I spent a couple of weeks in Bordeaux and the Dordogne last August, on yet another field trip for what promises to be the best-researched retirement in modern history. The whole trip could be summed up in four words: duck, knives, books and the Tour de France.August, as I knew in my heart of hearts, is the worst time of year to go on holiday in France. The place was HEAVING. Mostly with French holidaymakers, and a few Brits, Dutch, Germans and in Bordeaux, a number of Spanish. Some picturesque villages such as La Roque-Gageac I had to skip, as there was not even a space in the car park.
In general one eats very well down in the south west. One of the greatest cakes in the world, on a par with the Portuguese pastel de nata in my humble opinion, is the cannelé bordelais, a baked custard tart from Bordeaux. They are quite easy to make yourself, as long as you have the correct fluted moulds, traditionally made of copper. The real ones cost about 8 or 9 euros per mould, so I make them in batches of 8 in a silicone mould. I did want to sample the real thing though. In Bordeaux you cannot escape them, they are sold everywhere by patisserie shops or chains such as Baudrillard or Le moule d'or.
Other specialities of the region are duck magret or confit, foie gras, or salade perigourdine, which involves all three. However, once you have been round this triangle a couple of times, you start to long for something different. I seem to recall that the novelty of duck wears off quickly. I even went (whisper it) NON-FRENCH a couple of times.
My problem is, I am not super hungry at 12:30, when one MUST bag a table in a restaurant if one wants to eat. And I don't always want a 3-course meal. I get hungry about 2.00, and usually only want something light such as an omelette or a croque monsieur. French restaurants are quite uncompromising and it's the dish of the day or nothing. Not all cafes - especially out in the sticks - offer what they call "petite restauration" all day. There are days when you can long for an all-day English breakfast even down in the gastronomic capital of the world.
BORDEAUXLa Brasserie du Midi
My first memorable meal was on my very first night in Bordeaux. Not wanting to go too far from the hotel, which was near the station, I wandered up to the Gare St Jean and into a brasserie right across from the station. The Brasserie du Midi is a large restaurant with a huge terrasse. The service was brisk as usual in France. The parmentier au canard was a kind of shepherd's pie but made with shredded duck meat. So a duckherd's pie, if you like. It was delicious, but maybe a mistake on top of foie gras and with a dame blanche to finish. I felt decidedly queasy later that night in bed.
Le RégentThe commercial centre of Bordeaux is rather lacking in small, unobtrusive places to have a quick bite at lunch, rather than the full linen-tablecloth 3-course menu. This pleasant cafe facing the Opéra National de Bordeaux is bigger than it looks - it has another entrance around the block in Rue de la Maison Daurade. They do a wonderful Croque Monsieur.
Marché des Capucins
Markets are one of my priorities when travelling. You can judge a town by its market. The Capucins market in Bordeaux is sumptuous. There is a stall that only sells bunches of fresh herbs, and people were queueing up, that's how seriously they take their food down there.
|Crepe in Eymet|
En route from Bordeaux to Bergerac, I made a pitstop at Marmande for the market, just long enough to prang the car, and then a lunchtime stop in Eymet, known as "le village anglais". The village was festooned with bicycle-themed decorations, having hosted a stage of the Tour de France only a month before.
Bergerac restaurants were all either quite expensive, or if reasonably priced were offering a standard 3-course menu which invariably involved duck in one of its incarnations or Salade Périgourdine, which is basically duck salad. At Le Richelieu I had fish to get out of the infernal cycle of duck, but sent the dessert back. Supposedly panna cotta, it had the consistency of toffee. I called the waiter over and told him this was NOT a panna cotta, and I wasn't paying for it. He looked quite shocked. I think they get complacent with all the tourists. To make my point, I stood the spoon up in the sticky lump and handed it back to him. Later, I was brought a mini dessert, and then Chef came out to apologize. They hadn't checked them that morning. They'd been made THREE DAYS ago.
Where to go if you don't want the full 3-course menu du jour at lunchtime? I found a little Thai restaurant in the old town, and was pleasantly surprised. Le Luang Prabang is tiny, with a pocket-sized terrace, but the food was excellent and light on a hot day.
Bergerac had also hosted Le Tour, and was still proudly wearing its decorations.
Vitrac is a two-hotel town. And that is all there is, unless you want to go canoeing. Not so much as a cafe, a church or a supermarket. If you want a coffee you have to drive to Sarlat. The Logis Hotel de La Treille has a superb gastronomic restaurant, where booking is recommended. I even changed for dinner, it was that posh. I was served by terribly nice ladies who wouldn't have been out of place at a W.I. meeting. And the food really was top-notch. The hotel across the road, Logis Hotel de la Plaisance, has a bigger restaurant and is more popular. I managed to sneak in for a soup and a salad without a reservation. Once again, I found myself on the route of the Tour de France, as I saw signs painted in the road exhorting "Allez Pierre" or "Allez Laurent". Not one "Allez Chris", I noticed.
|Foie gras cannelés! Divine decadence|
A church has been transformed into a Jean Nouvel-designed trendy food market, where I saw possibly the most decadent thing I have ever seen - a cannelé stuffed with foie gras. I should have, I know. But I didn't.
You'll know you're in Audrix when you see the giant straw bear with its cub. I was taken to L'Auberge Medievale by an old friend who lives locally. There is a beautiful terrace but it had been raining and all the seats were wet so we sat inside. After some complimentary amuse-gueules, we were served a local garlic soup called a Tourin before starting the menu proper.
French souvenir shop
I followed the Dordogne river up as far as I could be bothered then veered off into the Corrèze to see a bit of the magnificent Causses du Quercy region, which is quite different from the pretty manicured Dordogne, being all sweeping hills and big sky. Collonges-la-Rouge is a pretty little town but overrun with tourists. I noticed, not for the first time, how knives are more of a souvenir than a weapon in this part of the world. I'm a bit of a blade runner moiself, and so could not resist popping into a few artisanal knifemakers. As I was flying back from Bordeaux I could not treat myself, but earmarked a few beauties for the future. Every French boy must have his knife, for the cutting of his saucisson, and it's never too early to start them off. I noticed even round-bladed children's knives. How different from our own dear yob culture.
On the way to Brive I made a short detour to the Lac des Causses, where I dangled my weary feet in the water and sat peacefully for a couple of hours contemplating not moving, ever.
|And did those feet|
Brive-la-Gaillarde is a nice little town, which has a poor reputation with metropolitan Parisians, maybe because of a little ditty by Georges Brassens about a catfight in Brive market over the price of onions. Or maybe because it is twinned with Dunstable. I was unlucky with the hotel and one restaurant, and the famous indoor market, named after the singer, was closed in preparation for an agricultural fair that was coming up that weekend. The market was temporarily moved to a side road, and for a hick town they seem to eat a lot of foie gras. The town reminded me a bit of somewhere like Northampton as it used to be when it was an English county town, with its cattle market and balloon festival.
|So many brave geese suffered for this|
Le Corrèze is almost certainly the worst restaurant in Brive. In fact, a reviewer on Trip Adviser has confirmed that it is. Shame I didn't read it before going in. It's not the food, which is not bad - usual ducky menu. Or the general feel of the place, with its outside tables and soundtrack of old French hits from the 80s. But the manager, or owner, was a poundshop Gordon Ramsay. His staff called him "Chef" but I didn't see him set foot in the kitchen once. He snapped at them in front of customers, although if anyone seemed incompetent in that place it was him. The waitresses were young, but were working hard and doing their best. When I left, my waitress was not around (probably crying her eyes out in the restrooms) so I gave her colleague a 5-euro note, whispering "For your colleague. And your boss is an arsehole." I am FEARLESS when I am in France!
Le 4 was a different kettle of fish. I decided to (a) consult Trip Adviser before going out to eat, and (b) be prepared to pay a bit more. The meal was superb. The owner/manageress recommended a dry white local wine with the foie gras, rather than the sweet syrupy wine which is usually served with it, since the foie gras already came with a sweet onion marmalade. We played a game with the dessert, I had to guess the flavours of the four scoops of ice cream.
I think it was in Brive that I first spotted one of these book deposit boxes, and found an English book which I borrowed to read on my travels. I returned the book in Bordeaux, not quite finished. After Brive I noticed them everywhere.
I was only staying one night at the Hotel Le Lascaux, in order to see to the famous prehistoric cave paintings the next day (which turned out to be reproductions but for good reasons). The hotel has recently been taken over by a young couple, she is a doctor and he is a chef. The village was also on the Tour de France route (honestly, I didn't plan this) and the windows were painted with encouraging slogans and pictures.
Between Montignac and Périgueux I did a bit of a detour along the Vézère river, which is even more pleasant and peaceful than the Dordogne. Only canoes are allowed on it, and I found the best way to have lunch was to grab a sandwich and a drink from the nearest Leclerc supermarket, and settle myself on a river bank. I found a village called Les Eyzies which was overrun with tourists, but very few of them were sitting down by the river. Here is another spot that I had trouble tearing myself away from.
Place St Louis is the place to eat in Périgueux, a central square lined with restaurants. Trip Adviser recommended Cocotte et Cie, but of course I was late setting out for dinner, and every table was taken. I settled for next door at Au Gré du Vent where I had - you guessed it - duck. The next morning was Sunday and I headed into town early to catch the market. Near the market square is a shop selling Coucounettes, or balls of foie gras.
|A load of balls|
|Gazing towards retirement in the vineyards of St Emilion|
Back in Bordeaux I had to pay a visit to the new Maison du Vin, which is supposed to look like wine swirling in a glass, although you may have a more prosaic not to mention rude idea. I didn't bother going inside, it looked too serious. People sniffing and spitting, that sort of thing. There is an awfully nice gift shop though, with lots of unusual presents for the oenologist in your life.
On the whole, first impressions of the Perigord were most satisfactory. I shall be returning to the region at Easter to investigate a little further south, towards the Lot-et-Garonne. And NEVER going back there in August.