Dordogne Travels: The Lure of Périgord

Village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle in the Dordogne
Village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle in the Dordogne. Photo: Jonathan Barbot

La Dordogne: an ancient realm where dark rivers sweep under limestone cliffs and medieval hilltop villages emerge from lush dense forest; where a cornucopia of local produce has created a rich and abundant gastronomic heritage; where the extraordinary legacy of prehistoric cave art contrasts with the sublime architecture of grand Renaissance châteaux; where today’s traveller can stay for a week, a month, a season and never grow jaded. Guy Hibbert explores…

The Périgord, to use the old name for the modern French department number 24, the Dordogne, is a multi-faceted jewel of a region in South-West France, where the sun is high enough to make for warm humid summers, sunny dry autumns, short sharp winters and lush verdant springtimes.

Many people claim to know the Dordogne but when you challenge them on their knowledge, it turns out they know their favourite patch well, but have only been to one or two towns and villages beyond – in other words, they have formed their opinion too early. To discover all that this grand region has to offer requires time and imagination, to venture away from the tourist hot-spots, to meander a little off the beaten track, to allow time to linger and create your own memorable experiences.

Rooftops of Périgueux
Rooftops of Périgueux. Photo: OT de Périgueux

‘Dordogneshire’

The British have a long association with the Dordogne, and fought over it often during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries. By contrast, today’s Brits are more likely to be seen fighting over an old property for sale, enjoying the sensual delights of a summer market or canoeing down a river. So popular has the region proved with expats that national newspaper journalists in the UK enjoy referring to ‘Dordogneshire’ and if your only experience is passing through Bergerac airport or visiting the pretty town of Eymet then you might think that this reputation has been well earned.

It’s no surprise the British love the area – it reminds them of the more picturesque parts of England, say the Cotswolds, but with less crowds and better weather. But it would be a great mistake to label the Dordogne in this clichéd manner. Nostalgia for pastoral idylls is a powerful draw for many travellers, not just the British, and this is a corner of France that can deliver a heady antidote to the stress of busy lives, giving a taste of what has often been lost in more densely populated parts of the world. Like an actor who happens to be excellent at a certain role, there is always a danger of typecasting – but the reality is that la Dordogne is a star with a diverse portfolio ready to be revealed, if you know how and where to look.

Issigeac
Issigeac. Photo: Guy Hibbert

Take a moment to consider the Dordogne ‘by numbers’ and you will begin to appreciate its scale and diversity. It’s actually the third largest département in France and can easily take two and a half hours to cross by road from one border to another. And no wonder its river-based activities are legendary because it has over 500 kilometres of navigable waterways, including the mighty Dordogne, the Vézère, Isle and Dronne. All this space is beautifully green: of the 557 communes, 497 are rural. The tourism office is rightly proud of the fact that they have 190 different sites and monuments open to visitors, including 70 or so museums, no fewer than 10 of France’s listed villages, 15 UNESCO World Heritage prehistoric sites, over 250 hotels, a similar number of campsites and literally thousands of gîtes and country properties for rental. No wonder three million tourists come to the Dordogne every year.

And yet there is space for them all. Because, aside from its supremacy in numbers, the Dordogne is big enough to offer a charming diversity of landscapes, attractions and activities to cater for most tastes and to allow people to join in the action or be an escapist, as the mood dictates.

Issigeac
Issigeac. Photo: Guy Hibbert

The Four Colours of Périgord

Some years ago the tourist authorities hit upon a distinct way of naming some of the territories within thedépartement – the so called four Périgords, the Noir,Pourpre, Blanc and Vert (black, purple, white and green). Unlike some more fanciful labels these labels are actually quite handy to get your bearings and they allow the visitor to get a sense of what lies beyond the hotspot destinations. Having lived and travelled in the Dordogne I can vouch for the aptness of the names.

Périgord Noir lies in the southeast and contains that most quintessential of Dordogne towns, Sarlat, where golden and ochre medieval buildings cast deep cooling shadows over immensely picturesque cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and restaurants serving an endless array of local gastronomic specialities – avoiding duck on the menu is simply not an option. Visit Sarlat in the evening to appreciate the romantic lighting and special ambience. Périgord Noir is also home to the Vézère valley with its magnificent networks of underground caves and grottoes, and the Dordogne valley with its magnificent châteaux on their pinnacles overlooking the broad, shining river below. This is the heart of the Dordogne that many tourists know and love and return to summer after summer.

Montpazier medieval festival
Montpazier medieval festival. Photo: Jonathan Barbot

Bastide Towns

To the west lies Périgord Pourpre, so named from the colour of the grape, as this is home to the lovely city of Bergerac (of Cyrano fame), surrounded by vineyards producing the much-appreciated Bergerac Blancs and Rouges, with the sweet wines of Monbazillac grown to the south of the city and less well-known reds such as AOC Pécharmant to the east. Périgord Pourpre also encompasses the numerous fascinating 13th-century bastide towns such as Monpazier and Beaumont-du-Périgord with their unique grid layout and fortifications which tell terrible tales of the battles of the Hundred Years’ War.

The central Dordogne, to the north of Bergerac, is named the Périgord Blanc, because of thecalcaire, the bright limestone that underlies the gentle rolling hills and valleys of open farmland and supplies the characteristic white stone for many buildings, including many striking Romanesque churches. The capital of the Dordogne, Périgueux, with its spectacular Romanesque cathedral and quaint vieille ville (great for shopping), is situated in this department, as is the country town of Ribérac, where a very popular market takes place every Friday.

To the northeast of the department lies the Périgord Vert, bordering on the Limousin, where green chestnut and oak forests are interspersed with cattle-grazing pastures. Visitors here head for the picturesque town of Brantôme, with its medieval abbey in white limestone, and the lovely village of Bourdeilles, with its château to visit and where a picnic by the gentle Dronne river is one of my favourite days out.

The ancient cave paintings of Lascaux
The ancient cave paintings of Lascaux. Photo: Sémitour

Prehistoric Marvels

Now you’ve got your bearings, the question is, in which direction to head first? Of course this all depends on your priorities. But for starters almost everyone can find inspiration in the ‘Vallée de la Préhistoire’, an unrivalled location for caves, caverns and underground treasures. With 147 sites, 15 of which are UNESCO World Heritage listed, there’s scope for everyone, but atop the many archaeological wonders sits the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’, the wonderful Lascaux cave network with its extraordinary cave paintings, first discovered by four teenagers back in 1940. The year 2016 brings exciting developments for Lascaux, with the opening of The Centre International d’Art Pariétal Montignac-Lascaux (or Lascaux 4), a grand scheme blending contemporary architecture and design which will offer a full reproduction of the Lascaux cave thanks to new virtual reality and image technology.

Beyond Lascaux there are plenty of other underground attractions including the original cave paintings at Font-de-Gaumes, Les Eyzies, the unusually beautiful geological formations at the Gouffre de Proumeyssac and Maxange caves or the chance to go pot-holing at the Grotte de Beaussac.

Montfort
Montfort. © Mathieu Anglada
Montignac
Montignac. Photo: Jonathan Barbot

Châteaux and Villages

Above ground, more traditional but equally uplifting architecture awaits, because the Dordogne has more than its fair share of châteaux to visit. From early fortified castles such as the cave fortress at Reignac and the imperious heights of Beynac and Castelnaud to the Renaissance masterpieces of Jumilhac and Milandes, which was built by the Lord of Caumont for his wife in 1489 but became much more famous in the last century as the home of chanteuse Josephine Baker and her children.

On a much more modest scale, but no less appealing, are the typical golden-stoned blue-shuttered villages of the Dordogne. The greatest claims to fame lies in the fact that no less than ten of the plus beaux villages de France are scattered throughout the department. In fact, the Dordogne is home to the largest number of listed villages in France. Situated 20km from Sarlat, Saint-Amand-de-Coly nestles between two wooded valleys and is famous for its 12th-century abbey. In the Périgord Vert, Saint-Jean-de-Côle’s history is linked with that of the Château de la Marthonie, which dominates its main square, while the typical village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère between Montignac and Les Eyzies boasts no fewer than three castles. Other villages include Limeuil (overlooking the confluence of the Dordogne and Vézère), Monpazier, La Roque-Gageac, Belvès, Domme, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and Beynac-et-Cazenac.

Château de Bridoire
le Château de Bridoire. Photo: Guy Hibbert

Summertime Fun – for Children of all Ages

The summer season delivers maximum value for family holidaymakers with over a hundred events and activities focused on the younger tourists. Under the seductive heat of the Périgord sun there are plenty of activities to entertain the kids. After they have exhausted the pleasures of family canoeing why not give them a little education about ancient history at the Prehistory Labyrinth, opening in 2016, where they become explorers for a day. Or visit the Isle river near Jumilhac for a spot of gold-panning. For a theme park with a gentle French country vibe try Le Bournat. And don’t forget that many châteaux stage activities and displays with falconry, jousting and medieval street fairs to enjoy.

Anyone looking for more active pastimes is well catered for – the département offers numerous canoeing, kayaking, cycling and hiking trails for all standards, some, such as the Cro-Magnon Footpath, follow in the footsteps of prehistoric man. Organise your own ad hoc expedition or join in one of the many organised events. There truly is something for everybody – vintage costume and bicycle fans, for example, should not miss the retro cycle rally leaving from Monbazillac in August.

A shop in the Dordogne
A shop in the Dordogne. Photo: Guy Hibbert

More Unexpected Pleasures to be Discovered

But often the charm of the Dordogne lies in the unexpected. You are driving or cycling and en route you take a wrong turn and find yourself in a little village which wasn’t recommended and hasn’t won any accolades. But as you look around your mystery village there’s an irresistible ambience – you have stumbled into a haven where time appears to have stood still for centuries. So you stop for a leisurelydéjeuner in a sleepy café and admire the sun filtering through the canopy of an ancient plane tree in the square. You exchange some friendly words with the waiter and watch a couple of old gents sitting and chatting on a bench near the fountain. On a crumbling ochre wall you notice the faded blue and white painted lettering advertising a long forgotten liqueur while at the foot of the wall a cat stretches lazily in the spring sunshine. In other words, you slow down, and you let the Dordogne, this rich and magically diverse region, fold its warming arms around you.

From France Today magazine

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Dordogne strawberries
Dordogne strawberries. Photo: B. Plantevin/ Chambre Agriculture Dordogne

A Foodie Heaven

Blessed with fertile soils, enough rain to irrigate and plenty of warm sun to ripen its produce, the Dordogne offers an extravagant palate of local produce to tempt you.

Dordogne strawberries are hard to beat (buy them from any market and be sure to eat them the same day!) Sweet and fragrant, with many varieties to choose from – they even have their own website.

Walnuts are a Dordogne speciality, with Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status. You’ll enjoy them on a classic Périgordine salad – or even better, take back some walnut oil to dress your salads at home.

Perigord Truffles
Perigord Truffles. Photo: CP Ecomusée de la truffe

Black truffles are a local speciality highly prized by chefs for their delicate, aromatic, yet ear thy flavour. The truffles are harvested from December to February and sold in markets at very high prices.

Foie gras can divide opinion but there’s no getting away from its status in the Dordogne, where the duck and goose varieties are served in nearly all restaurants as an appetiser or cooked as part of a gastronomic main course.

Duck features in many shapes and forms within Périgordine cuisine, served as rillettes (a kind of pâté) on toast as a starter or cooked as magrets (grilled breast with a sauce) or confits (preserved in fat, served crispy).

Perigord walnuts
Perigord walnuts. Photo: Syndicat Professionnel Noix du Perigord

SOURCE/CREDIT:  France Today By Guy Hibbert – September 21, 2016

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6 specialties from Nouvelle-Aquitaines Dordogne

6-specialties-from-nouvelle-aquitaines-dordogne.jpg

NOUVELLE-AQUITANE, FRANCE – This region might be best known for its quality Bordeaux wines, but its food is an epicurean’s paradise. To the east of Bordeaux, the department of Dordogne (historically known as Périgord) is best known for its gourmet foods. With more than 2,000 years of history and numerous regionally protected products, there’s a plethora of choices to keep any food lover happy.

Truffles: Native to the Dordogne, the black Périgord truffle is coveted by gourmands worldwide for its complex aroma. From November to March, the expensive delicacy can be purchased for a fair price from Perigueux’s Place St-Louis market and Sarlat’s Saturday market. Connoisseurs of the black diamond are known to visit Sorges, about 19 kilometres northeast of Perigueux, to learn about the fungus at its charming truffle ecomuseum and area truffle farms. Or attend Sarlat’s truffle festival on the third weekend of January.

Foie gras: Despite its controversy, the traditional skill of force-feeding geese and ducks is still practised in Périgord and remains part of the department’s identity. Foie gras, a.k.a., fattened goose or duck liver, is served at most restaurants and found in specialty shops in Sarlat. There’s even a Route de Foie Gras for those wishing to meet the more than 60 producers of the specialty. Look for products labelled “Indication géographique protégée” (IGP) which guarantees the high quality product is strictly from Périgord.

Dordogne strawberries: Delicate, candy-sweet and a treasure of the region, the excellent, large-fleshed Dordogne strawberries are the only strawberries protected by the IGP geographic status. Thanks to ideal temperatures and soils, the region enjoys a long season that lasts from April to October. The main strawberry varieties, including Gariguette and Darselect in the spring, and Mara des Bois and Charlotte in the fall, can be found at most markets.

Traditional macarons: Ursuline nuns brought the traditional macaron to Saint-Émilion in the early 17th century. Although they’re made with the same ingredients — egg whites, sugar and almond flour — as their gussied-up sandwiched Parisian cousins, the rustic confection is chewier, straddling a soft biscotti and almond cake. Many shops sell traditional macarons, but the original recipe (a carefully guarded secret that’s only passed down to the business’ successor) is only available at Les Macarons de Saint-Emilion.

Caviar: A pioneer in river sturgeon breeding in Aquitaine, Domaine Huso in Neuvic sur I’Isle is one of three production sites in the Dordogne that specialize in high-quality caviar. Using methods that create minimal environmental impact, the prestigious products are processed and packaged, then marketed as Caviar de Neuvic. The 7.6-hecatre farm is open to visitors seven days a week. Tours of the facilities (that concludes with a caviar tasting) are available, but pre-booking is required.

Walnuts: Since the Paleolithic era (with evidence found in Cro-Magnon habitations from 17,000 years ago), walnuts have been widely celebrated for its many uses. At area ecomuseums or walnut-oil mills including Moulin de la Veyssière, you’ll find products such as vin de noix, a sweet and rich liqueur made from the green nuts, walnut flour, and walnut oil that’s been pressed from cooked nutmeal. For quality and authenticity, look for appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)-certified Périgord walnuts.

Credit/Source: Info-Europa.com

Black Diamonds – Black Gold !

I recently attended a truffle festival, since I really wanted to know if they really smell like what I had heard – like dirty sweaty feet! Sure enough there were tables galore with vendors selling their black gold, so I asked one vendor if I could smell one of ‘her’ truffles. I was very surprised that it didn’t really smell at all (certainly not like dirty socks), but I did order an omelette with truffles for lunch and wow – the taste of the grated truffle was pungent! At 120E for 100 grams, truffles are worth their weight in gold!

There were vendors selling other items: ceramics, food & drinks, with attendees enjoying the day hosted by a local 4* hotel/restaurant called, “La Bastide Saint Antoine.” As I walked around the beautiful grounds, I was amused by the posters displayed from the past years’ truffle festivals (one rather risque from 2003!), as well as watching a truffle hunting dog demonstration – I wondered, though, where was the pig?  Maybe next year!

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Seven Minute Choco-Almond Truffles

Seven minute Choco-Almond Truffles
Makes 15-20

15 large medjool dates, pitted
100 g dried shredded coconut, unsweetened
100 g raw almonds or nuts of choice
2 tbsp extra virgin coconut oil, room temperature
4 tbsp cacao powder
1 tbsp water
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Mix all the ingredients in a food processor for about 1 minute or until it forms up like a ball. Remove the knife blades from the food processor. Place the mixture in the fridge for about 10 minutes. Then form 15 – 20 small round truffles with your hands; they should be half the size of a golf ball. Roll the truffles in cocoa powder, finely chopped almonds, shredded coconut or rolledoats. Place in the fridge for 20 minutes before serving.

If you do not have a strong food processor or blender, just place your pitted dates on a plate and mash with a fork until they are sticky and smooth as caramel. Then add the rest of the ingredients and knead by hand until well combined. Place in the fridge and follow the steps above.

Source/Link/Photo:  Green Kitchen Stories