A Month in the Dordogne
The other day I was trimming the hedge in our kitchen garden in Hollywood, when I was overwhelmed with a craving for coq au vin. In my mind's eye, I could see quartered mushrooms and pearl onions and pieces of glistening brown chicken burbling around in a bay-scented sauce. I'm like that with food. Maybe it's cooking with wine. Or maybe it's wine. Or maybe it's just cooking. Some people dream about traveling south to Florida for spring training. Me, and my wife, Carolyn? We've dreamed for years about traveling to the South of France and renting a house and spending a month doing pretty much nothing but seeking out and cooking legitimate, down-home, farm-raised, from-the-earth, gen-u-ine French food.
Carolyn and I had been to France together before, and had often found ourselves wandering through Paris markets, gazing longingly at baskets piled with haricots verts, at ice-filled cartons topped with fish, at pigeons, guinea hens, and naked rabbits nestled in the windows of boucheries. We'd end up grabbing the obligatory baguette and cheese and repairing to a cramped hotel room where we'd sit on the edge of the bed and savor the fresh-off-the-streets-of-Paris flavors—reminding ourselves that, though the room was tiny and the bread crumbs were invading the sheets, we were in France.
Last year, we finally decided to put ourselves in a situation where baskets of haricots verts and naked rabbits were not something we were compelled by circumstance to pass by, but were our whole reason for being there. We started calling a string of rental-property brokers with one request: A house that had a great kitchen. A pool? That'd be nice, but not necessary. Yard? Yeah, we want a yard. Well, the broker would gush, we've got this house with two acres, on a vineyard, and it's got the most marvelous master bedroom with a canopied bed....And meanwhile we're saying, yeah, but what about the kitchen? We'd like a huge kitchen, with a proper dining area and a great stove and decent implements, and....You could almost hear the broker on the other end of the line, thinking, Who are these people? Food nuts? Well, um, yeah.
Eventually, I hooked up with a broker in London, who everyone said would know about kitchens because he's an excellent cook. "I have just the house for you," he announced with considerable authority. "La Malvinie. It's in a little village of about 25 families, called St-Julien-de-Crempse, just north of Bergerac...." I was writing the deposit check as he described the kitchen: "It has a food-prep island and a fireplace," he said. "It's open on two sides, with French doors leading to a trellised dining patio. There's a dining table and a sitting area, and a herb garden with a cobbled walk, and 'usable' utensils...."
"We'll take it for the month of June," I interrupted.
"White asparagus is in season in June," he sighed hungrily.
We spent the next few months preparing for our trip. We scanned the typical guidebooks, quickly putting aside the tedious tomes that rhapsodized on castles and museums and primitive cave paintings. At last, we came across Patricia Wells's The Food Lover's Guide to France, which turned out to be a veritable Playboy for food nuts: photos of markets filled with foods straight from the farms; lists of village markets and the days of the week on which they occur; reviews of local purveyors; the best places for a cheap lunch. We pored over its pages, literally drooling with anticipation. Who wants to waste time staring at some cave-guy's scrawlings of a wild boar when you can actually track down wild-boar ham? You get the picture?
On the last day of May, with our 2-year-old daughter, Lilly, in tow, Carolyn and I headed for St-Julien-de-Crempse, which is in southwestern France, in the Dordogne region, east of Bordeaux. La Maison, the main house at La Malvinie, stands in a 17th-century farm compound atop a hill, overlooking fields of hay and corn and sunflowers. From our bedroom window on the second floor, we could see into a coop of chickens, with a rabbit hutch just beyond. The yard in front of the house had a walled garden planted with roses, fragrant lavender, and lilies, and the kitchen was a delightfully serious cooking space: The stove had two ovens, there was a huge refrigerator, and the cabinets were full of china and wineglasses and "usable" pots and pans.
We fell into a daily schedule that began early (2-year-olds can be counted on to be fairly punctual in this regard), with strong coffee, fresh fruit, and croissants on the patio while we consulted Patricia Wells's book for a nearby village that had an open market that day. We particularly enjoyed the one in Bergerac, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in the narrow streets surrounding the town's cathedral. You could smell the rich fragrance of cavaillon melons as you approached the market, and you could hear the insistent hum of expert French shoppers. Colorful umbrellas were spread over tables bulging with sausages and pâtés, with Swiss chard that was literally four feet long, and with huge bundles of sunflowers going for a mere 10 francs (less than $2) each. There was fresh butter, cut into one-kilogram chunks from a huge solid block, sold every week by a wizened little woman with twinkling eyes. There were wild mushrooms, baskets of fraises des bois, chickens, guinea hens, pigeons, and ducks laid out on card tables alongside fresh eggs—and, of course, there were local farmhouse cheeses of every description. White asparagus was indeed in season; and there must have been twenty farmers selling the elegant ivory-colored stalks.