There is hardly a region in France that doesn’t have some food or wine related specialty as a draw card to attract visitors. The Dordogne region has a couple of luxury items; truffles and foie gras. There are also rather nice wines from the Bergerac area and nuts (walnuts) amongst several other tasty treats, many of which are based around duck and goose farming (for the foie gras).
To set your mental compass for this area, the Dordogne is a département within the Administrative Region of Aquitaine in southwest France. Aquitaine extends inland from the Atlantic Sea on the west coast; Bordeaux is the main city for the region as a whole. Two large rivers, the Dordogne and the Vézère (which feeds into the Dordogne), flow through this region. Périgord is the main town in the Dordogne, other well known towns include Sarlat and Bergerac. Visitors come here in the summer for outdoor activities and camping holidays, and it is a region of significant historical interest.
Last Friday we headed out of Paris on the fast train (TGV) on a mission to experience “le week-end spécial truffes.” We picked up a rental car in Bordeaux and drove east through the vineyards on the outskirts of Bordeaux heading for Le Bugue. After a couple of relatively minor navigational debacles (Doris the voice of navigation control might have been a bit fed up with recalculating), we arrived “at destination” – Maison Oléa – and met our hosts Murielle and Francis. Along with 7 other couples we enjoyed their superb hospitality over the weekend; Francis was generous in sharing the contents of his wine cellar and Murielle’s cooking was superb – her flair for interior decoration is impressive too. Interestingly all the other couples were French so our language skills got a real workout. I suspect that while a glass of wine may increase one’s confidence in speaking a foreign language it doesn’t necessarily improve the skills; however our companions and hosts were both forgiving and charming.
Saturday morning armed with Murielle’s good advice on truffle buying we headed for Sarlat. The old city centre, where the marché aux truffes is held, looks just as you might imagine a medieval town would, cobbled streets, narrow passageways and imposing old stone buildings whose decorative features are well worn by time and weather. Very picturesque and drenched in historic atmosphere (it was raining heavily).
Nowadays the truffle market operates with formal protocols, the “control procedures” take place from 8am to 9am and the market opens to buyers from 9am. As soon you enter the room the aroma of the truffles punches you in the nose, its hard to describe, maybe old socks stuffed with mushrooms, something sweet and a few autumn leaves from the forest floor? (But not pine needles Kiwi readers, we’re in a Northern hemisphere forest for this imaginative exercise.) We plucked up courage to speak with a truffle hunter which resulted in a chat with a whole gang of friendly locals, some photos and us securing a golf ball sized premier grade specimen for about 22 Euros. (My handbag ponged all the way back to Paris with its precious cargo carefully nestled in paper towels inside a sturdy paper wrapper.)
We shopped the rest of the market stalls at a leisurely pace, buying a sturdy umbrella and a jar of locally made cassoulet, before heading off to explore more of the area. The countryside is particularly picturesque even in its drab winter colours. It is extensively wooded, interspersed with small villages here and there and worn limestone cliffs that come into sight from time to time. These cliffs contain some of the famous ancient cave dwellings and rock art. We also came across a number of impressive chateaux and religious buildings, like the abbey at Cadouin. Most places were closed, not opening until later in February or April. That didn’t matter to us as our main mission was the special afternoon rendezvous – a truffle hunting expedition with an expert guide and his truffle sniffing dogs. This was part of the package deal and is a whole story in itself……
You might have noted that I mentioned the rain a few times. While it didn’t dampen our weekend enjoyment the heavy ongoing rain has seriously dampened many areas in France, especially Brittany. The Dordogne is not currently one of the departments on flood alert but even here the rivers were well over their banks in several places. At Le Bugue, the town where we stayed, the walkway along the river is completely flooded, only the tops of marker posts and park benches poke up above the waterline. Gladly the weeping willows have a tinge of green. Spring and summer are on the way and I bet the Dordogne will be even more beautiful then.