Monday, January 21, 2013
Her name is Rosabelle. She is a beautiful young blonde with big brown eyes and an energy befitting her age. She greets me with a smile, and, this being France, a kiss. Then we get down to business. I have traveled to the Dordogne Valley for an important reason, you see, and our work cannot be delayed. The season only lasts three months, and Rosabelle, a trained truffle hunting dog, has just the nose to sniff out the black diamonds as quickly as possible.
She does so successfully, finding several truffles in the oak-studded earth in a matter of minutes. My group follows her and her masters from tree to tree, watching Rosabelle’s nose in wonder. Afterwards we drive to the nearby farmhouse for fresh truffle omelets and aperitifs. It’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon in January.
Not least because it is all within a few miles of the Brive Dordogne Valley Airport, where my group landed after a quick CityJet flight from London City Airport. The airline, which is run by Air France, flew us to the Dordogne Valley for a weekend of discovering the towns and cities along the truffle trail.
And discover we did. I knew next to nothing about this part of southwestern France before traveling there, and I don’t think I was alone. The passport control officials at the airport had to search a back room for a stamp when I arrived, suggesting that non-EU visitors are few and far between.
But once I was out in the countryside, hunting for truffles and exploring the stunning medieval towns in the area, I had a hard time believing that its treasures weren’t more widely known.
Take Collonges-la-Rouge, for example. The town was straight out of a storybook, with narrow cobbled streets and crooked stone buildings full of cafes and artisanal shops. But the best part was that everything was red. Thanks to a nearby quarry, the streets glowed like a warm fire in the soft winter mist.
Not far from there was the hilltop town of Turenne, where stone houses climbed steep slopes on a pilgrimage to the castle at the top.
And that’s to say nothing of Martel, a pretty medieval town with a covered market square. And Sarlat, a walled city beaming with brightness thanks to the yellow limestone that graced every inch of its architecture, from the historic cathedral to the Renaissance-era houses of its wealthiest former inhabitants.
It was in the last of these towns that our truffle tour of France continued with a trip to the annual Sarlat Truffle Festival. Running throughout the weekend, it featured a market selling all things truffle and foie gras, the region’s other main specialty.
There were cooking demonstrations, talks, and truffle-themed events. There was even a lunch at the Hotel de Ville prepared by the truffle festival’s president, multi-Michelin starred Parisian chef Frederic Alan. His truffle eggs were some of the best I had on the trip.
Back in Brive-la-Gaillarde, we explored the rest of the Dordogne Valley’s rich cornucopia, visiting the Saturday farmers’ market where everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to meats, cheeses, and prepared foods was on offer. For those into DIY butchery, there were even live rabbits, chickens, and other animals for sale.
For those not into DIY butchery, we discovered some of the city’s restaurants. First there was a lunch at Chez Francis, a cozy place popular with French writers that attend the annual literary festival in Brive. Many of them had written or drawn on the walls, creating a unique, quirky atmosphere in which we enjoyed everything from sausage tartines to scallops with artichokes.
That evening we dined right down the street at a restaurant called La Cremaillere. Our meal was a beautifully delicious whirlwind of foie gras with truffle eggs, veal, and honey souffles with apple liqueur.
Speaking of liqueur, another thing I learned about the Dordogne Valley was that while the area doesn’t produce wine, it has a number of famous distilleries that furnish residents and guests with spirits. From plum brandy at Louis Roques in Souillac to the famous walnut liqueur at Denoix distillery in Brive, we tasted the regional specialties straight from the source.
When we weren’t out exploring, we were relaxing at our accommodations. On the first night we stayed at the Manoir de Malagorse, a historic farmhouse B&B in the countryside. Despite being just 15 minutes from Brive airport, it was a secluded retreat with beautiful decor and a home-away-from-home feeling.
The owners, Anna and Abel, welcomed us with wine by a warm fireplace, then took us into the huge kitchen, where a table was set for a five-course meal of truffle with foie gras, truffle eggs, truffle risotto, veal, and chocolate fondants. We drank Sancerre and Bordeaux, and floated back to our rooms on a dream.
The following evening our accommodation was very different, but no less comfortable. The Hotel Le Quercy in Brive was right in the heart of the city, across the street from the market. The decor was modern and colorful, and the room quiet and comfortable. It was a good base for exploring the city.
And cooking in it. One afternoon we took a macaron cooking class at a beautiful shop and patisserie called Autour du Dessert. We watched the chef make two types of treats, one a polka dotted chocolate and passion fruit macaron, and the other a pistachio one. We helped a bit, but he was definitely more skilled with a pastry bag than we were.
At the end we celebrated with macarons, tea, and galette des Rois, a seasonal cake eaten in France during the annual Fete des Rois, or Festival of Kings, on the Sunday closest to Epiphany. The cakes fill bakeries throughout the country in the winter season.
And like the galette des Rois season, the truffle season only lasts from December to February. Our winter trip to the area was therefore well-timed, what with our foraging excursion with Rosabelle and visit to the Sarlat Truffle Festival not being possible in the summer.
And while the days were short and the weather cool, we felt like locals as we foraged, ate, and explored our way through the Dordogne Valley in a time free of tourists and full of exciting events.
CityJet flies to Brive from London City Airport. For more information, you can visit www.cityjet.com.