The Hautes Pyrenees is the France of nostalgia… mountains, meadows, old stone farmhouses and people baking bread in ancient ovens every morning just the way they have for centuries. Amid all of this is Cauterets, a historic spa town graced with belle époque buildings, a glut of independent food shops, fine restaurants and easy access to the slopes (it’s also a brilliant off-the-radar destination for a family ski trip, with a strong snow record and plenty to do off-piste, with or without children in tow).
Easily reached by train or plane (Cauterets is a two-hour drive from Toulouse), this part of the Pyrenees – the mountain range that draws a 430km-long, saw-toothed line between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe – has a distinctly southwest French food scene with pain au chocolats (here called chocolatines), slow-cooked duck casseroles and blueberry tarts all firmly on the menu. Below are some of the best places to try them.
The Hotel Lion d’Or, Cauterets
Our base during our stay in Cauterets was this quintessential small French hotel with blue shutters, embroidered eiderdowns and a really homely feel (now owned by the fourth generation of the Lasserre family, they welcomed us with a home-cooked gingerbread and orange loaf, homemade marmalade and a jug of fresh lilacs).
Though, as a family of four, we stayed in the hotel’s two-bedroom self-catering apartment, just across a little lane from the main building, we had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant one evening. Starting with their homemade blueberry liqueur, served over ice as an aperitif, we then made our way through a creamy vegetable soup, a stellar tartiflette with green salad, pan-fried trout topped with almonds (and served with a side dish made with a kind of savoury semolina spiked with red and green peppers) and homemade meringues with fresh blueberry coulis and whipped cream.
Breakfast was no less princely – a buffet of homemade cakes, homemade yoghurts, gateaux myrtille (a local speciality a bit like a giant blueberry muffin), apple and cinnamon compote, homemade jams, eggs, cheeses and ‘merveilles’ (‘wonders’) – little pillow shaped doughnuts dusted with icing sugar and made fresh each morning to Grandmother Lasserre’s special recipe.
L’Abri du Benques
For a decadent dinner out, drive out of town a little way to this smart but relaxed restaurant in a magical waterfall setting on the road to the Pont d’Espagne (one of the big attractions in the area, where you can stride out along a scenic trail though beautiful protected forest to an ancient stone bridge connecting France and Spain).
Order chef Julien Canton’s three-course ‘flavours of the southwest’ menu and work your way through elegant plates of local trout cured like gravadlax and served on a salad sprinkled with all sorts of sharp little herbs. Or, ham served with almost caramelised, baked endive and beef served, dramatically, with a little side dish of breadcrumb-topped bone marrow. This is sophisticated food but served without fuss at a reasonable price.
A half hour’s drive down the valley to Saint Savin will bring you to this fine dining restaurant, belonging to a hotel of the same name. Epitomised by classic French cooking and charmingly old-fashioned hospitality, here renowned chef Jean-Pierre Saint-Martin serves dishes such as his take on the local speciality, garbure – his meaty terrine, served with a tiny, pretty, salad is a world away from the conventional rustic duck stew. And if you’re hankering after some of the local Noir de Bigorre (pork from a rare breed that’s endemic to the Pyrenees – see below) you can try it here served as a huge, slightly pink chop topped with crispy ham and served with an ambrosial, creamy morel sauce and a dainty little train of pasta parcels stuffed with truffles.
Between our main course and dessert (a pretty-in-pink slice of strawberry cake) Saint-Martin also brought out a tiny cup of what he called violette milkshake, a doll-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream surrounded by a tiny moat of violette, the famous liqueur made around Toulouse that tastes of parma violets. It was delicious.
Les Bains du Rocher
There’s a little café on site here selling ice creams, smoothies, coffees and crepes but food isn’t the main reason to visit this elegant spa, in the centre of Cauterets. The Pyrenees are known for their thermal springs and whether you drop in post-hike, post-ski or just because you fancy a dip and a massage you shouldn’t miss the chance to wallow in its naturally warm pools. Especially the outdoor pool, where you can lie back on one of its bubble-jet beds soaking up the crisp mountain air and stunning scenery – and pondering whether to go for a blueberry crepe or a post-swim kir.
If you’re self-catering you’ll find everything from independent cheese and charcuterie shops to bakeries, specialist wine stores, an organic grocery, a small market and numerous shops making the berlingots (boiled sweets) that Cauterets has long been associated with.
One shop definitely worth visiting is Chez Gillou, a purple-hazed patisserie that does a dedicated line in blueberry treats, from tarts, flans and pies to blueberry gateau basque and its own speciality, tourtes aux myrtille, a mix between a giant blueberry rock bun and a muffin.
Le Refuge du Sens is another must-visit. A dainty chocolate shop higher up the same street as the Lion d’Or, it sells delicious Valrhona chocolates, all made in-house, plus a homemade version of Nutella. There are also a couple of tables inside where you can sit and sip a coffee, or one of its rich, spiced hot chocolates.
Finally, don’t miss the Sajous Boutique in Argeles-Gazost, just down the valley. Pierre Sajous’ family charcuterie firm is 100 years old this year and has recently opened a new factory in Argeles-Gazost, specialising in porc de bigorre. There, they see pork as a vocation, and have won an appellation d’origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin) certification – for their dry-cured pork. The company raises two different breed of pigs but the Noir de Bigorre (a rare species, endemic to the Pyrenees) is the most prized. If you’re truly well-prepared you could order a whole Noir de Bigorre ham two years in advance and collect it once it’s been cave-cured for 20-30 months. Otherwise, just visit the on-site shop and stock up on its myriad different pork products – dry-cured belly pork shaped into swirls with red pepper; rare marbled pork ‘steaks’; dry-cured belly rashers (chop or melt a little as fat to cook green beans in); dry-cured ham, cooked hams, ruby red copa, sausages, pates, rillettes, boudin noir, pate with blueberries and all kinds of fresh meat to pick up if you’re self-catering.
We tended to make the most of our apartment’s kitchen and eat in more than out since most restaurants in Cauterets don’t open until at least 7pm; too late for our under-fives. One place that bucked that trend was La Creperie Basque (8 rue Richelieu, 00 33 05 62 92 51 79), two doors up from the hotel, a gorgeously retro spot run by the indefatigable Jeannine and open all day (for slightly more upmarket crepes we also liked the town’s Creperie du Molleau).
Other family friendly places to eat in Cauterets include Giovanni Pizzeria (5 rue de la ralliere, 00 33 05 62 92 5780), for simple wood-fired pizzas, the Jardin d’Oh! for soups and gourmet hotdogs and, if you’re visiting in winter, the Restaurant Le Lys (no website) at the top of the cable car that takes skiers from the town to the slopes (a 12-minute ride).
The Restaurant Le Lys has recently been renovated in industrial mountain style (think white metal bistro chairs set against timber-clad walls) and makes a great spot to grab lunch or a hot chocolate overlooking the slopes. There’s a nice nod to local cuisine on the menu, too, with a range of local craft beers from nearby Brasserie des Gaves, organic beef burgers from regional farms and a classic confit duck garbure served in miniature cast-iron casserole pots. If your budget doesn’t stretch to eating out the space also includes a large indoor picnic area with tables, chairs, microwaves and panoramic windows looking over snowy peaks.
How to get to Cauterets
Rhiannon Batten travelled from London to Toulouse via Eurostar (eurostar.com) and TGV (uk.voyages-sncf.com), then hired a car from the station at Toulouse (avis.co.uk). The apartment at the Lion d’Or costs from €800 per week for four people (hotel-cauterets.fr). For more information see cauterets.com and pyrenees-holiday.com.
Words | Rhiannon Batten
Photographs | Rhiannon Batten