Le Puy-en-Velay (in France) is a blessed region in many ways. As a town with major religious significance in the medieval period, it was one of the first places to be officially anointed as a pilgrimage site – and it remains popular today, as the start point of an incredible, thousand mile pilgrimage, which ends in Santiago in North West Spain.
Having been a travelling hotbed for hundreds of years, Puy-en-Velay has had the wonderful benefits of cultural integration, from the many passing travellers such as the Moorish and Italians. Their influence can be seen in the Cathedral – with its Moorish mosaics, Arabic wall carvings and black virgin Mary – as well as in the popular lace trade, which was introduced from Venice and became a huge trade in the town.
Not only is Puy blessed in the religious sense, but it has also been gifted with incredibly fertile soil, due to the prehistoric lava domes and volcanoes, which once frequented the land. Fast forward some tens of millions of years later to 2000BC, when the Romans conquered the land and bought with them a variety of lentil. This hardy lentil variety was adapted to growing in unique Mediterranean conditions akin to those in the warm, fertile, elevated Puy basin, within the Massif Central region. And these lentils are what we know today as “Le Puy Lentilles” or Green Puy Lentils.
During our latest visit to the region, Team MG was lucky enough to have a tour around one of the local farms in the region that works within the cooperative of farmers who we buy our lentils from. Didier Chapel is a farm owner who works alone with his wife, located in a small village called Landes. Descended from a long line of Puy farmers who have harvested the land for centuries, he continues to grow Puy lentils, despite the crops delicate and risky nature, because it’s all he’s known and believes it’s in his blood.
Didier dedicates 10% of the surface of his farm to Puy and rotates his crops annually, beginning with a meadow year, followed by Lentils which grow well due to the disrupted land. Barley is grown next which benefits from the Nitrogen which the lentils pump into the land followed by barley. These rotations are planned 5-7 years in advance; however changes in EU policy can sometimes have an impact on their planning, however, the Cooperative that he is a member of helps him to plan, insure, grow and sell his crops.
Positioned 1130 metres above sea level on high plateau South of the region which gives better aeration and drainage. Didier and his neighbours had been lucky this year compared to other farmers elsewhere in the region, due to their positioning in the valley, yielding plentiful tonnes of Puy per hectare in comparison.
The unique environmental factors which affect a product’s genetic make-up is known as ‘terroir’ in France, and is the basis for the Protected Designated Origin system, which presumes that the land from which the crop is grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site. This is why, for example, you can only call Puy lentils by that name if they were actually grown in Puy.
You might recognise the word ‘terroir’ from its regular use in the wine industry, where it refers to the environmental conditions in which each grape grows. The grapes produced in and around Puy create excellent wines, due to the climate, Le Puy-en-Velay is very close to the Bordeaux region, and the wines of Château le Puy are hugely respected. They’re produced from the fruit of fifty-year-old vines, and have to follow similar Biodynamic and organic treatment methods to the ones required to grow Puy lentils.
After our farm visit we sampled the delights of a local Bistro, which lovingly used Puy lentils in every course on the taster menu. Yes this means Puy lentils in recipes such as Duck Confit and Puy lentils, a particular delicacy of the area; and even Puy lentil ice cream. Particularly stand was a quinoa and chestnut wafer biscuit which the ice-cream was served – earthy, sweet and crispy, complementing the ice-cream beautifully!
From our time in Puy we found that dining always very indulgent! Local produce is often served, with popular crops being barley and wheat, and they’re huge on beef and cured meats. Duck is a very popular in recipes and during our time some of the team ate snails for the first time. In the Auvergne area, liquors and aperitifs are produced from wild plants and herbs and are popular with meals. We found them to be the perfect palette cleanser following our delicately, rich meals of moules frites, duck, lentils and lentil ice cream!