You know those signs you see from time to time while driving through France that say ‘Village étape’? They’re signposts to particularly lovely spots; places to stop after une étape – a stage – of your journey for hospitality, rural-French-style, away from the relentlessness of the autoroute.
After several days exploring the ravishing villages of Limousin (and particularly, Corrèze), it’s no surprise to find out that the initiative started right here. This is France profonde: so far relatively uncolonised by the wannabe Mayle-ian hordes. It’s more retiring than its flashier neighbours, Périgord and the Lot, and largely untroubled by the ministrations of Messieurs Michelin. But – wait, come back! – its pleasures are altogether subtler. This is farming country: the roads are lined with walnut trees, and weekly markets dazzle with strawberries of every variety, from tiny sweetie-like mara des bois, through luscious cigalines and acres of super-sweet gariguettes. At Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, there’s even a strawberry festival in May: you could virtually bathe in the things.
Corrèze is so heavily populated by those recherché spots known as ‘les plus beaux villages de France’, it’s hard to go far without hitting one. At every turn, you get glimpses of the millpond-purity of the Dordogne river. Our entry point is Collonges-la-Rouge, named after its red sandstone, so picturesque it barely seems real. We eat at Auberge de Benges, our table overlooking a riotously coloured garden; every now and then chef Christophe Chanel breaks off during service to pick flowers and herbs to scatter over fine local veal with chestnut-enriched mash, or an iced soufflé of local walnuts. The local tipple is vin paillé: a heady, straw-coloured, sweet wine made from grapes dried for months on straw mats. We have the rarer, red version, as luscious as a fine young port. This is my first introduction to the Corrèze speciality douillon: an individual apple pie, the fruit topped up with a hefty slab of foie gras.
You can drive for miles through shady, sun-dappled woods, often without seeing another car. One such journey opens out onto what looks like a vast lake fringed with dense forest, but it is simply a wide part of the river. On its banks is Chez Fabry, a long, low-slung, stone building that’s a place of pilgrimage for fishermen and those in search of tranquillity coupled with fine local produce. La patronne, Sylvette Forsse, has been here for 42 years, the last of a line of female owners. I can’t imagine living in this haunting isolation.
As butterflies waft in through the windows, we eat local veal in a thick cream sauce, fish from the river, and – of course – foie gras. Then there’s a cheeseboard of lavish handsomeness. When Madame Forsse retires next year, who knows what will happen to this extraordinary spot, a slice out of time. Back to beautiful Beaulieu, which smells enchantingly of jasmine and lavender. On the riverbank, we sit amongst the flowers at Les Flots Bleus, the only sound the chatter of our contented fellow diners and the quack of the odd duck – probably one of mild alarm at our starter, a riot of its fatty liver: torchon (wrapped in a towel), poêlé (pan-fried) and in a seductive, surprising ice-cream. It’s an ambitious menu this, and I worry they can’t quite pull it off – especially with items like ‘nems’ (spring rolls) of rocamadour and walnut. But they can: it’s a killer combination of sophistication, huge portions and industrial quantities of butter and cream. Never have I needed a post-prandial river walk more.
The poshest place we check out throughout our trip is Le St Jacques in Argentat. Argentat itself is just gorgeous. This is complex cooking with a haute cuisine slant, served up to a clientèle of local worthies: fat, pink, roasted langoustine with sauce de Samos (a sticky Muscat) and a croquette of its claw; gratinated turbot with pea fritter and asparagus. A young boy at a nearby table orders chips and gets an artfully arranged pile of perfect frites. There’s a beautiful garden, but the interior is a very provincial French idea of chic. I can’t resist a metrocentric snigger at the intricate sugarwork table decorations. Ours is an arrangement of perfect candy fruit, but I’m jealous of our neighbours’: a perfectly realised Smurf en sucre.
Later, we head back to the riverbank for kir aligoté at the 16th-century Auberge des Gabariers, thrilling in equal measures over the dusk falling across the river and the fairy-lit trees, and M. Le Patron’s luxuriant moustache. Brive, where the airport is, has one of the area’s rare Michelin twinklers (La Table d’Olivier), but we’re after more earthy pleasures at the market, specifically former rugby star Jawad Djoudi’s small empire here, Bistrot Brassens. What an absolute charmer he is. The bistro, despite looking like a railway café, defines the best slow food: tartines, sharing platters of goose, duck and the local ‘cul noir’ (black bottom) pork.
This trip, unusually, is every bit about the loveliness of our hotels and chambres d’hotes: at Collonges there’s Jeanne Maison with its 15th- century turret and a garden where we pick cherries straight from the trees (they turn up, too, in owner Brigitte’s homemade jams at breakfast); in Uzerche there’s Hôtel Joyet de Maubec, a strikingly beautiful former convent perching above the Vézère valley that’s home to a serene and properly stylish restaurant; and at Argentat, Les Meyrandiers, a blissful froth of geraniums and azure shutters almost too lovely to be true.
Yes, those rumours about off-piste French restaurants no longer being the ne plus ultra of world cuisine are frequently true: there is quite a lot of swirly plate-art, as well as whitecurrants as garnishes and the odd sighting of ‘les frites McCain’. But, with a bit of homework, we manage to avoid them. And, if – as we do – you happen to come across a pizza in Collonges topped with crème fraîche, rocamadour cheese, smoked duck breast, caramelised onion and foie gras, well, that’s a bonus. In fact, I like Corrèze so much I go back two weeks later. And I’ve never done that before. Ever.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)