Saint-Cirq-Lapopie: A Medieval Gem in the French Dordogne

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is a tiny village, population 220, in the Lot Department in southern France. This tiny hamlet is perched 400’ above the River Lot on a broad promontory overlooking a picturesque valley. Some years ago it was voted the #1 Most Beautiful Village in France. Consequently it sees a lot of tourists—so arrive early in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds!  

During the Middle Ages, the town became a center for woodworking and related crafts. Until the late 19th century, craftsmen could still be seen at their lathes and tables in the tiny shop fronts set in small archways sprinkled throughout the town. Today, you can see some of these craftsman’s tiny alcoves abutting stone cottages; many of them have morphed into souvenir shops or enlarged to form inviting restaurants or ice cream shops. Cottages lining the streets often have corbelled façades, exposed beams, or bays with mullioned windows popular in the Renaissance. The pedestrian-only streets are cobbled as you might expect in this medieval jewell that seems untouched by the passage of the centuries. The picture above shows a furry pup relaxing in a shady spot unafraid of being run over by a tourist’s BMW—one of the joys of travel to rural France in these historic villages.

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Still, there are plenty of eateries and boutiques nestled in the crevices of these ancient walls to satisfy most tourist needs. We spied a pretty rose covered terrace just above us as we wandered and decided to pop in for lunch. La Table Du Produceur is set high up in the nearly vertical village. It has seating for just 16 people and is rightly famous for its duck cuisine, specifically foie gras, plus other classic Dordogne favorites like cassoulet, as well as local wines from Cahors or Bergerac. As we always say, lunch is usually the best meal of the day in France—and this restaurant served up a perfect repast.

Afterward, you can pop into some of the charming ateliers or shops for some classic French shopping. Pick up some cans or jars of foie gras, country paté, baguettes, cookies, or fruit preserves, as well as wine and liquors, scented soaps and bath products, French clothing, Bric-à-brac, and other medieval souvenirs like candlesticks, bronze keys, and French baskets, just to name a few.  

Market day is Wednesday beginning at 4pm. We usually recommend trying to coordinate visits with French village market days. And this one draws both locals haggling over the fresh produce, fish, and game, as well as tourists from all over the globe enjoying the spectacle!

If you visit Rocamadour, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is just an hour’s drive away; it’s a good antidote to the crowds in the famous place of pilgrimage at Rocamadour. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is on the D40 two hours drive from Toulouse and two and half hours drive from Bergerac in the Dordogne. It will not disappoint—and you may make some new French friends while you’re there!  

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Juicy Food Photography--Does it Make you Want to Take a Big, Delectable Bite?

French Scallops (Coquilles St-Jacques)

French Scallops (Coquilles St-Jacques)

Photographing food can be a tricky process, although certainly a delicious one. The shot above was taken in real time, in a real dining setting where no special lighting was used. At times like this, we feel a shot from above helps focus on the food, rather than the surroundings. (Sometimes an I-Phone’s special settings help with focusing. But if your real-deal camera is available with high-powered settings, it could even be more dramatic.) Our Moto: if you can’t resist it, shoot it!

French Macaroons, staged

French Macaroons, staged

The staged macaroon shot above allowed us to stage, light, and enhance the placement of the food, tablecloth, and plate for maximum attractiveness. But it definitely lacks the spontaneity of real food under real circumstances. They may look yummy (and they were); but it’s clear they were meticulously prepped for their “close up.”

Lyon, France Market Food Display with Shopper

Lyon, France Market Food Display with Shopper

Adding people to a spontaneous photo of food in natural light can be tricky. It may be hard to capture the food’s most appealing qualities without studio-quality light, but the spontaneity adds a human realism that can be missing in staged shots. The food is not as delectable as food “staged” on a plate, but the human interaction with the food makes a viewer “project” themselves in the shot, and therefore into the food buying experience.

Breakfast Crepe with Honey and Orange at Canyon Villa, Paso Robles, CA

Breakfast Crepe with Honey and Orange at Canyon Villa, Paso Robles, CA

A chef’s artfulness with food can be a key component in beautiful food photography. A fine chef will make presentation a key aspect of his or her food presentation. When done well, a photographer’s work is half-way completed before you even focus the lens. When we see beautifully presented food like this, we almost always snap a shot!

Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich at Great Maple

Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich at Great Maple

Ultimately, food photography should make your mouth water. It should make you want to dive into your screen for a big, succulent bite. It if it appeals to your tongue (and your stomach), shoot it!

In Praise of Fondue

The Swiss are famous for fondue. While fondue is an apparently simple dish of melted cheese, there is much more to this gooey, chewy, melt-in-your mouth concoction that, when dripping off a bit of crusty bread or a delicate new potato, can bring tears of joy to your eyes—and fireworks to your mouth.  

Fondue is said to have first bubbled in the Swiss canton (state) of Valais. That is one of the few places in Switzerland where fondue’s main ingredients--white wine and cheese--are produced cheek to jowl.

Somehow someone had the idea of taking Swiss cheese, melting it in a pot, and adding a bit of this and bit of that until this superb pot of lickable heaven came to be a favorite all over the world. 

A basic REAL Swiss recipe for fondue includes these surprising ingredients:

  • 1lb Gruyėre cheese, grated

  • 1/2lb Emmentalee cheese, grated

  • A clove of garlic

  • 1 cup of dry white wine

  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (the Swiss prefer potato starch)

  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kirsch

  • Ground pepper

  • Grated nutmeg

Clearly, we aren’t talking simply melted cheese. A good restaurant in Switzerland will get their cheeses from specific farms, often from pedigreed cows who munch on fine Alpian grasses and grains. Many fondue specialty restaurants will also have their own herbs and spices to add to their “secret” fondue recipe. Others will add a bit of panache with morel mushrooms like this tasty pot we enjoyed in Bern, Switzerland one evening during a thunderstorm. Other additives include brandy, bourbon, soy sauce, dried mustard, or Worcestershire sauce.

The ingredients may vary. But the method is straightforward. Rub the garlic clove around the pot and discard it. Melt the cheese and wine over a low heat for five minutes. Add everything else and stir for 10 minutes and serve. 

While we like cheese, this dish is almost addicting when paired with small potatoes, apples, cubes of bread, cherry tomatoes or pretty much anything else. Simply take your long fondue fork, spear your favorite bite, dip it in the gooey goodness, and pop it in your mouth. Follow each bite with a sip of chilled white wine OR a Swiss beer for an authentic finish. 

Place the fondue on a low light to keep the cheese soft and yummy. A good fondue can last for quite a while--and the social aspect of sharing a single pot with your nearest and dearest is one of the fine pleasures of this dish. You may not even desire an appetizer OR main course. Fondue will simply fill your every need—until the next meal!

Spear, dip, and enjoy!

Restaurant review: Great Maple 👍👍👍👍

Fashion Island in Orange County California has a great variety of restaurants and eateries. One of our recommendations however is Great Maple. For fun cuisine, mind-blowing desserts, and all-around amazing beverages, it’s one of our favs—especially after an arduous day of shopping.

The photo above shows an appetizer built for sharing: portobello mushroom fries with Parmesan sprinkles, red pepper flakes, and basil pesto aioli. There is easily enough for two and the fries themselves are wonderfully prepared, crispy on the outside and yielding on the inside.  

The Great Maple BLT featured here is a fantastic main course. The highlight is, of course, the bacon of which there’s plenty. The sandwich is elegantly prepared, crunchy to taste and savory on the tongue.

The Steakhouse burger shown next tastes as yummy as it looks. It has the right amount of melting cheese, arugula, and picked red onions to match the perfectly cooked patty and buttery brioche bun.  

But what about dessert? Not to worry. There’s a mouth-watering collection of creations for every palette. The Famous Maple Bacon Donuts combine a savory and sweet combination that turns the ho-hum donut into a delicate show stopper confection.

And we couldn’t resist the light-as-air powdered sugar beignets prettily paired with tart lemon curd. Yes we ate every bit—who could resist? Overall, Great Maple is a fantastic spot for a meal when you’re shopping at Fashion Island or as a destination itself. We recommend the patio BTW—fresh air, memorable good, and a handy place for people watching. Great Maple has four locations in Southern California: Newport Beach, San Diego, La Jolla and Pasadena. Enjoy!  

Champagne: How to Add More Bubbles to Your Life

© Christy Destremau

© Christy Destremau

Did you know the heart of bubbly France is less than two hours from Paris by train or car? Arrive at the airport in the morning and you could be sipping a glass of Taittinger champagne for lunch along with your lobster salad or brie en croute.

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Reims is the busy center of the champagne region. Here, the top champagne houses have “show rooms” where visitors can learn the history of the champagnerie, tour the caves, and sample a bit of bubbly. (And of course buy a few bottles or cases.) These are some of our favorites.

The surrounding area around Reims is champagne vines and vineyards as far as the eye can see. The local rural hub is Epernay where some of the big houses like Moet & Chandon have tasting houses and tours. But many smaller producers carve out a place as well.

Our favorite champagne adventure, however, is exploring the picturesque champagne route for ourselves. Signs are easy to follow and you can wander this gorgeous, fragrant region at your leisure—with a few champagne tastings along the way. (Try to book in advance.)

There are also several affordable champagne area guides who speak multiple languages. They have a variety of offerings around the area and you can pick and choose depending on your budget. You can tour the caves, walk through the vineyards, see the bottling and riddling processes, see some high end estates or mom-and-pop vineyards, and everything in between. Naturally, you will taste a variety of bubblies as well as champagne-inspired cuisine like champagne sauce or champagne ice cream.

Finally, you may have the opportunity to learn the sabrage, the technique for opening a champagne bottle with a saber like our friend Vic here.

Don’t miss this intoxicating region if only for a day, a week, or more. Santé!

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The Dordogne Valley

There’s a fertile, ancient enclave in Southern France brimming with medieval castles, pretty vineyards, and a prehistoric history that offers some of the first glimpses of man. It’s called the  Dordogne Valley. It lies in central France just east of Bordeaux at the western coast. The Dordogne River flows west toward the sea from Dordogne Valley. It’s carved a marvelous broad valley of rich farmland that produces some the best vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood and goose-based products like foie gras and pâté on the planet. 

Early mankind found it a welcoming place to settle. They made their homes in cave complexes such as Lascaux and Pech Merle which you can still visit today. Living must have been somewhat easy as these early humans not only hunted and created farmland, but also had time to colorfully decorate the walls of their caves with a variety of animals and other images using primitive paint colors and spit. 

Since that time agriculture—and wine growing—has flourished in the area. During the centuries, the land was much prized and warring factions (British, French, Iberian, Ottoman, and more) criss-crossed the land erecting castles, squabbling over land rights, and lusting after the riches of the area.

Today, there’s still a moderate land grab. But these mainly involve hungry real estate buyers hoping to land a second home or retirement abode in this land of plenty. We love this almost hidden gem of France. While Brits love to commute to the Provence of Peter Mayle fame, we especially enjoy the lesser known Dordogne for its rustic charm, fantastic wine, picturesque attractions, and fantastic food. You’ll find walnuts, wine, ducks, geese, truffles, foie gras, rustic bread, hearty cuisine, and other goodies for your home (or your castle) all through this charming region. All are prominently for sale at stores and markets along the journey. 

The major towns of the Dordogne are Bergerac and Perigeux. Each of these is maybe worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the area, otherwise we suggest avoiding them because they are cosmopolitan business centers missing the charm of the countryside. 

Instead, we tend to stick to the most interesting towns of Sarlat-et-Canéda, Castelnaud, Domme, Beynac, and La Roque-Gageac. Sarlat is the largest of the these and sees itself as the foie gras capital of the area. It’s also the one of the best-preserved towns in France, often used as a set for historical movies and TV shows. 

Sarlat is worth at least one visit. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays—and it’s worth visiting on a market day if you can get there early for the drama and excitement. You’ll see a wide range of products for sale and you’ll rub elbows with the local French who are shopping for groceries and home goods—an education in itself!  Sarlat on market day is very crowded, particularly in the summer where as many market visitors are tourists as locals. Plan on coming back to the town at dusk and stay for dinner. Better still, pick an accommodation in town and you won’t miss a minute of the action.

Castelnaud and Beynac are medieval villages nestled along the Dordogne River. Each features a medieval castle with a great view of the river—and a history worthy of a BBC drama. During the Hundred Years’ War, these two castles changed hands multiple times between combatants. Even if you abhor history (and the working trebuchets still on display), they are worth a visit for the view of the river with its canoers and boaters or beautiful hot-air balloons floating overhead.  

Along the same section of the river is the most ancient town of La Roque-Gageac, which is practically carved into the hillside. This village is often cited as one of the most beautiful in France. It’s a perfect place for lunch at a cafe that has a view of the river or for glimpsing unusual visitors like these German bikers (in their 60s!)

La Roque is also a great place to get a river cruise on a gabare(sailing boat). A gabare is a traditional Dordogne River vessel that were used in the old days to carry agricultural products and wine from the Dordogne area to Bordeaux for export. A cruise takes an hour or so and a commentary in English is available. If a gabare isn’t energetic enough for you, renting a kayak and sailing down the river is a favorite pasttime. The renter will pick you up down river and bring you back to La Roque. 

Last but not least, you can book a spectacular hot air balloon ride in Beynac (and elsewhere in the Dordogne). While this is one of the more expensive adventures in the area (approx. $150/ea) floating above the river as the sun comes up or goes down is one of our most memorable experiences. With museums, cave complexes, outdoor markets, fantastic food, and affordable local wine, the Dordogne has everything for a relaxing vacation of a few days or a week. 

California Wine Tasting

It’s a proven fact—at least according to our taste buds—that wine tasted at the vineyard source seems richer than the same wine consumed at home or in a restaurant. This is probably a situational prejudice that has to do with vineyard eye candy, wine bouquet aromas, and conviviality of the experience. If we admit it, we love to taste most ANY wine at the source because it makes such a delicious memory. 

This isn’t to say that wine sold by the bottle or case at your favorite wine outlet is of lesser quality. But tasting wine at its birthplace, often poured by the makers themselves, enhances the experience of the coming slurp. A knowledgeable server with a story or two adds to the wine’s allure—and you may fall in love instantly the minute you take a sip.   

 California has some very fine wine tasting venues. (We may be writing a few of these posts since you could probably taste wine all over the state and take years to do it.) When tasting in Northern California’s Napa or Sonoma, Central Coast’s Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo, or down south in Temecula Valley, it’s easy to drive along the main routes and veer into a winery to sample the publicwares. 

 We’ve found that a little research and a few dollars toward aprivatefood and wine pairing or barrel tasting can net you a much more fulfilling experience, however, depending on your time and budget.

For example, the private tour and tasting at Far Niente in Napa is by appointment only. The tasting includes a range of their best wines paired with food, an extensive tour of the winery environs, and a wander through the vintage car collection of founder Gil Nickel. The tour lasts 90 minutes and costs around $50. 

 Justin Winery in Paso Robles is another chance to move above the usual. While drive up tastings are available, Justin offers a range of personalized tastings at the Château that are well worth the small group experience.  

When we wine taste, we typically schedule nor more than two tastings a day with lunch in between. This keeps us safe on the road and makes sure the tastings don’t blur together. (Remember to spit; you don’t have to gulp down every drop!)

In future postings, we’ll share some of our quirkiest experiences tasting wine all over the world, including France, Switzerland, Germany, England, Spain, and more. But tasting at your local winery can be just as fun. 

Sip and Enjoy!

 

Mouth-Watering Desserts

Tarte Tatin, Loire, France

Tarte Tatin, Loire, France

Dessert-crafting is an art practiced throughout much of the world. And we never turn down the opportunity to sample these delicacies no matter where we land! Herein are some of our favorite treats.

Napoleon, Laguna Beach, USA

Napoleon, Laguna Beach, USA

Honeyed Fruit Compote

Honeyed Fruit Compote

Grand Marnier Soufflé, Honfleur, France

Grand Marnier Soufflé, Honfleur, France

Afternoon Tea, London, England

Afternoon Tea, London, England

Rum Baba, Paris, France

Rum Baba, Paris, France

Champagne ice cream with champagne biscuits and champagne sorbet, Epernay, France

Champagne ice cream with champagne biscuits and champagne sorbet, Epernay, France

World-Class Cuisine

Filet of Beef, Rouen, France

Filet of Beef, Rouen, France

We’ve eaten high…and low…in our travels around the planet. Most expensive meal? La Tour D’Argent in Paris, where Louis XIV dined. Cost: more than a typical house payment. Least expensive meal? Also in Paris at a sidewalk Crepe vendor who make us dinner for xx euros a piece. Here are some of our most memorable dishes.

Mega Cheese Platter, Rouen, France

Mega Cheese Platter, Rouen, France

Coquilles Saint Jacques (scallops), Rouen, France

Coquilles Saint Jacques (scallops), Rouen, France

Country Paté, Tours, France

Country Paté, Tours, France

Sausage, Beef, and Sauerkraut, Strasbourg, France

Sausage, Beef, and Sauerkraut, Strasbourg, France

Yorkshire Pudding and Turkey Dinner, Stratford, England

Yorkshire Pudding and Turkey Dinner, Stratford, England

Grilled Foie Gras on Toast Points, Sarlat-la-Canéda, France

Grilled Foie Gras on Toast Points, Sarlat-la-Canéda, France

French Omelette, Le-Baux-de-Provence, France

French Omelette, Le-Baux-de-Provence, France