FRENCH TOAST

Dot­ted with me­dieval towns, the French coun­try­side east of Bordeaux of­fers more than just su­perb wine, writes Tess Pater­son

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Tess Pater­son ex­plores south-west France

We’ve set­tled in at our self-cater­ing gîte near the town of Mar­gueron in south-west France. It’s a re­stored barn with a cherry or­chard for a gar­den and the sort of bu­colic farmy sur­rounds that would have put Cézanne in a tizz. This is my kind of get­away, not so much a vil­lage as a ham­let, where a trac­tor trundling past is a no­table event. Shut­ters are painted lilac; court­yards are gravel cov­ered and clema­tis trails ef­fort­lessly over stone walls. More im­por­tantly, there’s duck con­fit on the menu at the lo­cal bistro.

Us­ing the gîte as a base, we’re in­tent on dis­cov­er­ing some ‘new’ ter­ri­tory. A few years back we’d ex­plored the chateau coun­try – the Dor­dogne and its at­ten­dant bastide towns that lie to the east of Berg­erac. This time we’re on the west, roughly half way be­tween Berg­erac and Bordeaux. It’s f lat­ter here, lev­el­ling out to­wards the At­lantic and those hal­lowed wine re­gions that f lank the Garonne and Dor­dogne rivers. We’re four wine novices, three of whom were born in the Ka­roo, and af­ter months of an­tic­i­pa­tion, are tan­ta­lis­ingly close to leg­ends like La­tour, Pétrus and Lafite Roth­schild. The much-fêted Saint-Émil­ion is just an hour away; if you’re af­ter a good red blend this is pretty much the place to be.

On the first day we head to Duras – our near­est ‘big’ vil­lage and a me­dieval gem. Few things make me hap­pier than ar­riv­ing at a weekly mar­ket in the French coun­try­side. We get there early – that peace­ful pre-tourist in­ter­lude when all you’ll see are lo­cals with wo­ven shop­ping bags and well­man­nered dogs. Set against the town’s mel­low stone ram­parts,

it’s a sea­sonal mar­vel of apri­cots, mas­sive beef-heart toma­toes, mini­vans of colour­ful seedlings. There’s lo­cal honey, ham hocks, sur­pris­ingly cool bits of cro­chet. And my break­fast must-have, tray upon tray of canelés.

A few years back Wall­pa­per mag­a­zine de­clared canelés as the next cult cake, de­vot­ing an en­tire front cover to these crenelated beau­ties. I still have that recipe, though the re­al­ity is a two-day palaver in­volv­ing 16 ex­or­bi­tantly priced cop­per moulds coated with pure beeswax and clar­i­fied but­ter. It’s only fit­ting, I feel, to savour my first one in France. Slightly rub­bery in tex­ture, it’s all rum-cus­tard sweet­ness with a caramelise­d, bronzy ex­te­rior. While the in-laws hover around the char­cu­terie stalls, I buy a sub­stan­tial patis­serie stash to keep me go­ing.

By mid­day, the vine­yards are call­ing and we head for Mon­bazil­lac – a serene set­ting over­look­ing Berg­erac with an ex­tra­or­di­nary past. Dur­ing the Hun­dred Years’ War, the hill­sides and vines to the north had been ut­terly dec­i­mated. Post-war, in around 1500, the un­spoilt south­ern slopes were planted with vines; the an­tecedent of to­day’s AOC Mon­bazil­lac. With a Ra­pun­zel-like ap­peal, the chateau it­self dates to around 1550. The moat, para­pets and

machico­la­tion (nifty gaps used for pour­ing boil­ing oil onto in­vaders) are pure me­dieval de­fen­sive style.

In­ter­minable feud­ing aside, Mon­bazil­lac is renowned for its dessert wines – by all ac­counts a wor­thy com­peti­tor to the pres­ti­gious Sauternes. Jamie Oliver en­thused about the 2011 vin­tage, declar­ing “hon­eyed notes off­set with a tinge of grape­fruit and el­derf lower”. Well quite. We de­cide on a bot­tle of the Chateau St Christophe, and later on our pa­tio, savour this golden nec­tar chilled. With a wedge of vel­vety foie gras and a coun­try baguette from the Duras mar­ket, it’s a lit­tle mo­ment of heaven.

The next day we come across Château Puyfro­mage, an at­trac­tive win­ery that’s eas­ily spot­ted by its size­able pi­geon­nier. As outré as it might seem to­day, pi­geons were a hot topic in the Mid­dle Ages – not only as a del­i­cacy, but for the drop­pings which made ex­cel­lent fer­tiliser. Own­ing a struc­ture of this mag­ni­tude was a seigneuria­l priv­i­lege – up there with a healthy stash of Ap­ple or Alibaba shares to­day. Ewa Bo­bet, who takes us on a tour of the es­tate, ex­plains that the pi­geon­nier would have housed around 4 000 birds. The in­te­rior is a mar­vel, with an­cient chest­nut beams, tow­er­ing walls lined with 1 000 com­part­ments or boulins, and an in­ge­nious ro­tat­ing lad­der.

For a mem­o­rable week we roam about, sus­tained by reg­u­lar in­takes of pain au raisin and icy Jupiler beer. Christo­pher, the mo­hair farm­ing brother-in-law, is in his el­e­ment. On day one, he pulls over and leaps out of the car to ad­mire a breed of taupe-coloured cat­tle. We lose him reg­u­larly through­out the trip, as he hives off into barns to pho­to­graph ma­chin­ery or gazes in­tensely at pris­tine fields of wheat. Most grat­i­fy­ing are his lengthy chats with be­mused Bordeaux farm­ers who gen­uinely don’t speak a word of English.

The me­dieval vil­lage of Is­sigeac is all me­an­der­ing small­town charm and full-blown roses. We find a tiny café sell­ing ice cream cones and later set­tle in for a beer be­neath the

shadow of the Gothic church. At La Sau­ve­tat du Dropt nearby, we shoot the breeze with a lovely old gent in a flat cap who’s fish­ing off a bridge just me­tres from his house. In Pel­le­grue, a town of around 1 000 peo­ple, there’s an elec­tric car-charg­ing sta­tion op­po­site the im­mac­u­late small ceme­tery. It’s ut­terly peace­ful and a mov­ing memo­rial to count­less lives lost, no­tably at Dunkirk. Nearby, the 12th-cen­tury church over­looks a pri­vate gar­den bathed in dap­pled sum­mer light – a mil­lion miles from our elec­tric-fenced city life.

Saint-Émil­ion proves to be a good morn­ing out – it’s hilly and beau­ti­fully main­tained and a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site. There’s def­i­nitely a touristy feel, but then viti­cul­ture’s been thriv­ing here since Ro­man times. To­day the ap­pel­la­tion is one of the big­gest wine pro­duc­ing re­gions in Bordeaux. Af­ter sev­eral tast­ings and a must-do me­an­der around the edge of the town, we round up Christo­pher from a nearby field and head on our way.

The in-laws are keen to give ca­noe­ing a bash, so we opt for an out­ing on the Vézère River, about 100km away. Af­ter get­ting spec­tac­u­larly lost we ar­rive at Les Eyzies, kit up and climb into a minibus. We’re dropped off 10km up­stream, with a serene two-hour pad­dle back down. A worth­while al­ter­na­tive is to ca­noe the Dor­dogne, with its stun­ning views of the mono­lithic Beynac Cas­tle and Castel­naud. Ei­ther way, be­ing wa­ter-bound on a still sum­mer’s day is won­der­fully re­lax­ing.

Bordeaux is our last stop – a port city of re­mark­able el­e­gance and well worth a few days’ ex­plor­ing. Short on time we start with a few key at­tractions – the vast ref lect­ing pool (bril­liant), the Place des Quin­conces with its ef­fu­sive, overblown stat­u­ary and La Cité du Vin – a bul­bous shim­mer­ing homage to an in­dus­try for­ever syn­ony­mous with France. It’s a fit­ting end to a fab­u­lous tour. Cheers!

A 14th-cen­tury pi­geon­nier over­looks the vine­yards at Château Puyfro­mage.

The pic­turesquero­oftops of Saint-Émil­ion.

Mar­ket day in the me­dieval town of Duras.

The gar­den of our gîte in Mar­gueron.

Stone houses on the banks of the Dropt River.

La Madeleine, part of the troglodyte vil­lage above the Vézère River.

Bordeaux’s mir­ror pool op­po­sitethe Place de la Bourse.

Canelés for sale at St Émil­ion.

Sea­sonal apri­cots grown in Rous­sil­lon.

Coast­ing down the peace­ful Vézère River.

The vine­yards sur­round­ing our gîtenear Mar­gueron.

Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin on the banks of the Garonne River.

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