Friday, 6 August 2010

Food with a view

View from Maisonneuve, Lalinde.
 We had blissful fortnight at the beginning of July, staying in Lalinde, a little 'bastide' town on the Dordogne, near Bergerac.

Inevitably, on a holiday in France, food is big feature. We ate fairly plain fare for most of the holiday. Plain but delicious. The Dordogne is a region of many medieval villages. Each of these small villages has at least one, if not two markets every week, rich with local produce. My idea of holiday heaven is a good market, and I have the holiday snaps to prove it! Just how many photos of nicely arranged vegetables does one woman need?

Purple Cauliflowers: Villefranche de Perigord market
So most of the time we bought food from markets in the area and spent most of the holiday eating home cooked (or rather home assembled!) meals in the beautiful garden of our holiday home. Baguettes, pain de campagne, cheese and tomatoes and fruit. This most simple of meals was transformed into something quite exquisite, simply because French produce is just so good. Washed down with plenty of local rose wine of course!

Market day: Lalinde
We also discovered the fantastic 'marches nocturnes' in the area. Literally 'night markets', where you can  buy freshly cooked food from stalls  - freshly barbecued steaks, moules frites, crepes, salads, goats cheeses - and of course wine - and sit at trestle tables in the centre of the market square alongside locals and other tourists, eating, drinking, chatting in broken French and generally feeling pretty damn good about life. 


Marche nocturne: Paunat
The most memorable meal we had on holiday was an accident. A very happy accident. We'd turned up at the pretty, historic village of Tremolat, hoping for a 'marche nocturne' but we'd got the dates mixed up; the place was deserted. We asked the staff at the tourist information office to recommend a local restaurant: we were directed to the nearby 'Ferme Auberge du Belvedere'. These 'farm restaurants' are apparently a feature of rural france. Simple restaurants which open during the summer and serve food based on produce from the farm.

This one offered 4 set menus: €15 / €19 / €23 / €27. In some kind of joint madness, we went for the €19 menu, according to the well worn 'how to choose the wine' rule, i.e. second cheapest on the menu. Somehow in this decision making process, we lost sight of the fact that this meant 7 courses. 7 courses!

Ferme Auberge du Belvedere
The first thing that happened was that a 2 litre bottle of red wine was plonked onto the table. No label. Presumably just filled from the barrel. This was included in the set menu. I was still cursing the fact that it was my turn to drive when a jug of ‘kir’ was presented to us. Would we like an aperitif? Well why not?

The first course was soup. This arrived at the table in a large tureen. The tureen was left with us, so we could help ourselves. This alone would have done about 8 people for lunch, rather than serving as a starter for 4. We drew on our scarce resources of self-discipline and were very sparing with our portions, knowing the culinary mountain still to climb. Then we had the 'starter'. Apparently the soup wasn't the starter. The starter was Foie Gras de Canard - i.e. duck fois gras.  This area of France is very big on foie gras – goose and duck. It's not something I have ever eaten, nor wanted to eat, because of the cruelty involved in its production. However, as this was a set menu: when in Rome. Not eating foie gras could hardly be described as a big sacrifice to date on my part, because I've never really fancied it. I imagined it would be a bit fatty and too rich. Oh. My. God. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, even with its garnish of animal welfare guilt. I am trying to forget this experience, so I'm not tempted to eat it in future.

Then came the ‘hot starter’. Apparently, we needed soup then a cold starter, then a hot starter. The hot starter was 'Cous de canard farcis': the less than appealing sounding 'stuffed duck neck'. This wasn’t as grim as you might imagine. It's a kind of duck meat terrine, but stuffed into the skin of a duck's neck, as if it were a sausage casing (which I didn’t eat!). We were slowing down a bit by now, having eating about a full day's worth of food already in this meal. My dining companions were able to wash everything down with the vat of red wine we'd been given. I was limited to my single glass of wine, eked out by glasses of water. You will have also noticed a food theme emerging. It will come as no suprise that the main course was, you've guessed it, duck. I don't know if you've ever eaten 'confit de canard'. It's basically duck legs preserved in copious quantitutes of ...duck fat, then roasted, presumably with some additional duck fat. Doesn't sound great does it? And probably slightly hard on the arteries.  It was, inevitably, delicious. Served with garlicky fried potatoes. Presumably fried in ... duck fat. Also, I'm almost ashamed to say, delicious.

Then came the salad - the first green veg of the meal. Even my salad hating husband was driven to munch on some lettuce as an antidote to the duck meat/duck fat overload. At this point, knowing we still had cheese and dessert to come and fearing hospitalisation, we suggested to the lovely, friendly waitress - the "farmer's wife" - that we might just have a small portion of cheese, simply to taste it. She looked heartbroken. Didn't we want cheese? It was all made on the farm. I swear her bottom lip quivered.  What could we do? The cheese was fabulous.

And finally came the pudding – warm apricot sponge cake. When faced with this generous slice of cake,  I felt like lying down on the floor and whimpering defeat. I only tasted it out of politeness (after the episode with the cheese).  It says a lot for the quality of the food after taking one mouthful, we were all wolfing it down. The combination of fragrant, perfectly ripe fruit with vanilla scented sponge was exquisite. Almost perfumed.

Then we were on the home straight – coffee. But were weren't quite finished. When we tried to pay, we were told that we couldn’t leave until we’d had our ‘digestif’. The farmer/chef emerged from the kitchen to serve us a glass of his home-made prune eau de vie! He looked as if he'd enjoyed a few glasses himself, but it hadn't affected his culinary skills. It is only after a meal of such gargantuan proportions and richness that you finally understand the purpose of 'digestifs'. They may taste like parafin and have the alcoholic kick of moonshine, but they clear the head and the gut like nothing else. 

This then, was our version of La Grande Bouffe. In the telling it probably just sounds like nausea inducing quantities of rich food. But that's because you aren't tasting it. Everything was intensely delicious. I wouldn’t want to eat like this every week, or every month – but it was a magical experience. 

The icing on the cake – or the apricot sponge – was that the farm was situated high up on a hill, overlooking a sharp bend in the river Dordogne and the broad flood plain enclosed. The clue is in the name - Belvedere. You could see for miles – and half way through the evening, as night fell, the most amazing electrical storm played out infront of us, across the whole breadth of the valley.  I've never seen lightening like it. If it had been on a film, you'd have assumed it was CGI overkill.

What an evening. I don't know why it felt so special. The food certainly. The setting was stupendous. The light show, courtesy of mother nature. Mostly it was because we only discovered the place by chance. We speculated that if we went back the following night, there would be no trace of the place, and it was a kind of restaurant Brigadoon. But it's not. Here's the website. If you are ever in the area, I would recommend it 100%. But fast for the previous day. Or go for the €15 menu.
View of the Dordogne, near Tremolat, from the Ferme Auberge du Belvedere.

2 comments:

  1. That sounds like the most wonderful experience! I know just what you mean about the foie gras - sinful, guilt-laden, never to be done again, but oh so delicious! And the apricot sponge - I had just that in the Dordogne, as well as being offered an apricot warm from the sun, plucked off the tree in front of me. Memories are made of such moments, and such meals..... Thanks for the reminder.

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  2. Rachel,
    Thanks for the comment. There was a peach tree in the garden of our holiday home! Peaches straight from the tree are pretty unbeatable. Rosie

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