Ah, south-west France, where bucolic dreams become reality, the countryside blossoms with chateaux, manor houses and old stone farms, life trundles along unchanged, and the two-hour break for lunch is sacred. ‘Bon appetit!’ they say, and really mean it.
Market stalls spill over with local specialities: semi-dried prunes in autumn, tiny broad beans at the first sign of spring, asparagus, baby artichokes, splendid salads and tomatoes all through summer, cherries, apricots, peaches, figs, melons and grapes give way to piles of glowing pumpkins, mountains of leeks, walnuts, chestnuts and ropes of garlic in October.
When the weather is just right there are baskets of mushrooms: cèpes or girolles and, rarely, truffles. The béret-wearing papie will extol the virtues of his walnuts, apples and strawberries and the cheese vendors offer samples. In the months when it is considered proper to eat oysters, there is a monsieur with hands like rock who drives from the Isle d’Oléron, his old truck packed with baskets of his freshest oysters. The local butcher lists his suppliers on a blackboard: beef, lamb, veal, duck, pigeons and rabbits are all bred locally.
There is no meal without bread, vegetables and fruits are largely organic, and wine comes from Bordeaux, Duras, St Emilion, Bergerac, Pécharmant, or Cahors to the east. Nothing is wasted, resulting in an amazing variety of pâtés and terrines, salads using duck gizzards, offal dishes, and slow-cooked meals.
Duck is king and surrounding farms breed them for foie gras, and the breasts weigh about 500g each. Duck fat is for frying, giving an otherwise unobtainable depth of flavour and a silkiness to sauces. Butter is only used for toast or for patisserie, as the celebrated writer, Curnonsky said, ‘The cuisine of the Périgord: without butter and without reproach’.
Summer’s weekly village night markets are great fun. The idea is to get a group together, arrive equipped with a basket of plates, cutlery and glasses, claim a table and see what the local producers have on offer. Smoke curls from fires where legs of pork are slowly roasting, duck breasts, truffled duck sausages, rabbit or baby lamb chops are grilling, fresh foie gras is frying, cèpe omelettes are being folded. Men stir huge cauldrons of snails in sauce, a hearty potato and cheese aligot, or creamy stew of Tarbais beans. Local vignerons pull corks from iced Rosé or red wine and others sell little goat cheeses, bread from the wood oven or slices of strawberry or walnut and chocolate tart for dessert.
Eventually fires die down, strings of lights come on, the noise level rises, the music changes pace from background accordion, the dancing begins and everyone joins in. Great food, wine and laughter: a simply perfect summer’s night.