Sitting on little plastic chairs eagerly awaiting their meals, locals and tourists chat pleasantly amongst themselves in between gazing at the beautifully picturesque landscapes through the quaint windows of the farm restaurant. The owner is also the chef and his wife manages front of house, whilst their son plays outside, chiming “bonjour!” to familiar faces passing by or coming in for a bite to eat and an apéritif. Views of mediaeval villages hanging delicately from steep cliffs along the river catch the eye of diners, as do the grand châteaux that transport you into a children’s fairytale.
The Dordogne, also known as the Périgord, holds a rich and varied history – a land where time has stood still in many places and you can marvel at Romanesque churches and centuries-old gardens that complement the natural beauty of the region. Traditional Périgourdine houses dot the carpeted hills of the Périgord Noir and decorated grottoes teetering on the edge of limestone cliffs conjure up images of prehistoric man sleeping and practising magic.
The region is reputed for its agricultural heritage, which still exists today. Locals thrive on their locally-grown foods, carefully cultivating ingredients in their gardens and farms to prepare hearty meals for their families, or selling them at markets for restaurateurs to buy and cook delicious gastronomic masterpieces. Here are six of the culinary highlights to enjoy so you can have a swift but oh-so-enjoyable love affair with the region’s good food and fine wines.
1. Fresh, locally-grown, lovingly-nurtured produce
From walnut farms and chestnut groves to ancient forests growing wild mushrooms (cèpes) and truffles, there is an abundance of high-quality ingredients produced in the landscapes of the Dordogne, which are rustled up into tempting dishes. Walnut trees cover the countryside and are harvested in early autumn. These flavoursome nuts are offered fresh in or out of the shell and are also pressed to make delicious oils, wines and liqueurs. Farms keep geese, ducks and other livestock which are used to make local specialties such as confit duck and foie gras, which you’ll find in cute ramekins in shops and on market stalls.In every place you visit, it’s guaranteed that the food has come from a local farm or producer. There are some fabulous markets in the region, especially in Sarlat on a Wednesday and Saturday, where the sweet perfume of strawberries dances through the streets, bunches of green and white asparagus sit in stacks waiting to be picked and clusters of bright red tomatoes cling to their vines in baskets. Not forgetting the cheese stalls adorned with tasty discs. It’s little wonder the Dordogne supplies nearly half of France’s finest products.
2. The ‘black diamonds’
Ah, the delectable black truffle! This rare fungus grows underground amongst the dark roots of oak, hazel and chestnut trees and is hunted by dogs that forage in the ground (it was once pigs that did this). What makes the Périgord truffle special is its beautiful black colour and the powerful earthy aromas with touches of musk that give it an incomparable taste. The truffles are added to many dishes including omelette – a few shavings of this delicacy perks it up immediately – and sauces and tapas. Although pricey, no trip to the Dordogne is complete without tasting some truffle-infused dishes.
3. Duck, duck, goose (foie gras)
This rich and velvety goose or duck liver dish is adored by locals and visitors alike. Served in a variety of ways – from paté to thin slices cooked to suit individual tastes, this smooth yummy treat goes well with onion chutney and toasted brioche. The duck version has a stronger flavour compared to the delicate goose foie gras, but you should definitely experience both whilst there.
4. Outstanding restaurants
As you would expect with such great food available, there are some fantastic restaurants in the region, serving gastronomic menus and world-famous wines to wash them down. As you walk, cycle or canoe, you could literally eat your way through the Périgord, stopping off at little restaurants or cafés en route or indulging in a picnic you’ve prepared using ingredients picked up at the local food markets. You could even treat yourself by dining in a Michelin-starred restaurant, where the personality of the chefs shines through from every plate. One of our favourites is at the Hotel Le Centenaire, which serves homemade foie gras, fresh goat’s cheese, a selection of duck dishes and, of course, truffles. The walnut liqueur eau de noix is often drunk neat as a digestif, and the fine Cahors and Bergerac wines are perfect for accompanying your meal.
5. Homage to the fromage
The Dordogne isn’t shy when it comes to food – it likes strong, natural, intense flavours that stick in your memory (and your palate!). The traditional cheeses of the region include Rocamadour, a soft goat’s cheese with a delicate nutty flavour that’s just divine sprinkled into a crisp salad or spread on top of a thick slab of crusty bread, fresh from a wood-burning oven. If blue cheese is more to your taste, Le Bleu de Causses is a fine after-dinner snack. Its contrasting sweet and salty taste is developed when matured in natural limestone caves, and this makes it delicious melted on top of grilled meat too. Others include Ossau Iraty, a firm creamy cheese that’s traditionally cooked into canapés and tarts – as well as enjoyed at the end of a meal with a tart cherry jam (this is called the “farmer’s dessert”).
6. More duck
Beside foie gras, duck is the staple dish of the Périgord, and is found on almost every menu. As popular as fish and chips is in England, duck is cooked in various ways and the fat is even used to cook dishes, as opposed to butter or oil. One of the specialties is confit de canard, a fried dish made using duck legs/thighs – the crispy skin is out of this world! Magret de canard is duck breast, usually served pink, grilled or with a sauce. In the region around Sarlat, pommes sarladaise are served as a side dish with most main courses – these are sliced potatoes fried in duck fat, sometimes with mushrooms.
The food in the Dordogne is as sublime as the landscapes; why not taste it for yourself?