To make aligot, you just need the right ingredients. “And there are only four: potatoes, salt, a little crème fraîche and fresh Aubrac Tome,” says Jean-Baptiste Bouloc of the Jeune Montagne dairy cooperative in Laguiole (pronounced Lah-yole).
“It’s a recipe that anyone can make. Here, we’ve been using the same recipe for centuries, except that now, our production is of course mechanised.”
Area famous for cheese
Here, it’s the high plateau of Aubrac, a region in the Massif Central straddling the departments of Aveyron, Cantal and Lozère, known for its harsh winters but also for its cheeses and its famous Laguiole knives.
It is in this picturesque landscape, whose meadows and low stone walls recall Ireland, that Jeune Montagne, the main producer of aligot (pronounced “ah-lee-go”) in France, makes a thousand tons of it annually according to an ancestral recipe.
Stringy aligot is visually spectacular
This dish, a cross between creamy mashed potatoes and cheese fondue, has a unique characteristic: its elastic structure.
If the aligot is made successfully, the result is visually spectacular: when pulled and stretched with a spoon, it should form long, ribbon-like strands.
This property, known as ‘filant’ (stringiness), comes from a key ingredient: the famous fresh Aubrac Tome (‘Tome fraîche d’Aubrac’ in French), an unsalted semi-soft cheese obtained after curdling raw milk, which is also the basis for Laguiole cheese.
Follow a precise recipe and method
The recipe is simple, but requires a special touch. “It is obtained by stirring the mixture with a spatula or wooden spoon, preferably always in the same direction,” says Mr Bouloc.
“Then you incorporate air by raising the spatula until the mixture takes on a nice smooth, stringy texture. To avoid breaking the stringy structure, it’s imperative not to heat it too long.”
He adds: “To make a good aligot, you also have to respect the proportions. For example, for four people, you need 400 grams of fresh Aubrac Tome, one kilo of potatoes and 250 grams of crème fraîche – that’s all.
“You make a purée with the potatoes and add the crème fraîche and a little salt.
“When it’s very hot, add the fresh tome cheese cut into thin strips and stir well for about 15 minutes over medium heat.
“Then the mixture is pulled and stretched and the aligot is ready. Of course, it can be personalised. Some people, for example, add a little garlic.”
Monastic origins on Santiago de Compostela route
The astonishing simplicity – and rusticity – of aligot is due to its modest origins, which are very old.
Legend has it they go back to the 12th century, in the remote village of Aubrac, on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.
A count from Flanders after surviving brigands and snowstorms while on pilgrimage, had a monastery built there to protect and welcome pilgrims.
The monastery’s buildings, the Dômerie, still exist. When pilgrims arrived, they asked for something to eat or ‘aliquid’ (‘something’ in Latin, and perhaps the origin of the term aligot).
The monks served them a sort of soup prepared with broth, pieces of bread and fresh Aubrac Tome.
Poor wheat harvest meant potatoes replaced bread
After the French Revolution, when the monastery monks were expelled, wealthy landowners in the Aubrac mountains continued making fresh tome cheese in their ‘burons’ (cheese farms).
Their employees, ‘buronniers’, were not allowed to consume the produce but would discreetly take some fresh tome cheese to make aligot.
Following a poor wheat harvest, they replaced bread with mashed potatoes, recently introduced from the Americas, and aligot became the mainstay of the Aubrac region.
Workers moved to cities and stopped making Aubrac tome
Popularised later in other French regions, its production declined sharply following the rural exodus.
In the mid-20th century, it was close to disappearing because the production of Laguiole cheese, for which Aubrac tome was made, had progressively declined: from 700 tonnes at the end of the 19th century, to 25 tonnes by the late 1950s.
“It was really on the verge of dying because many people left the Aubrac for big cities to escape difficult working conditions in the burons,” says Mr Bouloc.
“Fortunately, in 1960, some young farmers who didn’t want to leave the Aubrac and wanted to preserve the traditions decided to found the Jeune Montagne cooperative.
“Against all odds, they continued to make fresh Aubrac Tome, Laguiole and aligot.”
The operation became a success
In 1982, Jeune Montagne was the first dairy to produce aligot for the general public.
Since it freezes well, they created a frozen aligot in 1982 in collaboration with chef Michel Bras, the emblematic restaurateur of the Aubrac.
Sold in specialty frozen-food stores, it revived aligot’s popularity.
Subsequently, refrigerated packaging in tubs allowed sales throughout France in cheese shops and supermarkets.
Better still, the success of Jeune Montagne had a snowball effect: other manufacturers began to make aligot, which is now found in restaurants and burons-restaurants of Aubrac.
Today, the cooperative has 90 employees and collects 15 million litres of milk annually from 76 farms in Aubrac.
‘We scrupulously respect the traditional recipe’
In addition to aligot, it produces over 700 tonnes of Laguiole PDO, of which it’s also the main producer.
Unlike Laguiole, aligot is not protected by any label or official quality sign.
“However, ‘aligot de l’Aubrac’ is a registered trademark of Jeune Montagne,” says Mr Bouloc.
“We want to scrupulously respect the traditional recipe passed down by the buronniers, and we obey very strict specifications.
“The milk is collected for the Laguiole cheese production. It’s processed, curdled and pressed several times, then matured for about twenty hours to obtain fresh Aubrac curd.
“The quality of milk determines the quality of the fresh tome and, above all, the taste and texture of aligot.
“There’s therefore a very strong partnership between farmers and cheese-makers to guarantee this quality.
“The cows must be of the Simmental and Aubrac breeds, particularly well-suited to making fresh tome.
“It’s made only with whole raw milk and there’s no pasteurisation in the production process. The cows are fed exclusively on the pastures of the Aubrac.”
Aligot on two-star Michelin menu
Once a simple subsistence dish, aligot has made its way to the finest tables.
It features prominently at Michel Bras’s Michelin two-star restaurant in Laguiole, which adds black truffles. “But it’s above all a dish of conviviality, of sharing,” says Mr Bouloc. “It’s festive. People get together with friends or family around aligot.
“While it can be made year-round, it’s particularly appreciated in winter because it’s a dish that is warming and provides a certain comfort.
“It can be eaten on its own, as in the old days in the burons, or, as we do here today, with an Aubrac farm beef-steak or grilled sausages, but also with vegetables or fish.
“Its taste is really well adapted to the most diverse culinary associations. Aligot, with its smooth and milky side, will never overpower the taste of other accompaniments.”
Learn how to make aligot from the masters
Located a quarter of an hour’s drive from the Dômerie, the historic birthplace of aligot, the cooperative is open year-round and can be visited. It even offers, on request, workshops or courses to learn how to prepare aligot.
Lastly, for several years now, the cooperative has been organising giant aligot parties throughout France, capable of feeding 50, 100 or even more people.
This is notably the case for the annual marché des pays de l’Aveyron, in Paris, where more than 10,000 portions of aligot, made in giant pots, are served.
It’s an opportunity to see dramatic ribbons of aligot, which can be more than a metre and a half long!