A Week in Perigord

Truffles, foie gras, crusty bread, wine and cheese — bon appetit! Fresh foie gras, local cheeses ripened to perfection and scooped up with chunks of crusty baguette, tender morsels of veal braised with chestnuts and tiny white onions — it was a food lover’s dream — a week in southwest France indulging in the delicacies of the region.

It was my good fortune recently to taste and absorb the flavors and culture of this corner of France. With my colleague Lora Brody, who has written over 20 cookbooks, I was on a seven-day excursion to La Combe, near the town of L’Eyzies, deep in southwest France’s Perigord Noir, (also known as the Dordogne) where the beautiful Dordogne River winds through the countryside. Chateaux that were fortresses dating from the crusades punctuate the rolling hills.

La Combe, our home for the week, is an 18th-century country house, lovingly restored by our hosts, Wendely Harvey and Robert Cave-Rogers. Between them, they have years of experience as hoteliers and publishers of cookbooks. As cooking teachers, Lora and I were there to teach classes to those people who had signed up for the week’s experience.

The students were to prepare the recipes from our menus and then we would all dine on the results at dinner. Our hosts gave us free range of the beautiful well-equipped country kitchen. Outside, the potager (kitchen garden)contained neatly raised beds of culinary herbs such as parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil, as well as arugula and baby lettuces ready for the snipping.

All eight students were American, not only from New Hampshire (Moultonborough and Center Harbor), but from Utah, Florida, Maryland and California. Everyone knew someone, but no one knew everyone. They soon formed a fast bond.

Their level of expertise ranged from beginner to quite accomplished. They were to prepare three five-course dinners under our direction. The trick for Lora and I was assigning the right person to the right task. By the second lesson, they’d studied the recipes and decided what they wanted to tackle. By the third lesson, they were jockeying for position to peel, chop and sauté. The student who’d never used a food processor or rolled out pastry was volunteering to make the pastry for the Tarte Tatin. They discovered how to prepare Celeriac (celery root), Magret (Breast of duck) and Tapenade, a delicious olive-based dip or spread. In learning how to make these dishes, they also learned valuable techniques such as how to pit an olive, peel a garlic clove, skin a small boiling onion and make a chiffonade of basil.

Every day I would hear “Oh, I didn’t know how to do that, it’s easy.” The week ended with a glorious feast where the students toasted themselves and each other with outstanding wines of the region. There was much discussion about which dish they would prepare first to astound and amaze their families upon returning home. Would it be the chicken with black Perigord truffles stuffed under the skin or the incredibly flavorful Boeuf Bourguignon, prepared as homage to Julia?

Not only did we dine in on our efforts, but our hosts, Wendely and Robert, had arranged visits to local restaurants for lunch, after soaking up the local culture in the morning. We visited the Cave facsimile paintings at Lascaux, toured the charming gardens of the Manior d’Eyrignac, the fortified castle of Castlenaud, attended a “duck decoupage” on a local farm and even went truffle hunting with a local expert and his dog.

We shopped the open-air markets in the winding, cobblestoned streets of Sarlat, one of the most charming cities in France and definitely off the beaten track. Sarlat is a wonderful example of a French Renaissance city, in which it’s easy to get lost, not only in direction but in time. The river port town of Bergerac had our group scurrying around buying gifts of tinned pâtés, walnut confections (a specialty of the region) and walnut oil as our time grew short.

Our “graduation” luncheon was held at the Michelin-starred Les Vieux Logis in nearby Trémolat. Course followed course, with my favorite being a trio of small Foie Gras preparations, including a Foie Gras Crème Brûlée. This restaurant has earned its stars!

Back on the TVG train to Paris, two and one half hours and light years away, we considered our experience.

To be in beautiful Perigord, with all the delicious ingredients available in a totally equipped kitchen with generous hosts and students eager to learn, what more could a foodie or a cooking teacher ask? To go back next year. Santé!

Categories: Food & Drink