A full-on meal in Dordogne & Lot takes at least 2 hours and begins with an apéritif, hors d’œuvres (or amuse-bouches), a starter (entrée), a fish course (poisson), a main course (plat), cheese, dessert, coffee and chocolates or petits fours, and perhaps a digestif to round things off.
For most that only happens at a special meal in a special restaurant, and even Michelin-starred restaurants are increasingly fine with you just ordering a starter and a main course, or a main course and a dessert.
Nearly all offer a good-value lunch with two or more choices on a set-price menu or no choices at all (formule) or even just a plat du jour on the blackboard. Eating à la carte will always be much more expensive – if it’s even offered. Gastronomic restaurants offer a set-price menu dégustation – a tasting menu of the chef’s specialities.
All restaurants post menus outside the door; many now post them on their websites or Facebook, especially if they frequently change.
Specialities of the Bordelais
The cuisine of the Bordelais starts with seafood: the oysters of Arcachon and mussels; from the Gironde estuary come prawns, eels, salmon, salmon trout and, perhaps a bit shocking to the uninitiated, lamprey, a dish so prized that the canons of St-Seurin in Bordeaux gave up all their rights to property in the city in 1170 in exchange for 12 good fat lampreys a year.
Shallots are just as essential to the Bordelais, attaining a kind of epiphany on the famous entrecôte à la Bordelaise with a sauce of butter, shallots, thyme and red wine. Much passion is reserved for cèpes: the true cèpe bordelais (cèpe de chêne or penny bun) and less tasty cèpe des pins. Asparagus, both green and white, is one of the joys of spring in the region.
A speciality revived in the past few decades is milk-fed lamb, or agneau de Pauillac, which holds pride of place among meat dishes along with the beef from Bazas. Among the sweets, try a canelé, a little caramelised pastry said to have been invented by people living around the port of Bordeaux from the flour and sugar left over in the holds of ships.
Specialities of the Périgord and Quercy
For all the blah blah about tradition, the dishes that bring hungry Parisians down here en masse only became popular fare after the Revolution; before then, local barons were so rapacious that the peasants’ diet was based on cabbage, chestnuts, turnips, fruit, and fish if they lived near the river. These days, perhaps to make up for the past, meat is liable to appear in every course except dessert.
The calorie- and cholesterol-conscious can take courage from recent studies showing that the basic southwest diet, with all its duck and goose fat (‘sans beurre et sans reproche’, as the great gastronome Curnonsky described it), garlic and red wine, is actually good for you and your heart; many natives live well into their 90s.
The best place to tuck into a traditional meal is the ferme-auberge, where most of the food has been raised on the spot. A typical meal here or in a good traditional restaurant may start with an apéritif, perhaps a fénelon (a cocktail of walnut liqueur, cassis and Cahors wine). Then comes the tourain (or tourin), a garlic soup cooked with duck or goose fat, ladled over slices of country bread and cheese.
The proper way to finish up the dregs is faire chabrol: pour in a dash of red wine, swish it around, and drink it directly from the bowl.
Cafés serve drinks, but they are also a home away from home, places to read the papers, play cards, meet friends and just unwind, sit back and watch the world go by. Prices are listed on the tarif des consommations: note they are based on whether you’re served at the bar (au comptoir), at a table (dans la salle) or outside (à la terrasse).
If you order un café you’ll get a small black espresso; if you want milk, order un crème. If you want more than a few drops of caffeine, ask them to make it grand. For decaffeinated, the word is déca. The French only order café au lait (large cup with milk) when they stop in for breakfast; many now offer cappuccinos but they are rarely as good as the ones in Italy. Many have baskets of croissants and pastries to make up a quick, cheap breakfast. Chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) is usually good; if you order thé (tea), you’ll nearly always get an ordinary bag in a little pot unless you go to a special salon du thé.
An infusion or tisane is a herbal tea – camomille, menthe (mint), tilleul (lime or linden blossom) or verveine (verbena). These are kind to the foie, or liver, after you’ve overindulged at table.
One of the joys of travelling (especially here!) is discovering new wines and drinking them for a fraction of what you’d pay at home. Visiting the wine châteaux and vignerons is half the fun (and a good way to save money). Don’t pass up a fête du vin – these usually mean buying a glass and tasting your way around the stands until you discover the ones you like best. Then you can buy a bottle or a carton or more.