After a long and complicated train ride, followed by a 50-minute drive in a taxi, I finally arrived in Sarlat, a tiny medieval town in the Périgord region of southwestern France. I had just spent the past few days in Bordeaux, roaming the streets with my friend who was living there, but now I was alone and looking forward to doing some selfish exploring of the French countryside. It was no coincidence that for such adventures I had chosen a region that is well known for its gastronomic achievements. To put it simply, I had just landed in the mecca of goose and duck and the plan was to indulge to the max.
Stepping out of the cab, I was struck by the craggy hills studded with castles and fortifications. The gray, moody sky lent an air of gravity to the otherwise tranquil landscape. It was easy to imagine how the region looked a couple centuries ago. Not much had changed since then. A few paved roads thrown down, some lampposts and electric lines erected, maybe a retrofitted bridge or two. Otherwise, the crumbling and stained stone houses and churches evoked another age when village life was all most people ever knew.
Waiting for me was my couchsurfing host, Steffi, a German mother of three who had fallen in love with a Frenchman, and had moved to Sarlat after growing tired of the frenetic pace of Paris. She and her husband had purchased an old farmhouse in the hills surrounding Sarlat. It came complete with goats, a fresh litter of puppies, cats and chickens. (Alas, no ducks or geese!) The nearest house was hundreds of feet away, and the crisp winter air mingled with the smoke spiraling out of distant chimneys.
After depositing my backpack and having a quick bite to eat, Steffi and I hopped back in the car and we rolled through the hills, jumping from medieval town to medieval town, stopping off every so often to take in the view, admiring the winding river below that had carved out wide sweeping curves in through the valley. Zipping along through the French countryside next to my local guide was more perfect than I could have imagined. Steffi pointed out important buildings, historic landmarks and geological features as we rounded the gentle bends in the road.
Next we picked up Steffi’s kids from school and headed over to the supermarket to pick up provisions for dinner. She stocked up on tins of confit de canard (basically cooked duck stored and preserved in its own fat), which was the only thing I could really concentrate on as she packed in other assorted food items. Duck is probably one of my top 5 food items, so no matter what happened that night, I knew I would be going to bed with a bursting, but happy belly.
Back at the farmhouse I helped Steffi prepare the meal. The menu for the evening was pommes de terre sarladaise (potatoes cook Sarlat-style) and confit de canard: a simple menu, yes, but an amazingly rich and flavorful one, too. I helped by slicing potatoes and chopping garlic, which Steffi then fried in the fat from the confit. The potatoes became almost transparent and shiny after absorbing all the grease, but the ample amount of garlic cut through the flavor, helping to balance out the fat. The potatoes practically melted in my mouth, and when paired with the warmed duck they became a deadly combination. I couldn’t help but ask for several more servings, even when everyone else had finished. It was incredible to me that such a meal could be standard fare for some people. As predicted, I went to bed that night very satisfied.
The following morning I decided to walk around on my own, taking in the scenery in solitude. I walked past an old, decrepit church with a renegade squawking rooster, and an ancient house that was seemingly being taken over by parasitic vines, but by far, the best part of that walk was the fact that I never passed a single person. Ambling up and down the gentle hills, I felt a complete sense of serenity that I had never experienced before. Having grown up in the suburbs, and then gone on to live in metropolitan cities, there was never really a time when I felt completely calm and alone. But somehow, the still sleepiness of Sarlat made me feel at peace with everything and everyone, if only for those couple of hours.
After returning to Steffi’s place, I said goodbye to the puppies, the goats, the chickens, the children, and to the calm. Toulouse awaited me. However, there’s still a part of me that wants terribly to go back and linger there a bit longer. In my book, that’s pretty solid proof that the Périgord did not disappoint