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.
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 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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.