If you have to ask: What’s so special about walnuts?, then you’ve never visited the Dordogne. Noix (walnuts) grow in abundance in this tranquil area of south-west France.
It has a special walnut route, and the nuts are brand-protected by an AOC appellation just like French wines. Near the chateau-topped village of Castelnaud, there’s even a museum devoted to walnut culture.
On my last visit to the area—the locals call it by its pre-Revolution name of Périgord—I visited a number of traditional markets. Two of the best are the Wednesday market at Piegut-Pluviers and medieval Sarlat-la-Canèda’s renowned Saturday market. If you confined your shopping spree to walnut products alone, you could easily fill a couple of baskets.
The Dordogne does far more with its walnuts than simply attack them with nutcrackers and stick them into a bowl. Walnut oil is for salad dressings—it adds a hint of sweetness—and it’s also used as cooking oil. There are walnut cakes, breads and crunchy macaroon-style biscuits. You can drink walnuts too: walnut wine, liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs. The alcoholic base for the green walnuts that get picked in mid-June is usually red wine, brandy or eau de vie.
But walnuts are only the start. Whether it’s for a week or a lifetime, shopping at a traditional market is one of France’s great pleasures.
Here in the Dordogne, country breads include crusty baguettes and pain de miel, sweetened with honey. On one butcher’s stall I saw rilletes, a potted paste of pork used as a spread. There are farm-smoked saucissons (sausages) made from sanglier (wild boar); saucissons flavored with garlic, juniper berries, herbs and much else besides.
Marinated olives—20 different varieties of them. Redcurrants and blackcurrants; honey melons, cherries and early season garriguette strawberries; artichokes and asparagus. The array of cheeses is overwhelming—almost every stall-holder offers samples. Creamy cabécou goat cheese is the Dordogne’s only AOC variety, but there are cheeses from every region. One of my own favorites is Bleu d’Auvergne, which is milder than the more famous Roquefort.
The Dordogne is also a land of ducks and geese. Some farms offer the chance to see the gavage—when ducks are forced-fed with corn to fatten their livers for foie gras (the name means “fat liver”). Animal rights organizations take a dim view of gavage, but I have no problem with it.
Curiously, it wasn’t the French who invented the idea. Ancient Egyptians force-fed geese and ducks with figs—it was the Romans who bought the idea back to Europe. If you do buy foie gras, also pick up a jar of confit d’oignons doux—sweet onion preserve—they go perfectly together.
Other duck products you’ll see at country markets include tins of confit de canard. This is chunks of duck preserved in its own fat, and it’s just as delicious as rosy slices of fresh roast duck. On the butcher’s stall, gésiers are duck gizzards. In restaurants, they’re usually served warm and delicately sliced with a salad—sometimes with smoked duck breast. Admittedly, gizzards—the muscular second stomach of a bird that grinds up indigestible foods—are something of an acquired taste. But you won’t know the taste unless you try.
Truffles are the “black diamonds” of the Dordogne. As with ceps and girondelle mushrooms, fall is when to buy them fresh. However, you’ll find preserved truffles all year ’round—a few shavings transform even a simple omelet into haute cuisine. But they are fairly expensive and in the “treat” category. At Sarlat, the cheapest price I saw for the tiniest jar of truffles was $21.
Even so, imagine being able to shop like this whenever you chose. And with some cracking village houses on the market for under $110,000, why couldn’t you? I’ll share more details from my Dordogne property finds in February at International Living’s Ultimate Event.
Editor’s note: We’re beefing up our Europe presentations like never before at the Ultimate Event 2012: France, Italy, Spain, and Ireland will all be well represented. Come with your toughest questions. We’ll have all the answers. Registration is now open.