The Marquise de Pompadour, courtesan of King Louis XV of…
In Périgueux, you’ll seldom see someone on the go with a coffee in hand.
This is a place where a coffee is meant to be enjoyed at leisure, while seated at a table, and perhaps with some conversation. It’s a place where the shops and offices close at noon so people can luxuriate at lunch savouring the finest foods of the region.
In North America and other similar cities, we talk about the slow or local food movement. Here in the Dordogne, a largely rural area in the southwest of France, it’s a way of life.
It’s considered to be the culinary heart of the country, something vacationers from within France and the United Kingdom have already discovered. As a person who dashes through life with a cardboard cup of tea in hand, I had to learn more about this approach to gastronomic bliss.
Perigueux Market Day
There was no better place to start my education than in the traditional food markets of Périgueux, the main town in the “Department” of the Dordogne, which dates back to the Roman empire.
There’s a market of one kind or another almost every day in town. However, the city is best known for the farmer’s market that takes place on Saturday and Wednesday mornings in the shadow of the Byzantine cathedral, Saint Front. A UNESCO World Heritage site and built on the St. James of Compostella Pilgrim Way, it seems the perfect place for a food market.
I was privileged to take a walk through the cobblestone streets and the market with Marie-France Bunel of the local tourism office, who pointed out the local specialties. She also explained that the market isn’t just about the food. It’s a social thing. People get to know the farmers who produce their food, and it’s a chance to meet friends and catch up on the local chat. Périgueux, it seems, is one of those place where everybody knows your name.
Baguette & Cheese, bien sûr!
Of course, the market tables are laden with the ubiquitous French baguette, known for its crispy outer crust with a chewy interior. The French buy their bread for almost immediate consumption, or at least, on the same day. Foamy supermarket bread, kept in the freezer for weeks as I do, is not part of the repertoire.
Marie-France pointed out a local goal goat cheese, called cabécou, made in small medallions. It’s a velvety melting cheese with a rich full taste. It’s often served with salads, or as part of the cheese course, which comes after the main course, or as dessert. Some say this helps with digestion. My thinking is that pairs well with the local wine.
There are a wide range of cheeses made in the region, from mild to outright stinky. We visited the cutest Fromagerie which offered a dizzying array of choices.
When it comes to produce, Marie-France told me that if it’s not in season, it’s not on the menu. The idea of flavourless hothouse tomatoes, the type we have in Canada in the winter, is unthinkable here.
Fortunately for them, strawberries are a regional specialty, available six months of the year, from April to October. I was surprised to see strawberries and the local figs, so late in the season.
It’s all part of the concept of “terroir”, a French word that means soil. You may have heard it in relation to grape growing. Terroir is what gives the food from a particular region its unique taste, based on the nutrients in the soil, the climate, the grass the cow eats or the local techniques in growing the food. In the Dordogne, this matters and it’s why the flavours are so exceptional, and unlike anything I’ve had anywhere else.
I experienced this first-hand on the previous day when I was walking in the countryside. There were walnuts on the ground, freshly fallen from the trees. We cracked a few open and it was as though I had never eaten a walnut before. This was an entirely different experience from the rather dry walnuts we normally buy at Christmas time. The nut was a little soft, and oily and bursting with nutty flavour. Thankfully, there were plenty more fresh walnuts, and chestnuts for sale at the market.
Francis, the Truffle Ambassador
The big stars of the local gourmet experience are foie gras and truffles. At the shop of a foie gras producer, Maison Eric Requier, the owner shared a new product with us, saucisson de canard – – duck sausage, with a dollop of foie gras in the centre. While in some countries, concerns have been raised about the production of foie gras, it’s a local delicacy in the Dordogne and widely served in restaurants. I found the sausage to be delicious.
Our walk concluded at L’espace due sixième sens for lunch. This unique spot is partly a bistro and partly a fine food grocery, with a mouth-watering choice of local specialties and wine. Who could ask for anything more? It’s run by chef and official truffle Ambassador, Francis Delpey, who proudly displayed a large black truffle, along with fresh cèpes, gigantic wild mushrooms picked that day.
Francis whipped up an omelette, with slices of the mushrooms, for us. It was so delectable that I forgot to take a picture of it. Or maybe I was learning to linger over lunch, and focus on the food and the company, as it should be.
With a closing exclamation, Francis served a cake made from those walnuts freshly fallen from the trees. It was divine.
It had been a special day – – a social and deliciously enjoyable one, with plenty of food for thought.
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