“Some might say it’s the middle of nowhere but with Perigueux, Sarlat and Bergerac all within a 45 minute drive, it’s in the middle of everything,” says Julien (“just Julien merci”) at his eponymous restaurant in the Dordogne.
“Here, we cook from the heart,” he grins while audibly toying with the notion of stuffing guinea fowl with local cepes mushrooms as large as my hand. In the background the phone warbles and he deals with disappointed diners “sorry, we are complet” in charming ‘Franglish’.
Even though this is our local restaurant, we quickly learn to book ahead.
We’ve taken up temporary residence a few steps away in “Les Fortous”, the cottage of Australian friends in the tiny hamlet of Paunat, home to some 203 souls, few of whom we’ve ever glimpsed behind ancient dry stone walls. Founded in 804 and nestled in the hills north of the Dordogne valley, its impressive Abbey church consecrated more than a thousand years ago bears the marks of centuries of French and English armed conflict when it did double-duty as impregnable fortification and place of worship.
As the Abbey bell tolls 7pm, we crunch across the gravel square to Chez Julien where the restaurateur conducts business like a concert maestro.
Tucked behind the Abbey in a 12th century sandstone building with claret shutters, scrubbed wooden floors and whitewashed beams, this rustic restaurant has put Paunat on the map serving succulently sincere food such as fat duck breasts roasted with red currants and figs, locally grown rabbit, Perigueux mushrooms and white asparagus.
Sitting outside, dusk’s lingering magenta sunset halos brazen red poppies swaying in a light breeze as we settle in for an aperitif with local, and world-famous, fois gras and walnuts. Julien extends bonhomie to all-comers and flipping the daily specials blackboard, voila! a predominantly local wine list is revealed – hardly surprising given that Bergerac, Monbazillac and Bordeaux are nearby. As we’re walking home, thankfully no designated driver, “capitain de soiree”, is necessary!
The dark oak forests of the Perigord region of south-west France are the ‘terroir de la truffe’ – truffle country – and its calendar is marked by traditional markets and events. During dinner, a local gives us a tip: the Sunday morning market at nearby Issigeac is not to be missed.
Next morning, driving past fields of corn and barley interspersed with small vineyards, we arrive at a character-infused village on the edge of the Dordogne where a collection of 14th century wattle and daub houses cluster around laneways. Every Sunday, this peaceful village animates into one of the region’s best and busiest markets its wares spread out in front of the Gothic church of St Felicien.
An accordian-playing chanteuse entertains shoppers with French cabaret classics and a flame-haired woman sells honey from her hives. Fat, juicy prunes are sold alongside Mara des Bois strawberries from Vergt. The scent of violets, herbs and spices intermingle with artisan bakeries while temptation comes in the guise of light-as-air mounds of nougat.
When it comes to food, this is definitely the middle of everything!
The best way to tour the region is by car. Holiday Autos have offices throughout southwest France www.holidayautos.co.uk
Hotels range from small-scale resort style and chateaux to chambers in charming hotels in small villages. For information visit Office de Tourisme on www.sarlat-tourisme.com
To book your own cottage visit www.en-toutes-saisons.com
Chez Julien, LeRestaurant de l’Abbatiale, Paunat.
Phone +33 553 63 21 08 to snare one of just 30 seats.
For information on market days go to www.northofthedordogne.com
For regional tourism information log onto www.perigordnoir.com
Let us know if you’d like more tips about the Dordogne