The rebirth of a Belle Epoque Fast Food Tradition – Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse

The rebirth of a Belle Epoque Fast Food Tradition – Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse

In 19th century France, the industrial revolution was in full swing, drawing throngs of new mouths to feed to the cities. Lyon already had its Bouchons and Lille its Estaminets. Now, Paris was getting its Bouillons, working class eateries serving humble but hearty, and most importantly, cheap fare.

Fast Food In An Other Era

Bouillon Chartier Montmartre.

Tucked away in a courtyard of the Faubourg Montmartre, Bouillon Chartier has attracted diners since 1896.

The first Bouillon (broth, or stew in this context) appeared in 1855 in Les Halles, the bustling wholesale food market in the center of Paris, when an ingenious butcher, Pierre Louis Duval, devised a way to dispose of his least desirable cuts of meat. He started proposing a filling dish of meaty stew to the workers who labored through the night, unloading the wagons that delivered foodstuff from the far reaches of the country. The concept caught on and began expanding to full-menu poor man’s brasseries with multiple locations across the city. By 1900, there were over two hundred Bouillons throughout Paris. They had become the fast food chains of the Belle Epoque.

The Bouillon Bandwagon

Bouillon Chartier luggage racks.

Overhead luggage racks are a reminder of the dining room’s original function as a train station.

In 1896, the brothers Camille and Edouard Chartier got on the bandwagon, opening their Bouillon Chartier in a former train station concourse of the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre on the northern side of Paris. The long Art Nouveau dining hall with its high metal columns holding the opaque glass ceiling, wall-size mirrors set in the swirling woodwork and extensive menu of affordable dishes, quickly became a popular local hang out.

Montparnasse Art Nouveau facade.

The Montparnasse venue retains its Art Nouveau facade.

Boosted by the success of this first venture, the brothers opened a second venue on the Left Bank’s Boulevard Montparnasse in 1903. Here they pulled all the stops, fully embracing the Art Nouveau craze unleashed by the Paris World Fairs of 1878, 1889 and 1900. They commissioned Parisian ceramist, stained glass designer and decorator Louis Trézel to create a trendy environment for their crowd-pleasing menu.

Alas, as fast as the Bouillons had prospered in the optimistic decades of the Belle Epoque, they faded in the aftermath of the First War War. By the 1930’s they had all but disappeared from the Paris dining scene.

The Unsinkable Bouillon Chartier

Chartier Escargots

Escargots remain a popular item on the Chartier menu.

One notable survivor is the original Chartier. Having managed to endure through both World Wars, its popularity has kept on growing ever since, although with a different clientele. These days, it’s tourists from all over the world who flock to the faded Art Nouveau dining room of the Faubourg Montmartre to experience such retro-French dishes as poireaux (leek) vinaigrette, escargots, andouillette grillée (chitterling sausage), or for the less adventurous, confit de canard (duck confit) and blanquette de veau (veal stew) at prices of a bygone era.

Montparnasse painted glass ceiling.

The Montparnasse location still boasts its delicately painted glass ceiling,

Then this past January, the denizens of the Left Bank were pleased to see that almost a century after its demise, the Bouillion Chartier Montparnasse had been resurrected. Sold in 1924, the restaurant had gone through a couple of different identities since then. However, it had managed to maintain its stunning original décor: delicately painted glass ceiling, mirrors set into the elegant curves of the woodwork and dainty garlands of morning glories climbing up the ceramic- tiled walls. The décor alone would warrant a visit.

Retro Food is New Again

Frisée aux Lardons.

Salade frisée aux lardon.

Chartier Confit.

Confit de canard et pommes grenailles

But the menu is just as authentic as the venue. With a friend who lives nearby, I popped in for mid-afternoon late lunch/early dinner on my most recent stop in Paris. We deliberately timed our visit to avoid the long line that reliably forms in front of the place at conventional meal times (sorry, no reservations. But with seating for almost 200, the line does move fast).

A cheerful young waiter wrapped in the traditional white apron writes down our order in a corner of the paper tablecloth. I start with frisée aux lardons, a salad of crisp curly endive topped with lots of sautéed bacon cubes and croutons (€4 – that’s $4.5 at current exchange rate). My friend chooses the block de foie gras, three generous slices of the famed duck liver paté served with toast points (€7.5 = $8.80). Main course is confit de canard with roasted grenaille potatoes for her (€10.60 = $12) and pied de porc grillé (grilled pig’s trotter) with french fries for me (€10.50 =  $11.75) – no apology for my seriously retro choice. My grandfather loved it and I acquired the taste at an early age. Dessert is crème au caramel for her (that’s crème brulée in the U.S. €3.00 = $3.40). The caramelized top is crusted just right. As for my baba au rhum (€4.60 = $5.00), another one of my nostalgic guilty pleasures, the sweet light brioche is sufficiently soaked in rum syrup that it might require proof of age in a U.S. restaurant. A winner in my book.

The Net of It

Baba au Rhum

Baba au rhum

Don’t go to Chartier expecting a haute cuisine extravaganza. But if you yearn for, or are curious about the comfort food once concocted by thrifty French grandmothers at a price that will not ravage your travel budget, this is definitely the place. Add two espressos and a half-liter carafe of Merlot, and our dinner for two in a priceless Belle Epoque setting barely topped fifty-five dollars U.S., including tip, which is by law included in the tab in France. The service was prompt and good humored on the day of our visit, and a quick glance around the room showed the clientele to be evenly distributed between locals and tourists. For Parisians, retro-food is trendy again, and the newly open Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse is once again one of the neighborhood go-to places – and now mine whenever I happen to be in town.

 

Good to Know

  • Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse, 59 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris is open daily from 11:30 am to midnight. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 1 45 49 19 00.  No reservations.
  • Both Bouillon Chartier locations are listed historical monuments.

Location, location, location!

Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse

Bordeaux –  La Cité du Vin

Bordeaux – La Cité du Vin

The Celts settled it and called it Burdigala. Then came Julius Caesar who made it a thriving “emporium” of the Roman Empire and planted the surrounding countryside with vineyards. But it was the English who, a millennium later, got Bordeaux on its way to becoming the wine capital of the world.

The marriage between Bordeaux and England

It all began in 1152 when Eleanor, the heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine, married the soon to be Henry II, King of England. Thus bringing her Duchy, which included Bordeaux, to the English crown for what was to be a tumultuous three centuries.

Bordeaux-vine harvest.

Bordeaux vineyards at harvest time.

Bordeaux wine was served at the royal wedding and soon became the beverage of choice of the royal household. Loyal British wine-lovers followed suite and a lucrative export market was born. By the late 1300’s, Bordeaux had become, after London, the second most populous city under control of the British monarchy. While the region reverted to the crown of France with the conclusion of the hundred years war (which actually lasted 116 years) in 1453, the demand for its fine wines endured. By the 18th century, Bordeaux, the region, was firmly established as the greatest producer of fine wines in the world. And Bordeaux, the port city on the Garonne river, prospered as the center of the wine trade. Yet throughout history, beyond these commercial ties, there was little connection between the city and wine producers that defined the region. Until the recent rise in popularity of wine tourism.

A Playground for Wine Lovers

Bordeaux-Cite dy vin.

La Cité dy Vin is dedicated to the universal heritage of wine.

Now La Cité du Vin (City of Wine) inaugurated in 2016 on the west bank of the Garonne at the edge of Les Chartrons, the historic center of the wine trade, brilliantly bridges the divide between the two Bordeaux. Designed by Paris architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazieres, the grand, shiny swirl of a building is a unique cultural center dedicated to the universal heritage of wine, through the ages and around the world.

Borseaux-Terroir table.

A virtual vintner discusses the uniqueness of his terroir.

Step right in. The huge reception area includes a wine boutique, a wine cellar with offerings from around the world, a casual eatery and a wine-tasting bar. And for those who plan to explore the wine region, a booking desk where every kind of tour can be arranged. But resist the urge to sample or shop just yet. Head up the curving staircase where the fun begins. You are in the multi-sensory experience area, where every sense is stimulated through the latest museum technologies, designed by Casson Mann, the London firm who also created the Lascaux IV International Center of Rock Wall Art.

A Virtual World Tour

Bordeaux-world vineyards.

Giant screens project a tour of the world’s vineyards.

It begins with a dizzying virtual helicopter tour of the world’s vineyards on three giant screens, from China to Chile to Okanagan to Rangiroa (the latter two in British Columbia and French Polynesia respectively). It’s fascinating to see how vineyards adapted to landscapes and then redefined the land and local life. This experience is the genesis of my recent visit to Lanzarote. The show also reinforces the point that La Cité du Vin it is not museum of Bordeaux wine, but Bordeaux’s museum of world wine.

Bordeaux-buffet of the senses.

Experience the different aromas associated with wine at the buffet of the senses.

Drift over to a “terroir table,” where vineyards alter with the seasons, then virtual vintners spring to life, sharing what gives their terroir its identity and makes their wine unique. Browse from  Burgundy to the Mosel Valley to Tuscany before reaching the country of Georgia where a monk at the Alaverdi Monastery introduces one of the cradles of wine civilization. Then it’s a stop at the Buffet of the Five Sense, where from citrus, rose petal or chocolate to straw and wood shavings, you can smell the different aromas associated with wine through bell jars and curvy copper trumpets.

Bordeaux-tales of wine

One of the modules is a multi-media epic tale of wine.

Stick your head into a big aluminum bubble to hear and smell the fermentation process, or join a virtual dinner table and eavesdrop on a discussion about wine and food. And in the Bacchus and Venus room,  recline on a red velvet couch to watch a ceiling screen that projects the sights and sounds of love and wine – music and poetry, while rose petals seem to drop from the sky. There are 19 modules altogether, each one an interactive slice of wine culture.

Time for Tipple

Duck confit with guava sauce at Le 7 Restaurant.

But virtual travel can be hungry work. On the seventh floor,  Le 7 is an elegant restaurant with a panoramic view of the city and the Port of the Moon, the historic shipping port named for its broad moon-shaped curve in estuary of the river. Its refined menu of regional dishes varies with seasons and has already earned it mention in the 2018 Michelin guide “L’Assiette Gourmande.” Its 500-label wine list, with half of the selection from France and the other half from the various wine-producing regions of the world, is no less noteworthy. There is also a choice of 32 wines available by the glass.

View from the Belvedere – The Garonne River and the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas (inaugurated in 2013).

Then to cap off the whole experience and even better views, head one more floor up to the Belvedere. This is where all visitors can enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the city, the river and the surrounding countryside while sipping a glass of wine selected from 20 different labels, five Bordeaux and 15 global wines (included in the price of admission). Whether you are a devoted oenophile or a casual wine tourist, this new shrine to wine is sure to peak your interest with its wit, whimsy and style.

Bordeaux-Place de la Bourse.

The Place de la Bourse is one of the most representative works of Classical French architecture and an iconic Bordeaux landmark.

Good to Know

  • Getting There– Bordeaux is located 600 kilometers (370 miles) southwest of Paris. By plane: Bordeaux-Merignac Airport is 11 kilometers (7 miles) west of the city center. It is a regional airport that serves mostly domestic flights as well as connecting flights from major European hubs. An express bus runs every 30 minutes between the airport, the central train station (Gare Saint Jean) and the city center. By train:There are several daily high-speed train (TGV) connecting Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and Bordeaux Gare Saint Jean (4 hours), as well as near hourly connections between central Paris (Gare Montparnasse) and Bordeaux (3 hours). There is also a regular train service from most major cities in France and beyond.
  • Visiting La Cité du Vin ,134 Quai du Bacalan, 33300, Bordeaux, France. The exhibits area is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The restaurants and shops are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm and Sunday from 10:00 am through 7:00 pm. Contact: tel. +33 55 616 2020, email. contact form.
  • UNESCO Listing–The Bordeaux city center was recognized in 2007 on the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century. This remarkably large area encompasses most of the historic city as well as the Port of the Moon and the opposite riverbank.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Cite du Vin

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Risen from the Ashes – the Vineyards of Lanzarote

Some historians speculate that the ancient Greek vinestock of  Malvasia grape reached the Canary Islands with the Romans. Others credit Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator with introducing the vines in the 15th century. Either way, historical records show that wine has been produced on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the archipelago, some 60 miles (100 k) offshore off the western Sahara, for over 500 years. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sweet aromatic Malvasia wine was thought after throughout Europe, with England its major export market.

Life in Lava Land

Lanzarote - vineyard 1

Lanzarote vineyards now thrive in the volcanic landscape.

Lanzarote was a fertile place then, with a thriving agriculture industry. However, Lanzaroteños had to rethink things when in the 1730’s, six years of continuous volcanic eruptions buried one third of the island, including its best farming land, under a thick coat of lava and volcanic ash. Grain and cereals, the staples of the time, were now out. Those farmers who didn’t flee for greener pastures in the Americas had to drastically revise their methods of survival. The island did have a proud heritage of viticulture, but would vines still grow in this new apocalyptic landscape?

La Geria-Vineyard

The ruins of ancient bodegas still stand amid the vineyards.

Actually, yes. The vintners soon discovered that the volcanic ash (picón) that now covered the farmland was an efficient porous mulch. It absorbed the moisture from the air, released it into the ground and then prevented evaporation.They had to dig several feet through the picón to reach the original soil and plan the vines. Within its own basin, each plant then had to be protected from the sometimes fierce Atlantic wind by a semi-circular wall built from the omnipresent black basalt rock. Since then, wine growers have built over ten thousand of these tiny craters throughout the island to create the spectacular countryside of black vineyards that is unique to Lanzarote.

No Sour Grapes

La Geria-Vega de Yuco

Bodega Vega de Yuco.

Today there are over a dozen thriving bodegas (wineries) on Lanzarote, covering close to 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of active vineyards concentrated mainly in the central area of the island known as La Geria. Together they produce an average of 2 million liters (530 thousand U.S. gallons) annually, with around 75 percent of the production still dedicated to the Malvasia grape. Although they now produces a variety of wines, the most famous remains the traditional sweet dessert nectar with a rich texture reminiscent of aged Madeira. The balance of the production is split between Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which also produce quality sweet wines, and Listan Blanco for whites, and Listan Negra Mole for reds and rosés.

Lanzarote-vineyard2

The traditional single vine hole-and-wall method remains in use when planting new vineyards.

Typically, all Lanzarote wines are said to have a distinct personality: fruity, but with mineral characteristics and good acidity.The few that I sampled did fit that description, unsurprisingly given the island’s unique growing conditions. Most of the Bodegas welcome visitors with guides tours of their facilities and tasting opportunities for a reasonable fee. They usually require advanced booking. Here are three of the most popular wineries:

Lanzarote-El Grifo

Famed native son César Manrique created El Grifo’s logo.

Bodega El Grifo– Founded in 1775, El Grifo is the oldest bodega in the Canaries and one of the ten oldest in Spain.Their 50 hectare (125 acre) vineyard surround the El Grifo Wine Museum, which gives visitors an interesting insight of the unique methods of viticulture practiced on Lanzarote as well as a snapshot of the island’s history.

Bodega La Geria– Built in the late 19th century against the spectacular backdrop of the Timanfaya National Park, Bodega La Geria is considered one of the most important vineyards on the island, with an annual production capacity of 300,000 liters (80,000 U.S. gallons). Six wines ranging from dry and semi-sweet to sweet Marvasia are produced under the La Geria Label.

Lanzarote-Bodega Rubicon

The ancient cellars of Bodega Rubicón

Bodega Rubicón– Another venerable institution dating back to the mid-18th century, Bodega Rubicón has retained its beautifully restored colonial-style main house (a rarity on the island), complete with the courtyard shaded by an ancient eucalyptus tree. While the traditional artisan winemaking facilities of the old winery are reverently maintained, Rubicón has undergone major renovations and expansion in 2000 to introduce new technologies in the production of their wines.

Lanzarote-Bodega Vulcano

Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote opened its doors in 2009.

Not all the wineries on the island are historical. Some are quite recent, such as the Bodega Vulcano de Lanzarote that opened its doors in 2009. But even these modern operations use the traditional single vine, hole-and-wall method when planting their new vineyards, preserving the unique landscape created three centuries ago by the ingenuity of the early vintners.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The island’s only airport is located just west of the capital city of Arrecife, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and major western European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
  • Getting around – Although there is a good network of busses serving all the major points of interest, and reasonably priced taxis are readily available, I found a pre-booked car rental with pick-up and return at the airport to be the best value transportation option for exploring the vineyards at leisure.
  • Visiting –  Bodega El Grifo, Lugar El Grifu, Carretera Teguise-Uga LZ-30, Km,11,35550, San Bartlomé, is open daily from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Sunday at 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 524 036, mail. malvasia@elgrifo.com. Bodega La Geria, Carretera la Geria, Km 19, 35570, Yaiza,is open daily from 9:30 am to 7:00 pm. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday at 2:00 pm. Advanced reservation required. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 178, mail. bodegalageria@lageria.com. Bodega Rubicón, Carretera Teguise-Yaiza, 2, 35570, La Geria, Las Palmas is open daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 928 173 708, mail. administracion@bodegasrubicon.com.
  • The vineyards of La Geria are an area protected by the Lanzarote DO destination of origin.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Geria

El Grifo

Rubicón

Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic Foodies Finds

Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic Foodies Finds

Barcelona is said to have the most restaurants and bars per capital in Europe, which could get overwhelming. But options are easily narrowed down once you eliminate the obvious tourist traps touting all manners of paellas in multiple languages. While their quality and service can vary wildly, they often don’t make it above indifferent on either count.

Barcelona-Sensi tapas.

At Sensi Bistro, Tapas are a culinary experience.

Mercifully, the local food scene goes far beyond the upbiquitous spanish specialty. On this recent visit, we looked for intriguing “holes-in-the-wall” as we explored the city. In the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) alone, we found more promising eateries than we could possibly try during our short stay. These three delivered meals memorable for the quality and the originality of their cuisine, their outstanding service and the friendliness of their prices.

 

A New Take on Tapas

Barcelona-Sensi Salad

Mixed green salad with quinoa crackers.

Sensi Bistro is a casual, lively place that takes the traditional tapas concept to the culinary level of a gastronomic tasting menu. Each small plate is artfully presented and generous enough for two. So tempting was their menu that we ended up ordering everything that looked especially interesting – which turned out to be about half of their offerings. We ended up with a copious, somewhat random list, which our friendly waiter, Alex, tactfully  organised into a coherant, well paced menu. Only the real stand-outs are mentioned below.

Barcelona-Sensi Truffle ravioli

The peerless truffle ravioli in parmesan sauce only look plain.

We started out with a mixed greens salad with cucumbers and granny smith apple, garnished with quinoa crisps in a  coriander vinaigrette, and a tuna tartare seasoned with pleasantly hot Sriracha vinaigrette, garnished with puffed rice and chopped japanese onions. A perfect prelude for the divine truffle ravioli in parmeran cream that followed. Then came the shrimp and chorizo-stuffed squid with aioli and the roasted Iberian pork loin with demi-glace reduction and parsnip puree. Alex also showed himself a knowledgeable sommelier who recommended a superb bottle of Rioja Alavesa  2014 from Bodegas Baigorri del Garage, just the right full-bodied red to enhance our varied selections. Overall, a dining experience so satisfying that I uncharacteristically had to pass on dessert.

Creative Catalan Cuisine

Barcelona-Academia dining room.

The Cafe de l’Academiia offers delicious Catalan cuisine and romantic atmosphere.

The Cafè de L’Acadèmia is a longtime local favorite that has become an open secret in recent years for savvy visitors looking for traditional Catalan cuisine with a creative twist. Tucked away in a corner of the quaint medieval Plaça Sant Just, it combines a seasonal, market-driven menu with a generous helping of romance. The cozy dining room makes the most of its 18th century features, all rough stone walls and exposed beams, with fresh flowers, subdued lighting and unobstrusive strains of classical background music. However, the evenings being still mild when we visited in early October, we were fortunate to score one of the candle-lit table at the much coveted terrace on the pocket-size square in the shadow of the Gothic Sant Just church.

Barcelona-Academia monk fish.

The grilled monk fish with green asparagus tasted fresh out of the Mediterrean.

We started again with a mixed green salad, topped with shreds of duck liver paté this time, and a terrine of eggplant and goat cheese. A succulent rack of lamb on gratinéed potatoes and a superb grilled monk fish with green asparagus followed, paired with a bottle of powerful local red Priorat wine. A delicately tangy lemon tart topped this unpretentious, superbly prepared meal. Although the place was packed, the service was friendly and attentive. Advanced reservations are an absolute must (and a call to reconfirm a few hours ahead can’t hurt. We did to guarantee our terrace table).

A Tuscan Find

A bottle of Rosso de Montalcino is a perfect foil for parpadele with wild boar.

Osso Buco alla Sense is a Cachaca specially

Even in Catalonia, an inviting little Italian restaurant is hard to resist. We didn’t. We chanced onto Cachaca, a charming Tuscan bistro tucked in a back alley of the Barri Gòtic, just as a table was becoming available. One of their best to my way of thinking, a cozy vantage point on the tiny mezzanine at the back of the restaurant, secluded from the bustle of the packed main room.

Just about everything on their limited menu was enticing. In the end, we started with potatoe gnocchi with Porcini mushroom and saussage, and parpadele with wild boar ragout, followed by hake with pine nut-lemon sauce, and osso buco alla sense, a classic Sienese specialty. All to be shared, of course. At the waiter’s recommendation, we added their unusual naked ravioli (small meaty patties mixed with ricotta and spinach in sage butter – superb!). The home-made foccacia was irresitible and a list of excellent italian wines rounded up the menu. We chose a hearty San Giovese Rosso de Montalcino. The meal was so gratifying that it should have made a case for skipping dessert, but I have never been known to resist a good Tiramisu, and Cachaca’s definitely was that. I enjoyed every last sinful spoonful of it.

 

Good to Know

  • Sensi Bistro, Carrer Reogomir, 4, 08002 Barcelona. Metro: Jaume 1 or Liceu. Contact: Tel. +34 931 799 545. Open daily from 6:30 pm to midnight.
  • Cafè de l’Acadèmia, Carrer de Lledó, 1 Plaça Sant Just,08002 Barcelona. Metro: Jaume 1. Contact: Tel: +34  933 198 253. Open: Monday through Friday from 1:30  to 4:00 pm and 8:00  to 11:30 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday, major national holidays and three weeks in August.
  • Cachaca Italian restaurant, Carrer d’Ataülf, 5, 08002 Barcelona, Spain Contact: Tel. +34 930 19 95 69 . Open Monday through Friday from 19:00 pm to midnight, Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 to 4:00 pm and from 7:00 pm to midnight.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Sensi Bistro

Cafe de l'Academia

Cachaca

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

Périgord… A word that conjures up medieval castles, precipitous cliffs, intriguing archeological sites and extravagantly rich food. I suspect the good life was born here, as wave after wave of our prehistoric ancestors came to settle in the many shelters conveniently hollowed out of the limestone cliffs by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. And then there was the all-you-can-eat barbecue potential of the herds of reindeers that roamed the narrow alluvial valleys.

Perigord-Chateau La Fleunie.

Château La Fleunie is a medical castle reborn as boutique hotel.

By the middle ages, our forbearers were building fortresses to keep at bay the hordes of invaders eager to appropriate their good life. And from the bounty of their fertile land, they were creating a gastronomy that evolved into the pride of the region. Truffles and duck confit are traditional fare here.

Many fortified castles still stand on the hilltops, facing each other across the now peaceful banks of the rivers. Others materialize along the back roads that curve up and down the steep hills, when an opening in the foliage reveals turrets and crenellated walls. Some have remained private properties that can only be admired from afar, or historic sites to be visited in passing. But for visitors who yearn for a more personal experience, a number of these beautifully restored châteaux now have a new life as boutique hotels.

Le Château La FLeunie

Perigord - La Fleunie rear wing.

The rear wing of the hotel once housed the stables of the castle.

Little is known of the history of La Fleunie, other than it was built in the twelfth century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a community of monastic knights (later known as the Knight of Malta), on an estate given to them by the ruler of the area as reward for services rendered during the first crusades. The knights managed to hang on to their château for several centuries, and even enhance it in the fifteenth century (witness the Renaissance dormers). But eventually, local nobility moved in and the surrounding land became a part of their vast agricultural domain. Today, after a complete renovation in 1990 that mercifully preserved its original character, La Fleunie has become a charming 33-room, three-star hotel, secluded within its own 106-hectare (260-acre) estate.

Perigord-La Fleunie reception.

The public spaces have retained a medieval flair.

The first thing that attracts us to La Fleunie, other than the storybook looks of its pale U-shaped sandstone facades and four circular towers topped with sharply pointed slate roofs, is its location. The main purpose of our visit this weekend, Montignac, home to the world famous Paleolithic painted caves of Lascaux and the recently opened Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art), is only eight kilometers (five miles) away via a scenic back road. And all the other not-to-be-missed sites on our list (troglodyte villages of the Vézère Valley, and medieval gems along the Dordogne River) are all within a 45-minute drive. After a day spent roaming the countryside for prehistoric caves to Renaissance wonders, we enjoy returning to our very own château and relaxing on the lawn with a pre-dinner drink. Life is good at La Fleunie. And it’s about to get better.

La Table du Chevalier

Perigord-La Fleunie dining room.

The rustic dining room décor recalls its medieval history.

We are dining at La Table du Chevalier (the Knight’s Table) tonight, which the property’s website introduces as its restaurant gastronomique, the French code word for seriously upscale in both its cuisine and setting. No idle boast in a place where gastronomy has been a way of life ever since overweight ducks were first turned into foie gras.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier asparagus starter.

The cream of asparagus starter is garnished with foie gras.

 

The dining room is formal, decorated with a medieval flair that recalls the property’s history. The ancient beams that hold the soaring ceiling are adorned with brightly colored hand-painted garlands. The upholstery of the high back dining chairs recalls the faded tapestries hanging from on the rough limestone walls. The white linen-draped tables are set far apart to ensure the privacy and comfort of the guests. The stage is set for a memorable meal.

Memorable Meals

Perigord-La Fleunie spring lamb.

The filet of spring lamb is grilled to perfection.

After a lovely amuse-bouche of salmon tartare topped with a swirl of tangy, cloudlike lime mousse, I start with the chaud-froid d’asperges. The cool cream of fresh asparagus is garnished with paper-thin slices of smoked magret de canard (duck breast) and slivers of foie gras. It’s smooth, light and bursting with interesting flavors. I follow with a filet of spring lamb, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and served with alternating dollops of smoky purée of white beans and mousseline of potatoes enhanced with grainy old-style mustard. Brilliant in its apparent simplicity.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier confit.

The confit de canard is drizzled with nuggets of caramelized duck skin.

One of my dining companions, who can never pass up a duck confit, orders the innocuously listed “Confit de Canard with the chef’s potato purée”. It appears as a mysterious mound of smooth potatoes enhanced by chopped fresh vegetable and herbs, drizzled with bits of caramelized duck skin and topped with a crunchy ball of pastry filled with duck essence. A generous portion of boneless confit is concealed under the succulent potato puree. All it takes is a taste to convince all three of us accomplices on this girlfriends’ escapade to order it the following night.

Yes, we so thoroughly enjoy this first dinner that we reserve our table on the spot for the next evening.

The Knight behind the Table

Perigord -Chef Gregory Lafeuille

Chef Gregory Lafeuille.

There was never any question for Gregory Lafeuille, the inspired young chef of La Table du Chevalier, that he belonged in the kitchen. By the tender age of eight, he had declared himself in charge of preparing his family’s desserts, and had already compiled his own notebook of recipes. Fast forward a decade or so, and this Perigord native is pursuing advanced cooking and pastry studies at the Lycée Hôtelier in nearby Souillac. There, he earns himself internships in prestigious local restaurants, including Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel (one Michelin star) and Michel Bras in Laguiol (three Michelin stars), as well as further afield with the Spanish luxury hospitality chain Parador. Back in Perigord, within three year of starting at Le Château in St Geniès, he works his way up to sous-chef. Another brush with stars follows, in London this time, at Chef Marcus Wareing’s eponymous Marcus restaurant in Belgravia (two Michelin stars) before returning home to join La Table du Chevalier. Here, after two years as sous-chef he assumes the top role in 2016, and now dishes out his own style of masterfully prepared, elegantly presented creations rich with the earthy flavors of the Perigord heartland.

Chef Lafeuille’s imaginative cuisine is so popular with local gourmets at well as La Fleunie guests that reservations are a must, especially on weekends.

Good to Know

  • Getting in TouchChâteau La Fleunie, Rue d’Aubas, 24570 Condat-sur-Vézère, France. Contact: e-mail lafleunie@free.fr,Tel: +33 (0)5 53 51 32 74
  • Getting There – Condat-sur-Vézère is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château La Fleurie

A Provencal Foodies Delight in Roque d’Antheron

A Provencal Foodies Delight in Roque d’Antheron

It’s a flawless spring weekend in the Provencal backcountry, all verdant hills dotted with blooming trees and ancient villages of golden stones under a robin egg blue sky. It’s so easy to lose track of time in these idyllic surroundings that it’s well past midday by the time we get to La Roque d’Anthéron, a tiny town on the left bank of the Durance river.

Provence-Chateau Florans.

Renaissance Château de Florans dominates the old town.

Although well within one-hour’s drive from most key destinations in the area, it remains a sleepy, off the beaten path little charmer best known for two architectural masterpieces: its twelfth century Abbaye de Silvacane and seventeenth century Château de Florans. Once a Cistercian monastery, the Romanesque abbey remains a prime example of conventual archictecture in medieval Provence. Meanwhile, the Renaissance castle, now a private healthcare facility closed to the public, still dominates the center of town.

A foodies’ Lucky Find

Provence-Castellas bar.

The diminutive bar offers only the finest brands.

Yet, La Roque d’Anthéron has another, far more current claim to fame, which we discover as pangs of hunger shift our attention from the local architectural heritage to the more mundane issue of finding a restaurant for lunch. The streets are virtually empty during the midday lull, but among the shuttered shops the cheerful red awning of L’Auberge du Castellas catches my eye. The selections du moment (daily specials) listed on a blackboard hanging against the mellow stone façade are all the convincing needed for a consensus. We peer expectantly through open French doors into a small, rustic dining room filled with obviously delighted patrons. Katia, an elfin young woman with a welcoming smile, promptly ushers us to the last available table. The patron saint of foodies has come through once again!

Provence-Castellas asperges.

The daily special Terrine d’Asperges Vertes.

Everything on the menu, Katia explains, is prepared in-house with seasonal products sourced from local artisan producers. Said menu seems simple enough: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, including a cheese tray. But this doesn’t make choices any easier. Roasted quail or pike mousseline for starter? Stuffed breast of veal or monkfish for main course? Covert glances at the plates on nearby tables only reinforce the dilemma.

Love at First Bite

Roasted milk-fed lamb and spring vegetable medley.

I begin with the Terrine d’Asperges Vertes, a thick slab of silky asparagus Bavarois bursting with fresh asparagus flavor that has me smitten at the first mouthful. Next comes the succulent Agneau de Pâques (Easter Lamb), a generous portion of milk-fed lamb shoulder, roasted to perfection and served with a medlley of spring vegetables. Dessert is a swoon-worthy verrine of freshly picked strawberries, topped with chunks of meringue and an extravagant swirl of pistachio mousse.

Wine selection comes easier. To complement the decidedly Provencal menu, the small and fairly priced wine list favors the growing regions of southern France. We select a bottle Cuvée Tradition Rose from the nearby Lubéron Château Val Joanis. The fresh blend of Syrah and Grenache grapes, with hints of red fruit and spices subtly enhances the delicate flavors of our springtime meal.

A Passion for Traditional Cuisine

Provence-Castellas strawberries.

Local stawberries with pistachio mousse.

L’Auberge du Castellas is the brainchild of Celine Moulins and her husband Frank (Franky) Villani. After years of working in trendy ski resort and inns of the Provencal Alps, they longed to return to the classic cuisine born from the seasonal bounty of Provence. It is the abundance of high quality local suppliers that influenced their decision to open their restaurant in La Roque d’Anthéron. Celine, who developed her passion for traditional local cuisine as a child at the elbow of her professional chef grandmother, officiates in the kitchen. Meanwhile Franky, also a trained chef, manages the dining room with the assistance of the ever- attentive Katia, and oversees relations with suppliers.

With its memorable food and excellent service, L’Auberge du Castellas is a lucky random choice this time, but from now on it will warrant a detour, and a reservation, whenever I am in the area.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – La Roque d’Anthéron is located 59 kilometers (36 miles) north of Marseilles, 31 kilometers (19 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence. It is easily accessible by road (A51) as well a public transportation (Bus no. 250) from both cities.
  • The International Piano Festival – each year for the past four decades, from mid-july to mid-august, La Roque d’Anthéron is overrun with music and musicians as the host venue for a major summer event in the calendar of European Music Festivals. A number of performances featuring world-class artists and newly discovered talents take place on the grounds of the Abbey of Silvacane, as well as in the spectacular gardens of the Florans Castle, open to the public for the occasion, and other local open air venues.
  • L’Auberge du Castellas, 10 bis Rue de l’Eglise, 13640, La Roque d’Anthéron, France, is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday, and from late January to early March.
  • The restaurant can seat 18 guests in the dinning room, plus an additional 20 guests on the terrace during the summer months. Reservation are strongly recommended anytime and an absolute must during the International Piano Festival. Contact: email auberge-du-castellas@sfr.fr . Tel.: +33 (0)4 42 50 50 58.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Celine can also accommodate gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Roque d'Antheron.