“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” — Oscar Wilde
Our last full day in the Dordogne included another full agenda. Breakfast, more exploring in little villages, a visit to an ancient Cloister… all of which we knew would be exciting and wonderful to be sure…but the real highlight of the day would be our dinner at Le Vieux Logis.
I have to say that living in New York, we are spoiled when it comes to restaurants and eating. We have access to food from all around the world. In our neighborhood alone (the East Village) within a 2 block radius, we can find: American, French, Greek, Italian, Sushi, Indian, Pakastani, Jamaican, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Israeli, Middle Eastern, Ukranian, Polish, Irish, German, Argentinian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnemese, Brazilian, Vegetarian, Egyptian, Bar-B-Q…not to mention specialty shops that sell macaroons, gelato, ice cream, cupcakes, arepas, lobster rolls, donuts, tacos, belgian frites, espresso, cheese….and this doesn’t even touch the adult beverage offerings.
With all of these choices, we still cook the majority of our meals. We cook 5 nights a week and we love our knives and our pans and kitchen gadgets and farmer’s markets and all things related to cooking. We also like wine, and all things related to wine.
So for us, the prospect of dining at a noted restaurant in France, where the Chef will be choosing all of our plates and having glasses of wine paired with our dishes by a sommellier….this is literally our idea of heaven. On special occasions, we do tasting menus and wine pairings in New York, but there is something special about being in France at a Michelin star restaurant.
But dinner wasn’t until 7:30, so we had a full day ahead of us. Our B&B hosts suggested a few little villages, as well as a stop at Cadouin where the church has a nice cloister, so we got started. As we were driving down D31, a road that we had taken several times before, I remembered that we had passed what looked like a beautiful little chapel, so as we approached it, I decided to pull off an check it out. At the time of our visit, we knew nothing about it other than that it was called the Chapelle Saint-Martin.
Little finds like this is what I love about traveling….it’s the epitome of “wanderlust”. Just to explore something new and that you know nothing about. When we had driven by the Chapelle (Chapel) previously, what struck me was how it was so proportionately perfect and compact. Nothing unnecessary. The Chapelle was built in about 1170 in the Romanesque style and was dedicated to Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (although it is named for Saint Martin, who is the Patron Saint of France and of soliders.
Besides being the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket is a Saint and considered a martyr. There are several conflicting stories about his murder. One story says that Henry II of England was upset that the Archbishop was unable to forge a marriage between Henry’s son (heir to the throne of England) and the King of France’s daughter so he had him assassinated. But the more accepted story is that King Henry II was agitated at the Archbishop for his over zealous excommunications and somehow something that he said led his courtiers to think he wanted Thomas Becket dead. So a group of knights went and killed him! Realizing that it was all a big mistake, Henry II’s son and heir, Richard the Lionheart, agreed to build the chapel in an effort of atonement to seek the pardon of God (remember this part of France was under English control at the time).
The church is so simple, yet so beautiful. It doesn’t have the neck-bending height of other grand Cathedrals in France….or the stained glass or the flying buttresses, the intricate carvings or a Holy relic…but it makes up for that in its purity. There are amazing frescoes that still survive from the 1400’s. And a precarious wood catwalk leads across the nave up to the tower.
After leaving this little jewel of a church, we drove a minute or two down the road to the village of Limeuil. This is another of France’s “most beautiful villages”, but I’m going to go out on a limb and just say that pretty much all of the villages in the Dordogne are beautiful…so after a while this distinction loses its significance. I think it might be interesting for the Dordognians to rank and quantify their most unattractive villages (of which there are probably none).
Limeuil sits at the convergence of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers, so during Medieval times, this was a hot spot for commercial trading. Moving goods from one place to another took place on rivers in Medieval times….so being located next to the two major trade routes allowed Limeuil to grow and gain importance. The boatmen that navigated the flat bottom boats (gabarres) would stop in Limeuil for a place to grab a hot meal, some bad wine and an even worse bed….and the locals prospered for this reason. The area surrounding Limeuil was pretty much all vineyards during Medieval times and while most of the wine produced here was considered rather mediocre, they would barrel up the good stuff and sell it downstream in Bordeaux. An insect infection killed off the majority of vines in the late 1880’s and put an end to the wine growing.
After the development of railways and highways, the river trade subsided….and the merchants, inn keepers, and craftsmen that served the river men were no longer needed. Then came the two World Wars which created further decline for the little village. After World War 2, there were only 40 occupied houses….but eventually the “abandoned” village was noticed by other Frenchmen and foreigners (British, German, Dutch, etc.) who started grabbing the little houses for super cheap prices and fixing them up for vacation homes. And tourism has been the lifeblood ever since.
When you visit today, there are a few artisan shops, but mostly you are just wandering up the stone-covered hilly lane to see carefully restored Medieval houses covered in wysteria and other floral vines. It’s very quiet, and you will find yourself in the company of only a handful of other tourists. The most exciting thing that happened while we were there is when a Belgian tourist decided to try to drive up the insanely narrow road and was unable to navigate his car so the locals came out of their shops and half ridiculed and half sympathetically assisted him.
Limeuil is very tiny and I would say that if it is on your way, it is worth a detour. But it took us all of 30 minutes to walk up to the top of town and back, so it isn’t necessarily a destination. And for us, having already seen the Chapelle of Saint Martin and then visited Limeuil, it was the perfect place to stop for lunch.
We lunched at A l’Ancre De Salut which is at the bottom of the village…or at the entry to the village, however you want to look at it. It sits right across from the two rivers, so there is a nice view. Since we were having a huge dinner, we kept it light while our fellow patrons chowed down on huge pieces of foie gras and massive steaks.
Side Bar: One thing that we noticed on our trip, but particularly in the Dordogne, were the massive amount of campers. Apparently, camping is huge in France and we happened to be traveling in the middle of a French holiday week…so the French were headed to the Dordogne in campers and on top of that the Tour de France was coming through the Dordogne…so it was even more of a reason to hitch up the camper and hit and the road. But the campers we saw were not big, fancy RV’s like you see in the US, these were old school campers, like the ones you hook to your car or truck….or modified versions of the same….we even saw VW bugs to campgrounds. And there were campgrounds galore. Literally all along the Dordogne we saw campground after campground. Big ones, small ones, medium sized ones. And in some spots, people would just pull their camper over on the side of a road and set up camp. Who knew camping was so big in France?
Back to the next stop for the day…
We drove through the countryside and made our way to the last stop on our itinerary, Cadouin Abbey. The Abbey sits in a valley about halfway between Sarlat and Bergerac. Founded in 1115 by Robert d’Arbrissel, the Abbey was then taken over by Cistercian monks in 1119. We will hear about Robert d’Arbrissel again, as he also founded the abbey at Fontevraud, which we visited later and will be covered in another post.
Cadouin’s abbey church was consecrated in 1154 and is considered one of the best examples of the particular architecture of the Cistercian builders. Compared to many of the churches and chapels that we visit, you might say that it’s a bit austere, but it is true to the Cistercian monks, who led lives of austerity…prayer, reading, simple diet, and rigorous labor (including farming).
The Cistercian monks, known for the white cloaks that they wore, were called the “White Monks”. With the benefit of some funding by local Lords, the monks continued to grow the abbey over the years and received a little luck that would eventually make the abbey a “must stop” on a busy pilgrimage road. In 1177, one of the Pope’s representatives brought back part of the Holy Shroud from the First Crusade and intended to keep it at the Cathedral in Le Puy en Velay. However, the Canon’s of his church weren’t convinced that the shroud was genuine, so they sent it to the monks at Cadouin to verify it. Sadly, I don’t remember all of the details, but the shroud piece ended up staying at Cadouin, word got out, and pilgrims started pouring in along the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (where Saint James’s body is believed to be buried).
When you are a major stop of a pilgrimage route, it brings in tons of pilgrims (basically tourists)…and pilgrims need places to eat, places to buy things for their pilgrimage, places to sleep…and all of this creates a little micro economy, so the village grew around the Abbey and the Abbey grew wealthy. In the late 1400’s, the monks built the cloisters, in the more flamboyant Gothic style that was popular at the time. Built using the golden colored limestone from the area, the cloisters boast beautiful arches and intricate sculptural carvings. It’s very striking and almost demands that you to be quiet and contemplative.
The story of Cadouin Abbey has many ups and downs….like almost everywhere we have visited in the Dordogne. The Abbey was severly affected by the Hundred Year’s War and the French Wars of Religion….and at one point in its history, only 2 monks were living in the Abbey. Then there was a resurgence in the late 1400’s when the cloisters were built….followed by more bad news and poor times with the French Revolution. But worst of all was in the 1930’s when a scholar determined that the famous Shroud was a fake…it was actually Egyptian cloth from the 1100’s. But the beautiful Abbey and its Cloister remain to this day, having survived 800 years and several wars (including 2 world wars).
History and architecture are all very interesting, and we enjoyed our time in Limeuil and Cadouin, but the highlight of our day was food, glorious food! We went back to La Millasserie to rest up a bit and get a bit more spiffy than shorts and tee shirts that we were wearing. Although, as I have mentioned before, the dress code in the countryside is much more relaxed than you might imagine. Even at Le Vieux Logis, with its Michelin star, and the waiters in their fancy attire, you don’t need a coat and tie.
Before we dive into dinner, what is so special about a Michelin star restaurant, anyway? And what does receiving a Michelin star even mean? There are many awards and rating guides in the culinary world. There are the James Beard Awards in America…and in New York City, to get a rave review from the New York Times Food Critic is definitely the road to a successful restaurant. Internationally, there are many different awards, as well. But to receive one, two or three stars from Michelin is a time honored award to Chefs all over the world. I don’t know if it is the oldest, but it’s arguably the most coveted. I like to think of it like the Oscars. Sure, actors like the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, the BAFTA’s….they are all great, but to hold an Oscar is the ultimate achievement.
And yes, in case you were wondering, Michelin awards are given by the Michelin Tire Company…yes, as in the Michelin man. Way back in 1900, the Michelin company came up with an advertising strategy to sell more tires. They created the “Red Guide” that would list all of the best hotels, restaurants, roadways, etc. at a time when cars were becoming more widely available, as was the ability to get in a car and travel. The food tourism business had unintentionally begun. And the more you drive…the more your tires get used…and eventually the more tires you will need! So it was win win for Michelin.
According to Michelin, their star system reflects “what’s on the plate and only what’s on the plate”. They don’t consider the decor of the restaurant, the service, the table setting, what other diners thought of the food or restaurant….none of that. They send one of their anonymous food critics out and judge the restaurant on the following: the quality of ingredients, the skill in their preparation and the combination of flavors, the level of creativity, the value for money and the consistency of culinary standards. So as I was saying, for Chefs, it is really a critique of their talent and not so much the whole restaurant experience such as how the restaurant looks or how good or bad the waitstaff presented the meal.
And besides the one, two or three stars you might be awarded, there is also the Rising Star distinction which is like the pat-on-the-back, work-a-little-harder-for-next-time award. Le Vieux Logis has one Michelin star (we’ve eaten at 2 and 3 star places at home in New York)…and I personally don’t think the average person’s tongue can differentiate between a one star place and a three star place. The chef of Vieux Logis is Vincent Arnould, who, besides his one star, also received the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Worker of France) award in cooking. These awards are presented at the Sorbonne in Paris in the presence of the President of France and they honor people in all the various trades.
All that aside, we arrived at Le Vieux Logis in Trémolat, which is actually a luxury hotel that happens to have this restaurant. The grounds are very lush and green and beautiful, and the hotel itself is a former priory (basically a dormitory for monks or nuns) from the 16th century. The restaurant is in what used to be a tobacco barn.
We had studied up on the menu prior to arriving. We love to do tasting menus in New York, and they had a few options on this menu….but we chose to do the “Chef’s Surprise”, which was going to be ten courses (yes, 10) paired with six wines. Actually, Josette was the designated driver, so I had the wine pairing and she had a taste of each wine. The surprise menu means that we had no idea what they would bring out….but it also means that I can’t describe each dish in detail because the waiter described each plate in French. And I have to say that even in English, plate descriptions at upscale restaurants can be confusing, “you have before you a pole caught wild albacore confit featuring organically grown heritage bibb lettuce, cage free farm raised deviled quail eggs with a liquid greek black olive sauce paired with preserved heirloom tomato and cracked pink peppercorns.” Ummmm, yeah, sounds delicious!
I didn’t want to be gauche and pull out my camera with every plating…but for the purpose of remembering the meal and for sharing it with you, we did take some photos.
The knives at the table setting were local, made with a boxwood handle….I think they said that the local farmers used to keep the knives in their pockets and would use them to slice cheese, bread and nuts at lunch. We kept the knife at our plate throughout the meal, which I’ve never done before at a formal restaurant, and by the end of the meal, I had fallen in love with the knife and ended up ordering a set of six!
The portions were small, and we paced ourselves, but by this time we were stuffed….like the way you feel on Thanksgiving Day when you foolishly go back for seconds on the stuffing and mashed potatoes and then wipe out a piece of pumpkin pie only to regret it. You shamefully hold your stomach and wobble to the sofa to sit down. That was us.
The waiter asked if we would like to have a coffee out in the garden, and to be honest, I needed to stand and get some fresh air, so we went out where we found ourselves all alone on a warm, lovely evening.
After the coffee, the waiter came out with ANOTHER plate of desserts. I think at this point we realized it was time to drop the mic and head home…I honestly think they might have continued to bring additional courses.
It was an expensive meal, but an equivalent meal would have cost twice as much money, so we felt like it was a splurge that we couldn’t pass up.
Much like the picture of trees above, everything was a blur at the end of our meal. With 10 courses in my belly saturated with 6 glasses of delicious wine + a glass a champage + a coffee…we returned home and called it an early night.
Tomorrow, we leave the Dordogne and head back north to the Loire Valley for the rest of our time in France.