TO MY HUSBAND JOHN AND DAUGHTER, CHLOE, FOR THEIR SUPPORT AND INSPIRATION, AND TO THE PEOPLE OF THE DORDOGNE, FOR SHARING THEIR TABLES WITH ME.
IN spring 2007, I received an e-mail asking me whether I would agree to meet two young women who were eager to write a book on the Périgord, my home. The book as I understood it was to be a travel guide and tribute to Périgourdine life and gastronomy, of which I am so proud. I accepted and, I must I say, promptly forgot. But Laura and Kimberley are quite tenacious, and it wasn't long before I received a slew of e-mails proposing dates and times for a meeting.
It should be known that a key characteristic of living Périgourdine and even of the culinary customs is people's casual attitude toward time, and perhaps more important, their willingness to take the time to live and enjoy all that the region has to offer. To some extent even forgetting time and its constraints and just letting oneself go is the real rhythm of the region. So even though it annoyed me somewhat that Laura and Kimberley were so strict with their time, they were also very serious about their work, which for me was a favorable point. When I spoke with Kimberley on the phone, her voice was compelling to me, so I agreed to a visit on a day that I had also invited a California journalist and his family to my home at the Borderie, to thank him for hosting me on his radio show.
Laura and Kimberley, along with their photographer, Lou, arrived on time and decided to quickly jump into questions and answers. What struck me was how intelligent, qualified, and passionately interested they were in my culture and the cuisine of the Périgord. Kimberley was eager to know everything, and I asked them to stay a while longer, promising that we'd get to all the questions in time. It was a very pleasant moment for me, answering their questions while preparing lunch for my guests. In the Périgord, one
does not let visitors leave at mealtime, so when my guests arrived, I quickly added three additional plates to the table, and Kimberley, Laura, and Lou accepted my invitation to sit down and spend an afternoon around my table. Time slipped by, and all work was forgotten to enjoy this meal among friends.
It was one of those summer days when life was beautiful. There was sun, but not too much. The birds were singing, but not too loudly. The air was soft, but just enough to comfort us. And the company? Ah, the company!
Humor, good moods, laughter, exchanges of culture and, of course, hearty appetites. We spent one exquisite day around my table, and while I know well that I did not answer all of Kimberley's questions, I am most certain that by the end of that day, she and her friends knew the Dordogne and its treasures.
After spending that time with them, I know that this book will be a success. I am honored to be a part of it and am impatient to read it myself. Thank you, Kimberley and Laura, for taking the time to visit—and to understand the beauty and wonder of the Périgord.
Return to see me again soon.
Chasing Fairy Tales
DREAMS are often born in the most unsuspecting places. Mine happened to be delivered by the postman. The postcard that arrived nearly sixteen years ago depicted the most beautiful village I had ever seen. Nicole and Claude, a couple my husband, Steve, and I had met outside of Paris the year before, sent it to tempt us to explore further in their native France. The picturesque village was enveloped in fog and huddled against a cliff at the edge of the Dordogne River with a dilapidated boat tied to its shore. On the back of the card, in small, black print, were the words "La Roque-Gageac, Dordogne." I tacked the postcard on my kitchen wall amid family pictures and to-do lists and vowed we would find this place one day.
Steve and I have been traveling to the Dordogne for over fifteen years now. With books, maps, magnifying glass, and a positive attitude, we have scoured the region from top to bottom, inside out. Along our aimless path we discovered a land of unspoiled beauty that has spoiled us rotten. Nothing can replicate the awe of seeing for the first time a five-hundred-year-old castle looming over the Dordogne River; neither could I be more inspired than by five generations of family working side by side on their ancestral winery. Every nook and cranny of the Dordogne revealed diverse landscapes and regional history. We passed scene after scene of farmlands with vast fields of corn, sunflowers, and trees dripping with cherries, walnuts, and plums; mountains and rolling hills; dense forests and open meadows; storybook villages and immense châteaux. Our camera was put into overdrive, but our pictures could never quite capture the essence of what we saw. How do you photograph the footsteps of prehistoric man, the grottoes, and the cliffside caves where traces of humanity date back five hundred thousand years? The fortified towns, called bastides, heavily concentrated in the Dordogne, intrigued, as did other medieval villages, like Sarlat, which rest preserved in time. The more than one thousand castles of the region range from Renaissance opulence to feudal fortresses built during eras ravaged by war, of which there have been many in the Dordogne. Even the smallest hamlets revealed memorials to those who gave their lives during past conflicts.
While we easily succumbed to the fairy-tale scenery, we soon realized it was merely a two-dimensional facade without the personalities behind the ancient doors. After years of frequenting the same hotels, restaurants, farms, shops, and daily markets, Steve and I slowly got to know the families, and we were invited into their homes and kitchens. From those with deeply seeded roots in the Périgord to those planting new foreign life in the region, there is a common thread among them—passion. Sitting down at the table with these bon vivants revealed more in one dinner than all the wrinkled maps and glossy guide-books ever told me. I found the people of the Dordogne delightful and eager to share their stories and secrets. It was here at the table that our story really began.
When Steve and I first officially launched our culinary tour company in 2003, the Dordogne was a natural choice for us. A writer from a local magazine was sent along to cover the events of our inaugural journey. This writer, Kimberley Lovato, had insatiable wanderlust and possessed a zeal for France, its people, its good food, and most important, a gift for imploring others to feel as passionately as she did. Over the years, she has joined us on many of our culinary voyages and traveled with us around Europe, meeting our friends and sharing in our memories. Like us, Kimberley fell instantly in love with the Dordogne. She conceived the idea for this book, and we eagerly signed on. As an added bonus, she speaks French and lives full-time in Europe, which helped push us along a little faster. Little did we know our meeting all those years ago in a small village in the Dordogne would be the preamble to such a great journey.
Kimberley conducted most of our interviews in French (or at least she tried her best). A smile accompanied by a genuine hello (bonjour), please (s'il vous plait), and thank you (merci) go a long way in any language, and her willingness to speak French uncovered a reciprocal graciousness and
desire to be understood. Nothing surprised us more than meeting a truffle farmer in the middle of nowhere who spoke to us enthusiastically in perfect English. We had more communication difficulties in our own car with me trying to say juillet (July), pronounced jwee-ay in French, but instead saying joo-lee-et, as in Romeo and Juliet. Kimberley, looking confused as she flipped through our packed agenda, finally asked, "Who is Juliet? She is not on our agenda today." We needed a translator from backseat English to front-seat English.
Like language, food is culturally significant in France. Days are planned around meals, shops are closed from noon to 2 p.m. for lunch, and expressions related to food are pervasive. During the research for our book, Kimberley and I documented a few of our favorites, but perhaps the one that resonated the most was "Vous avez du pain sur la planche," (you have some bread on the plank) meaning, "You have your work cut out for you." The Dordogne is world famous for its cuisine, thanks to truffles and foie gras, and traditional cooking is the best glimpse into a culture and culinary history steeped, quite literally, in duck fat. We ate potatoes, cèpes (porcini mushrooms), and omelettes all cooked in this magic elixir, which is a staple in the Périgord pantry. We enjoyed locally grown products and the prolific ovens at the affordable and traditional fermes auberges (farmhouse inns) that flourish in the Dordogne and offer a glimpse into regional cooking. There are also four Michelin-star restaurants in the region, and two more in nearby Lot-et-Garonne, confirming that Périgord cuisine is reaching new heights of appreciation. Surprising to us was the amount of seafood and international cuisine making its way onto restaurant menus. Fish and eel pulled from the Dordogne River and scallops and mussels from the seaside were an unexpected addition to many of the menus, and the blending of Asian and African spices with local products tempted our taste buds. The region's menus are not all duck, contrary to popular misconceptions. Game, beef, lamb, and hearty stews combine with the fresh produce of the region to make eating a more enjoyable experience replete with choice.
Cooking and dining is the glue of social life in the Dordogne, and as we bounced (or perhaps rolled) from table to table, we imagined the decades of decisions, arguments, trysts, and revelations that transpired inside these French kitchens. Recipes, we realized, are as cherished an heirloom as old photos and wedding china. They are passed down (rarely, if ever, on paper) between generations, subtly refined according to new tastes and traditions, but at the core remains fresh local products and a rich pedigree.
Together Kimberley and I invite you to loosen your belt buckles and join us on our edible journey down roads less traveled and into the homes and hearts of some remarkable people. Pull up a chair as we venture down the back roads to navigate the menus and markets with an insatiable appetite for discovery, and a fork and knife at the ready! Through these tales from the table, recipes, and photos, the best of the Dordogne will reveal itself to be more than just a glossy picture on the front of a postcard, but also a living and breathing tapestry woven with the thread of tradition and the colorful dye of eclectic people.
By the way, Steve and I found the image on the postcard that tempted us all those years ago. We were driving along the D703, when suddenly there it was, in black and white: a sign that read La Roque-Gageac. Right before us, the fairy-tale village hewn was real, and there was even a worn rowboat slapping against the shore. We knew then we had found a very special place. After all these years, our own postcard has become creased and yellowed with age, yet the image before us was untouched by time.
Enjoy the journey and bon appétit!
Chef Laura Schmalhorst
LL of our favorite things about travel can be found in the Dordogne: great food, fine wine, welcoming people, historic sites, quaint villages, and fairy-tale scenery. The Dordogne has something for any traveler and any lover of the good things in life. Located in the southwestern part of A the country, one hundred miles east of Bordeaux, the Dordogne is also known as Périgord. These monikers are synonymous when referring to the region and are used interchangeably, but the cuisine and the recipes are referred to as Périgourdine. Until the eighteenth century the entire region was called Périgord, but in 1790, when the departments of France were created, many took the names of rivers found within the territory. The Dordogne is further divided into (and often referred to by) four colored regions:
Périgord Vert (Green Périgord) is characterized by lush valleys and forests.
Périgord Blanc (White Périgord) is so called because of the vast deposits of limestone there.
Périgord Poupre (Purple Périgord) derives its name from the grapevines around the Bergerac region.
And finally, Périgord Noir (Black Périgord) refers to the region's abundant dense, dark forests of oak trees.
The Dordogne is easily accessible by train, plane, and automobile. We should know—we have driven in, flown in, high-speed trained in, hot air ballooned over, and canoed around the Dordogne. As remarkably easy as it is to get here, the Dordogne is relatively less trod upon than other parts of France, giving it an undiscovered and unblemished appeal. No doubt July and August have their share of clogged intersections and parking problems, but compared to Provence or the Côte d'Azur during the same period, the Dordogne is undiscovered territory. Once in the region, a car is essential. The two-lane roads are well marked, but signs can be miniscule, especially the hand-painted ones directing you to local farms, or marked with single words like miel (honey). Be warned: some signs lure you around like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, only to completely disappear altogether. It didn't take long to adjust to getting lost, and we learned to regard it as part of the adventure. In fact, it was on a quest for a walnut farm (which we never found) that we discovered the unfinished bastide of Molières, a decidedly undeveloped village that is eerily empty at all times of the day, any day, and gives the impression of being unchanged by time.
It is crucial to recognize that time takes a respite in the Dordogne. On one of our first visits someone asked us, "When you live in a fairy tale, is there any reason to rush?" Point taken. And so we stopped. Once you adjust your attitude to this way of thinking, things get a whole lot easier. We learned many things over our years of visiting, and some of the more important "time" lessons we pass on to you: A delay in taking an order or honoring an appointment to the minute (or hour) is not a personal slam against your nationality. It is simply the way it is. Never plan a meeting on a Sunday. Sundays in France are sacred and reserved for the market, family, church, and the cherished midday meal. The phrase "quick bite" does not exist, and no matter when you arrive at a restaurant, or how many times you clink the silverware together or sigh in frustration, you will leave two hours later, just like everyone else. Face it: France is a slow food nation and most meals, even simple ones, are carefully prepared and meant to be relished, not served in a cardboard box from a clown's mouth and eaten on the road. For those used to schedules, we offer these helpful translations:
It's only 20 minutes away. = It's 40 minutes away.
Get to the market early. = Get to the market before 7:30 a.m. if you hope to actually see and touch any food.
We'll arrive at 10 a.m. = We will arrive sometime after 10 a.m.
We're in a hurry. = Sorry, there is no translation.
We promise—this slowdown in attitude and newfound flexibility in your agenda will allow you to savor the scenery and meals a little longer, and you'll soon discover what all the fuss is about.
THE FRENCH TABLE
In French households, friends and family are often invited for a Sunday meal, usually at midday, which will last three to four hours. A traditional French lunch or dinner always includes three courses: an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. However, dining in France is a national sport, and thus the meal could last two to four hours and may include these additional courses:
This is a small sip of liquor, sweet wine, or even champagne on special occasions. Vin de noix [walnut wine] is a typical choice in the Dordogne, as is a sweet Monbazillac wine, often served with foie gras. Apéritifs are offered before taking your order in a restaurant, and if invited to a private home, it's customary to have an apéritif about thirty minutes before sitting down to the meal.
The word in French literally translates to "mouth amuser." An amuse-bouche is a tiny teaser served before the entrée and often accompanied by an apéritif. It could be anything from pâté and bread to fruit or vegetables.
Meaning "appetizer" in French, this course could be an assortment of hot or cold foods such as charcuterie, a soup, or even a small salad. Unlike in the United States, items listed under the heading "Les Entrées" in France are not the main course.
LE PLAT PRINCIPAL
The main course is usually meat served with a side dish of vegetables. In the Dordogne, duck confit [duck leg] or magret [duck breast] are common, but lamb, beef, game, and fish are served as well. Side dishes might include haricots verts [green beans]; asparagus, white or green; or the traditional pommes sarladaises [potatoes cooked in duck fat].
A variety of cheese is offered to guests after the main course is finished. It will be served on a separate plate, and there will be a choice of three or four types. Cabécou de Rocamadour, a small goat cheese round, is common in the Dordogne. A wedge of cheese is cut lengthwise, and round cheese is cut by making wedges, much like slicing up a pie.
Dessert is always served in a private home. A fruit tart or scoop of sorbet in the summer is a refreshing end to a long meal.
Coffee comes after dessert, not with it, in France and is usually a small espresso. A café normal will get you a regular-size coffee and a cappuccino is the same in every language, though sometimes it is served with whipped cream instead of milk foam.
Tea is also an option.
Literally meaning "the coffee pusher," the pousse-café is a digestif, such as brandy, that is offered after coffee.
DINING CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
ONCE SEATED, it might be handy to know what's expected of you at the table. As a general rule, just be polite and respectful, as with any dining experience. Here are a few dining customs you might encounter in the Dordogne:
❧ Keep your hands above the table, without resting your elbows on the table. This is a hard one to get used to for those taught to fold their hands neatly on their laps. The thought behind this is, if your hands aren't above the table, where are they, and what are they doing?
❧ Faire Chabrol. This uniquely Périgourdine custom requires that you pour a small amount of red wine into the dregs of your soup bowl, then—bottoms up!
❧ Never spread foie gras. Always cut it and place in on your piece of bread to eat.
❧ The last drop from the wine bottle should be given to the single person at the table. It is believed that whoever has the last drop will be married that year.
❧ If invited to a French home for a meal, the general rule is to arrive fifteen minutes after the expected time. The further south you go in France, the more flexible the tardiness.
❧ Bringing a hostess gift is not expected. If you do, chocolates are a good choice. Wine is likely to have been chosen by your host; flowers are complicated.
❧ Should you decide to bring flowers, avoid chrysanthemums, which are brought to cemeteries; carnations, which express bad will; and red roses, which are reserved for lovers. A bouquet should contain an odd number of blooms, but not thirteen. All-white flowers are appropriate for weddings and funerals only.
❧ At one time, it was considered inappropriate for a woman to serve herself wine at the table if there is an able-bodied man who can do it for her. In today's world, this out-of-date custom is probably relegated to formal dinner parties at the palace.
❧ While it is common to say, "Bon appétit" to fellow Anglophones, it is generally not said at a French table, and never said at a posh dinner party.
❧ Dress appropriately. The French version of casual never involves flip-flops, jogging pants, or a New York Yankees baseball cap.
❧ In France, if using both the fork and the knife, the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right.
Whether you are dining in a private home or in a fine restaurant, one thing is a given: the meal is created and presented with care. Meals in France are drawn out for the purpose of enjoyment—civilized loitering, if you will. There is much to observe over the course of a meal, about the people around you, about the origins of the customs, and about the food itself. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the lessons of the table. Just keep your hands where we can see them.
COLLOQUIAL EXPRESSIONS RELATED TO FOOD/EATING/COOKING
French Expression English Equivalent
avoir du pain sur la planche = to have your work cut out for you
raconter des salades = to tell lies or tall tales
Ce n'est pas tes oignons = It's none of your business.
un oeil au beurre noir = a black eye
tomber dans les pommes = to faint
mettre les pieds dans le plat = to put one's foot in one's mouth
avoir les foies = to have cold feet; to be scared stiff
être au four et au moulin = to be in two places at once
faire bouillir la marmite = to bring home the bacon
tondre des oeufs = to be cheap; stingy
un pot de vin = a bribe
avoir de la brioche = to have a gut; a spare tire
C'est du gateau! = It's a piece of cake!
The Crown Jewels
WAS it really Peter Mayle's tome A Year in Provence