South-West Roadtrip

If there’s one thing that should be said about the South-West of France, it’s that you shouldn’t go if you’re on a diet. Wonderful specialties and artisanal products abound, begging you to take a bite — or two or three just to make sure. As we drove and walked around, taking in the spectacular landscapes, enjoying the sunshine and the quiet, the lack of crowds and the friendly service (the reward for travelling off-season), I kept my eyes peeled (an expression that always makes me shudder but I use it anyway) for interesting food vendors and promising restaurants.

Both are aplenty, and when it comes to restaurants, we mostly went for the unpretentious, family-owned ones, those that serve local fare to local guests. One thing that really struck us was how generous — not to say gargantuan — the portions were. A regular menu would often include three or four courses in addition to the obligatory cheese and dessert. And we’re not talking about dainty little tasting-menu courses either. But however tempting this display of food was, appetite is the food traveller’s most precious resource, and after the first few meals we soon learned to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Our trip started by a train ride from Paris to Brive-la-Gaillarde in the Périgord, where we rented a car. We find this much more comfortable than driving all the way down — well, unless you are sharing your train car with an entire colonie de vacances (kids going to a holiday camp), shrieking with joy at the thought of the upcoming fun and arguing at the top of their voices over who gets the last piece of candy that their parents packed in their lunch boxes. Thank god for iPods. Anyway.

Our first destination was the village of Gourdon, where Maxence’s grandparents live. We stayed there for two days, enjoying their company, driving leisurely around the lushly green surrounding roads (happening upon the delightful medieval village of Martel in particular, more pictures on the moblog) and being treated to two excellent lunches, mostly featuring local duck and goose specialties — foie gras, confits, gésiers, magrets (Bird flu? What bird flu?). One was at the Hostellerie de la Paix in Payrac, and the other at our very favorite restaurant in the area, the Musée Henri Giron, where the owners are kindness incarnate and serve a delicious (though truly marathonian) daily menu. Their restaurant, which they only operate during the week-end, also acts as a museum for Henri Giron’s work, a painter and friend of theirs.

We then drove on west to St-Emilion, another medieval village close to Bordeaux and around which the renowned St-Emilion wine is produced. There we bought canelés (may I insist on the spelling, with supporting pictures?) and the local specialty of Macarons de St-Emilion, from a shop called Lemoine.

As you may or may not know, the word macaron is used for a variety of confections in different regions of France, and the one from St-Emilion is but a far cousin to the macaron as most people know it: it is an almondy, soft and chewy little cookie, baked directly on an ungreased sheet of regular paper (giving you the satisfaction of plucking it off yourself), light as a cloud and delicious. They keep remarkably well too, and accompanied us during the rest of the trip. In St-Emilion we also enjoyed a great meal at Le Tertre, a slightly fancy restaurant located in the steepest street I have seen in quite a while (and I live in Montmartre), where they serve traditional dishes (roasted pigeon, foie gras, duck magret — one can never get enough of these) with a modern twist, and where the service was particularly good (pictures on the moblog).

The next day, we drove to Bordeaux, walked around the city center, frowned at how ubiquitous Baillardran canelé stores were (funny how efficiently this should detract me from buying any), skipped lunch, and drove on down across Les Landes. I’m sorry to say we failed to see the beauty of it (perhaps we’re just not very big on pines-and-sand-pines-and-sand), and we just drove straight through to Bayonne.

When the first bilingual roadsigns appeared, along with the distant blue-grey silhouette of the Pyrenées, we knew that we had officially entered the Pays Basque.

(To be continued.)

Hostellerie de la Paix
46350 Payrac
05 65 37 95 15

Musée Henri Giron
46300 Le Vigan
05 65 41 33 78

Le Tertre
5 rue Tente
33330 St-Emilion
05 57 74 46 33

9 rue du Clocher
33330 St-Emilion
05 57 24 65 64

  • Oh, Clotilde I feel full just reading about your culinary excursions and discoveries! I find any trip wreaks havoc on a diet…all the more reason to take a vacation, I think.

    It sounds as though you had an amazing, food-filled, relaxing vacation…welcome back!

  • David

    Travel and weight gain!!! Our last trip to the south-West of France brought me home an extra 3 kilo—in just 2 weeks!!

  • kelly

    Hi, Clotilde:
    Your picture reminded me of the pretty countryside of my turf: the franche-comte. I read that your family has home in the Vosges. If you have time during your travels in the east, you should hop down to the Jura, an area, as you may know, of exceeding natural beauty. There’s a small town called Poligny, where a well-known BTS culinary school operates. There, you can go to the training restaurant, which serves impeccable gourmet meals, for about half the normal price. These are students who are finishing their professional studies, who have done les stages at some damn fancy places, and who cook great food.

    Of course, perhaps I am biased, since these are my students… regardless, if you are in the region, I think that you would enjoy it.


  • Hilary

    Oh, we just went to the Dordogne (stayed in beautiful Beynac) and also bought caneles from the exact same shop in St. Emilion a week ago. They were delicious! Much better than the ones we found at Poujauran.

  • Oh! I lived in Martel for two years in the early 1990’s, teaching music. I’m spooked by the moblog photos, since I probably walked past those doors every day. I lived in a 14thC house three doors away from the big church.

    Our local treat meals were at the posh hotel in Gluges. I also remember a good non-expensive fish restaurant in Brive, and wonderful garlicky pizzas, satisfying crèpes and intense ice-creams in Martel itself (but only in Summer – everything died in Winter).

    I had no idea of food before I lived in France and the experience changed me slowly but profoundly. I was brought up in a meat and two veg. Irish household, so I had a lot to learn. Did you get to try the cabécou? Did you see the market in the beautiful marketplace?

    I am a bit of a foodie, and I follow your blog. Thank you for it.

  • I haven’t traveled that part of France yet. I’ve mostly seen examples of the north with my French in-laws-to-be. It’s nice to see some personal descriptions of the south so that I might get an idea of what I’d like to do when I go to that part of France.
    But… even if I haven’t gone to that part of France the way you talk about it reminds me of how much I enjoyed seeing France with natives rather than as a tourist on her own.

    So nice to have you back, Clotilde.

  • I’m spending christmas in France this year. I cannot WAIT to try all the amazing food!!

  • Robert

    Perigord this time of year is just magic. What a wonderful odyssey.

    I live in Marin County, California and just released a specialty bottling of Vin de Noix walnut wine with a friend that owns a local winery. I was inspired by a trip I took to the Dordogne in 2001.

    Duck confit, celeriac salad, graisse-sauteed potatoes, vin de noix, a wood fire in October — `tis the season!

    (Love your blog).

  • Patsy

    Clotilde – It is especially touching to read of your peaceful travels in times when news from France is so disturbing. Go safely, and write more about what life is really all about.

  • Clotilde, I read something in Paula Wolfert’s book, The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, about the spelling of the word canelé that I thought you might find interesting.

    Apparently, in 1985 a group of 88 Bordeaux pâtissiers formed a confrérie to protect the integrity of their canelés, which had surged in popularity. They removed one of the n’s from the old spelling (cannelé) to, as Wolfert wrote, “differentiate their cake, with its secret method of preparation, from bastardized versions. Today, canelé de Bordeaux is the official cake of the city, while cannelé bordelais is a generic name used in Paris, New York City, Osaka, Los Angeles, etc.”

    She goes on to quote the pâtissier of Pâtisserie Antoine in Bordeaux: “Our canelé de Bordeaux had to be protected and promoted as our own. Recently, chocolate and orange cannelés have appeared. We don’t want them confused with the real thing.”

    Such a great story, don’t you think? So French. I suppose it means that when we make the little cakes at home, they can only truly be called cannelés!

  • Andrea

    Et le Sud-Est alors? Ayant étudié à Lyon, je sais que les paroles ne peuvent décrire ce paradis logé entre le Rhône et le Saône. Entre les quenelles, la cervelle de canut et, mon pêché mignon, le coussin lyonnais, vous comprendrez que je meurs d’envie d’y retourner…
    Capitale de la gastronomie? Oui, je comprends pourquoi…

  • Daniel Bain

    We live in Martel! How fun to read about our own town in your November travelblog. In fact one of the doors you had a picture of is across the street from us! I’m so glad you “happened” upon our lovely town.

    In fact as we will be in California over the Christmas and New Years Holidays, we rent our house out and it would be fun to rent it to one of the blog subscribers! anyone interested should email us at:

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