Their most famous concoction is ‘La Vieille Prune’, a prune liqueur much loved by top chefs and celebrities, including Terence Conran, and sold in Harrods.
Carolyn Boyd hits the road in search of France’s most delicious secrets
My sister and I didn’t count on our third travelling companion to be quite so beautiful: when we meet her at Bergerac airport, we’re struck by her long slender body, pale colouring and flawless complexion, which is every bit as alluring as the pictures on her website suggest. But here we are, in person, taking custody of Ivy, the third ‘girl’ on our weekend away. ‘She’, of course, is a stylish Morgan bought by the rental company from the factory in 2012, with leather upholstery, a walnut dashboard and not a single chink in her splendid cream bodywork.
She will be our chariot for a few days exploring the Dordogne Valley, loosely following what is named in the area as the ‘Route de Noix’ on account of the walnut groves on the banks of the meandering River Dordogne. Our plan is to pootle between the honey-stoned villages, calling in at morning markets, family-run auberges as well as Michelin-star restaurants. And as luck would have it, the weather for our road trip in France is on our side. Despite it being mid-October, the mercury is rising to the mid-twenties, perfect for putting the roof down and the sunglasses on.
As we cruise alongside the river, crossing it several times en route to Souillac, we turn the heads of fellow motorists, and middle-aged men gawp from their cars. Sadly, this has less to do with our stylish Grace Kelly-esque headscarves, than our elegant automobile, but at least our final destination is every bit as classy as our wheels. At Lacave, the 14th-century Chateau de la Treyne perches above the River Dordogne, its white façade and elegant turret looking every bit the fairytale castle. Surrounded by beautiful parkland, with a spellbinding rose garden, the luxury hotel’s pièce de la résistance is its terrace. Here, on the edge of the cliff next to the chateau, guests and diners enjoy the Michelin-starred cuisine from chef Stéphane Andrieux as the river glides gently by below.
The next morning, we are up early as the lure of a road trip to the morning market in Souillac is too much to resist. Ivy’s engine purrs as we drive over the bridge admiring as we go the chateau overlooking the river bathed in morning mist. At Souillac, the autumn sun has yet to warm the streets of the old town, but it glances through the gaps in the medieval buildings as we stroll between the market stalls selling knarled saucissons, Agen prunes and walnuts in their many forms.
It’s close to harvest season, and the nuts are piled high. Elsewhere, walnut oil is arranged in neat little bottles, while tempting walnut tarts make our mouths water. Locals exchange cheery ‘bonjours’ over the stalls as we browse the produce under the pillared market place. One stall is more intriguing, selling small wooden hammers with a circular iron dish. “What’s that?” I ask the ruddy-cheeked seller, in my best French. “It’s for breaking the nuts,” he smiles, placing a walnut in the centre and whacking it with the wooden mallet. The nutshell cracks open leaving the kernel perfectly intact.
Elsewhere in Souillac, we discover a more intoxicating use of walnuts. At the Distillerie Louis Roque, the nuts are macerated in alcohol and mixed with red wine to create the regional aperitif ‘Vin de Noix’ or walnut wine. After a tour of the museum, where old-fashioned contraptions reveal the distilling process from days gone by, it’s on to the tasting room. Our guide selects a few bottles from their range for us to try; the most delicious is their most famous concoction is ‘La Vieille Prune’, a prune liqueur much loved by top chefs and celebrities, including Sir Terence Conran, and sold in Harrods.
With a bottle stowed away in the tiny back seat of the Morgan, we’re off to Martel, a charming little town not far away. We have a reservation at the ‘Moulin d’Huile’ where there has been a walnut oil mill for hundreds of years. These days it is the pride and joy of the Castagné family, who run the auberge restaurant as well as the mill, supplied by their many walnut groves.
Before lunch, we visit the dark cellar where a huge stone crushes walnuts by the sack full as it trundles mesmerisingly around its granite base. The enthusiastic Monsieur Castagné is its operator, like his father and grandfather before him. As we watch the small and ancient operation he pulls us closer to the trickle of oil that results from the process. ‘Try that,’ he says, sticking his finger into the flow, gesturing us to do the same. ‘Delicious, isn’t it?’.
Indeed it is, especially on Madame Castagné’s foie gras salad, which is the entrée for lunch. This is the heartland of the controversial duck liver pâté, and as we drive through the countryside later on, we see dozens of ducks darting about in the fields.
A quick five-minute spin in Ivy and we are at our final stop for the day, Martel itself. We wander admiring through the medieval market place and the charming jumble of golden-stoned houses. We wander into little delicatessens and bakeries and then, on the sunny terrace of a small boutique wine bar, ‘Le Petit Moulin’, we sip coffee in the autumn sun.
Dinner that evening is at Lacave’s other excellent restaurant Le Pont de l’Ouysse. Overlooking its eponymous bridge, a ruin that juts out into the River Ouysse, the terrace here is every bit as enticing as that at the Chateau de la Treyne. On top of the cliff above, the privately owned Chateau de Belcastel, is a silhouette in the dusky sky. We sip the restaurant’s heady home-made walnut wine, before enjoying chef Stéphane Chambon’s delicious cuisine of foie gras, and local Quercy lamb, under the dappled leaves of a chestnut tree.
The next day, our hearts are heavy at the thought of driving Ivy back to the airport, but we have an awesome journey ahead following the River Dordogne back to Bergerac. We pass through iconic villages of Beynac-et-Cazenac, its chateau sitting high above the river, and La Roque-Gageac with its golden houses seemingly built into the cliffs. The road bends this way and that, but after Limeuil it opens up and we can really get up some speed. Ivy flies along and with the wind in our hair, we wave back at fellow motorists, who gape with lust at Ivy, as I run my hand along her smooth and fitting walnut dash.