Foodie France: Périgord pantry

Author: LEO SCHOFIELD
Photography: sharyn cairns

In her beautiful kitchen with its bright yellow enamelled Lacanche stove, made to order in Burgundy and set against yellow and blue painted tiles from Seville, Dany Chouet is preparing a rabbit for dinner. It's a recipe handed down from her mother who in turn had it handed down from hers. Chouet's deft handling suggests that she has done this many times before. Earlier she made the stuffing, finely mincing the liver and the kidney of the rabbit and blending it with egg, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, minced prosciutto and parsley - lots of parsley, a big bunch she cut from the jardin potager, or kitchen garden, just outside the door. She salts the rabbit inside and out. Then, using a wooden spatula, she scoops the stuffing into the cavity, pulls the stomach flaps together, threads a curved needle with kitchen string and stitches the rabbit up so it assumes its former shape. Taking a veil of caul fat that has been soaking in cold water laced with lemon juice, she wraps the rabbit in its lacy web before placing it diagonally in a baking dish. It's ready for roasting, a process that will take only a little over half an hour, so she puts it to one side while she deals with a fresh, plump foie de canard. Duck liver, she asserts, is not as rich as that from a fattened goose. Its taste is subtler and it needs almost no cooking. She cuts it into thick slices, seasons and lightly dusts them with potato flour and holds them at the ready while she bakes a tarte aux pruneaux. The nearby Agen region is famous for its plums and prunes and a plump cluster of the latter, lightly poached, drenched in Armagnac and sprinkled with orange flower water, are to be the filling for the thin pastry blind-baked half an hour ago. She pours a mixture of eggs and cream over the fruit, arranged in concentric rings on the pastry.


This is typical of the menu she will prepare for the 10 or 12 people who sign up for the first cooking lessons in her new home in Saint Martin de Villéreal in the Lot et Garonne, a kilometre or two from Dordogne, the two departments that form the region of France known as Périgord, renowned worldwide for its gastronomy and glorious produce.


Chouet comes from these parts - from Sainte Foy la Grande to be precise, and its culture and culinary tradition are in her blood. In December 1969 she arrived in Australia, following in the footsteps of her sister Monique who had arrived earlier with her Australian husband, the now Orange-based chef Michael Manners. The trio set up a restaurant called Upstairs, above the Maltese Club in Darlinghurst's then-insalubrious Palmer Street, a penny-plain eatery that rapidly became one of the most modish in Sydney. After two years Chouet struck out on her own and opened Au Chabrol, enjoying even greater critical and popular acclaim for its traditional French cooking.


Then came the big move. With her partner Trish Hobbs, she bought a grand house in Cleopatra Street, Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains, and the eponymous restaurant became part of culinary history, the first B&B in New South Wales to make it into the front ranks of the country's best eateries. The reasons for Cleopatra's 17-year run at the top were manifold: a glorious ambience, a pretty garden, assiduous service and Chouet's divine French provincial food.


Suddenly, in January 2000, they decided to up stumps and move to France. "We had always planned to come here," says Hobbs. "It's where Dany's family is from and her mother is still here." They spent a great deal of time looking for the right house. "We know every real estate agent and every property in the district," says Chouet, "and we've seen some wrecks." One was a former hospital for victims of the plague. "It had no roof and was falling down," says Chouet. To which Hobbs replies, "Ah, but it could have been wonderful." The idea of revisiting the Cleopatra formula in France did occur to them but only temporarily. "We wanted a quieter life," says Chouet. "Trish wanted her garden, I wanted my kitchen and my potager." Besides, as they point out, the area is awash with wonderful places to stay.


But the idea of exclusive cooking classes, aimed at Australians who loved Chouet's hearty food, began to form. "We love the area and know it, know where all the lovely gardens are and the special châteaux," says Hobbs, "so the idea of hosting visits for people with an interest in food and culture began to form. There seemed to be a niche market for something more personal than the single-interest tour dedicated to sightseeing, music, culture and food."


Now that their house is finished, the garden planted and the herbs flourishing, they are ready to put a tentative toe back into the hospitality pond. They will offer visits twice a year; in April when white asparagus is in season and the markets brim with the sort of ravishing produce only ever imagined in Australia, and in October when chestnuts, truffles and game dictates menus. At either time the countryside is spectacular, ludicrously lush and green or glowing gold, amber, russet and red before leaves and, subsequently, snow begin to fall.


"Together, we have about 60 years experience in the hospitality business and we felt we'd like to have another shot at it," says Hobbs. "Not full-time mind you, but just the occasional special event." Special is probably too understated a word for the experience that awaits those who sign on for this gastro-cultural adventure. No ranks of chairs, no overhead mirror, none of the didacticism of your average cooking school. Guests will not be mere observers but participants in ancient Périgourdine rituals.


The source and soul of Périgord's gastronomy are the produce markets. Within easy driving distance of the Hobbs/Chouet centre of instruction there are three of these extravagant displays of local abundance. At any and all of them you will find great cairns of strawberries to be bought in bulk or in little boat-shaped cardboard boxes; not your gross golf ball-sized examples, but a delicate tapered variety, more coral than scarlet and with a flavour so exquisite that to add anything to them before consumption would be sacrilege.


Beans? Take your pick of shape, size and colour. A panoply of lettuces, a farandole of fruits plus vegetables unseen and unknown in Australia offer encouragement and culinary inspiration. Over this cornucopia of produce hovers the smell of simmering paella or steaming garlic snails being prepared in pans and woks the size of wagon wheels. There's the aroma of tiny freshly baked spiced cakes the shape of miniature brioche, a local specialty, and from a giant rotisserie on which chickens and quails of all sizes revolve slowly as they achieve the desired shade of amber.


There are seedlings, baskets, pots of roses and brightly coloured annuals, tables groaning with locally tinned foie gras and confit de canard - from ducks reared and prepared a stone's throw away in Monsac - and artisanal cheese, the names of which your will never remember but the flavours of which you will never forget. And Marenne oysters piled high on a stall whose owner will flick one open for you and hand it to you to try. One taste and you're sold on the freshness, flavour and the smack of the sea. And there's bread. Such bread one only finds in France.


As guides through this labyrinth of temptation, Chouet and Hobbs are incomparable. They know all the stallholders, know through experience which ones have the edge over their colleagues. In her distinctive Fraussie accent, Chouet gently admonishes the straggler, distracted by blocks of fresh, sweet butter: "I know this looks good but there is better over there".


But enough of food. The Hobbs/Chouet tours will give equal prominence to the culture and history of the area and few regions of France are so rich in both. To get in sync with the tempo and style of the place, guests will stay at one of two marvellous old properties a few kilometres away from the Hobbs/Chouet residence, the moated 18th-century Château du Rayet or the lovely old hilltop priory that was once home to the priests who ministered to the spiritual needs of the Dukes of Biron in the spectacular castle next door. "We spent a lot of time looking at where our guests might stay," says Hobbs, who for decades was one of Australia's most respected stylists for television commercials and lifestyle and food publications, not to mention a decorator of distinction. "We didn't want them to have a bland environment that could be anywhere but a distinctive local one." That they themselves travelled from one end of the region to another in search of their own slice of paradise meant they had a particular familiarity with the terrain and knew all the good properties.


Château du Rayet is a kind of fever dream for romantic escapists, a lovely small, secluded two-storey neoclassical building in pale local stone with ancient trees, formal lawns and gravel paths, a stone-flagged hall and soothing views of fields and farms. The Belgian lady who owns it has effected the least intrusive adaptation, combining calm interior spaces with minimalist modern furniture in felicitous fashion, concentrating especially on beautiful bathrooms and cosseting beds and pillows. La Prieuré at Brion is done in what the French call 'le style confort Anglais', the comfortable English style with polished antique furniture, carpets, deep sofas and a ravishing garden and terrace with views that make the heart stop.


Destinations for excursions abound. There is the pretty town of Issigeac, where the palace of the bishops of Sarlat looms over the town, a metaphor for the power of the church in medieval times. And Monpazier, designated one of the most beautiful villages in France, with a gorgeous central square paved with cobblestones and a central covered market place, still with its centuries-old grain measures. A little further away is the world heritage-listed village of Saint Émilion, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of the great wines of Bordeaux, such as Petrus, Cheval Blanc and other less familiar but no less glorious vineyards. Many of the local wines from around Bergerac are delicious, not least of them the unctuous sweet wine from Monbaziliac, which Chouet loves to serve with foie gras.


In this part of France, even the tiniest of towns has an annual festival, usually celebrating local produce. And all over the region are the traders in second-hand goods known as brocanteurs. There is a distinction between a brocanteur and an antiquaire. The latter is an antique dealer with a shop. The brocanteur too may have a shop, but is more often an itinerant dealer in old wares at the fairs that take place by rote in towns and cities from Bordeaux to Bergerac. These are the provincial equivalent of the flea markets of Paris. One will find less grand objects here but whatever you do happen to discover will be at least half the price you'd pay in the capital.


The visitor has many options in Périgord. You can make it a DIY trip, as the sweet New Zealand family of four did who had happened upon the same little wisteria-smothered restaurant in Gavaudun which Chouet favours (Le Café), where Christian Lambilotte, a young Belgian chef who has never been to Paris, turns out wonderful local dishes. Or you can opt for something more personalised, guided by locals who have tasted and tried, explored and examined and refined the experience so that no time is wasted and every feature is a delight. In which case, Chouet and Hobbs may be your gals.


For more information contact the Comité Régional de Tourisme d'Aquitaine, +33 5 5601 7000,

www.tourisme-aquitaine.fr.





THE FINE PRINT

Getting there
Singapore Airlines
flies multiple times daily from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, and daily from Adelaide, connecting to Paris daily via Singapore. Call 13 10 11 for bookings or visit www.singaporeair.com.au.


Connections to Libourne and Bordeaux are available on France's fast train, the TGV. Visit

www.railplus.com.au for more information. Pick up a hire car at the station for the remaining drive to the Lot et Garonne.

Do
Périgord Privée with Dany Chouet and Trish Hobbs is a personal introduction to the food, culture and history of this famed region of southwest France. For further information contact Trish Hobbs at trishobbs@aol.com.

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