Dordogne Berry Limousin :
Where to go?
The Region Today
The Region Today
The region’s economy has long depended on its agricultural activities, as the scarcity of mineral wealth and raw materials prevented the development of major industrial centres as in northern and eastern France. More recently, investment in a wider range of sectors, including high-tech industries, tourism, and the development of high-quality culinary and craft products, have expanded the region’s economic potential. The region’s communication infrastructure has also improved, making the countryside less isolated. And of course, the region’s trademark products continue to fly the region’s flag, in particular Limoges porcelain, foie gras and truffles.
The lifestyle of the population in the area covered by this guide is much the same as elsewhere in France except, perhaps, that there is a greater emphasis on good food and wine, especially in the Dordogne and Quercy where the French paradox of long life and a rich diet is very apparent. Life begins earlier in the day than in the UK and the two hour lunch break signalled by the klaxon at 12 noon is still common in rural areas. People may start the day earlier but they also retire earlier in the evening - most small towns and village become quiet after 9 or 10 pm.
Agriculture has long been the mainstay of the Berry’s economy, although improvements to the road network have enabled industrial development. Mechanisation and the use of fertilisers reaped rewards in Champagne Berrichonne, which has become France’s second-largest grain-producing region. However, there are few processing plants to handle the harvest, and this impedes growth. In the Indre département, another handicap is the ageing of the farming population.
As elsewhere, small farms have decreased in number over the years, to be replaced by larger, more modern operations. In the north, fields are planted with grain crops, whereas southern areas specialise in orchards, mostly apple.
Alongside the Lot-et-Garonne, the Dordogne département is the number one producer of strawberries in France, with almost 20 000t harvested annually. The protective plastic coverings visible in spring protect the young plants from bad weather and enable them to flower and grow in a controlled environment. The fruit ripens under these sheets before it is picked and packed off to the large markets of the Paris region and the north of France, where the Périgord strawberry is particularly appreciated.
Although on the decline, walnuts are another local speciality harvested in large quantity (5-7 000t per year). Several varieties are produced locally: Marbot walnuts ripen early and are often sold fresh; Grandjean are produced around Sarlat and Gourdon, accounting for most of the green walnuts; Corne is a small nut of good quality; while Franquette has increased in popularity in recent years. In 2002, the four varieties were awarded Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) Noix du Périgord status.
Conditions in the Périgord and the Quercy, and southwest France as a whole, are favourable to the growing of tobacco, a hardy plant imported from America in the 16C and initially used for medicinal purposes.
The traditional dark tobacco that long gave French cigarettes their strong, distinctive flavour and aroma now grows side-by-side with lighter varieties such as Virginia tobacco, which have increased in popularity. Nowadays, there are around 3 000 planters in the region, mostly in family-run operations. The Dordogne is France’s leading tobacco-producing département with 1 300 growers producing 15% of the country’s crop.
Perhaps the most evocative of all the region’s products, however, is the rare and secretive fungus known as the truffle, which grows underground, at the base of a tree, where it is sniffed out by specially trained pigs or dogs. Exchanged at market for fabulous sums which seem incongruous with their lumpy, dusty appearance, these subterranean “black diamonds” are not as plentiful as in the past and are threatened by imports from countries such as Italy, Poland and China. Whereas a century ago hundreds of tonnes would have been harvested every year, today this figure has dwindled to around 4t. To encourage production, oak trees continue to be planted in areas where conditions favour growth of these diamants noirs.
Each region has developed its stock-raising in line with the natural fertility of its soil, with rich pastureland given over to the grazing of cattle, and more arid plateaux set aside for the rearing of sheep.
In bygone days sheep-rearing was the only way of earning a living when a lack of money and materials were major obstacles on the plains of the Berry.
The Berry breed is declining in numbers and is being replaced by the Charmois and the English Southdown. Much prized for their meat, they are now reared in sheepfolds and no longer roam the open pastureland. Goat herds are also increasing, particularly as a result of the rise in popularity of goats’ cheese.
The causses continue to play an important role in sheep-rearing: the plateau sheep or Gramat species is known as the spectacled breed, due to their white fleece and black rings around their eyes. These hardy, prolific animals bear fine wool, but are especially prized for their meat, which contains very little fat.
Limousin beef-cattle, with their short withers and distinctive russet hides, were already widely known in the 17C and 18C. Improved by culling and better feeding, the breed now produces some of the finest meat in the world. To supply market demands, Limousin farmers have turned to the production of young calves for white veal.
Natural features have transformed the Limousin into a leading area for the production and export of both the breed and its meat. Indigenous meadowland has been complemented by specially sown pastures where grass grows more profusely.
crafts and industries
The presence of metallic oxides, which could be used in producing enamelware, resulted in the establishment of an enamelling industry in Limoges.
After three centuries of decline, the last 50 years have seen the re-establishment of Limoges’ reputation, which is now as high as it was in the days of such master-enamellers as the Nardon Pénicauds, the Limosins and the Nouailhers.
The discovery of important deposits of kaolin near St-Yrieix at the end of the 18C was the catalyst for the development of the china industry. The first factories were scattered in the southern part of the Haute-Vienne, otherwise the wood needed for the kilns would have been liable to the payment of a toll upon entering the city of Limoges. By the end of the 19C, due to improvements in the production process, porcelain had become a major industry in the city.
Another traditional manufacturing activity is centred around Aubusson, famous for its tapestries.
The leather industry and its many ancillary sectors developed thanks to abundant water supplies, tanning resins from the forests and hides obtained from large-scale stock-raising. In the early 19C, some 50 tanneries were established in the region. Today, shoes are made at Limoges and St-Amand-Montrond, and St-Junien is famous for its gloves. While this industry seems to be past its heyday, the forest holds promise for the development of the paper industry, which is on the upswing.
The area around Limoges has seen a steady increase in new high-tech businesses as a result of the development of national institutes (industrial ceramics, engineering, biotechnology, optical and microwave communication etc) and leading industries such as Ariane Espace and Airbus Industrie. Many smaller businesses have started up and experienced considerable international growth.
Prospection of the old Limousin granite massifs led to the discovery of the first uranium deposit near Crouzille in 1948, which became the largest processing centre in Western Europe. These mines are now closed. The very last gold mine, of its kind in France, in Bourneix, closed in 2002; the economic environment had become unfavourable and viable reserves were exhausted.
Folklore and Traditions
The regions of the Berry, Limousin and Dordogne are home to age-old rural civilisations. Traditional costumes and time-honoured crafts have been preserved in all three areas and are actively on display and promoted in the many local festivals. Legends, superstitions and folk tales have continued to flourish alongside religious events in which the lives and legends of saints play an important role. In addition, alchemists, sorcerers and werewolves, and creatures such as toads, owls, and wolves, to name but a few, have long fuelled the imagination of the region’s inhabitants.
Local accents trace the boundaries of the different regions as clearly as a line drawn on a map. Regional patois (provincial dialects) are seldom heard nowadays, although interest in preserving the traditions of the langue d’Oc is reviving.
Lanterns of the dead
The earliest known reference to lanterns of the dead is found in a 12C text, De Miraculis, by Pierre le Vénérable, abbot of Cluny. The legend recounts how a young novice from the Abbaye de Charlieu (Loire) received a visit from his uncle Achard, the monastery’s former prior, who had been dead for some years. The apparition led the youth to the cemetery, where wrapped in concentric circles of glowing light, a group of holy persons had gathered. “In the middle of the cemetery, a stone edifice rose up; on the top, there was a small compartment for holding a lamp which, nightly and in honour of the faithful resting there, lights this sacred place. Steps lead to a platform where two or three people can stand or sit down.” This definition is similar to one given in a study written in 1882 by a local abbot and scholar. Mostly built between the 11C and the 13C, in cemeteries near Romanesque churches, many of the lanterns were later destroyed, moved or converted to other uses.
These structures, dubbed lanterns of the dead in the 19C, seem to be the expression of ancient ideals. Their form, with a height equal to six or eight times their diameter, complies with ancient Roman canon. The vertical design is symbolic of prestige, but also designates security, and indeed no reference to mourning or suffering seems apparent in the decoration or the exultant skyward movement. Experts still question the use made of the stone dais: perhaps a movable altar was placed upon it, or perhaps it was used to indicate the East, the direction of the Holy City of Jerusalem, thus serving to define the alignment of the graves in the cemetery. People have long believed that the spirits of those who have passed away seek out the light which death has extinguished for them.
Although the early Christian church condemned the practice of lighting candles on tombs, the symbol of the eternal flame soon came to be totally assimilated.
The limousin ostensions
Every seven years the Haute-Vienne and Creuse départements honour their saints: St Martial, the apostle of the Limousin; St Valérie; the Good St Eligius, founder of the monastery at Solignac; St Stephen of Muret; hermits who lived in the forests of the Limousin and Marche; and St Junien, St Victurnien and St Leonard, founders of monasteries scattered in the region’s valleys.
The ostensions, or solemn exhibition of relics to the faithful, date back to the 10C. One of the earliest of these festivals was held at Limoges when a terrible epidemic of ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s fire, was raging. To combat the malady, the relics of St Martial were brought out. A visitation – whether in the form of a plague or an illustrious personage – became an occasion for holding these ceremonies, which were later repeated at regular intervals.
Each town has a traditional ceremony of its own, hosting religious festivals also based on local folklore. The blessing of the banner, which is solemnly hoisted to the belfry pinnacle, marks the opening of the ostension. Once the festival has been opened on the Sunday after Easter, the relics are presented to the faithful for veneration in their shrines or reliquaries which, in some cases, are masterpieces of the gold and silversmith’s art. Colourful processions pass through bunting and flower-decked streets in towns and villages, accompanied by fanfares, drums and banners and escorted by guards of honour, representatives of different craft guilds, and other groups in rich finery. Neighbouring parishes often participate in these events; as an example, 50 parishes come together in Le Dorat for the closing ceremonies. The next ceremony is in 2016.
In July every year a different town in the Périgord hosts the Félibrée, a meeting of a society of poets and writers set up in the late 19C with the aim of preserving the Provençal language. The windows and doors of the chosen town are decorated with thousands of multicoloured paper flowers, and trees and shrubs are illuminated to form triumphal arches. The people of the Périgord flock from all corners of the département decked out in traditional costume: lace headdresses, embroidered shawls and long skirts for the women, and wide-brimmed black felt hats, full white shirts and waistcoats for the men.
The queen of the Félibrée, surrounded by a member of the Félibrige society committee and the guardians of local traditions, receives the keys of the town and makes a speech in the local dialect. The assembled gathering files off in procession to Mass, accompanied by the sound of hurdy-gurdies, before sitting down to a sumptuous feast. Traditionally, the meal begins with chabrol, a soup of wine and clear stock typical of the southwest, which is served in dishes made especially for the occasion, and bearing the year and the name of the host town. Everyone keeps these soup dishes as a souvenir and they are displayed proudly in homes or even in regional museums.
The cuisine ofthe Berry is plain and simple and makes full use of farm produce. While vegetable, salt pork or bread soup blended with a little cream combine to produce the typical regional soup known as mique, the true Berry speciality is poulet en barbouille. This chicken dish is flambéed with brandy, cut into pieces and cooked with a blended sauce of blood and cream, an egg yolk and chopped liver. Dishes featuring a wine or cream sauce appear frequently on the tables of the Berry.
Also look out for traditional staples such as pumpkin pâté, truffiat (potatoes covered in pastry), stuffed rabbit, eggs in wine, ox-tongue au gratin, kidneys, calf’s liver, game and fish, often garnished with fresh mushrooms. For dessert, try specialities such as plum flan, sanciaux (honey fritters) and millats (stewed black cherries).
The hearty cuisine of the Limousin is typified by thetraditional dish known as bréjaude, a pork rind and cabbage soup garnished with rye bread.
Patés made from truffles or wrapped in pastry and garnished with a mixed veal and pork stuffing (especially the pâté de foies gras from Brive-la-Gaillarde), are deservedly famous.
Although the region is most renowned for its excellent beef, other delicious local dishes includes lièvre en chabessal, a dish made from hare stuffed with fresh pork and ham, and seasoned with salt, pepper, spices and condiments. Cabbage is a traditional Limousin ingredient and is served with partridge, in heart-warming potées (country stews) or braised with chestnuts. For a long time, chestnuts (châtaignes) were a staple of the farmer’s diet, and can still be found garnishing turkey, goose, black pudding, veal and pork stew, or served as a purée with venison. Perhaps the dish most closely associated with Limousin is clafoutis, a creamy flan with cherries.
The Périgord and Quercy
Cuisine in the Dordogne (which the French invariably refer to as the Périgord when speaking of gastronomy) is one of France’s culinary jewels. For centuries, the region has been synonymous with delicacies such as truffles, foie gras and confits. Sit down to a traditional meal here and you may never want to eat any other way again: perhaps start with tourain blanchi – a white soup made from garlic, goose fat and eggs, sometimes with sorrel or tomato added; next comes the foie gras or pâté de foie (a general term for liver pâté); the third course might perhaps be a delicious omelette made with cèpes (wild mushrooms) or delicately sliced truffles. For the main course, enjoy confit d’oie aux pommes sarladaises (goose preserved in its own fat, fried until brown, with potatoes fried in goose fat and garlic, and garnished with mushrooms). A refreshing salad drizzled in a light walnut oil dressing is then followed by the cheese platter. To round things off, why not indulge in a slice of walnut cake or plum pie?
The truffe (truffle) is the elegant name of a knobby, black fungus which weighs about 100g/3.5oz, and imbues all it touches with its unique aroma. A truffle must be fresh or very carefully preserved and their rarity and price make them a gourmet luxury. It is found in delicate black specks in foie gras, pâté, poultry dishes, ballotines (white turkey meat and liver moulded in aspic) and galantines (cold cuts); it is also sliced thinly into salads and omelettes. A truffle wrapped and cooked whole over an open fire – à la cendre – is a supreme extravagance.
Foie gras is certainly the pride of the Périgord. Once their feathers have grown in (after approximately 1 month), ducks and geese are put outdoors.
To prepare for force-feeding, they are nourished with grains and alfalfa, which help expand the digestive system. After three months in the open air, the birds are placed in individual cages for 15-18 days. Progressively over-fed, they are given ground meal then whole corn with a funnel-like feeding device known as the gaveuse. A duck thus absorbs 10-15kg/22-33lb, a goose up to 20kg/44lb of corn, tripling or even quadrupling the weight of its liver to achieve an ideal weight: 450-500g/1lb for a duck; 800-900g/2lb for a goose.
Foies gras can be preserved with excellent results, and are labelled according to content; read the label or menu carefully to know what you are getting.
Foie gras entier is sliced from a whole liver, the nerve fibres removed, seasoned and sterilised (mi-cuit livers must be kept refrigerated and eaten fresh).
A bloc de foie gras is reconstituted, made from bits of liver chopped and mixed at high speed and emulsified with water. Other forms of foie gras are parfait (75% liver), mousse, pâté, médaillon and galantine (50% liver). Foie gras should be served chilled (allow 50grams/2oz per person), and cut with a knife rinsed in hot water.
Enjoy a glass of cool, sweet Monbazillac wine with your foie gras.
Confits are the traditional base of the region’s cuisine. Confit was first used as a method of preserving various parts of the goose, before the advent of the freezer. Now regarded as a gourmet dish, it is still prepared using traditional methods. The pieces of goose are cooked in their own fat for 3hr and then preserved in large earthenware pots (tupins).
This procedure is also used to preserve duck, turkey and pork (pork confit is called enchaud). Goose grease is used instead of butter in local cooking, for example in pommes de terre sarladaises.
Stuffings and Sauces
Stuffings and sauces, often comprising liver and truffles, are used frequently to garnish poultry, game, suckling pigs and in a favourite regional dish – cou d’oie farci – stuffed goose neck.
The most commonly used sauces are the rouilleuse, which is used to give colour and to accompany poultry fricassee, and sauce Périgueux, a Madeira sauce made from a base of chicken stock, to which fresh truffles are added.
French wines are classified according to a system which provides a rough guide to price and quality, although there is plenty of room for overlapping, especially where small growers are concerned. The lowest category is simply labelled Vin de table. Such wines may have been elaborated using any variety of grape from any country in the EU (although this must be stated on the label). While generally to be avoided in shops and restaurants, you may buy satisfactory table wine from a local producer or cooperative (bring your own container). Next comes the Vin de Pays, which bears a label identifying the place of origin and possibly the grape variety (if not a blend) and the year. The category following is the VDQS, Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, which also shows place of origin and may show variety and year. The superiority comes from the fact that the grape varieties are approved and the district of production clearly defined; in addition, these wines pass a yearly taste test to confirm their quality.
The top 20% of French wines are labelled Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (abbreviated AOC or simply AC). These wines come from designated vineyards, use approved grape varieties and are vinified in a manner specific to each one. The system is controlled by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, and it is a serious business indeed. The AOC label is a reward for years of continuous merit and lobbying. Similar systems are now being used for other produce.
The renown and popularity of wines from the region date way back to the Middle Ages. Cahors wine was transported by barges (gabares) to Bordeaux and from there by ship to the capitals of Europe. A deep-red colour, with a robust flavour to match, Cahors accompanies hearty foods including game, roast meats and strong-flavoured cheese. The bouquet only achieves subtlety and loses its rather harsh presence on the tongue after ageing two to three years in the cask and another dozen in the bottle.
The vineyards of Bergerac, largely planted with Sauvignon grapes, produce reds as well as whites. Among the latter, Monbazillac holds pride of place. Golden and smooth, and with a heady aroma, this syrupy wine is served as an aperitif, with foie gras or with dessert. Like other sweet, highly alcoholic wines (notably Sauternes), Monbazillac depends on the effects of the noble mould (Botrytis cinerea), a highly beneficent mould which forms on the skins of the ripening grapes, bringing about a concentration of sugar and flavour and a vast improvement in the quality of the resulting wine, without imparting any trace of this on the palate. The process has been employed since the Renaissance. The grapes are harvested in several batches as they reach the desired state. Monbazillac develops its full flavour after two to three years and will keep for up to 30 years.
Dry white wines such as Montravel and Bergerac, vigorous and fruity, go well with seafood and fish; sweeter wines like Côtes de Bergerac, Côtes de Montravel, Rosette and Saussignac are good as aperitif wines or with white meats.
Red Bergerac wines are firm, with a fruity bouquet, and can be enjoyed soon after bottling. Pécharmant is fuller-bodied, more complex, and must be left to mature before its charms can be fully appreciated.
Winesfrom the Berry are generally clean and crisp and of good quality. Sancerre is a well-known appellation known more readily for its white wines, although red and rosé are also produced here. Many small growers are scattered around outlying villages, with some of the best wines produced in Bué, Chavignol, Ménétréol and Fontenay - the expressive characteristics of these wines are best enjoyed young. A good companion for local dishes and cheeses is Ménétou-Salon, a quality wine produced in limited quantities which is hard to come across elsewhere. Grown in the same chalky soil as Sancerre, many find it to be fuller and more rounded than its illustrative neighbour.
The wines of Sancerre are commonly classified as Eastern Loire Valley wines. The upper reaches of the Loire are mostly planted with the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which produces two of the finest wines in France: Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. These wines are produced within 8km/5mi of each other, on different sides of the river, and yet their taste is, to the connoisseur, leagues apart. Mostly white wines are produced; the term fumé is in reference to the smoky bloom that forms on the skin of the fruit rather than to the resulting flavour. Sancerre is reputed for its full, round finish, whereas Pouilly-Fumé is considered a more complex, flowery wine.
In addition to these famous labels, some of the other wines in the region are delightful discoveries for the traveller. Certain wines, produced in small quantity and difficult to find outside the region, make for a memorable and unique experience. It is worth a visit to the wine-growers of Bué, Chavignol, Ménétréol and Fontenay to savour the regional savoir-faire.
Mostly white, but also some rosé and red AOC wines are produced in the villages of Ménétou-Salon, Quincy, and Reuilly. Reds and rosés are drawn from Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Meunier grapes.
Sancerre is a beautiful wine town, surrounded by hillside vineyards which sweep away from the town like striped skirts on a lovely lady. The signposted wine route meanders around back roads and through the village of Chavignol, famous for its crottin de Chavignol goat’s milk cheese. The Sancerrois is not a very big region, but visitors will have plenty of temptation to stop and sample local wines and cheeses and to enjoy a slower pace of life.
Another leading wine-producing centre in the region covered in this guide is Bergerac, which has 12 different types of AOC wines. There is a well-marked wine route around the vineyards (information at the Maison des Vins, Cloître de Récollets, in Bergerac). The varieties grown are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Bergerac, Côtes de Bergerac and Pécharmant are strong red wines; the rosés are less enticing, and the white wines are sweet (moëlleux) or if dry, bottled under a separate AOC, Bergerac Sec. Ambrosial Monbazillac white wines, very sweet, are often served with foie gras. The flavour is similar to Sauternes, and the wine keeps for about four years, although a good year may age better. Rosette is a less sweet white wine produced in small quantity and not found elsewhere; enjoy it as an apéritif wine. Montravel vineyards are in the Dordogne, but also on the far edge of Bordeaux territory. The white wines (from dry to sweet) are bottled as Montravel; reds are sold as Bergerac.
Maison des vins de Bergerac
Quai Salvette, 1, Rue des Récollets 24104 Bergerac Cedex. 05 53 63 57 57. www.vins-bergerac.fr.
Wine tasting, tour of selected vineyards and cellars.
Cave coopérative de Monbazillac Route de Mont-de-Marsan, 24240 Monbazillac. 05 53 63 65 00. www.chateau-monbazillac.com. Wine tasting.
The deep-red wines of Cahors are made from Malbec, Merlot and Jurançon grapes, grown in ruddy soil scattered with limestone pebbles. Start a tour of the regional vineyard right at the famous Pont de Valentré across the River Lot. From here you can go to Pradines and Douelle, where wine was once loaded onto flat-bottomed boats for transportation. The wine road is a beautiful route through the countryside and along the river; many of the vineyards have been producing wine for centuries. During the Roman occupation, the Emperor Dolmitian ordered the vines uprooted as punishment for an uprising, thus temporarily (for 200 years) halting production, which is now back in full swing. The AOC label was awarded to regional wines in 1971.
To earn the name Cahors, the hearty red wines must have at least 70% Malbec, and at most 20% Merlot and Tannot; the remaining 10% is Jurançon. While they are known for their dark colour bordering on black, and their robust and tannic flavour, Cahors wines are evolving to suit modern tastes and now more subtle vintages are coming to light. Labelled vieux (old), it has aged three years or more in a wooden cask.
Locally made Coteaux de Quercy, red and rosé wines from the Lot Valley, are Vins de Pays.
Union interprofessionnelle du vin de Cahors
430 avenue Jean-Jaurès, BP 61 46000 Cahors. 05 65 23 22 24. www.vindecahors.fr.
Publishes a booklet listing wine-growers’ addresses (also available from local tourist offices) but does not sell wine.
Les Vignerons du Query -Cave Coopérative 82270 Montpezat-de-Quercy.
05 63 02 03 50. www.montpezat-de-quercy.fr. Wine tasting and sales throughout the year. Guided tours for groups by appointment.Nature