3rd – 9th May: Gastronomy Domini


(Mark Sampson) #1

How refreshing it was on stage 2 of my magical mystery tour of the northern Lot's Michelin-starred hotspots to hear a French chef acknowledge that his native cuisine cannot rest on its laurels, that it must open itself up to influences from a world of cooking beyond the territorial borders.


Frédérick Bizat of the Trois Soleils de Montal is passionate about his art and almost obsessive about his ingredients. A great sauce is merely a great sauce if it's there just to cover up second-rate raw material. The proof of the pudding, so to speak, was in the entrée that the Good Wife and I tasted on Tuesday, the 5th May, our silver wedding anniversary. That's 25 years; a quarter of a century. It does and yet it doesn't seem like a long, long time ago when we were swearing our oaths in the registry office of Bakewell, Derbyshire. Home of the tart.


Fréderick's wife, Florence, served us a fillet of wild turbot with the most delicate purée of fennel lifted with slivers of nori and the zest of lemon from the south of France. I should say that those are my words, not the proprietors'. The chef doesn't go in for florid descriptions of his creations, which is one reason why they've done away with their à la carte. He also believes that the best French cuisine was often to be found in the little auberge where you ate whatever was on offer that particular day. Which is another reason why an ever changing but limited menu is now their culinary modus operandi.


It's a tradition that does indeed seem to be on the wane. Now that I think of it, we've hardly set foot in such an establishment since the days when the journey south from the Channel ports took so long that you had to stop off once or even twice along the way for some solid sustenance. Of course, one reason for gradually withdrawing our custom was that we got fed up eating omelettes as a vegetarian option. Tuesday was a salutary reminder. The situation, I believe, has improved somewhat in the last five or so years. But I made the mistake of assuming that there would be something for Debs to eat now that she's a 'pescetarian' (a euphemism for a fish-eating vegetarian, a contradiction in terms).


Never assume, as we all know by now. You'll make an ass out of you and me. Had I appreciated Frédérick's rationale, I would have phoned up the evening before to warn him. As it was, the poor man was probably mortified to assemble a hasty plate of vegetables for my wife's plat principal. In the interests of objectivity and research, I accepted the roast grain-fed pigeon. The meat of such fowl is a bit red for a long-lapsed meat eater like me, but I could appreciate that it would have thoroughly pleased most palates.


We had no such problems on stage 1 of our gastronomic tour. Q. When is a job not a job? A. When you're invited to lunch at the Château de la Treyne as a working journalist. The place is phantasmagorical. Set in graceful formal gardens within a wooded park, it sits on the edge of the Dordogne. From the terrace, where we were served our aperitifs, we looked down on the broad river flowing quietly by. Summer diners at the tail-end of a fine day can eat out on the terrace and watch the sun sink under the horizon.


Luncheon was served on the 3rd May, however, in the Louis XIII dining room. We didn't complain, since we were made to feel like guests of the ancient king. I must say, I rather like it when the waiting staff are attentive to your needs without smothering you with obsequiousness. It's not a recipe for self-consciousness and you don't feel compelled to swish them away with a disdainful flick of your hand, as you might dismiss a needy dog. But the most wonderful thing about a freebie in a place like this is that you don't have to pay for it. Otherwise, I might have felt like a passenger in a gridlocked taxi as each course arrived with a flourish and a dutiful description.


Because it wasn't 'alf expensive. But then, if you go there as a paying customer, what you're really buying is an unforgettable experience. Our delightful hostess, Stéphanie – dressed refreshingly in jeans and trainers (albeit of an evident quality) – expressed surprise that we hadn't been before now. We feigned suitable shame, but I think she was mistaking us, dressed up for the occasion, for punters with the means to spend more than a vet's bill on a single lunch. We are not holidaymakers, nor the kind of native prepared to spend whatever it takes on a memorable bouffe.


I bumped into Stéphanie again in Brive on Wednesday afternoon. I was there principally to strim the garden of my therapeutic wife's clinic and its back passage that gets fouled by every passing dog. As part of my article, though, I have to feature a few specialist shops where happy holidaymakers can buy the kinds of ingredients featured in my three chosen restaurants. Clutching my copy of France Magazine, I boldly popped into Eric Lamy, reputedly the best chocolatier in the area. There she was, in conference with the head honcho about his forthcoming macaroon workshop in her chateau. Maybe she reassured him of my bona fides, because I was treated quite ceremoniously and given a box of their wares to sample back home. And sample we did! Clearly, there are chocolates... and then there are chocolates.


The Daughter and I had been looking forward to stage 3 of the gastronomic tour of duty. Saturday is a working day for my wife, so I was due to take Tilley to the Pont de l'Ouysse at La Cave. It has a fine reputation. Although, unlike the other two, it doesn't have an actual star, it's there in the Michelin guide.


But Saturday turned into a dies horribilis. Our not inconsiderable cat, our beautiful Myrtle the Turtle, started gasping for breath. Tilley and I rushed her to the vet, where Amélie – the angel of mercy, who had come to the house to end our Alf's suffering on New Year's Eve – couldn't find a heartbeat because there was so much fluid on her lungs. She tranquilised her to calm her down and put her immediately on oxygen. We should return home, she suggested, but the prognosis was not good at all.


So I cancelled our lunch date, since both of us were in a state of shock. After lunch, the vet phoned to tell us that there was nothing that she could do for Myrtle. She offered us the choice of incinerating the body or taking her back to be buried here. To cremate our cat individually so we could scatter her ashes here would have cost a hind leg. Since none of us could bear the thought of our regal cat being buried, as it were, in a common pauper's grave, we opted for a home burial.


A metre's depth, they say, will keep the dog far hence that's foe to man. Given the rocky clay on which this house and garden sit, that would be a tall order – particularly with a strained rib muscle from my Herculean attempts to remove a wheel from my wife's car. Nevertheless, I would give it my best shot.


We selected a site at the foot of Alfie's grave, the one with an old basin on top of it for the moment to keep the dog far hence that's foe to man, since Myrtle loved the gentle old soul. I laboured for at least three hours with pick axe, spade, trowel and gloved hands, but gave up the struggle when my tape measure revealed that I'd only reached 60cm. We would compensate for the shallow grave with a bucket full of lime this time.


So Myrtle the Turtle is buried in a grave covered temporarily with old roof tiles to keep rooting creatures... Tilley and I will complete my gastronomic tour now on Wednesday. It's just as well that it will be another freebie after paying the vet's bill.


(Mark Sampson) #2

I have to say it was rather delicious, Barbara. But all this nouvelle cuisine and Michelin star business gets a bit tiresome sometimes. I just want a plate of proper well-cooked vegetables rather than froth and streaks.


(Barbara Deane) #3

the choc dessert looks a fraction too busy and, infact a little dated in style.

Is that a 2 star Mich pud?????


(Mark Sampson) #4

That sounds like a very civilised job, Peter. Greenkeeper at Coirot. As you say, the water hazards make it interesting - or terrifying, depending on your state of mind!


(Peter Bird) #5

Nice course at Coirot, enough water to make it interesting. I used to go a lot when I worked as a greenkeeper, one of the perks was free golf on most other courses.

Unusual to have two cats, brother and sister survive 17 years ! They had no health problems except during the last couple of weeks of their lives. Good companions and the end of an era...they died within two months of each other.


(Mark Sampson) #6

Hello Peter. Thanks for the condolences. Your two were together for 17 years: that's quite some companionship (I imagine, although sometimes they can be very disdainful of each other). I did indeed note what you said about the hotel at Aubazine. It was just that I tried to avoid the Corrèze since my remit was the Dordogne Valley in the northern Lot. But I like Aubazine and I'll certainly check it out when next I'm over that way. If I dare play another round of golf - at Coirot - I could drop by Aubazine.


(Peter Bird) #7

Hi again Mark. Clever use of the Floyd variation from the 'Piper..' album.

Sorry about the cat, I lost my last two last year after 17 years together !

Remember what I said about the Hotel de la Tour at Aubazine, nice resto even if it is a hark back to the '60s & '70s. Good food in a nice setting.


(Mark Sampson) #8

Hello Jane. Thank you for your condolences about poor Myrtle. I like the sound of your own gastronomic tour - and it's a part of France I don't yet known. A voir, by the sound of it. Tomorrow's Wednesday, so I'm hoping for good things. I'll let you know...


(Jane Williamson) #9

I am sorry you have lost your cat.
We decided to take a tour of our local best restaurants instead of going on holiday. Why pay to swim in someone else’s pool when you have one of your own. We were also rather tired at the end of our season and having had the family as our last visitors.
We went to our local Michelin starred restaurant in Charolles, Frederic Ducet at the Hotl de la Poste, who had a wonderful mushroom menu.
We also went to the Abbaye de la Bussiere in the Cote d’Or, which is run by an English couple. It is a beautiful place and the weather was fantastic. We only went for lunch as they do their tasting meal in the evening, but we still had a very good lunch and saw a part of Burgundy we had not previously visited.
Our final meal was at the Auberge du Paradis in Saint Amour in the Beaujolais. It is a quirky place in the main street of the village and the vendange was in full swing with tractors bringing in their loads of grapes and pickers for lunch.
We thought this was the best meal of our three. He uses spicing creatively, which was a great pleasure to me.
Enjoy Wednesday.