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Catherine Painvin's Hotel from Heartbreak

The region is a vast landlocked plateau that hangs, at an elevation of 4,600 feet, about midway between Montpellier (in the Languedoc Roussillon region to the south) and Clermont-Ferrand (in the Auvergne region to the north). Most visitors are drawn by the food, and by the majestic landscapes, with their wide vacant horizons, rare flora, and icy spangled trout streams. The countryside reminds Painvin of the Mongolian steppes.

If Americans know the Aubrac at all, it's as the home of three-star chef Michel Bras, and of the collectible bone-handled Laguiole knives they buy at Williams Sonoma. Bras is still good for a couple of food-magazine covers a year in France, but after my last meal at his eponymous restaurant, with Painvin, I have to finally accept that his famously chaste marriages of unborn vegetables are too chaste by far for me. Much tastier was the standoff between Painvin and the maîtresse d'hôtel, who initially ignored her request to be seated in a certain part of the dining room. It was hard not to think the staffer was defending the hard-won celebrity of her boss against someone who is sometimes seen as a nouveau intruder.

Our lunch the next day at Chez Germaine, an unpretentious institution opposite the inn, was satisfying in all the ways Bras was not. The restaurant was filled with families on holiday and backpackers dangling aluminum saucepans. Painvin huddled with the owner to decide what we would eat: cured ham presented in rich folds with butter curls, little grilled house-made sausages, and aligot. The Aubrac's gastronomic emblem is made by beating young Laguiole, an A.O.C. cheese made with whole unpasteurized cow's milk, into mashed potatoes. With a lot of fanfare, Germaine serves aligot tableside in unctuous ribbons measured not in inches but in feet.

The dish isn't a dish; it's a fetish. Some Aubracois find room for it twice a day. Two years ago Painvin celebrated her birthday with the mother of all aligots at Canuc—an old stone buron, or rural dairy where Laguiole was originally made—and she insisted I see it. Here the mixture is stirred with a broom handle in an iron cauldron over a wood fire. If you want anything else to eat, you bring it yourself—a côte de boeuf, say, which the aligot master will throw on the grill for the price of a smile. The one meal at which Painvin and I escaped the purée was at the Hôtel Remise, where Bras often eats on his day off. In a room hung with lyrical compositions of fishing tackle in glass cases (owner Fred is the man you call for fly-fishing excursions in the area), we ate lentil soup ladled from a giant tureen that never left our table, juicy hunks of bloody steak, and a charming hazelnut sponge cake.

Between bites at her favorite restaurants, a thousand calls to Paris about a new Tartine et Chocolat license, and hiring a housekeeper for the inn, Painvin portrayed herself as being on the right side of recovery, our teary day at the notary's notwithstanding. Her doctors had knocked out her cancer. Her divorce had damaged her self-worth, but she was feeling better. Even her love life was looking up. Recently Painvin had taken up with the scion of a good local family, a man more than 20 years her junior.

But a tour of the inn we made just before saying good-bye set her back. She had decorated the place at the lowest point in her life. In filling the entrance hall with hard gray objects—granite posts, lauze shingles, metal tubing—she said, "I nailed my guts to the wall." All of the Himalayan elements, she explained, were a repudiation of her former bourgeois life. In Pure Love, a guest room, she stood in front of a mirror, which was draped, crime-scene style, with tape—printed with the words JE T'AIME. Whoever looks in the mirror knows he is loved.

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