
- 1 or 2 pork sausages (depending on the size, app. 300g)
- 150g streaky bacon, cut into 1cm strips or diced
- 4 carrots (app. 300g), chopped
- 2 onions, 1 whole, 1 chopped
- 4-6 garlic cloves, some whole, some chopped
- 2-3 cloves
- 4 bay leaves
- a few branches of thyme
- 1 tbsp strong Dijon mustard
- 1-2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tomato (optional), peeled and diced – not quite orthodox in a lentil recipe but this is one of Adélaïde’s grandmother’s secrets and we love it!
- olive oil
- fleur de sel & black pepper
- Heat up a large casserole, preferably cast iron. Add olive oil, the chopped onion and carrots, the bouquet garni (bay leaves and thyme) and the whole (peeled or unpeeled) garlic cloves.
- Peel the other onion and poke the cloves into it. Add to the casserole along with the chopped garlic, the tomato paste, the sausages and diced streaky bacon. Cook until the meat gets a nice and even color. This will bring out all the ingredients’ flavors. Season according to taste (the pork is already quite salty).
- Add the peeled and diced tomato as well as the raw lentils and let them absorb some of the oil on medium heat. If you find that the bottom of the casserole starts to stick, add a little more oil. Stir frequently. And listen to the lentils cooking – they make such a lovely sound!
- After a few minutes, add large glasses of water until the lentils are just covered and the strong Dijon mustard. Be careful not to “drown” your lentils and add water progressively.
- Cover and cook for 1-1.5 hours on low heat, stirring frequently, making sure the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the casserole and adding water if needed (lentils need water to be cooked all the way through!).
You can accompany this dish with strong Dijon mustard. It goes fantastically well with the sausage.
And as we mentioned, if you can, make a larger portion to have leftovers. When reheated, this dish is even more delicious!