“I would take them all to my home and cook them a grand Perigord meal. We’d start with a soup made from a duck’s carcass. We’d then go on to an omelette au touffe with eggs from my own chickens and truffles from the hillside near our home. I would cook Aiguillette de canard, using a thin strip of meat just below the breast. I would cook it with mustard seeds and honey. I would add to that, pommes sarladaise, which are potatoes thinly sliced and cooked in duck fat, with garlic, parsley, and truffles. It would all be done in the Perigord style.
And the wines?
The white wine would be a Bergerac sec from Chateau Jaubertie. Then I would offer everyone a deeply robust 2005 Chateau de Tiregand. It’s made by a friend of mine in the village. Oh, and I’d also serve some foie gras. I would serve it with a glass of chilled sweet wine, Monbazillac from Chateau de Tirecul. It’s something akin to Sauternes. I would finish it off with some cheese, of course.” – from The Resistance Man by Martin Walker
I first became aware of the Dordogne by reading the “Bruno” novels of Martin Walker. From the original Bruno, Chief of Police up through the newest A Taste for Vengeance (and with almost a dozen books in between), Bruno solves crimes when he is not stirring a pot in the kitchen – not just a police officer, he is a gourmet chef. My kind of cop!
Few regions sum up the attractions of France better than the Dordogne Valley. No part of France is so impassioned by its culinary heritage as the deeply gourmet idyll of Dordogne in the rural southwest of France. With its rich food and heady history, this region has long been a favorite getaway for French families on les grandes vacances.
The Dordogne Valley straddles three official regions in southwest France (Aquitaine, Limousin, and Midi-Pyrénées) and three distinct départements (Dordogne, Corrèze, and Lot).
We visited the Dordogne last November and were entranced with the picturesque villages built into steep cliffs along the Dordogne River, the imposing châteaux and the simple Romanesque churches. Limestone gorges dramatically overlooked curious loops in the river that curved in almost complete circles (called cingles) and were surrounded with substantial old-growth forests.
Medieval châteaux and forts are but recent history next to plentiful prehistoric sites. The valley is older than ancient. Indeed, nowhere else in Europe (or the world for that matter) is there such a concentration of sites from the Upper Paleolithic Age that began with the arrival of Homo Sapiens in Europe around 45,000 years ago.
The Dordogne’s Vezere valley is known to the tourist board as the cradle of mankind since this is where the Cro-Magnon people were first discovered.
Les Eyzies, in the Vezere valley, was the little town that is home to an excellent modern National Museum of Prehistory and its associated reception center, Le Centre d’Accueil de la Préhistoire. Outside ,a huge statue of a prehistoric man greets visitors.
It gave us a much too brief introduction to the people and times from 10,000 to 100,000 years ago.
From Les Eyzies we drove up to Lascaux. The Lascaux cave had to be seen, even if it is only a perfect modern copy. It was indeed, as l’Abbé Breuil suggested, “the Sistine Chapel of prehistory.”
Lascaux IV (by the architectural firm of Snøhetta) was a spellbinding historic monument that felt authentic despite being a replication (necessary to conserve the actual Lascaux Grottes). The entire original cave was covered with a 3-D scanner and precisely reproduced down to the last millimeter. (Photography was not allowed inside the exhibit so to learn more click here.)
It took the hunt for a lost dog, in 1940, to reveal an insight into this long-lost civilization. Surely some external influence (my bet is very powerful magic mushrooms) must have played their part to have given these gifted artisans the stimulation to create visual masterpieces in a unique cathedral long before the Parthenon friezes in Athens.
Our tour was an unforgettable experience that overwhelmed me with a sense of art, history, and an aura that was hard to define but powerfully spiritual. I will never again think of cave people as primitive. It was a very special place. The artists may have lived 17,000 years ago, but they were people who were much like us, possessing aesthetic sensibilities that span the millennia. Along with language, the need to produce art seems to be a defining human need.
Skilled hunter-gatherers armed with fire, food, and shelter in the post-glacial tundra had a sublime artistic vision within a very limited color range (no blues or greens have yet been discovered in their art) in this limestone cave.
Once in its deepest recess, they lay on their backs and, in flickering candlelight, started painting on the rock ceiling and walls around them. Representations of bulls, horses, deer, and ibex created a vivid theatre in the darkness of their life. Each animal was depicted in simple, confident lines that revealed startling artistic talent.
For our time in the Dordogne, we opted for the lovely old town of Sarlat-la-Canéda (or simply Sarlat) as home base.
A picturesque tangle of honey-colored buildings, alleyways and secret squares make up this beautiful town. It is magical! The center was largely built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and has changed little since.
They could film another version of The Three Musketeers here without changing anything except for a few modern shop windows. Markets sell a smorgasbord of goose-based products, and Sarlat hosts an annual goose festival, the Fest’Oie (early March), when live birds and market stalls fill the streets and Sarlat’s top chefs prepare an outdoor banquet.
They even built a statue dedicated to the goose.
We stayed in the Plaza Madeleine Hotel & Spa, an authentic 4-star establishment overlooking the Square du 8 Mai which is a pretty tree-shaded plaza at the entrance to the medieval city.
The hotel itself was beautifully decorated with a downstairs bar of dark wood and black leather – a clubby interior with Bergerac and Bordeaux reds available from the “Enomatic” – a snazzy self-service wine-dispensing machine which was well stocked with sixteen regional wines. It was the perfect place to have a glass of wine in the evening and plan our next day’s excursion. At breakfast, we enjoyed B&W photos of the hotel in 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1936 decorating the paper table mats in the breakfast room.
After Lascaux, I was most intrigued with the food: truffles, cèpes (mushrooms), the renowned goat cheese cabécou, and, of course, ducks and geese and their foie gras. If a Frenchman’s heart lives in Paris, his stomach resides in the Dordogne Valley. Here duck is the staple – both the magret de canard (duck breast) and confit de canard (duck legs slowly-cooked in their own fat). Duck or goose liver is fattened to become foie gras, served raw and thinly sliced, pan-fried and warm, or with toasts as a pâté.
Hidden just behind the Maison de La Boetie in the center of Sarlat is Les Jardins d’ Harmonie. We stayed in Sarlat three nights and ate here two out of the three. It was that good. The setting was pleasant and the menu surprising and inventive. The chef, Marc Bidoyet, obviously loves to try new things – his food was creative, imaginative (Duck Breast cooked with Earl Grey Tea leaves for example), delicious and beautiful to look at. Alison, the chef’s wife, oversees the front of the restaurant. The staff was attentive and knowledgeable
The wine list was excellent and moderately priced. We picked a very nice Pomerol from nearby Bordeaux.
Service was deliberate (that is to say, totally unrushed) but it was well worth the evenings we spent there.
Over the course of two evening dinners, we were able to sample a number of delicious dishes. We pretty much stuck with traditional Périgourdin classics and were not disappointed with anything we selected.
In the land of foie gras, I simply had to sample some of the best. Déclinaison de foie gras aux trois sens. This foie gras was done in three ways: Foie gras terrine, pan-fried duck foie gras, and pan-fried duck foie gras breaded with sesame seeds.
Brochette de saint-jacques à la vanilla de Madagascar, champignons frais, sauce chien, sauce crustacés which was a brochette of scallops with fresh mushrooms and two sauces – sauce chien (a lively and pungent vinaigrette made with herbs, chilies, aromatic vegetables, and lime juice) and a shellfish sauce.
Cylindre de filet de boeuf Limousin aux morilles. A generous cylindrical tenderloin filet of Limousin beef with fresh morel mushrooms.
Selle d’agneau rotie à lail et au thym, champignons frais. A lovely roasted lamb steak with garlic and thyme and fresh mushrooms.
Brioche Pomme cannelle, glace vanille Bourbon, coulis de caramel. One of the desserts offered was Chef Bidoyet’s take on a bread pudding. It was a brioche with apple and cinnamon, Bourbon vanilla ice cream and a homemade caramel sauce.
Les Jardins d’Harmonie was a real treat from the beginning to the end! Saint Jacques with vanilla, the trilogy of foie gras, the roasted lamb with its reduced juice (unforgettable sauce) and yummy desserts – in short, a restaurant that pleased all of our senses.