I found the earthy Périgord cooking of my dreams in "bastide country," about a half-hour drive west of Lacave, in Monpazier. Founded in 1285 by Edward I of England, Monpazier is one of the region's most striking fortified towns: I was immediately won over by its geometric beauty. In contrast with other members of "Les Plus Beaux Villages," this was a functioning town, with appliance stores, shoe-repair shops, and a weekly outdoor market.
The day we arrived, the market filled the square; farmers, cheesemongers, and charcutiers had come from every corner of the valley. At one stall, two young men in jeans sold saucissons secs—dried sausages made from pork, boar, or rabbit. "Goûtez, goûtez!" they shouted, holding out samples on the ends of their pocketknives. I recognized one cheesemonger from the market at Sarlat; he was hawking his wares from behind a wheeled dairy case that held flats of ash-covered logs and aged, hockey-puck-sized disks of cabécou (a fresh, mild goat cheese with a soft rind and creamy center). On the far side of the market were the fishmonger and butcher, and farm stands filled with neatly stacked white asparagus, bunches of tomatoes on the vine, and baskets of perfumed strawberries. Nearby, a group of old men in berets gossiped and argued.
Now that our appetites were piqued, I asked the concierge at our low-key hotel if she could recommend a restaurant for dinner. She sent us to La Bastide.
That evening, crossing the now-empty square, we entered a narrow side street paved with cobblestones and lined with shops more utilitarian than touristy. We walked into La Bastide to find a table in the bar filled with locals, all of whom seemed to be friends of the house. Huge vases of roses and Queen Anne's lacecheered up the slightly dowdy, pink-tablecloth dining room; copper pots and bowls hung on the walls. When I asked for the four-course "saveur du terroir" menu, the waitress's mouth turned up in a half-smile; she was pleased that I was ready for the full experience.
My first course, the foie gras frais au torchon—an expertly seasoned duck liver—was rich and velvety, perfectly smooth. Then came an admirable omelette aux cèpes. The mushrooms, cooked slowly in goose fat, were silky, soft, and plump. Confit de canard was next, deeply flavorful, with golden-brown skin, and garnished with diced potatoes sautéed in garlic and more goose fat. After salade à l'huile de noix and just-ripe cabécou, who could even consider dessert?
The back of the menu listed chef Gérard Prigent's artisanal producers: chickens from Durou farm in Rampieux, ducks from La Quercynoise in Gramat, verjus from Domaine de Siorac in St.-Aubin-de-Cabelech. I hadn't seen this kind of producer credit on any other menu in the region. Intrigued, we returned the next morning to have a chat with the chef. As it turned out, Prigent is one of only two chefs in the Dordogne to have received official certification from the Ministry of Tourism as Les Cuisineries Gourmandes des Provinces Françaises, which requires members to use traditionally produced ingredients of the region in 70 percent of their dishes.
Over espressos, Prigent told us how he happened upon Monpazier some 30 years ago. He had stopped for a drink in a café and, after soaking up the atmosphere, said to the waiter, "It's beautiful here—do a lot of people come through?" The waiter replied, "Yes, but the problem is we don't have a single restaurant." The young chef was inspired to open La Bastide. Today Monpazier has a population of 531—and seven restaurants. Prigent is now ready to retire, but will do so only if he can find someone who shares his dedication to classic cooking. That might be difficult. "In our profession, we make less and less money," he said, "and we have fewer and fewer qualified people."
After hearing Prigent's concerns about the future of the region, I was anxious to visit Château des Reynats, just outside Périgueux, where a promising young chef was cooking. My father-in-law, who lives in Bordeaux, had sent me an article about Philippe Etchebest a few months earlier, when the chef received his first Michelin star.