Beynac-et-Cazenac, France. I routinely ask locals where they buy their food. During the time that my husband and I live in France, we rarely eat out. It’s partly the expense, since we now spend three months of the year here. But more importantly, after having one too many overpriced and unmemorable restaurant meals, we decided we could do better by preparing our own. I love to cook, and the ingredients one can buy shopping like a local are much better than those that go into what’s served at most restaurants.
The challenge, as in our hometown of Brooklyn, New York, is knowing where to shop.
Throughout France one can now find giant supermarkets, or hypermarchés, as they are called. The prices are extremely reasonable, they carry products from all over the country, and they’re open for long hours. From the looks of it, lots of folks patronize them, including families and cost-conscious pensioners. But here in the Périgord, also known as the Dordogne, those who value freshness still find other sources of sustenance, as a recent conversation suggested.
I was in the beauty shop at the foot of the hill in the village where we are currently living, getting my hair colored. (No secrets about that: I turned gray before my maternal grandmother did, and by the end of six weeks on the road those racines, or roots, were sorely in need of attention.) After showing Mireille, the hairdresser, the iPhone screen with the color formula used at my Brooklyn beauty shop, I was looking for a subject that I could cover with my meager French vocabulary. So I turned to the topic that is the universal icebreaker – food – and asked, “Do you shop in supermarkets?”
“Oh non!” was the part of her reply that requires no translation. When the French speak about their cuisine, they emphasize terroir – the flavor that food and wine derive from the soil, atmosphere, weather and other factors associated with their production. For example, the flowers on which cows graze could affect the taste of cheese made from their milk. And tomatoes grown without chemicals, or “bio” (pronounced BEE-oh), in local parlance, taste like no others, my new hairdresser said.
When I asked her to share her sources, the first thing she mentioned was a farm near her home in Belvès, about 20 miles away. Once a week she goes there with her panier, or wicker basket, and fills it with fruits and vegetables. This was not an experience I could easily replicate – she knows the farmer, and the place isn’t open to the public.
As for her meat, it comes from the butcher in the same village. Not the one near where she works?, I asked, thinking it might be a place to stop off on the way home. Nope. Everything there is precut, and she prefers to get it cut to order. She buys her cheese from the local butcher, too, except for chèvre, or goat cheese, which comes from her brother’s farm. Chèvre is one of the few cheeses produced in this region.
The best others can do to profitez, or benefit, from terroir, is to shop at weekly or bi-weekly morning markets, where farmers and cheese producers sell their wares, and look for a butcher there or at a storefront who cuts meat to order.
Having spent a total of two months in this region during the past three years, I have developed a routine for doing that. In some cases it involves going the distance, but to markets that are well worth the journey. Here’s my day-by-day shopping itinerary when I am living in the Périgord.
Sometimes there’s a buzz at a market about a particular seasonal product. The tip-off is a line in front of a vendor selling something that isn’t always available. On a recent October morning, at a stand in front of Le Bugue’s Hôtel de Ville (town hall), it was all about garlic. The vendor was selling garlands of it, and locals seemed to be stocking up for the winter: Garlic is an ingredient in many Périgordian recipes, and garlic soup is a local specialty. As it happened, I didn’t need garlic – not even a single bulb of it – but I stopped to savor the excitement.
At this market I always start with a visit to the cheese truck from Fromagerie d’Audrix to pick up some regional products. I especially look forward to their Brie with truffles. For those who like a sharp, creamy goat cheese, their tomme de chèvre is something to write home about. If you can’t catch this purveyor in Le Bugue, they also go to the St. Cyprien market on Sunday (see below). Other times they maintain a cheese counter at La Boutique du Terroir, a local producer’s co-op on the outskirts of St. Cyprien (Route de Beynac, opposite the post office).
Upon returning to the Périgord after two years, one thing that struck me was that certain vendors were in the same spot at the market where I remember patronizing them on my last visit. A fine example was the solo mushroom vendor who runs her stand from the top of rue de Paris at Le Bugue’s Tuesday market. Her prices are excellent, and, like most produce vendors in France, she has no objection to your buying a small quantity.
On my most recent visit, I bought 100 grams (a little less than a quarter of a pound) of a mushroom that I didn’t recognize until I got back to our rented house and searched online. It turned out to be what the French call lentin du chêne, and back home what we know as shiitake. I had bought them dried, in New York’s Chinatown, but had never seen them fresh. Turns out they cling to the trees in the Périgordian forests.
The secret to preparing mushrooms is to clean them with a moistened kitchen towel – don’t submerge them in water, since they will soak it up like a sponge. Then I separated caps and stems, quartered the former and sautéed them with a little goose fat (procured at the Périgueux market, below). Next, I chopped the stems, mixing them with a clove of chopped garlic and some chopped parsley, and adding them to the cooking caps. When the mixture was done, I tossed it with some Alsatian pasta for what turned out to be a perfect dinner. I figure the total cost was less than $2. Try finding that at a restaurant.
These are the kind of gems one finds at a market. For that reason, I make a quick trip on Tuesdays to the end of rue de Paris in Le Bugue to see what other produce is running. But most of the vendors who set up along this stretch cater to tourists: yet more cans and jars of foie gras and Provençal tablecloths; expensive dried fruit; and overpriced packets of spices. I confess to having bought a bar of rose-scented soap there one year that I enjoyed using during my trip. And lavender sachets, from the same vendor, have also come in handy to freshen up musty drawers or closets in some of the places we have rented. Though Le Bugue also has a market on Saturday mornings, it’s smaller that day and does not extend onto rue de Paris.
Next stop, if I need wine, is to cross the bridge from the market and head left on Avenue de la Libération to the Julien de Savignac wine store. I first discovered their Les Jardins rouge “Le Feuillardier” when I ordered a glass of the house wine at a Sarlat restaurant two years ago, and inquired about their supplier. This Bergerac (a wine comprised of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) is a perfect accompaniment to French charcuterie, and the quality is consistent between vintages. And the price is right. At €4.30 (about $5) per bottle, it makes an excellent table wine during our time in France. (Unfortunately the company does not export to the United States.) If you can’t get to Le Bugue, Julien de Savignac has branches in Sarlat, Périgueux and Paris.
Locals really do shop in this market, held Wednesdays and Saturdays on Place de la Liberté, but they are far outnumbered by herds of tour groups wired with audiophones and headsets. That’s a shame, because the market setting, on a cobblestone square surrounded by 16th- and 18th-century houses, is really beautiful.
Each autumn that I am in this region, I return to the farmer at the Wednesday Sarlat market in this square who sells the heart-shaped and much-prized coeur de boeuf tomatoes. I favor them for making pasta sauce since they are meaty, sweet and have practically no seeds. (You can find my quick and easy recipe here.)
Another thing I look for in this season is figs: Though this tends to be an early summer fruit, those who are lucky get a second crop out of their trees at this time of the year, and turn the excess into spectacular home-made preserves. Then, after a quick stop by the Moroccan olive vendor, I flee the crowds, who tend to congregate on the side streets populated by foie gras dealers.
With its labyrinthine streets and honey-colored stone buildings, Sarlat is a must-see in the region, and market day is as good a time as any to visit. For free parking, set your GPS to rue des Cordeliers and follow the blue signs to the outdoor lots up the hill from the village center. From there it’s a short walk to the market.
Of course those who overnight in Sarlat have the luxury of rolling out of bed (on Wednesdays and Saturdays) and being just steps from the market. But for accommodations I prefer to stay elsewhere. While spending four warm September nights in Sarlat a couple of years ago, in a rented apartment, I found it extremely noisy with the windows open and discovered that the village has a profound pigeon problem, with all the inconveniences you can imagine.
When based in rural villages south of this small city, we routinely make a three-hour round-trip to the Périgueux Saturday market. For scenery and substance, this weekly happening (not the less extensive one on Wednesday) has it all. If you can visit only one market in the Dordogne region, this one, occupying three squares around the massive Gothic Cathédrale St. Front, should be it.
From the nearest parking area around Allée de Tourny (go early to snag a spot), wind your way down the cobblestone rue Limogeanne. Admire the architecture of the old city, but save your gawking at the shops selling €46 (about $54 at the current conversion rate) truffle graters for later. This street lets out onto the first market square, Place du Coderc.
I have two favorites in this part of the market. One is the tiny stand along the perimeter run by La Ferme de Puygolfier. They specialize in poultry, especially duck products. Their duck sausage, which can be grilled, cooked in a frying pan or added to soup, is excellent. So is their rilletes d’oie – chopped, cooked goose covered with a layer of goose fat – sliced from a terrine and sold by the pound. (Spread on bread, it makes a hearty, if artery-clogging lunch.)
Ferme de Puygolfier also sells magret (the breast of a duck or goose that has been fattened for foie gras) and tournedos de canard (vertically cut duck breast). Both can be prepared easily in a frying pan with vegetables, prunes or apricots, all of which are available at the market. This delicious meal costs considerably less than it would ordered at a restaurant.
My other go-to producteur is the no-name (and no business card, either) goat cheese vendor whose stand is situated at the intersection of Place du Coderc and the much less dense market square, Place de l’Ancien-Hôtel-de-Ville (opposite the Halle du Coderc). If you can think of a way to fashion goat cheese, she’s got it: in a log coated with cinder, rolled in shallots or sundried tomatoes, and as a tartinade (spreadable with garlic and herbs), to name a few.
This is my preferred source for the famous and ubiquitous Périgord goat cheese called cabécou (pronounced ka-BAY-coo): thin disks that are about two inches in diameter. A common variety of it is cabécou de Rocamadour, named for the cliff-top village in the province of Quercy that is a pilgrim destination. With local honey drizzled on top, a single cabécou is three bites of sweet and pungent decadence for breakfast or dessert.
The cabécou from my Périgord vendor hardly needs such embellishments, though. I buy the version known as frais – a designation that, according to French regulations, refers to a cheese with living lactic acid bacteria. Then I ask for one that is crémeux, meaning creamy. The vendor tests them with her fingertip. I trust her judgment, because she is always right.
Compared to the somewhat reserved and more upscale other two squares, the considerably larger Place de la Clautre is a vibrant free-for-all. At this square, the law of supply and demand rules. Check prices at the various stands before making your selection. When walnuts are in season, this is where you get the best deals.
On a recent trip, I also sought a little cooking advice at the stand operated by Ferme de l’Ermitage, situated in front of the Auto École. I was stocking up on ingredients to make soupe périgourdine, whose dominant ingredient is the ubiquitous white bean used in many regional recipes.
Once we had covered the basics, the vendor wanted to confirm that I understood a local ritual known as faire chabrot. It goes as follows: Once you have only a few spoonfuls of soup left in your bowl, you add about 1/3 glass of red wine, swish it around, lift it up and drink it.
Yes, I knew about this Périgordian tradition, but what was the origin?, I asked. The vendor shrugged. When something tastes this delicious, maybe one shouldn’t ask so many questions.
When you’re done with the healthy stuff, you can stop by Yannick Bittard’s Canele stand for one of his sinfully sweet treats – they come small, medium and large. Those who live nearby get his crêpes to carry out. Others grab a table at one of the cafés around the square. But good luck getting a seat on a sunny day. No one is in a hurry to go home.
If you get separated from your traveling companions, arrange to meet up in front of the Auto École building. While you wait, it’s a great vantage point from which to admire the church spires that are a backdrop for the market.
Though there’s meat for sale at the market, we followed the well-dressed crowd into Boucherie-Charcuterie Chavier Pierre, at 14 rue Limogeanne. It’s an outstanding place to go if you’re craving steak here in the land of foie gras: One of their specialties is Limousin beef. Everything is cut to order, and they trim the fat before they weigh it. My new hairdresser would approve.
French outdoor markets operate rain or shine, but anyone who’s had the experience of huddling under a vendor’s market awning during a downpour, or juggling parcels with an umbrella, will appreciate the contrast of brilliant sunshine on a market day.
So it was on my most recent Sunday in St. Cyprien, where the weekly market is patronized mostly by locals. With reports of this being the warmest autumn in about 80 years, and temperatures in the mid-70s, the farmers were ebullient. Warm temperatures had extended the strawberry crop at least a month beyond its normal end. One vendor laughed devilishly as I paid for my berries and stated the obvious: Vous avez de la chance avec le temps. (You are having good luck with the weather.)
I have a special affection for this village, having rented a house there for ten days in the autumn of 2016 and had this market practically at our doorstep. When we returned this year, we found it had at least doubled in size, with many more vendors along rue Gambetta – the town’s main street, which is closed to traffic on Sunday morning. Of course I was delighted to find additional cheese producers among them.
We were on the lookout for our favorite roast chicken stand, where there is always a line to buy the perfectly crisped free-range birds and pommes de terre sarladaises – sliced potatoes with garlic that cooks beneath the skewers, as chicken fat drips into them.
But we quickly revised our plans to take a night off from cooking and light up the grill once again when we passed a certain butcher’s truck. The sausages at La Forgeonneire looked so fresh and irresistible and would be delicious grilled. I opted for the ones called chipolatas (coarsely ground pork with seasoning) and made with trompettes de la mort, or black chanterelle mushrooms (also known as the poor man’s truffle).
All around us we witnessed such deliberations taking place, as solo shoppers pondered the choices and couples discussed menu changes based on what was for sale that day. Often the biggest challenge at a market is exercising restraint.
Food is best when it’s freshest, which means the same day it’s purchased. Ideally, I would eat all the chèvre procured from my no-name vendor in the car on the way home from Périgueux; snack that afternoon on perfectly ripe figs; and grill a duck tournedo for dinner with nothing more than a little freshly ground salt and pepper. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be leftovers. That would free me to wake up the next morning with a renewed appetite, and a great excuse to head to the next market.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of the five-time award winning book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.