Later, Laurence joined us for a glass of wine. Until now, she'd never cooked professionally, but she had long dreamed of opening a small-scale restaurant at home. "A friend said she had a cousin who was living alone on a farm," Laurence told us, "and he wanted to do meals there." They met, and when Jean-Jacques taught Laurence his grandfather's method of making bread in the wood-burning oven, she knew this must be love; they married soon after.
Much to our surprise, the extraordinary meal, including a decent bottle of wine, was only about $50. Delighted with the bargain, we put down a credit card. It took a few minutes before we realized that, of course, they didn't accept plastic. We promised to return the next morning with cash. Good thing they didn't make us wash dishes for our supper: the next day, Laurence told us she and Jean-Jacques had stayed awake washing up past 2 a.m.
As wonderful as our farm supper had been, we still craved a superlative four-course meal; though we'd arrived more than a week before, we had yet to find one. Some good meals, yes—foie gras served three ways at Le Relais des Cinq Châteaux, a modest restaurant in a hotel that stood amid corn and tobacco fields. Fat white and green asparagus in a balsamic vinaigrette dotted with lentilles de Puy at La Meynardie, a charming spot where we sat on the shady terrace of what was no longer a working farm. And, most notably, a picnic in La Roque-Gageac, made from ingredients purchased at the famous market in nearby Sarlat.
Our dinner at Le Centenaire, however, the region's only Michelin two-starred restaurant, in the Hôtel du Centenaire in Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, had been disappointing. Though perfectly cooked and nicely sauced, my husband's thick-cut pork chop sat forlornly on the plate, barely garnished. My rabbit lacquered with cèpe powder was better, but not inspired. Both the cuisine and the décor seemed stuck in a time warp, circa 1964. The restaurant, like several others in the region, seemed to be coasting on its reputation.
Danièle offered to make us dinner, but I demurred (though I'm still kicking myself); I was bent on finding an extraordinary restaurant. We found one at Château de la Treyne, a graceful Relais & Châteaux property dating from the 17th century, set on a storybook-perfect site over the river near the village of Lacave.
The château's 16 rooms are elegantly furnished, with jewel-toned brocades. Ours, named Henri IV, had an antique four-poster and looked out over the formal gardens.When we sat down to dinner, the room was bathed in the light of the sunset reflected off the river; the ownerwalked through, lighting candles. I started with a terrine of duck foie gras, accompanied by a purée of figs and an intense gelée flavored with Monbazillac, a sweet white wine. Since the region is famous for lamb, I couldn't pass up the fillet roasted with mustard and thyme and served with the kidneys. Thierry chose a chartreuse de pigeonneau du Sud-Ouest with truffle juice. The chef played up the natural gaminess of the bird, serving it rare with the foie gras; buttery Savoy cabbage was the perfect garnish.
The wine list was a gold mine for lovers of Bordeaux. We selected a 1995 Château Beychevelle—redolent of fruit and beguilingly complex. With wine remaining in our glasses, the cheese trolley was irresistible. After that, the corne d'abondance—a puff pastry with a confit of the ripest berries, fromage blanc ice cream, and a coulis of Muscat de Rivesaltes—was altogether light, bright, and ethereal.
Our dinner at Château de la Treyne was as formal as La Ferme's was rustic. The only sign of chef Stéphane Andrieux came the next morning as we pulled out of the gravel-lined parking lot. The door to the pretty blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was open, revealing Andrieux and his small team starting work on that evening's dinner.