There’s a reason why the Dordogne river has long been a magnet for those of us in search of classic beauty: it undulates through some of the loveliest parts of France, curling round towns and villages of gasp-inducing gorgeousness and, despite the odd sighting of jet-skis, gives the impression that nothing much ever changes. Chateau de la Treyne, clinging to the steep banks of the river, intensifies this impression, with its baronial, wood-panelled rooms, vast open fireplaces and sense of serenity. Our elegant room looks out onto the river, its misty morning majesty quite the way to start a day. As is a breakfast of tiny, freshly made omelettes, cured ham, just-baked baguette and pastries, homemade jams and butter so luscious you could eat it by the spoonful.
It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this historic luxury, but we do manage a wander to nearby Souillac (not for food, but for the slightly creepy Automaton museum; unmissable if you love the bizarre). And Sarlat, whose Saturday market is almost impossibly over-subscribed at the height of the summer season. As with many tourist destinations, the restaurants haven’t the greatest reputation, so we content ourselves with buying fat, vac-packed sausages and figs from the covered market in the Église Sainte Marie. For a blissful bout of people-watching at the heart of the market square, we park ourselves at hilarious Jimmy’s Bar, a rockabilly French fantasy of a US diner, to eat oysters from one of the nearby market stalls and quantities of chilled Bergerac rosé. The house look is 50-something Suzi Quatro.
Dinner back at the Chateau’s Michelin-starred restaurant is quite the event, course after course of inventive cuisine making full use of the area’s native bounty – Quércy lamb, Aubrac beef and truffles (of course), in a tapestried room breathing stories of the past. I make absolutely no apology for going two nights in a row, for chef Stéphane Andrieux’s hare á la royale, slow- cooked until treacly and spoonable, with foie gras, truffles, fondant parsnips and little pasta pouches topped with chervil – possibly the richest, most luxurious thing I’ve eaten. Superstar chef Michel Guérard is at the next table. If it’s enough for French restaurant royalty… And oh lord, the cheeseboard, from Toulouse’s legendary Xavier: this turophile’s idea of heaven.
We take side trips to historic Rocamadour (more cheese – so much cheese) and lovely little Meyrac where we eat pumpkin soup, tête de veau with violet mustard and confit duck in eccentric L’Assiette Meyssacoise to the sound of a bespectacled chap multi-skilled in keyboard, saxophone, DJing and calling out the raffle. Or drive through lush countryside where farms offer walnuts, wild mushrooms, duck and its liver and farmhouse cheeses; you can watch goats being milked or ducks being fattened (the latter probably a niche pursuit).
In tiny, honey-stoned Tremolat sits Le Vieux Logis hotel. What it lacks in Chateau de la Treyne’s regal handsomeness, it more than makes up for in charm. Its series of low, atmospheric buildings hunker around beautifully landscaped grounds; our little, antiques-furnished suite of rooms opens straight into the garden where carefully tonsured trees and shrubs create a romantic, Alice in Wonderland effect. It makes me wish I weren’t married so I could have another wedding here.
We’re in the heart of Périgord Noir, but it’s not yet truffle season (that’s December to March), but the hotel’s charming GM, Estelle Lepers, introduces us to Edouard Aynaud (truffe-perigord.com). I’ve been on truffle hunts where the precious tubers magically turn up at the arrival of the eager tourist, but this is nothing like that: Edouard is visionary and inspirational, entertaining and erudite, worried that his beloved trade may die out – it requires immense patience and expertise – and evangelical about his product. His dog, Farah, is a treasured companion, heading straight to the truffles but – unlike the pigs – knowing when to leave them alone. I come away longing to store Périgord’s tuber melanosporum (the only true Périgord truffle – not flavourless, fragrance-free Chinese imposters, tuber indicum) in Tupperware with eggs, for an omelette of ambrosial qualities.
Le Vieux Logis was the former family home of 91 year-old Bernard Giraudel, who has now passed it on to his senior staff so it will continue to be lovingly tended by those passionate about the place. The warmth of the welcome tells its own story. In the restaurant, a former tobacco drying house transformed into the height of rustic chic, all chalky colours and toile de jouy, chef Vincent Arnould is unusually shy and retiring for someone of his Michelin’ed standing. But his personality shines from every plate: from the amuses of duck croquette and minuscule sandwiches of the bird’s gesiers (gizzards), to the finale of weeny Paris-Brest pastries filled with silky ice-cream and crowned with praline. He even makes chicken breast enchanting: stuffing a grain-fed bird with local walnuts, surrounding it with the lightest mousse
of artichoke and topping it with a ‘bonbon’ of homemade pasta filled with ripe cheese.
Tremolat has been pretty much colonised by the hotel. The same owners run the village’s super-traditional Bistrot de la Place where we eat duck breast with green peppercorns, sublime frites and flawlessly structured tarte aux pommes from chef Pierre-Jean Duribreux, off jolly checked tablecloths. And their sandwich shop, Les Tartines Etc, is committed to celebrating local produce: Arnould spent hours perfecting the ‘burger Perigourdin’ made with duck, home-baked cornbread and trappe d’Échourgnac cheese. I want to come back for this alone, and to hit the truffle markets that proliferate and pong from when the frost just hits the area in December.
At the end of our visit, I feel sleek with animal fats, cosseted into a Zen-like state of calm and drunk on beauty (not to mention rather a lot of fine Cahors). Here’s to the joys of sinking into the intense pleasures of the classics.
Marina O’Loughlin is The Guardian’s restaurant critic, and both the Fortnum & Mason and Guild of Food Writers restaurant reviewer of the year. Double rooms at Chateau de la Treyne, near Brive-Souillac airport, cost from €400, room-only and at Le Vieux Logis, near Bergerac airport, from €200, room-only. More info: dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr