Driving deeper and deeper into the forested countryside, I wonder what awaits. It’s getting dark and I hope I can figure out all the turns as I navigate through the small towns and tiny villages of southern France. We made arrangements at a farm/B&B an hour north of the city of Bordeaux, beyond the normal tourist routes. The roads become narrower and the villages tinier the closer we get.
In the last light of day, across a green, flower-filled meadow, set amidst tall trees, we see the stone buildings of Ferme Auberge La Gabaye, www.lagabaye.com. Several cows interrupt their quiet munching to watch us pass. Christianne, the energy-filled proprietress, greets us warmly, showing us to the little guesthouse that will be our home for the next ten days.
Christianne, who speaks very little English, manages to communicate that breakfast will be ready the following morning whenever we happen to awaken. It’s been a long travel day and we fall into the downy coziness of the comfortable bed.
Breakfast is a continental affair with the typical coffee and baguettes. But Christianne’s homemade cherry, grapefruit and rose-petal jams make it special.
According to Nathalie, Christianne’s daughter who speaks excellent English and helps run the Auberge, the farm has been in the family for over two hundred years. She does her best to facilitate communication despite her obvious neck pain after being broadsided the day before by a driver from la-la land.
Nathalie has traced the family history here back to 1680 and explains that their village, La Petite Glaive, had more inhabitants prior to WWII but suffered much damage during the war. Now, the village is a collection of widely dispersed, old farmhouses and a few newer homes set in a landscape of lush fields, gardens and thick forests.
The first day is spent exploring around the ancient town of Guitres, as recounted in the previous article. Upon returning, Christianne is busily preparing dinner. Relaxing before dinner with a glass of the farm’s red wine beneath the many fruit and nut trees is close to heaven. The quiet is broken only by the calls of birds and the breeze through the trees. Not far away, a cuckoo calls, sounding exactly like the eponymous clocks.
The bell rings and dinner is served. First, an aperitif-delicious, sweet and fruity, followed by homemade pate’ de foie gras and fresh bread. The main course is succulent confit de canard, leg of duck seasoned and preserved in the local manner, surrounded by fresh, locally-grown vegetables. Confit is a speciality of southwestern France. It was developed centuries ago as a way of preserving meats and Christianne is a master. Served with generous amounts of the farm’s wine and topped off with a delicious pear tort or a luscious custard, it is heaven and a prelude of meals to come–authentic, down-home, French-country cuisine.
During the long, slow dusk following dinner, a walk up the deserted road provides an opportunity to see close up the few farmhouses and gardens of the village and experience the sense of timeless peace in the idyllic quiet of the Dordogne countryside.
Every meal is a gastronomic experience in regional cuisine, always beginning with a different, delicious, homemade aperitif. The main courses vary but duck is frequent. An omelet of farm-fresh eggs with local, wild mushrooms is a highlight.
One meal though, remains especially memorable. In the large fireplace in her kitchen, Christianne builds a small fire of dried, grape vines pruned from her vineyard. They quickly turn to coals over which she places a grate and proceeds to grill an ample duck breast. This is a local specialty. When done and sliced into medallions, the duck is succulent with a unique, smoky flavor.
After a few days, I discover Christianne’s root and wine cellars. Yes, there are many bottles of wine, but also shelf after shelf and room after room of canned fruits, vegetables, confits, pates, sauces and jams, not to mention the baskets and baskets of hazel and walnuts strewn around. It is a cornucopia of canning and a glimpse into regional farm life over the centuries.
La Gabaye is located only an hour from Saint-Emilion, one of France’s premier wine growing regions. Vineyards are everywhere. Old Chateaus dot the hilltops. The opportunities for sampling regional wines are endless as are the opportunities for exploring the other wonders of the Bordeaux region.