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.
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.
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.