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Back to the Land of Dordogne

A restaurant opening in France's Dordogne Valley has nothing in common with one in Paris or New York. Instead of a gaggle of reviewers and industry insiders, you're more likely to find a roomful of farmers, bakers, florists, and children. At the decidedly unglamorous debut of La Ferme de Berle, a farm-restaurant near Collonges-la-Rouge, one spring evening last year, my husband and I sat on plastic chairs sipping homemade vin de noix.Through the room's picture windows we could see cows grazing in the pasture. At a long table for eight, an organic-beef farmer chatted excitedly with a postal worker; a shoe merchant and the town pharmacienne shared a tureen of choucroute garnie. Outside, Salomé, the chef's six-year-old daughter, played with her dog and greeted familiar faces.

I was introduced to the Dordogne Valley of southwestern France, which includes the culinary region of Périgord, a decade ago by Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, formerly palace chef to François Mitterrand. I had met Danièle in New York, and she had invited me to visit her family's 700-year-old stone farmhouse. I was tantalized by her descriptions of the countryside, the ancient villages built into the steep cliffs along the Dordogne River, the imposing châteaux and simple Romanesque churches, the well-preserved bastides, or fortified towns. But what intrigued me most was the food: truffles, cèpes (porcini), walnut oil and vin de noix (walnut aperitif), the renowned goat cheese cabécou, and, of course, ducks and geese and their foie gras.

The moment I arrived, I fell in love. Everything I tasted seemed like the best thing I'd ever eaten. And Danièle was the perfect host—more than just a devoted gourmande, she's an expert on every aspect of the region's food, and she was generous with her knowledge. Once, as we drove back to her farm in late afternoon on a one-lane mountain road, Danièle slammed on the brakes, walked around to the front of her tiny, beat-up Renault, and returned holding her prize by the ears: roadkill. The rabbit, she announced, was still warm and would make a marvelous pâté.

Ten years later I was back on that same road, this time accompanied by my husband, Thierry. I had returned to the Dordogne to seek out the region's best food, and aimed to enlist the help of my old friend.

In her lilac-scented garden, Danièle served us tea and pain de miel (honey cake) and talked of her plans to open a cooking school. Intense and fiery, she is also a solid, earthy woman of the terroir who calls herself "just a grandmother filled with recipes." Teaching cooking would be nothing new to Danièle—she was one of the originators of the "foie gras weekends" popular in the 1970's, when Parisians would come to spend a couple of days down on the farm.

Where could we get a great meal?"You're in luck," she said. "A friend of mine—une vraie cuisinière—is opening her farm-restaurant just outside Collonges tonight." For Danièle to call someone une vraie cuisinière, a real cook, was a great compliment.

Driving through the countryside, I was overwhelmed by the region's natural beauty. I remembered feeling the same way on my first visit. The landscapes leaned more toward the sublime than the subtle, with dramatic limestone gorges; curious loops in the river, called cingles, that bend in almost complete circles; and endless old-growth forests. It is a place that feels older than ancient, where the medieval châteaux forts seem but recent history next to the plentiful prehistoric sites.

Collonges-la-Rouge, a village built almost entirely from red sandstone, may just be the most beautiful spot in France. The setting sun cast a rosy glow on the village's red stones as we took a walk to admire the towered and turreted manor houses, the narrow footpaths, and the handful of artisanal shops. Collonges is one of the 144 "Plus Beaux Villages de France" scattered across the countryside (see this page). Founded in the eighth century around a church and priory, what you see today dates mostly from the 11th to 16th century. During that period, as many as 2 million pilgrims passed through here on their way to the shrine of St.-Jacques-de-Compostelle (Santiago de Compostela)in Galicia; scallop motifs carved into several buildings mark Collonges as a stop on the pilgrimage route. We were surprised to have the town almost entirely to ourselves—a benefit of visiting off-season. After checking into the only hotel in Collonges, we headed for Danièle's friends' farm.

Unlike other "farm-restaurants" we'd been to, La Ferme de Berle really is a working farm—raising cattle and producing walnut products. The chef, Laurence Salvant, whose magenta-streaked hair marked her as a city girl (she's Parisian), greeted us warmly at the door. Her husband emerged from the kitchen in a denim apron covered with flour, having spent the day making bread. Jean-Jacques is a dark-skinned fellow with apple cheeks; his family has owned the farm since "seize cents et quelques" ("sixteen hundred-something").

We took our seats—next to the postal worker and the farmer—and accepted glasses of the house-made vin de noix. Along with these came a plate of hors d'oeuvres that Laurence called "tartes berloises": grattons (crisp duck skin), crème fraîche, walnuts, and bacon baked onto bread. Their salty richness was complemented by the velvety, sweet wine.

Choucroute à la Laurence came next, a mountain of tender sauerkraut made from cabbage grown on the farm, garnished with succulent sausages, steamed potatoes that tasted as though they'd just been pulled from the earth, and, for an iconoclastic Perigordian touch, a flavorful confit de canard. We sopped it all up hungrily with more thick slabs of bread.

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