05 April 2011

Joël Robuchon's Clermontoise potatoes

The Auvergne, which is the mountainous center of France, cold and damp, is known for its potato dishes and big boiled dinners. One famous potato dish is called La Truffade — it's sliced potatoes sautéed with smoked lardons of pork bacon and then smothered in the young Cantal cheese called tomme fraîche. See my earlier post here for the recipe and some pictures.

A propos of all that, here's a recipe for another nourishing Auvergnat recipe for cooking potatoes and cheese. It's from the famous chef Joël Robuchon's book called Le Meilleur et le plus simple de la pomme de terre — "the best and simplest ways to cook potatoes" — which is a small paperback containing about 100 recipes. I don't know if Robuchon was born in the Auvergne, but if he wasn't he should have been.

Joël Robuchon's little book of potato recipes and ideas

Often, when I have a certain variety of potato in the cellar, just begging to be cooked, I thumb through Robuchon's little book. It has nearly as many pictures as recipes in it, so it's entertaining to look at and easy to use. You just wait for a recipe to catch your eye, or jog your memory of some great potato dish you might have eaten in a restaurant in Paris or the Auvergne, and then you verify that the recipe calls for the kind of potatoes you have on hand. Waxy, firm boiling potatoes, or mealy, dry bakers. Use waxy potatoes — red or gold ones — for this recipe.

Creamy, cheesy potatoes baked in the oven

Pommes de terre gratinées clermontoises is another gratin, which is a French specialty. When you live in a country that produces hundreds of cheeses, you end up finding many ways to use them in your cooking. What goes better with potatoes than melted cheese? And especially Cantal cheese, which resembles our Anglo-Saxon Cheddars but without the orange food coloring in it. Cantal melts more like cheddar than like Swiss-style cheeses. It's an "uncooked" cheese, like Cheddar — the milk is never heated up during the cheese-making process, and it melts into a molten, unstringy liquid.

The other ingredient in this recipe is cream. In France, that will be crème fraîche, which is a "fermented" version of our heavy cream. In other words, French cream is made from milk that is allowed to start to sour slightly, so that the cream is "cured" and tasty rather than fresh and bland. Why it's called crème fraîche is a little bit of a mystery, since it's not made from perfectly fresh milk. At any rate, heavy cream will work in the pommes clermontoises, but use crème fraîche if you can get it.

Pommes de terre gratinées clermontoises

This recipe from the city of Clermont-Ferrand is made
using the wonderful cheese that is called Cantal.
The Auvergne, like Normandy, has three excellent cheeses.
And in my opinion, along with those Norman cheeses,
the Cantal, Fourme d’Ambert, and Saint-Nectaire cheeses
of the Auvergne region are among the world’s finest.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.

2 to 2½ lbs. boiling potatoes (1 kg)
4 Tbsp. butter (50 g)
1¼ cups heavy cream (300 ml)
5 oz. Cantal cheese (150 g)
salt and pepper

Select potatoes that are all about the same size.
Peel them and cook them whole in boiling, salted water
for 30 minutes.

Turn on the oven to 180ºC (350ºF). As soon as the potatoes
are cooked, drain them and then dry them out
slightly in the oven as it heats up.

Lay the potatoes out on a clean dish towel and,
using the back of a big fork, flatten them slightly
so that they resemble little cakes of soap.

Butter a baking dish and arrange the potatoes in it.
Season them with salt, freshly ground pepper,
and grated nutmeg.

Grate or crumble the cheese. Meanwhile, heat
the cream to the simmering point and pour it
over the potatoes. Sprinkle the cheese over all.
Set the pan in the hot oven and let it cook
and brown, for 5 minutes or longer.

Serve the potatoes hot out of the oven
as a side dish with roasted meat.

Boudin noir et pommes de terre clermontoises

In his preamble, I assume that Robuchon is talking about these three Normandy cheeses: Camembert, Pont-l'Evêque, and Livarot. I'm sorry he left out my favorite Normandy cheese, Neufchâtel. He also left out a very good Auvergne cheese, Le Bleu d'Auvergne. So, IMHO, there are at least four great cheeses in each region under discussion here.

Nonetheless, this is the kind of potato dish you can make using whatever cheese you have in the refrigerator or particularly love. The cheese has to be good, but it's the combination of reduced cream and melted cheese over potatoes that are already cooked that makes it so good. The cream needs to boil and thicken and reduce in the bottom of the baking dish to give the potatoes good flavor and texture.

Golden brown

Robuchon's recipe assumes that the potatoes are still hot when they go into the oven. That reduces the cooking time. If you use potatoes that have had time to cool down after being boiled, then you'll need to increase the cooking time so that the potatoes and cream have plenty of time to heat up, and so that the cheese melts and turns golden brown.


  1. What a neat post! Looking forward for more post from you. Thank you for sharing!

  2. No respectable and authentic Anglo-Saxon Cheddar cheese has red colouring in it! In the UK if you see an orangey coloured cheese it will be Red Leicester. Double Gloucester can also be a strong golden orange colour, but authentic DG is very rare these days. Orange food colouring in cheddared cheeses is a North American thing.

  3. Just like you I was wondering about Bleu d'Auvergne, since he didn't mention the Normandy cheeses, I assumed that Neufchâtel was part of the three.

  4. Susan, North America, or a good part of it, was also colonized by Anglo-Saxons! Too bad our A-S cultures don't have the equivalent of the AOC or AOP to set standards for products like Cheddar cheese. They make it n'importe où and n'importe comment and still can call it Cheddar.

    CHM, I assumed Livarot along with Camembert and Pont-l'Evêque. Who knows what Robuchon was thinking? Even he probably doesn't remember (if he even wrote the text).

  5. Joël Robuchon was born in Poitiers.

  6. I do hope the French government is paying you something for all the great publicity from your blog. You make me want to fly to France and see and taste all the things you write about! But of course, if I go to Europe I have to visit my relatives in Hungary and Germany first! But you make France sound wonderful.

  7. I want to try this recipe soon. I've never smashed a potato before putting it in a casserole or tried drying it out in the oven.
    Having the potato and cream warm is a good idea to cut down on cooking time.

    I see you are enjoying your blood sausages still.

    I love Yannick Noah and his son, Joachim who is a great basketball player.

  8. Yet another beautiful dish to look at, as I drink my coffee before breakfast.

    It's not only orange food coloring we have to watch out for, as many manufacturers use oil to make cheese in North America (I'm ashamed to say).

  9. My favorite potato-cheese dish is tartiflette.

  10. I've been making my own crème fraîche recently. It's easy and much less expensive. Just stir 2 Tbsp cultured buttermilk into 8oz heavy cream. Let it sit unrefrigerated for 24 hours, then stir and refrigerate. Some write that ultra-pasturized cream won't work, but I've been having no problem with it.

  11. Let's see... reasons to try this soon: Bill's mother was from Clermont-Ferrand; the weather is grey and cool; I have a relatively new gratin dish; #1 reason, it looks delicious!

    We're fortunate enough to have a local market that carries Cantal cheese, among other delights...

  12. Simon, plain yogurt added to cream will also make a decent crème fraîche.

    Ellen, it's good that you can get cheeses like that. Go for it! Hi to Bill.

  13. We just spent the end of March in France, driving a big circle from Paris to the Périgord, over to Beaune, and back to Paris.
    Somewhere outside of Clermont-Ferrand on A89, we stopped at a desolate, wind-swept "aire" for food and fuel.
    One of the "fait maison" dishes in the cafeteria were these cheesy potatoes.
    I'm always amazed at the quality and complexity of dishes served in France, even in roadside diners like this one.


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