Indulging in the culinary fruits of Sarlat, France

by Forager on October 6, 2013

Our traipse around Europe had seen us racing across busy London and Paris, spreadsheets of must-eat-at places clutched in hand, trying to fit in as much eating, shopping and sightseeing as the hours would allow. Upon leaving Paris we took the pace down a few notches and cruised into Sarlat a town in the picturesque Dordogne, located between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees in the Perigord county in South Western France. Waiting for us was a cute little cottage or gîte, about 5 minutes from the town centre of Sarlat providing a perfect compromise between the convenience of city amenities and quiet, forested surroundings promising rest and relaxation.

sarlat, gite, cottage, France, dordogne

Our quaint gite (cottage) on the edge of Sarlat

To greet us was a welcome basket containing some essentials like fresh bread, butter, crackers, coffee, wine, fresh figs from the garden and brie-like soft ripe cheese that, though just a simple French supermarket standard cheese was as good as any cheese you can find in a Sydney deli (in fact, we found that same basic but delicious cheese in the local Carrefour supermarket for about 1€ – and back home in an Australian deli we found it for $16AUD).

The cottages are surrounded by grand old oak trees and as we slowed down to peer at all the acorns littered around and wondered whether truffles were hiding underfoot, we could already feel our shoulders sag and relax. You know those whirlwind trips you return from and feel like you need a holiday from a holiday? Sarlat was our antidote to that.

Sarlat, France, Dordogne, welcome gift, gite

The gite’s welcome pack of French essentials: local white wine, bread, cheese and plump home grown figs

Sarlat is famed for the a number of culinary products, namely black Perigord truffles, walnuts, chestnuts, cepes (porcini mushrooms) and more duck and goose farms than you can poke a stick at. These farms produce copious amounts of confit and magret duck and goose and of course every manner of foie gras – spreads, patés, terrines, roulades or most coveted, entire blocks of foie. Every second store in Sarlat was a veritable gourmet candy store with cans and jars of duck and goose products piled high on display. Given the over abundance of duck, goose and their tasty fatty liver products – it was no surprise that the menus in all the restaurants here are all rammed to the hilt with these products. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a menu that didn’t feature “canard-this or foie gras-that” – something we heard uttered with some frustration by other visitors that peered hopefully at a menu displayed outside one restaurant. Evidently it can be frustrating for those seeking a taste of something different…

Disappointingly for us though, the meal we had in Sarlat at the well-reviewed Le Bistrot de l’Octroi was one of the more unmemorable experiences we had in France. We ordered the three courses for 29€, but found it to be unremarkable, greasy with ubiquitous fancy-for-the-sake-of-fancy flourishes like swirls of powdered herbs and peppers and tired, soggy baked tomatoes that adorned each dish regardless of the content on the plate. I don’t know about other travellers, but food becomes a main focal point in our travels. Disappointing eats are just. not. sanctioned.

Sarlat, France, Dordogne, foie gras, canard, magret, duck, truffle,

Sarlat, where every second shop is floor to ceiling jammed with duck, foie gras, wine, confit, walnut products

Restaurant La Belle Etoile at La Roque-Gageac redeemed our previous restaurant experience. Again, we couldn’t go past the value offered in three courses for 29€ and for the same price, what a remarkably different experience we had: delicious, rich, well-executed flavours and very generous. My entree of egg cocotte with langoustines and morel cream was a standout winner – the rich egginess mixed with cream and langoustine morsels so moreish; as was the perfectly seared beef topped with a generous, decadent thick slab of foie gras. The desserts were equally impressive – my boozy frozen souffle was soaked with Grand Marnier and topped with a toffee brulee lid and the Co-pilot’s rum baba was pillowy light and fluffy with a side of sabayon ice cream – but it was the bottle of rum left at the table to douse his desserts to his heart’s content that got really effusive approval from the Co-pilot. Something I highly doubt we’d see in Sydney as I can’t imagine diners giving much of that bottle back to the kitchen..

La Belle Etoile restaurant, La roque gageac, France, Dordogne,

La Belle Etoile’s restaurant at the picturesque La roque gageac: (L-R, top-bottom): the dining room at la belle etoile; oysters poached in chestnut veloute; egg cocotte with langoustine in morel and chicory cream; delicious morsels of langoustine in the rich eggy sauce; beef and foie gras served with a beet millefeuille; duck with seasonal vegetables served with hazelnut jus; rum baba with pineapple sorbet and cream; and frozen souffle with Grand Marnier

But we didn’t come here for restaurants specifically. Markets were a key element of Sarlat that we were really keen to explore and the next morning whilst out for a leisurely drive through the gorgeous French countryside, we came upon the particularly picturesque markets at Terrason, on a bridge straddling the Dordogne River. The relatively simple and cheap cache of local salamis, ripe cheeses, crusty fresh bread and sweet fruit that we walked away with that morning easily satisfied us so much more than that ill-fated restaurant meal did. When produce is this good – fussing is simply unnecessary.

Terrason markets, Dordogne, France, Periogord, Sarlat,

The markets at the ancient market city of Terrason are situated on a bridge overlooking the Dordogne river

Terrason markets, salami, olives, cheeses, France, Dordogne,

Goodies at the picturesque Terrason markets: local salami, olives, cheeses galore

Saturdays marks the main market day for Sarlat when makeshift stalls pop up like mushrooms, local and nearby producers spruik their wares and tourists flood in transforming the usually quiet streets into a busy festival like atmosphere. Being pre-warned by our hosts that the markets can get very busy and parking rarer than hen’s teeth the later it gets, the Co-pilot and I arrived at a very reasonable 8am to find the markets already busy but with temperatures hovering about 5-6°C, the autumn sun clearly still sleepy and low in the sky, barely making enough warmth to keep us from freezing. With cups of hot chocolates in hand, we wandered around the markets, perusing food vendors selling amazingly aromatic chicken fat soaked potatoes and seafood paella in enormous pans; cheese mongers eager to give us a taste from wheels of oozing ripe cheeses; mounds of ripe berries and figs and more. I was content dawdling from stall to stall when the Co-pilot suddenly and urgently dragged me by the hand to his discovery. Nestled in small wooden crates, he’d found a small but precious pile of fresh wild porcini, known locally in French as cepes. I chose some of the younger, less worm-eaten specimens and together with some excellent looking local duck, cheeses, fresh produce and a few local specialties as souvenirs, we bundled everything home for special treatment.

Sarlat markets, France, Dordogne, cepes, porcini, mushrooms, foie gras

Saturdays at Sarlat (L-R; top-bottom): Delicious aromas from a vendor selling potatoes in chicken fat, paella and bouillabaisse; early morning at the Sarlat markets; excellent duck and goose produce; the ubiquitous foie gras and pate products; fresh cepes; and a perfect cep specimen!

Sarlat market bounty, cepes, cheese, walnut oil, fig wine, duck, foie gras, roquefort, St Nectaire

Our market bounty showcasing produce of the region including some excellent cheeses like St Nectaire and roquefort; duck; fresh and dried cepes; and some fig wine and walnut oil

I meticulously cleaned the mushrooms using my brand spanking new mushroom foraging knife procured at the markets – a specialised tool with a curved blade for easy mushroom picking; a sturdy brush to clean away dirt, leaves and a very small pair of tweezers: “to pick out ticks” the vendor told me matter-of-factly. Foraging clearly has its rewards and hazards but quite frankly I’m hoping for more rewards and fewer hazards in my adventures.

Sarlat cepes, porcini, mushrooms, foraged, foraging knife, France, dordogne

Lovely fresh cepes or porcini, meticulously cleaned using my new specialised foraging knife

Boletus edulis, penny bun, cep, cepes, porcini,

Boletus edulis – otherwise known as the cep in French, porcini in Italian and the penny bun in England. This large specimen shown in my hand for reference. It typically has a firm stem, pale to dark brown rounded cap.

Boletus edulis stem, reticulation, net, cepes, cep, penny bun, porcini,

Another identifying feature of Boletus edulis: it has no ring on the stem and has a net-like pattern on the stem (known as reticulation)

Boletus edulis pores, penny bun, cep, cepes, porcini,

A key feature of all boletes: pores! The pores of Boletus edulis can range from pale yellow to olive-brown

The cleaned mushrooms were then diced and sauteed in rich French butter. Sweated down, deglazed with nothing less than Pol Roger Champagne, and topped with fresh parsley, our deliciously earthy and meaty cepes accompanied an excellent tender duck fillet wrapped around rich, generous nuggets of foie gras. Unsurprisingly, fresh cepes don’t have the same flavour intensity I’d come to expect of dried cepes; instead we found the more dominant flavour was a fresh nutty, earthiness combined with a firm texture (not unlike the texture of king brown mushrooms).

Cepes feast, porcini, foraged, wild, foraging, Sarlat, Dordogne, Perigord, mushrooms

A cepes feast! (Clockwise from top left): meaty cubes of diced fresh cepes; cepes sweated down and deglazed with Pol Roger Champagne; finished with parsley; served with duck fillet wrapped around foie gras and sauteed cabbage

Our first experience cooking fresh cepes was very satisfying and what sounded on paper like an insanely decadent meal, seems just the norm in Sarlat. The market produce in the area was phenomenally good, better tasting and cheaper than what we’ve grown used to at home in Sydney and truly rewards those keen on some holiday cooking. Trips to markets further afield involved spectacular meandering drives through fields and forests in full autumn splendour with the occasional stop in majestic castles and mad dashes across fields to investigate potential mushroom finds.. In Sarlat, time seemed to slow to a virtual standstill and we felt could have spent months there doing the same routine. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lewis K October 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Trina ~ we are jealous of the welcome offereing in your gite in the Dordogne. Ours, a few kilometres away and recommended by an Australian French travel organiser, had NOTHING in the kitchen except a scraping of salt in the bottom of the salt sellar. Not even some left over oil or mustard.
Lewis K recently posted..Indulging in the culinary fruits of Sarlat, FranceMy Profile

2 Richard Elliot October 8, 2013 at 7:39 am

Instead of a spreadsheet I’ve created a Google Map marking up some of the places I’d like to visit while in Paris. Hopefully we’ll be as lucky with our market experiences as you were in Sarlat.
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3 Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) October 8, 2013 at 11:42 am

It’s amazing how “gourmet” in one part of the world can mean everyday in another. Good cheese, booze and chocolate are amazingly cheap in Europe – and people wonder why everyone says eating is expensive in Australia!
Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) recently posted..Sugar Hit 2013: The Woods, Four Seasons HotelMy Profile

4 Gaby October 9, 2013 at 6:45 pm

I had no idea ceps = porcini. That’s a huge mushroom you’re holding there!
Gaby recently posted..Product review: KimchiMy Profile

5 Forager October 9, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Hey Lewis – I think we were quite lucky to find that gite and staying a little out of town was perfect – close enough to all the amenities but far enough to have some treasured peace and quiet. And I couldn’t recommend that place more – the hosts were English & lovely.

Hey Richard – I’m very much looking forward to reading about your finds in Paris!

Hey Rita – I know! It made us so angry that we’re constantly getting “ripped off” as it were in Sydney. I can’t understand why everything from market fare to restaurant meals and wine seem all cheaper in Europe. Even when we’re comparing one locally produced product to another

Hey Gaby – Isn’t it? I’d be a darn happy forager if I’d found that!

6 Helen (Grab Your Fork) October 14, 2013 at 1:02 pm

That must be the cutest picnic hamper ever, and I love the markets in Europe. That mushroom is gi-normous!
Helen (Grab Your Fork) recently posted..Sirene cheese, yoghurt and kashkaval: five days in Sofia and Plovdiv, BulgariaMy Profile

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