If a Frenchman's heart lives in Paris, his stomach resides in the Dordogne Valley. From duck confit and foie gras to strawberries and goat cheese, food critic Leslie Brenner unearths the region's authentic flavors—and a few surprises
Lisa Lindner

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. 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.

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.

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.

We checked into the run-down 19th-century château, wondering what a great chef could possibly be doing in a place like this. Our top-floor room was shabbily furnished in faded red brocades, without a snippet of style. Looking for escape, I went down to the "bar"—a couple of worn armchairs and two tables—for an apéritif. Though I was sitting just a few feet from the receptionist, she was chatting with the bellman, and no one offered me a drink. Finally I had to ask. As I sipped my Ricard, several couples stopped by the front desk. "Oh, we really love our room!" one woman said. "Love the décor," a second couple said. They all seemed to be in a great mood. I looked around for a hidden video eye: Was I on a Gallic version of Candid Camera?

In the château's restaurant, L'Oison—with its crystal chandeliers and heavy red curtains—I ordered the multi-course chef's tasting menu. Etchebest's cooking was no less than stunning. He used regional ingredients in a very modern way, and his flavors were clean and surprising. The result was much lighter and more refined than traditional Perigordian cuisine. A delicate ravioli of langoustine in a frothy cream sauce sat atop julienned cucumbers tinged with cumin. Lasagne of seared foie gras and wild mushrooms were heightened by an extravagant black truffle emulsion. And could those crunchy little garlicky matchsticks actually be cèpes?The sleek tableware from Spain—a white Bidasoa porcelain plate with an oversized rim and a teacup-sized depression in the center—contrasted with the décor of the room as much as Etchebest's cooking did. A trio of Grand Cru chocolate desserts attested to his skills as a pastry chef as well.

The next morning I asked to see some other rooms in the château, determined to solve the conundrum of the gushing guests. The tour was led by Etchebest, who, as I learned, is general manager as well as chef; he and his wife, Dominique, have undertaken to turn around the long-neglected hotel. Besides putting in his new menu, he told me, they were two-thirds of the way through renovating the rooms. The entire second floor was finished, and he showed me the new rooms. Whimsical (Louis XV chairs upholstered in tangerine-hued crushed velvet), and playing on local themes (the Dordogne room has furniture made from sticks and rocks), they were more stylish and appealing than anything else we'd seen in the Dordogne. These were the rooms occupied by the giddy guests; bad luck had put us on the floor that had yet to be redone.

Much of Château des Reynats' renovation will be completed by this summer. And five euros says Etchebest will be the region's next big star.

The Dordogne Valley straddles three official regions in southwest France (Aquitaine, Limousin, and Midi-Pyrénées) and three distinct départements (Dordogne, Corrèze, and Lot). Spring and early fall are the best times to visit this area. In May, the Dordogne Valley is resplendent with lilacs and wisteria; white asparagus and strawberries make restaurant menus irresistible. In fall, cèpes are plentiful (though many establishments close for winter in early November). Summer is lovely too, if you don't mind sharing the place with lots of French vacationers. Get good maps (we suggest Michelin)—the smallest roads are the most beautiful, but navigating them can be a challenge.

Château de la Treyne A château on 300 acres of parkland and forest, with 16 quietly elegant guest rooms. DOUBLES FROM $168 LACAVE; 33-5/65-27-60-60 www.relaischateaux.com

Château des Reynats The new owners of this formerly run-down castle are making it the most stylish hotel in the region. DOUBLES FROM $125 AVE. DES REYNATS, CHANCELADE-PÉRIGUEUX; 33-5/53-03-53-59 www.chateau-hotel-perigord.com

Hôtel Edward 1er A 19th-century manor house with small but charmingly furnished rooms. DOUBLES FROM $58; 5 RUE ST.-PIERRE, MONPAZIER; 33-5/53-22-44-00

Ferme de Berle Dinner on the farm, with Laurence and Jean-Jacques Salvant's family recipes. DINNER FOR TWO $41; BERLE, COLLONGES-LA-ROUGE; 33-5/55-25-48-06

Le Relais des Cinq Châteaux Unpretentious, traditional Périgord cooking. DINNER FOR TWO $53; VÉZAC-EN-PÉRIGORD 33-5/53-30-30-72

Restaurant La Meynardie Three- to five-course menus served on the pretty terrace of a farmhouse. DINNER FOR TWO $62 PAULIN, SALIGNAC-EYVIGUES; 33-5/53-28-85-98

Château de la Treyne Chef Stéphane Andrieux's refined dishes shine in this romantic setting. DINNER FOR TWO $147 LACAVE; 33-5/65-27-60-60

Restaurant La Bastide Traditional Dordogne specialties. Don't miss the foie gras au torchon. DINNER FOR TWO $72; 52 RUE ST.-JACQUES, MONPAZIER; 33-5/53-22-60-59

L'Oison Philippe Etchebest's innovative preparations are the valley's most pleasant culinary surprise. DINNER FOR TWO $62 CHATEAU DES REYNATS, AVE. DES REYNATS, CHANCELADE-PÉRIGUEUX 33-5/53-03-53-59

In Sarlat, stores on the Place de la Liberté offer delectable foods such as foie gras and truffles. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the outdoor market—one of the best in the Dordogne—fills the square.

Elie-Arnaud Denoix vin de noix (labeled apéritif de noix) and plum eau-de-vie, in lovely gift bottles. COLLONGES-LA-ROUGE; 33-5/55-25-44-72

Entre Cour et Jardin Bright jacquard table linens; local pottery in earthy colors. 36 RUE ST.-JACQUES, MONPAZIER 33-5/53-22-61-30; www.couretjardin.com

Moulin de la Tour A 16th-century water mill with virgin walnut, hazelnut, and almond oils for sale. Tours available. STE.-NATHALENE, SARLAT; 33-5/53-59-22-08

Musée National de Préhistoire An impressive collection of cave paintings, Neanderthal skeletons, and tools in a 13th-century fortress. LES EYZIES-DE-TAYAC; 33-5/53-06-45-45

Grotte du Grand Roc Guided walking tours of prehistoric caves that tunnel deep into a hillside. LES-EYZIES-DE-TAYAC 33-5/53-06-92-70; www.grandroc.com

Lascaux ll The 17,000-year-old Cro-Magnon cave paintings at Grotte de Lascaux have been closed to the public since 1963. See replicas here instead. MONTIGNAC 33-5/53-35-50-10

La Maison Learning to cook Périgord classics with Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. CLASSES FOR TWO (INCLUDING ALL MEALS AND ONE-NIGHT STAY) $190; CHAVAGNAC 33-5/53-51-00-24

In 1982, Charles Ceyrac, then mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge, formed Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, an organization dedicated to preserving France's most beautiful villages. Acceptance into the group isn't easy: besides good looks, a town must have architectural and historical interest—and fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Of the 144 member towns, an impressive concentration lies in and around the Dordogne Valley. Driving the small country roads that connect them is an ideal way to see the best of the valley. Collonges-la-Rouge is perhaps the most spectacular of these; Monpazier, with the concentric rectangular layout that typifies the bastide, runs a close second. Here are five of my other favorites:

DOMME On a bluff high above the Dordogne River, this 13th-century bastide is notable for its views of the luminous green farmlands and surrounding villages, as well as for its unusual lamb chop-shaped town plan. Because of its central location, Domme fills up with tourists in summer, but in spring, when the simple houses are covered with purple wisteria, quiet prevails.

LA ROQUE-GAGEAC Seen from the banks of the Dordogne, tiny La Roque appears to emerge whole out of a rocky cliff. Ancient houses with lauze (stone slab) roofs climb straight up the bluff. Take the narrow path to the right of the postage stamp-sized post office to the top of the town. There you'll find troglodyte caves—if you brave the rickety wooden staircases leading up to them.

LOUBRESSAC Also designated an official Village Fleurie (flowering village), Loubressac is a hill town with walled gardens, exuberant pink hydrangeas, pretty ironwork lanterns, and fruit trees that bloom in springtime. In every direction, the village has breathtaking views of the green valley below.

AUTOIRE Ringed by rocky, verdant cliffs, Autoire is a cluster of striking medieval half-timbered houses with steeply pitched shingled roofs, several of which were built by nobility from nearby St.-Céré in the 15th and 16th centuries. A dramatic square clock tower dominates the sleepy, quintessentially Quercynois town.

CARENNAC Larger and livelier than many of the others, Carennac borders the Dordogne and has its own little babbling creek flowing through town. The larger manors have pointed towers and turrets, and gardens filled with pale apricot roses. A trail leads down to the river, where it follows the tranquil banks. (Since Loubressac, Autoire, and Carennac are closely grouped in the eastern end of the valley, the three towns make a good circuit for a day trip.)


Le Relais des Cinq Châteaux

Ferme de Berle

Château de la Treyne Restaurant

Restaurant La Meynardie

Restaurant La Bastide

Château des Reynats

Hôtel Edward 1er

Château de la Treyne