PETER and ANN FROST invite you to a picnic on the banks of the River Dordogne. If you are very lucky truffles might be on the menu.
There are plenty of really noble reasons to visit the Dordogne. To paddle a canoe down one of France’s mighty rivers; to marvel at the best prehistoric cave paintings in the world; to visit the honey stone chateaux that cling to the precipitous mountain sides.
There are castles, tiny beaches, caves, waterfalls, forts, vineyards, and prehistoric sites – so many worthy things to see and do.
That’s why I’m a bit embarrassed to admit Ann and I are here mainly in search of a small smelly wrinkled underground black fungus – the legendary Perigord Black Truffle…
Like so many British campers and caravanners we love the Dordogne although we aren’t really quite sure where it is – or rather where it stops. The French Government will tell you Dordogne department (Number 24) is in the Aquitaine region in the South West of France, the historic region of Perigord. That is true as far as it goes.
A river or canoeing guide, on the other hand, will tell you the Dordogne River rises in the mountains of the Auvergne in Central France and flows for nearly 300 miles to join the Gironde among Bordeaux vineyards with names like an up-market wine list, then on into the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
For us however our holiday Dordogne is a much vaguer place. It runs, roughly, from Perigueux and Brantôme in the north to Bergerac and Rocamadour in the south. The wonderful valleys of the Dordogne River itself and the Vezere River are where we aim for.
Let’s start in the lower Dordogne valley and the Vezere River, the area between Bergerac and Sarlat, and up the Vezere Valley to Le Bugue. This is classical canoeing country.
One of our favourite days out here is to rent a canoe and drift downstream. This is certainly the best way to see this fairy-tale countryside and awesome scenery. Medieval castles, Roman forts and old stone villages cling to the green hillsides as you bob along on the current.
The river is wide and slow moving, making it a relaxing float and a great way to see the surrounding area. The current is gentle enough that you don’t actually need to know much about canoeing. Here an open or Canadian canoe is the perfect activity for everyone young or old.
All you have to do is sit and maybe do a little steering with your paddle.
Drifting slowly along you will see some of the beautiful quiet secrets of the river that are not accessible any other way. For just a few Euros, you can rent a canoe and get afloat for a day you will never forget.
Plan carefully. Not the route – let the river, or the canoe company do that, but you will need to plan your lunch. It has to be a picnic and for that you’ll need to visit one of the regions incredible markets.
We love the market at Sarlat. We stock up on fresh crusty bread and bright yellow butter, a good smooth pâté, some simple salad perhaps with a local walnut oil and raspberry vinegar dressing. Maybe we’ll add a smoked duck breast, a local goose neck sausage, or a fine smelly cheese of the region and, of course, a bottle of good but inexpensive Bergerac wine.
We load it into the canoe with a crisp table cloth and napkins, proper plates, cutlery and real wine glasses – these Perigord picnics need to be taken seriously.
When lunchtime comes we pull our canoe into the bank and find a quiet riverside meadow with a spectacular view and, taking our cue from the locals, settle down to a relaxed picnic lunch.
If it’s warm – and it usually is – we’ll take a dip from one of the tiny beaches that are so much part of the riverscape. Sometimes we’ll find a cave to explore or a waterfall to make a perfect background for our slow al fresco eating.
Days like this can be addictive. What shall we do tomorrow? Another days canoeing this time a little further upstream and, of course another picnic?
No, maybe tomorrow we’ll take a drive, not far along the Dordogne Valley but south towards the Lot – another of France’s great rivers. The drive will take us to Rocamadour and Souillac.
Rocamadour must be one of the most dramatically situated collections of buildings anywhere. Perched precariously on the hillside you can’t help but marvel on the people who built it so long ago. It looks like it grew there as part of the natural rock face. Disney, eat your heart out.
At Gouffre de Padirac a huge chasm in the crust of the Earth leads down to a network of caves and caverns. You could spend an exciting day – or an adventurous lifetime – exploring these unique subterranean chambers, potholes and passageway.
We have still to discover the history of our earliest forebears the Cro Magnon men. As they made their homes here more than 35,000 years ago a day or so either way won’t matter. Did you know they had bigger, heavier brains than we humans do today? No wonder they left such incredible artefacts and artworks for us to admire and wonder at.
So here we are with so much to choose from; walking in the woods? Cycling along the river? Horse riding? Prehistoric cave paintings? What will it be?
…actually we just have time to get to the market. In the campsite restaurant last night someone told us that one charcuterie stall has local goose pâté infused with black truffle oil and we do need to stock up for lunch tomorrow. After all we’ll definitely need a picnic – whatever else we decide the Dordogne has to offer.
How to snuffle the truffle
In the great markets of Paris late last summer Perigord Black Truffles were selling for six or seven hundred Euros per Kilo.
No wonder for hundreds of years the people of the Perigord region have hunted these amazingly delicious and valuable delicacies. Traditionally they used trained pigs to snuffle the truffle but more and more today dogs are replacing pigs as the preferred hunting animal. The reason is that pigs eat most of the truffles they find. Guzzling them down before the human hunter can get his hands on them.
It is perfectly possible to find truffles yourself without pig or trained dog. You just need a lot of patience. The prized epicurean delight grows underground on the roots of ancient hardwood trees. Oaks are probably best. Look for the telltale column of tiny gnats hovering above a slight swelling in the moss and leaf litter of the forest floor.
Just below the surface, if you are very lucky indeed, you might find the treasure you seek. It will be between the size of an acorn and a plum and the wonderful smell will make it easy to identify; much easier than almost any other fungus.
Even a tiny one, grated will make the best omelette you ever tasted, or stored in a small jar of virgin olive oil will give you an ingredient that will remind you of Perigord holidays every time you cook.
For us the best way to enjoy the delicate fragrant fungi is in tiny slivers served with the smooth duck or goose pâtés that are another essential ingredient of a perigord picnic. The truffle’s delicate taste is considered one of the finest epicurean experiences.
The French philosopher Jean-Louis Vaudoyer tells us: “There are two types of people who eat truffles: those who think truffles are good because they are expensive and those who know they are expensive because they are so good.”
Only in France would a philosopher pontificate on a smelly black wrinkled fungus – even one as good as the pride of Perigord.
Drawing on the Wall
After seeing the 17,000 year-old cave paintings in the Dordogne’s Grotte de Lascaux, Pablo Picasso said, “We artists have learned nothing in thousands of years.”
There are over two hundred caves with prehistoric paintings in France, and most are in the DordogneValley. They date anywhere from 15,000 to 32,000 years ago. Unknown artists painted single animals and groups of animals – lions, bison, reindeer, mammoths, bears, hyenas, aurochs, and many mysterious creatures that we do not recognise today.
Some of the cave paintings show the animals in motion. Others show these, far from primitive, artists understood perspective. The artists used warm earth colours and also used the natural contours of cave walls to give depth and volume to their amazing art works.
The most famous cave paintings are at Lascaux, but that cave is now closed to the public. The breath of thousands of visitors was attacking the pigments of the ancient paintings. An incredible replica cave was created – Lascaux Two – but that too is suffering from the number visitors who want to admire the art of our Cro-Magnon forbears who made their home so long ago in the Valley of the River Dordogne.
This article first appeared in Camping and Caravanning Magazine in 2012