There they were, half a dozen geese cowering in the corner of a shed, waiting for their turn to be force fed. I held my breath in anticipation as Nathalie Mazet, one-half of Elevage du Bouyssou, one of the countless foie gras farms dotting this side of France, explains how the process is carried out.
I have always been a squeamish one; even the sight of a Chinese cook fishing my dinner from an aquarium makes me feel terrible. As Nathalie grabs a protesting duck and forces it underneath the gavage (the machine used to force feed these creatures), I feel as guilty as a post-Japan Logan Paul, expecting to be put off foie gras forever.
The process was over in a flash, as the geese gulped down the maize in a brief moment of acquiescence. This ‘cruel’ method, which has drawn flak from animal rights activists around the world and that launched impassioned outbursts from celebrity individuals, took all about three seconds. It happens thrice a day and looks uncomfortable rather than painful (“The foie gras won’t be good if the geese are stressed,” quipped Nathalie later). When done with the force-feeding process, the quarter-pound liver weighs about two pounds. The animals are then transferred to a small pen where they spend their final weeks – but this is after they get to waddle around the huge farmgrounds for most of their lives.
I’d say factory-farmed animals like chicken and pigs have it A LOT worse.
But in the culinary centre of France, they love all kinds of food and not just foie gras. Known as the Perigord Noir, this region was every foodie’s dream destination, famous for its weekly food markets held in France’s les plus beaux villages (most beautiful villages).
At Sarlat-la-Caneda, where we are living, the sun gleamed off golden buildings that stretched over medieval streets made for wandering. It is a lovely, peaceful town in all respects, until Wednesday and Saturday rolls around. This is when the crowds descend on Sarlat, unperturbed by the autumn drizzle, enticed by the sexy colors and aroma of fresh produce.
We were there, jostling with rabid foodies bundled up in coats, as the sky pissed steadily and ceaselessly all over us. I was glad I wasn’t on a diet – everything was screaming EAT ME! and, in no time, I was nibbling my way through rilletes, baguettes, tapenade, cheeses and all manner of victuals faster than the Hungry Caterpillar-who-doesn’t-give-a-fuck-if-she-pops-a-pants-button. We found brief respite from the rain in an old church of Sainte Marie which, much to my delight, has also been cleared out and converted into a market.
Apart from market day, there was nothing much to do around Sarlat except exploring its little nooks and getting lost.
We had a lovely enough time, until Ari tripped over a cobblestone and bumped his forehead on our way to check out the Lanterne des Morts (the lantern of the dead), a curious piece of cylindrical architecture from the 12th century, allegedly in honor of a saint who miraculously healed sick townsfolk while he was here.
A kind lady took pity on our bawling child – whose forehead had now swelled to the side of a goose egg – and immediately brandished ice packs, bandages and plenty of comforting words from her magical bottomless purse. Ari was still crying when we came upon a group a hand-holding Hare Krishna devotees inside the lantern humming hymns that speak to the soul, and you can imagine how trippy it must’ve looked, that even our sobbing son was stunned into silence.
Another town that has to be seen to be believed is La-Roque Gageac. Huddled by the banks of the Dordogne River, some of the ochre-colored medieval buildings that make up this village are carved right into the sheer cliffs sheltering a 12th-century troglodyte fort.
Of course, in the Dordogne, eating came first and we had le pique nique – actually, a feast would be a more appropriate term given that there was foie gras and nana’s special six-hour braised lamb on the table – in a park overlooking the river, where kayaks and traditional gabarres (barges) shuttling tourists ply the waters.
Kids under 6 weren’t allowed on the kayaks so we explored the town. There was some climbing involved – part of the town and its ornamental gardens Jardin de Marqueyssac is nestled on a rocky spur to fend of Viking invaders – but it was nothing that even Biggest Loser rejects couldn’t do.
There were a few chic stores along the way, but we were more fascinated with the troglodyte dwellings suspended above the village, causing us to miss out on the golden opportunity to buy some La Roque fridge magnets. Oh well.
These troglodyte dwellings are a familiar sight all over Dordogne however. In the nearby UNESCO heritage Vezere Valley, limestone hills are pockmarked with prehistoric attractions dating from the Paleolithic era, including decorated caves that made Picasso himself gasp and famously announce “We’ve invented nothing” and the Prehisto Parc, a prehistoric theme park in desperate need of better artists.
With our youngest safely stowed away in the apartment with his nana, we followed the footsteps of the Neanderthals. Our first stop was La Roque Saint Cristophe, the largest settlement of its type in Europe. Perched high on cliff and continuously inhabited for 55,000 years, the caves and terraces were once home to a large troglodyte town – we passed kitchens, slaughterhouses and even places of worship on our way up – and later, an imposing fortress. Some rooms still bear ancient traces of smoke.
A video showed how, back in the Middle Ages, there was an entire village, complete with its own potter, shoemaker and carpenter workshops as well as a church, constructed within the rock’s natural cavity. To access it, one has to climb a great staircase carved out from rock – surely an incredible feat considering the limited number of tools back in those days.
Obviously people back then didn’t suffer from fear of heights and / or vertigo.
At the Grotte de Rouffignac (Rouffignac Caves), a train took us into a series of dark immense caverns lined with nests of prehistoric bears – the cave’s first visitors – and covered in cave art and modern graffiti (modern in this context meant the 17th century). We were led in by a French-speaking tour guide, and almost fell asleep if not for the freezing temperature and the screaming toddler behind me, who was in the middle of an epic meltdown. Obviously, she found Mr. Tour Guide as dull as a dishwater too.
The whole incident reminded me of Ari in Chenonceau and Paris so I had nothing but compassion for the couple, who was sweating it out because tourists were starting to cluck their tongues in disapproval. I tried to distract her a bit with silly faces, but she cried even louder to my horror. Suffice to say, her parents are regretting the whole trip and I secretly thanked God we left Ari behind or else he would’ve turned this into a real fun fest.
But yeah, it was too dark to take any pictures in the cave but the engravings and paintings – especially the composition of 65 different animals including wooly rhinos and mammoths on the Great Ceiling – tugged at my soul. The fact that the artists behind this etchings crawled several kilometers into the caves – the pathways have been widened for easy access since – in pitch blackness equipped with nothing but flint, chalks and a fire torch to light the way and lay there drawing on on their backs just blows my puny little mind.
We hoped to see the paintings that impressed Picasso by heading to the newly opened International Centre for Cave Art, also known as Lascaux IV, but there were no more English-speaking tours for the day.
The Dordogne is one of the few places I’d like to revisit, so at least we have a good reason to return. That, and the foie gras.
- The Dordogne has many pretty villages you can base yourself in, and each of these villages have their own food markets, which is a highlight for many tourists even if they’re not planning on buying anything. Check the schedules online and try to coincide your stay with a market day.
- Many foie gras farms welcome visitors in the summer but some require an advance booking. Do check the opening hours of the farm you’re interested in visiting. You should eat in the farm restaurant as well. We did, and it was one of our best and most authentic meals in France.
- You need to visit at least one prehistoric site when you’re in the region and many of these sites require a guided visit. Try to pre-book an English tour (however, the French-speaking tours are still worth it if you miss the English ones). Some children might be too young to fully appreciate the significance of what they’ve seen but children’s books like The Cave Painters of Lascaux and Cave Baby can help them better appreciate the attractions before visiting.