Last October I found myself on a cliff overlooking a tranquil valley that I thought only exist in storybooks of far away places with fairytale endings. At that point of the trip we had already breezed past stretches of bucolic green fields, clusters of 12th century French castles and a dramatic maze of 15 year old boxtrees in a hilltop garden. I was in the Périgord Noir, a region of the Dordogne Valley that, even months later, left me utterly enchanted.
Sarlat’s Old Town
Base yourself in Sarlat, the capital of Périgord Noir, is the advice I dole out when talking about my picture perfect visit to the region, sounding much like a broken record. Preferably in the old town, which boasts of the highest density of classified historical monuments in France. There you can take in the town’s collection of 15/16th century stone buildings and mansions, each different in size and shape but washed with a similar shade of ochre and made even more uniform in looks from the deeply sloped grey stone slab roofs that is typical of the region. For a panoramic view overlooking Sarlat, a village I found strikingly similar to Belle’s town in Beauty and the Beast, take the glass lift within Sainte Marie’s tower.
If there is a fowl that is revered in Sarlat it is the mighy goose; there is even a square, Place aux Oies, to commemorate the spot where geese were sold centuries ago. You will not likely find goose in many restaurant menus since duck is a more economical option – but if you do make sure to order it in a restaurant that is open year round as opposed to just the tourist season to ensure it is not solely a tourist operation that churns out a mediocre dish.
In fact, just stop into Le Bistro de l’Octroi and do not leave until you try the house (and regional) specialty: magret d’oie confit à l’ancienne, pommes de terre à la Sarladaise (goose breast cooked skin-on in goose fat with garlic and parsley potatoes Sarlat style). It’s the kind of meal you would want to enjoy on a 3rd date when both parties are a bit more familiar with one another and the magic is certainly there but you’re not so nervous that you do not have an appetite. Over a bottle of red you’re both sharing stories, one laughing at the other and when you take that first bite of goose and garlicky Sarladaise potato slices you are both briefly silent, wide eyed and surprised by the depth of tender dark meat. This is the dish you’ll talk about when telling friends about the moment you knew you fell in love, over a dish of goose, fat and spuds.
Sarlat cooking class
Giulia and I paid tribute to some of the other classic dishes of the region at a private cooking class. In Chef Gérard’s apartment kitchen a whole duck breast sizzled in a scoop of goose fat while the chef showed us tricks to the perfect Sarladaise potatoes of parsley and garlic:
- soaking peeled potatoes in water helps to remove starch and prevents the potatoes from sticking together,
- everything is better with a lick of goose fat and
- leaving it to cook on its own with the cover on guarantees better results than constantly tending to it.
For someone who is usually intimidated by French cooking I was surprised by how straightforward it was to perfect such a restaurant worthy dish, and at the very least the garlicky Sarladaise potatoes that I’ve grown so fond of will certainly be replicated in my own kitchen soon when I’m in the mood to impress.
Walnuts is another local specialty of the region where it is made into oil – to dress salads with or drizzled onto fish – and even into liqueur. For our dessert, Chef Gérard whipped up a worthy walnut parfait which Giulia successfully replicated after our trip.
Both Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days with the latter being a bigger affair. One hundred and fifty stalls are set up throughout the old town centre where you can expect to find seasonal fruits, fresh nuts (especially walnuts), sweets and locally produced foie gras (of the duck and goose variety). Trust me when I say they all make wonderful gifts to bring home.
From Sarlat, most of the destinations we visited took no longer than 20 minutes by car. Renting a car is highly recommended to experience these must-visit locations:
Truffle hunting in Pechalifour
Not once did I stop grinning while we were in Edouard Aynaud’s truffle orchard in Péchalifour. It was truffle hunting day, an excursion that I looked forward to the most during our time in the Dordogne (only to realize later that everything we had the pleasure of experiencing was just as enjoyable). I love being in the company of people whose passion for what they do enriches my own enjoyment. Listening to Edouard spend a better part of an hour waxing lyrical about the origins of the famed Black Périgord truffles, the Latin names of various species and how, when it comes to la truffe, it’s all about the spores only invigorated me even more.
My favourite curious fact collected while we were truffle hunting in the orchard: 70% of truffles found in the Black Périgord are not with pigs or dogs but with flies! It is a practice that is usually employed by older men while the younger ones generally use dogs. With the help of two border collies we found a sizeable truffle in no time but unfortunately it needed more time to develop as the inside was still white. Since January is the best time for truffle season, I imagine our truffle has already been dug up by Edouard to enjoy in a dish of brouillade, a French specialty his wife makes for their guests. Another fun fact: the soil around truffles smells like beets!
The walking gardens in the Dordogne Valley stunned the both of us. Hours could easily be spent in Jardins de Marqueyssac roaming through its maze of 150,000 boxtrees while never losing sight of the lavender chateau. If I could have a do over on where I’d have the Brit propose it would be in this garden, at sunset, with the pastoral landscape of the Dordogne Valley beneath us.
The valley of castles in the Dordogne
There is no shortage of castles/chateaus in the Dordogne since the valley is said to be home to one thousand and one of them – with many open to visitors. While we did not have time to tour any of the castles we did stop by Beynac et Cazenac which afforded us the most tranquil autumn scene (first photo of this post) and the village of La Roque Gageac from which we took a gabares cruise down the Dordogne River and sailed past four medieval chateaus, each as stunning as the next. One thing for sure, the next time I visit the Périgord I will be in a hot air balloon floating in the air, preferably drinking champagne and noshing on truffle butter with a thousand and one castles spread beneath me – my version of happily ever after.
How to get to Sarlat
Flights are available from London Stansted (via Ryan Air) or London City (via City Jet) to Brive Dordogne Valley Airport. From Brive airport it is approximately a 45 minute drive to Sarlat.