The next morning, I am permitted to visit the kitchen, in which more than 20 people chop, mix, and stir at the customary stations, and at one more station, dedicated to vegetables, two young men peel and trim abundant brightly hued roots, leaves, and flowers. "They are preparing the gargouillou, a dish containing more than fifty vegetables," Véronique Bras, Michel Bras's daughter-in-law, tells me. Véronique's husband, Sébastien, works alongside his father in the kitchen, and their children and Michel Bras's parents are close at hand. Four generations of the family live here in the Aubrac region. Each one greets visitors with a quiet cordiality highly unusual in a French kitchen.
"What is it that is of most value to you here?" I ask Sébastien Bras, a handsome man with an easy smile.
"The relationship we have to Aubrac," he says. "A tradition, a certain light."
At lunch, that light, pale and beautiful, fills the restaurant, which is cantilevered over the plateau of Aubrac, giving diners the impression that they are in a sleek and calm spaceship hovering above the countryside. The meal begins with the gargouillou, a symphonic poem of textures, colors, and tastes. I believe I will remember this extraordinary pleasure forever, if only for the contrast between the complexity of its preparation and the exquisite simplicity of its final presentation. Every detail of the meal and the environment is surprising and nuanced and, incidentally, also adds up to an object lesson in the passionate regionalism of old Aveyron families like the Brases. So much here, on and around the plates, speaks of the place and its traditions, down to the graceful knives for which Laguiole is famous, the chair legs in the shape of bull horns, the waiters gliding about in blue farmers' smocks.
Véronique Bras mentions a great view near the hotel, so when I leave that afternoon, I continue up the road that climbs the mountain. The plan is only to drive through, but after about 15 minutes, I stop the car and get out: I see now why the plateau of Aubrac is often described as lunar. The vista seems otherworldly, illimitable, sci-fi, shimmering slightly in the extraordinary silence. Here, somehow, time seems actualized, accounted for, and expressed by the eloquent layers of soil, ages ago combining and recombining metamorphic rock, granite, and lava—debris torn from the mountain and carried down by glaciers to the high plain where now almost 2,000 species of plants grow.
I can only get myself back in the car by promising myself, like a child, that I can return. But I just want to see how far up the road goes. It is miles between hamlets. Now the only dwellings are burons, and then suddenly I see the remnants of a monastery: La Dômerie d'Aubrac, built as a refuge for medieval pilgrims. During winter's terrible blizzards, when the winds called tourmentes made the snow whirl so densely that paths became invisible, the bell would ring without stop to guide those who were lost and in fear of bandits, wolves, or death from the cold.
Farther up, there are no more houses and no more road, just the drailles, the paths made by cattle ascending to high pastures for the summer and descending in autumn. There is no sound at all, except the wind on the mountain. By now, I am completely smitten with this mysterious landscape. The most mysterious thing about it is why everyone isn't here. "Not everybody gets it," Bruno da Silva said to me a day earlier. "Sometimes people come here and they drive up to the plateau and then they come back and say to me, 'But there's nothing there.' How can I answer them?What is nothing for them is everything for us."