Sainte-Alvère, a village of fewer than 900 residents in the Dordogne, in southwestern France, is renowned for its winter truffle market, and, in more recent times, for its proximity to St. Denis, a place that doesn’t exist.
Before we visited Sainte-Alvère last October, I’d been savoring life in St. Denis, the fictional village functioning under the watchful eye — and gourmet soul — of Benoit “Bruno” Courreges, chief of police, rugby coach, and duck fat-inspired cook in a half-dozen mysteries by British writer Martin Walker. (The latest of Bruno’s adventures, recounted in The Resistance Man, was released in paperback last month.)
We’d arrived in the Dordogne from Belle Ile en Mer, an island off the coast of Brittany, where my wife’s sister and her husband, who live and work in the Netherlands, recently built a vacation home. Belle Ile is scenically suited for brisk swimming, leisurely biking, and sea cliff hiking. The Impressionist Claude Monet painted there and the actress Sarah Bernhardt summered there. One requisite early morning pedal is to the nearby village market (for our stay, the village was Bangor) and its bins of freshly and flakily baked croissants and incomparably crusty loaves of bread as well as hefty slices of locally produced pâté.
Relaxed and ruddy from sun and wind, we headed south and inland for the Dordogne, and a bed and breakfast, the Maison Chaminade, in Sainte-Alvère. We were meeting up with Tom Barlage — the brother of a local friend — and his wife, Yvon Doorgeest. The Dutch couple — he a musician and she a photographer and designer — belong to what has become a majority ex-pat population inhabiting the countryside of the Dordogne, many of them recent transplants from across Europe, South Africa, and the U.S. who have bought and restored old houses and farms.
Our new friends welcomed us with a dinner of pumpkin soup, duck breast crisped in oranges and duck fat, fingerling potatoes, and red cabbage, as well as local wines. The meal embodied my anticipation for Bruno the Police Chief’s culinary flavor of the Dordogne. We would enjoy foie gras and the regional Monbazillac dessert wine – one of Bruno’s favorites – the next day at an outdoor café in the nearby village of Limeuil, situated at the picturesque confluence of two rivers – the Dordogne and the Vezere.
Despite this narrator’s unabashed obsession with French cooking, we did not nosh our way through the Dordogne, though I would be remiss in not celebrating Le restaurant de l’Abbatitale Julien, or, as it’s commonly known, “Chez Julien.” Located in Paunat, nearby Sainte-Alvère, it sits next door to an ancient abbey. There, one pleasant evening, we dined on chicken pâté, mushrooms with egg whites and red pepper, leg of rabbit with white asparagus, and baked tomato in wine sauce then finished with a plum and apple crumble.
If anything, the country cuisine only whetted our appetite for the day we toured the Valley of the Châteaux. We meandered along the Dordogne river and beheld regal homes, notably the castle at Beynac, towering some 400 feet above the valley landscape. The day ended with a walk around Domme, a medieval fortress town affording majestic views of the fertile farmland and surroundings.
Before departing the Dordogne for Bordeaux, the grand provincial capital of the Aquitaine, we delved into prehistory at the National Archeological Museum in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, and spent a day walking in the Roman and Renaissance city of Périgueux. There, a handsome Gallo-Roman museum, Vesunna, was built above the excavated remains of a palatial Roman residence.
Bordeaux is, indeed, another story. Suffice it to say, as an ending to this piece, and our trip to France, that encountering the boulevard-wide sweep of living theater that is Sunday evening on the promenade along the Garonne River was a spectacle we never expected: walkers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, wheelchairers, joggers, cyclists, gymnasts, lovers, vendors, dogs, and – yes – tourists. All of this swell of humanity was as absorbingly fascinating as the Versailles-scale architecture bordering it. There, as we sat and reflected and people-watched, there were plump bowls of mussels and, of course, ample glasses of wine. If only he could have popped over from St. Denis, Bruno would have loved it.
All photos by Liesbeth Slosberg, except where noted.