Call me a trencherman or worse, but I tend to think of the Dordogne as a giant restaurant-cum-farm shop, set in a wooded riverside picnic park. And I have a feeling that’s how its native residents think of it too, so central is the well-filled table to their traditional way of life.
‘Dordogne’ of course refers both to the department of south-west France and to the river, famous for the medieval châteaux along its cliffs, that rises in the Massif Central and flows into the Gironde near Bordeaux. It also, I suppose, refers to a certain English idea of the essence of Frenchness: mellow stone, soft rain, warm sunshine, deep forests, ripe crops, busy markets, and bad drivers on bendy roads.
To me, sharing a much-loved holiday home there, it also speaks of truffle-hunting and mushroom-picking and walnut-harvesting in their season; of winter lunches at the local duck farm with its all-duck-no-choice menu; of summer evenings on the terrace of the perfect picture-postcard Petit Paris restaurant in Daglan, or at the marché gourmand nocturne in my own village of St Pompon, grazing stalls that offer everything from Mauritian fish curry to griddled foie gras on potatoes stewed in goose fat. And of other whole days lost in the planning, buying, preparing and eating of apparently simple feasts at home, and the siestas between them, and the litres of Bergerac wine and tots of Armagnac that wash them down.
Yes, there’s also landscape and history and music festivals and painting courses. There’s refined British expat social life if that’s your cup of tea. If you haven’t yet found the house of your dreams, there are 100 under-occupied estate agents waiting to sell it to you. There’s canoeing, river swimming, hot-air ballooning and paintballing to take the edge off your teenagers. And yes, there’s a touch too much Britishness in some corners of the territory, and that can be embarrassing: if there’s a shelf offering Branston Pickle and Heinz baked beans in the mini-supermarket, move on quietly to the next town.
But this is a part of France where the locals tend to like the Brits, because we spend our savings on their unwanted farmsteads, we share their love of rugby, and one way or another we’ve been knocking around since the Middle Ages; so a little bit of assimilation goes a long way, especially if you show enthusiasm for the cuisine of which they are justly proud. And why not? You’re on holiday. Have another slab of foie gras and promise you’ll do the 5:2 fasting diet when you get back to Blighty.
How to get there? A long day’s drive from London, or a cheap-ish flight from Stansted or Southampton to Bergerac, or City airport to Brive. Where to stay if it’s your first visit? Try the Plaza Madeleine in Sarlat as a base for exploring — or for a gourmets’ retreat, Le Vieux Logis at Tremolat. What to eat? Frankly, everything.
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