Sunday, April 25, 2010

2.5 hrs in Paris

We were not fully confident of our previously booked BA flight from Bordeaux to Gatwick, despite all the resumption of flights, so we ended up driving back up to Paris and taking the Eurostar over to London.  The drive back was infinitely better than the drive down, and we made good time - arriving in Paris with a few hours to spare.

As we drove into the city, I was almost absurdly happy to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.  I do love this city so much!

We returned the car at Gare du Nord and started walking south towards the heart of the city.  Specifically we headed for the Marais, where we first stopped at Dominique Picquier, a favorite stop of mine for fabric bags.  Nothing really inspired me, but then we noticed a lovely shop next door with a rainbow of brightly hued bags in the window - Stephane Verdino.
The gentleman who assisted us was charming and a great salesman, but the closer of the deal was the designer Stephane himself, with whom we had a nice conversation.  So I bought this bag, in beige - totally didn't need it but it's a lovely bag.  BTW it cost a lot less in France...

After that, it was time for my ice cream of the day, which I had at Amorino, a great little stop right across from the apartment we rented 2 years ago.  Their speciality is fashioning the ice cream into a flower on your cone or cup.  I had salted caramel, chocolate and straciatella.  It was excellent!
Then we rounded the corner to Mariage Frères, and stopped off at their tea salon.  Where the cheapest pot of tea was €9 and there were a number of much more expensive teas.  After one of my last trips there, I am always careful about noticing the price now!

I had a nice little tea plate with a scone and a madeleine.  The scone paled in comparison to the real thing in the U.K. but the madeleine was light and delicious.  And a pot of one of the more obscure kinds of Earl Grey tea.

And finally, a short stop at the store to purchase some tea and have a spirited discussion (in French, no less!) with the tea man (pictured below) about what new kinds to try and buy.  Just so you know, Mariage is available in the U.S. but just a few kinds.  When you are in Paris, you will see that they have 14 kinds of Earl Grey tea alone!
And that was the end of our brief, costly but very rewarding sojourn in Paris.  Then it was off on the Eurostar back to London for one night, then back to the U.S. the next day.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Our last meal in the Dordogne

On our last evening, we decided to walk down to the village for dinner.  The walk down is quite steep but yields some very pretty views of the valley, not to mention all the lovely limestone houses along the way.
We had dinner at La Petite Tonnelle, which was named as the best restaurant in the village in our handy-dandy house book.  We sat outside and enjoyed the evening air as the sky darkened.
I started with a plate of roasted asparagus with slices of smoked duck breast.  It was a lovely starter.
My main course was a couple of carved slices of leg of lamb, served with some excellent couscous (it's in the pastry tower) and a terrine of some sort that was just ok.
For dessert, I had the canaille de citron, some lemon mousse in a light filo shell, served with raspberry sauce and some raspberry ice cream.  Alas, it looked better than it tasted.  Although I still finished it ;)
 All in all, a very nice meal. Next time I'm in Beynac, I'm gladly stopping by here again!

A nice ending to a busy day.  Now, I must go pack...

The castle tour

On the last day of our Dordogne stay, we finally made it to the two major castles in the area.  The first was Castelnaud, which I really wanted to visit because I'm reading a book about an American couple who bought a little house in the shadow of the castle back in 1985.  "A Castle in the Backyard" has been great so far.  And I was determined to find their house from the descriptions in the book!
The town of Castelnaud is pretty tiny but the castle is impressive.  It's on the other side of the Dordogne River from Beynac and the two castles have been rivals throughout history.  They can see each other very clearly and were on opposite sides of the One Hundred Years War.  Here's the view of Beynac from Castelnaud.
To add to an already excellent day, I found the artisanal ice cream I liked so much and had a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of salted caramel.  Yum.
Finally, we visited our castle next door, Chateau Beynac.  It took us quite a few days to get here, considering we are staying in its shadow!  It's a bigger castle than Castelnaud, and is apparently still occupied (a few rooms) by its owner, who bought it in 1961.  There was a magnificent view from the top of the ramparts, and we stood there surveying our little town with a touch of sadness in anticipation of our departure.

Now it's time for a real cave...

Since our taste had been whetted by the reproduction caves of Lascaux II, we headed to the only cave in France with polychromatic cro-magnon cave drawings that was still open to the public.  La Grotte de Font de Gaume allows only 180 visitors each day, in small groups of no more than 15 people.

It was nice to visit this after the Lascaux visit, since it really made me appreciate how difficult it was to preserve these drawings.  It was also good because I heard the English tour at Lascaux, which made it easier for me to understand the French tour at Font de Gaume today!
Font de Gaume was discovered in 1901 and not particularly protected for a few years, so there is early 20th century graffitti that defaces quite a few of the drawings.  It was a sacred site for our prehistoric ancestors, same as Lascaux, and they painted many of the same animals - primarily bison and horses.  It was much harder to discern the drawings and they use the same principle of leveraging the natural contours of the rock.
Here's a photo of the postcard they had of their best preserved bison.

I predict that Font de Gaume will also be closed to the general public in my lifetime.

Our Pre-History Tour

The first piece of good news we got this morning is that we didn't have to try and exchange our Hertz car today.  Phew - I was budgeting a few hours to try and make the change since we would have likely needed to go up to Bergerac.

So we headed off to Les Eyzies in the late morning and had a nice lunch while looking up at the statue of Cro-Magnon man next to the buildings set into the rock.  Not a very pretty town and apparently a zoo in the summer.  I'd give it a miss.

After lunch we took a little detour to La Madeleine, a troglodyte village in the Vezère valley.  Troglodyte refers to a prehistoric race of people that lived in caves, dens, or holes.  We didn't really mean to spend 40 minutes here, but the sign from the main road looked promising.  The most beautiful building in the little village was this petite church built into the rock.  There were even gothic arches inside.
After that, we headed over to La Roque de St. Christophe, another very impressive troglodyte village where up to 1,000 people lived back in the medieval days.  It's interesting that cro-magnon man picked particular sites, and they were reused much later by people in the middle ages.  A good and defensible site is hard to find!
Finally, here's a recreation of what the whole village in the rock might have looked like.
There are a total of 5 terraces, although not all are currently accessible.  It was a lot of fun tramping around the caves though, and they did a great job of describing how each cave might have been set up, so you could really picture it. 

What an educational day!

A Pilgrimage to Rocamadour

In the afternoon, we drove a windy, mountain-hugging road to Rocamadour, the famous cliff-hugging village in the Lot valley and a noted pilgramage site in the middle ages.  We parked on the bottom road in the picture, walked up to the main village and paid €2 to ride up an elevator 50m (these modern pilgrims had a lot less grit than the medieval ones ;)  The elevator was actually very cool with glass walls where you could see the interior rock face as we went up.
We walked around the ramparts up top and also around the main church, which is built right into the rock face.
And then descended the steps to the main village, which was filled with somewhat garish souvenir shops - reminding me a lot of Carcasonne.
Finally we stopped for a drink on a panoramic hotel terrace, where I indulged in my second ice-cream of the day.  Alas, it wasn't terribly good, quelle dommage!

Un Déjeuner à Sarlat

After wandering around the market for a while, we decided it was time for lunch.  We picked the picturesque over researching some place with known good food.  And we ended up at Les Îles at the Place de la Liberté.  It's the café pictured below on the left.  Doesn't it meet and exceed the picturesque test?!
We sat and had a nice lunch from le menu du jour, and watched the market being torn down all around us.  I had a foie gras salad, duck confit with potatoes sarladaises (potatoes fried in duck fat) and for dessert, two scoops of ice cream, pictured below.  The first ice-cream of the day!  Pictured next to it is the apple tart that was just ok.

Market Day in Sarlat

We arrived late morning to the Sarlat market, which had been billed as the best market in Perigord.  It was certainly bigger than St. Cyprien, but was also considerably more touristy, with fewer fresh food vendors.  However, it was a gorgeous day and walking around the market in such a beautiful medieval setting was perfect.  This was probably the most people we'd seen in the last 5 days!
After foie gras, the next most common item sold were sausages.  I guess they have to make something with the rest of those geese and ducks!  Some of the variations above were sausages with mushrooms and sausages with walnuts.

I especially like these sausages pictured below - made to look like big chunks of truffles!  Incidentally, we missed truffle season by a month.  Maybe next time...

We didn't buy too much fresh food, but I was once again tempted by the asparagus.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Primer on Foie Gras

Instead of every third stall being a foie gras vendor (like St Cyprien), at the Sarlat market, it was every other vendor!  Seriously, foie gras was starting to feel akin to a hamburger in terms of the frequency in which I saw (and ate!) it.
In the above photo, you can see multiple whole foie gras livers (foie gras entier, the most expensive kind) - the smaller ones on the left are goose livers, and the larger ones on the right are duck livers. 

The goose foie gras is more expensive and has a more delicate flavor.  The duck tastes a little stronger but I think they are both good.  We've tasted a lot of foie gras over the past few days, and I think my purchase list is now up to 7 tins (of the pure stuff, not the various mixed kinds you can also buy).  Maybe I'm getting a little carried away.

We also drove past a foie gras farm on one of our routes - I proposed a stop but my companion shuddered in horror.  We'd rather stay ignorant though the geese I saw from the road looked quite content roaming around...

Le Vieux Logis in Tremolat

After a satisfying session of retail therapy in Périgueux, we headed to the small town of Tremolat to have dinner at Le Vieux Logis, a Michelin 2-star restaurant and Relais et Chateaux property, located kind of in the middle of nowhere, accessed by really small windy roads.

Their dining room was just beautiful, decorated in pale blues and reds.  And I have to say that the service and pacing of the meal was just impeccable.  We started with some little treats placed on the table just after we ordered - small potatoes with aioli and some kind of mini brochette.  It was followed by the official amuse, a vegetable vichyssoise soup that was poured carefully into a bowl with a small pile of chopped veggies at the bottom.  I have to say that I'm not a fan of cold soups, nor of vichyssoise, but I may just have been converted today!  This soup was just wonderful - light yet creamy, salty but not too salty.  And the small bits of mystery veggies were a nice textural contrast.
Our official first course arrived next, with the most impressive presentation.  It was a small circle of foie gras, with a tower of spun caramel sugar standing on top of it.  I was told to break the tower into pieces and to eat the shattered pieces of sugar with the foie gras - served with small pieces of toast.  I'm not sure this photo does it justice:
The between-course treat came next - a foie gras creme brulee.  It was just like a creme brulee with a foie gras flavor.  Very salty and oddly satisfying.  At this point, I'm starting to think I may just be reaching my foie gras saturation point. 
The next course was nice and petite - a small order of sauteed scallops with a sweet pea puree and lots of pretty green foam. A nice and light counterpoint after all that foie gras.
Now at this point, I think we're past the halfway mark and am wondering how much more food I can possible consume.  So we get to the main course, which is lamb loin, served with one very nice asparagus spear and a red and yellow pepper bruschetta.  I think this was good.  I can't quite remember - my taste buds were becoming a little dulled at this point.
Finally, we hit the cheese course.  Now, I always love the cheese course in Europe.  You get such a wide variety and some really stinky, unpasteurized options that would never make it through U.S. Customs.  The chevre here has been really good and was excellent tonight as well.  I lost track of the other cheeses I picked.
We next had a small palate cleanser of a light mint granita served under a creamy chocolate mousse (also very light and refreshing).
Although the pacing throughout the meal had been perfect, I was starting to get a little tired (staying out all day from the morning will do that to a girl).  Finally, dessert!  A fresh fruit Vacherin, served with pina colada sorbet with various tropical fruit (including dragonfruit - they can get this in the heart of the Dordogne?!  Very impressive!)  It was a great end to the meal.
We had a little coffee and tea, and were brought some little tuille cookies and madeleines.
Sated to the point of no return, we rolled out of the restaurant a few hours later and made the long, dark and windy 50 minute drive back to Beynac.

Shopping in Périgueux

We awoke to a cloudy day and had a late start for Périgueux, the capital city of the Perigord.  It's not a typical must-see on the itinerary, but we wanted to go to a big town and do some shopping.  Périgueux seemed about the size of Avignon, with a combination of the medieval picturesque and the modern commercial.  We had a light lunch at a salon de thé where I saw my new favorite sign shown above.

Oddly enough the street cafes of Périgueux were nowhere near as cute as in Avignon or Aix as we wandered around looking for a place to have a snack later in the day.  I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to have my ice-cream today!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dinner in Domme

It was the afternoon of my third day in the French countryside and there were two things I had yet to do - have a nice meal in a restaurant and go to the supermarket.  For those who have traveled to house rentals in the European countryside, you will realize that #2 is critical!  However, Stephanie, the owner of La Maisonette, had kindly arranged to leave us with a small starter set of groceries when we arrived, including some half and half, strawberries, pasta/sauce, orange juice and cookies.  After multiple house rentals, this is the first time anyone has been this thoughtful - which meant that our supermarket trip could be delayed without too much consequence!

So in the afternoon, I set to remedying #1 - finding a place for a nice meal (all I'd eaten by 5 pm was a ham and cheese croissant and a massive ice-cream sundae!)  Alas, it was Monday.  I started out with an ambitious search of Michelin-starred places.  None of them were open on Monday night.  Then, I went down the list of restaurants in Stephanie's helpful house book.  I was 0/5 so I gave up and we decided to go over to Le Roque-Gageac to check out the pretty town (another of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France).

Nothing was open there on Monday at 7 pm.  Seriously, nothing.  I took a few pictures and we left.

We headed up the hill to Domme, yet another of Les Plus Beaux Villages (the Dordogne is swimming with them).  It's a old bastide town with high walls and teeny tiny winding streets.  The thought of driving through this town in the crush of summer was somewhat terrifying.  We parked and finally found an open restaurant, Le Bistrot.  I had a classic Perigord meal - the "formule" (set menu) with a foie gras starter, cassoulet for a main and the walnut cake for dessert.  It was nice, relatively fast (for dining in France) and a deal (€15 for all three courses).  Parfait!

Then we walked over the side of the town to look over the fabulous sunset views of the Dordogne river.
And yes!  The ice cream place by the view was open!  So I had two scoops of artisanal sorbet - apricot and peach.  Not as good as my pear the previous day (same local ice cream maker) but perfect for sitting on the terrace and happily watching the sunset in Perigord.

It may seem that we really like gardens...

We visited Les Jardins du Manoir D'Eyrignac yesterday afternoon.  Now, this is not typically a stop on the major sights of the Dordogne list.  But it came highly recommended from someone and we knew he'd get a real kick that we actually went to visit.

The gardens were more formal than Marqueyssac, but what I liked most was that the gorgeous chateau had been in the same family for 22 generations (over 500 years) and the family was living there still.  And it was such a pretty chateau.

We also learned that you can do weddings and other events there, and that their annual maintenance costs were €700k - with 80,000 annual visitors, they were still short of covering their maintenance costs.  It's a true labor of love for the family.

Oh, and I promised my daughter I'd post a picture every day to show my ridiculous self-indulgence on the ice-cream front.  This is my peach melba of the day - more chantilly than ice cream!

The Lascaux II Caves

There are lots of caves here in the Perigord but the most famous of them all is Lascaux.  The caves were discovered in 1940 and opened to the public for about 15 years before being closed due to the the carbon dioxide damage from all the visitors.

In the 80s, Lascaux II opened for visitors - a full and precise fascimile of the original caves.  It reminded me a little of the Ramses II temples we visited in Abu Simbel, which had been laboriously dismantled and moved to an alternate location to save them from the Aswan High Dam flooding.

Lascaux was also the name of a basement French restaurant in San Francisco in the early '90s, on Sutter St, where my husband and I went to dinner when we were still dating!

Lascaux turned out to be very different from the caves we visited at Nerja, Spain last summer.  It was a very small cramped space but the paintings were beautiful and remarkably lifelike, with the contours of the cave walls being used to enhance the animal bodies and a real sense of movement.  Considering our Cro-Magnon ancestors were using saliva and earth pigments, and burning animal fat for light - their achievement seems even more extraordinary.  The photos you see don't do it justice.

Note - you can't buy tickets at the Lascaux site.  You have to buy them in the town of Montignac first and their website is a big old mess of flash and sound, but with no discernibly useful info.  Our trip involved driving back and forth and a spectacular .5 km sprint to get us to the cave just 10 mins late for the one and only English tour of the day!