Destinations / JOURNEY
“Try this. It’s a figue.”
THE 60-SOMETHING MAN, dressed in khaki shorts and a wide-brimmed hat, pulled the purple bulb neatly apart and handed me half. “The fruit still has the freshness of last night’s chill,” he said, smiling. Indeed, despite the sunshine warming my shoulders, the fig’s seedy pulp was cool as
Jell-O in my mouth, with just a hint of sweetness.
The man and his wife told us they were visiting from
Catalonia, the border region to our south where French and
Spanish cultures merge. They were in the Dordogne River
valley to see the sights just like us, but while we were in a
hurry to climb the steep village path and get a look at our
first medieval castle, they were blocking our way, taking
their time to select the ripest figs.
“See? This one is no good,” he said, showing us a fig whose
pulp was whitish instead of pink orange.
My husband and I decided that touring the Château de
Castelnaud could wait a few minutes. These figs were the
best thing we’d eaten since arriving in the tiny French town
in the southwestern village of Vezac the day before.
On the plane, our Parisienne seatmate nodded in
approval as she traced her finger over our planned route
from the Dordogne River valley in the Périgord Noir to a
farmette in the Midi-Pyrénées.
“You will eat well,” she told us.
That was part of our goal for this trip, a 40th birthday
present I gave myself. After 10 years of rarely traveling without our three children, my husband and I hoped to luxuriate
in the grown-up pleasures of restaurant meals and extra
glasses of wine. We wanted to learn about the culture of this
region far from the bustle of Paris, where both food and life
moved at the leisurely pace of the Dordogne River. We ended
up understanding that farm-to-table isn’t a trend here; it’s a
way of life — and not just for adults.
We knew our road trip would take us through a region of
duck and goose farms, cheese production and a viticulture
established long before the vineyards of Bordeaux. But on the
first evening of our trip, we ate at a restaurant where the menu
boasted mai tais and piña coladas. Surely this wasn’t right.
After touring the castle, we walked down to a canoe outfitter and found it closed for a t wo-hour lunch break. So instead
of paddling past castles and villages on the Dordogne, we
wandered the cobblestone paths of La Roque-Gageac, a cliff-side village designated as one of the “most beautiful villages
of France,” and listened to the sounds of forks and knives
clinking on plates inside homes and restaurants. What was it,
I asked my husband, that made the local people so entranced
with lunch that they needed t wo full hours to eat?
Like many bed-and-breakfasts in the region, the house
where we stayed was owned by an Englishwoman. The next
morning, over croissants our hostess Anne had fetched from
the local bakery while we slept in, she suggested we seek culinary answers at the weekly outdoor market in nearby Sarlat.
It took us only 20 minutes to drive our rental car to Sarlat-la-Canéda, a 14th-century village that is on France’s tentative
nomination list for UNESCO World Heritage sites, thanks to
the loving restoration by author and de Gaulle cabinet member
André Malraux in the 1960s. We wandered through a crowd of
shoppers toting straw market baskets, welcomed by the smell
of freshly baked baguettes, strong cheeses and peppery carrot
greens. We approached a cheese case filled with rounds the size
of pocket watches and others as big as hubcaps. My husband
pointed to a small dark circle and asked to try it.
“That one is too strong for you,” laughed the proprietress — a large-bosomed woman wearing a white apron, a
small plastic cup of wine in hand at 10 a.m. — who instead
handed us each a slice from a cream-colored round labeled
Rocamadour. It was a tangy and smooth goat’s cheese, and
we eagerly handed over a few coins for a round. The dark
ones, she said, were the same variety, but aged longer.
We considered arguing that we could handle a pungent
cheese, but lost our nerve and moved on to the duck vendors.
These were the grandest displays, with foie gras — both
fresh and canned — thin slices of smoked duck breast, duck
confit, duck gizzards and many parts and preparations we
couldn’t begin to identify. We spotted the familiar shape
of purple figs and bought some. They were stuffed with foie
Opposite: A delicious
French snack. Above:
Chateau de Beynac
as seen from the