Dordogne, France: Gastronomy and Luxury Lodging
A stay at Chateau La Thuiliere is a tasty, sumptous treat
By Max Hartshorne
Imagine you have these two uncles. They’ve always been the cool ones in the family, the ones who sneak you away for fun and frolic, always with a mischevious look in their eyes.
Now you find out that they own this fabulous small hotel, in one of the world’s most gorgeous places–southwestern France! Wow, how quickly could you get yourself packed to go visit them?
You may not have such uncles in your family, but many people in England and across Europe have discovered Chateau La Thuiliere, a nineteeth century restored mansion set in the small town of Saint Front de Pradoux, in the beautiful Dordogne region. The chateau was built in 1889 by a local man as a gift to his wife. Ten years after it was finished, he passed away, and sadly, she lived in seclusion here, barely ever leaving just a few rooms on the first floor. Then it was closed up for 40 years.
Since then, the pair of Eduoard Diaz Barragan and Jordi Bernal Campmany have worked nearly nonstop to transform La Thuiliere’s very old bones into a modern and comfortable nine-room boutique hotel. New electrical, very new plumbing fixtures (it helped that Eduoard was a director of a company in Spain that made such items!) and lots and lots of love have made this a four star property.
A trip to La Thuiliere is most of all, an exercise in relaxation, but the gastronomy of this part of France plays a significant part of any visit. That’s because the food is a highlight and Jordi and his chef source as much of the menu locally as possible.
In this part of France, there are no big towns very close by, so you can plan on dining right here at the chateau. They have tables outside for a lovely al fresco setting, or some times they serve dinner inside, in the large formal dining room. It’s fun dining table d’hote, to see who you get to sit next to. After the initial break-in, (and a few sips of wine), the converstion begins to flow.
Most of La Thuiliere’s guests come from England and Spain and other European countries, not that many from France. All of the staff is Spanish, we learned that in this part of France, native employees haven’t worked out that well.
Breakfast is served in the kitchen, again, table d’hote, at a common table. For some guests, this isn’t ideal, (some grumbling noted on TripAdvisor) but to me, like having dinner with other guest it adds to the fun and gives a great opportunity to get to know people.It’s also fun watching Jordi and the cook prepare dinner in their beautiful kitchen, which is set up for cooking lessons, another offering here.
Inside the old building, the owners have selected the highest quality bath fixtures and other pleasing amenities. One is the Nespresso coffee maker in every room, which is a great pick me up on a lazy afternoon. Naps are hard to resist on these incredibly soft sheets, made in Portugal by Sam Pedro.
Gastronomy of the Region
Our interest in visiting the chateau was not only to experience staying there, but to take in the sites of the local gastronomy, since this region of France is so well known for its farms and farm products. Jordi arranged for us to visit several local producers who took plenty of time to show us around and describe everything they make.
First, a farmer came to visit the chateau to drop off a large foie gras, which he would prepare in salt. He simply deveined the duck liver and then placed it in a terrine and covered it with rock salt. This would cook the fois gras for the next 24 hours, and it would emerge, smaller and ready to eat.
“Can we visit your farm?” I asked the farmer, Benoit Escurpeyrat, and he happily agreed to take us there. We wound through the luscious farmland and stopped briefly at a fish farm, where a trade was to take place…foie gras for trout. Sounds good to me!
We reached Benoit’s farm and the first thing we saw were his brown cows, with his prize bull lazily lying in the pasture. He said he sells every kilo of this mostly grass-fed beef as soon as it’s ready, and it’s hard to keep up with the tremendous demand.
Three Generations of Farmers
He’s the third generation of his family that has run this farm, but he’s sad to say that his sons haven’t taken any interest…so he may be the last. They raise 2500 ducks a year, producing fresh magret du canard (duck breast) as well as foie gras and all manner of confits, mousses and other duck products.
They sell them at the nearby markets in Mussidan, Ambares-et-Lagrave, and Ste Foy La Grande. Benoit told us about the ducks, who sat in metal cages and had been there for 10 of the 20 of their last days when they would be force-fed a mixture of corn, oil and water. We grimaced, as most people would, when we watched him grab their long necks and put the funnel deep down their throats. But surprisingly, the ducks didn’t squirm or protest the feeding, but seemed to accept it, just as Benoit does. Like sausage, perhaps it is best not to be too close to the production of a delicacy as sublime as foie gras!
Distilling Since 1834
Our next stop was to meet a man who has been distilling his whole life, in the center of the village of Villamblard en Perigord. Since 1834, Clovis Reymond has taken the fruits of this region and turned them into liqueurs and distilled spirits in hundreds of different varieties.
Nicholas Fourcoubey is the man in charge these days, the 17th generation of family involved in the complicated process of running a small scale distillery. Looking around the showroom, the multicolored bottles in all sizes, I asked Nicholas which was his personal favorite. “The pear brandy,” he said.
In the adjacent distillery, he showed us the series of copper vats that take the raw fruits and after a series of complex processes, distill it down to its most essential remains. Once the place exploded, he said, so some of the tanks are newer. Some went back to the original founders in the 1830s!
Next we’d visit a woman who produces some of Clovis Raymond’s source material…fraises. We visited the modest home of Marie Paule Chasseigne, who is an expert on the topic of strawberries.
Three Varieties of Fraises
Madame Chasseigne’s mother was also a lover of fraises, and today she grows three varieties of the fruits in a plot of land in an adjacent lot next to her house. She had set before us in her house three trays–one with the tiny gariguette variety, which are only grown and eaten in the spring. Next to these were charlotte, sweeter and plumper and finally, mara des bois, even bigger but not as sweet as charlottes.
Marie Paule told us that there are hundreds of species of strawberries and that this year has been a tough one. There’s a varmint with a strange name who looks like a badger who has been eating her berries.
But the worst varmint of all are the neighbors, who last year parked their car and stole 30 of her plants. This year, thieves have stolen 100 of her mature strawberry plants. Mon dieu! Each of her long rows of strawberries are irrigated using a drip system that doesn’t waste any water. A good thing since this year France has suffered a terrible drought and there would be problems with a traditional type of irrigation system. She sells most of her berries at the local markets. We said good bye and were offered baskets of berries to take with us. How could we say no?
A Goat Cheese Farmer
It was time to visit the market in Vanxains, where we would meet another woman who produces delicous foods from the earth. But this market turned out to be a brocage,a sort of flea market and we confused mother with daughter.
To meet Magalie Berry, we had to drive another 12 kilometers to Sainte Vincent de Connezac, where she sells her goat cheese at a stand beside a small delicatessen and bakery. It’s a prefect fit…they sell the bread, she’s got the delectable toppings.
Berry said she used to be a journalist, working in the city of Tours, but she wanted more. She wanted more meaning in her life, she said, so she moved back home to her parent’s house and borrowed the money to buy 150 goats. Now she sells many varieties of cheese at markets and works many hours.
She bristles when French customers complain about the price. “I got up at 3 am and won’t stop working until 7 pm! Do they know how much work it takes to make this cheese?” Compared to the price of goat cheese in Massachusetts, paying 2.50 euros for a block here is a great deal, I told her. She sighed.
Quit Your Job?
At her stand, she let us sample her delicious fresh goat cheese and the varieties which were aged 20 days, or 3 months, while her daughter slept in a stroller next to us. “The French think that if you quit your job, it’s a big problem.
They also look at you if you sell cheese and are a farmer, as if you’re poor and have no other choice and they pity you because you are stupid. This IS a choice, I want to bring my daughters to the market, I am content and happy making this cheese, even though it’s a lot of work!”
The good thing about living as as farmer, she said, is that you get milk, and cheese, and many other things for free. Despite the long hours and complaints, it was clear she had made the right decision to ditch journalism and return to the family farm.
Back to the Hotel
During my stay in July 2011, I got a chance to speak with several of the guests, who told me what had attracted them to this hard to find spot in the French countryside. All had done internet searches for “sexy and special places,”and “boutique hotels” and were very pleased with the meals and ambience of La Thuiliere. One British couple had moved to France nine years ago, and at the table, another British couple listened intently, as they want to do the same after they retire.
At the table d’hote, on a Saturday night, there were a couple from Japan, a young couple from Toulouse taking their first weekend away from a new baby, the British expats, and a near retirement couple from London who I chatted up about life as a police officer in London these days. And me. The dinner courses were elegant, and worthy of a Michelin starred chef. After my half bottle of wine ran out, my new friends were happy to share some of theirs with me.
It was about as good as it gets, right there in the big dining room of Chateaux La Thuiliere. I couldn’t think of any place I would have rather been.
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