The Valentre Bridge is a UNESCO site in Cahors, France. // © 2010 2010 Phillip Capper
When I told a French friend I was going to Cahors in southwest France, he mumbled, “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
What he failed to mention is this “nowhere” serves up fairy-tale views, vintners producing fine wine and seven Michelin-starred chefs, all hidden away in the Lot Valley, about an hour’s drive from Toulouse.
Perhaps my friend did not want the secret of the place revealed. After being there, I get that.
From the windows of my antique-filled hotel room in Chateau de Mercues, a centuries-old Relais & Chateaux castle boasting one of those Michelin-star chefs, the Lot Valley unfolded in all its glory. The landscape reminded me of Vermont — green mountains, meandering rivers and farmland, but with the addition of stunning vineyards and medieval history.
As in Vermont, there is pride in the local products here. In this case, hundreds of vineyards producing deep red Cahors AOC wine, made mostly from Malbec grapes.
Lot is also one of the foremost regions in France for the precious black winter truffle, foie gras (from farm-raised ducks and geese) and saffron. Fresh lamb, sweet melons, walnuts and creamy Rocomadour goat cheese are among other locally produced sources of pride.
No wonder top chefs have sought out this place.
Add to that a friendliness and lust for traditional life and, laughed Bertrand Vigouroux, whose family is the biggest wine exporter in the region and owns Chateau de Mercues, “The Lot is very rich, but without money.”
Wining and Dining
Cahors, with a population of 20,000, is the biggest town in the region. It’s a city full of narrow 12th- and 13th-century streets, medieval houses, a lively covered market and bragging rights for the 14th-century Valentre Bridge, recognized by UNESCO as the only fortified bridge with three towers in the world.
The history of the region includes the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), but Cahors was a trade city even back in Roman times. Elsewhere in the valley, off winding and sometimes rugged roadways, you pass small medieval villages, castles and fortresses, some literally clinging to cliffs.
For me, however, the biggest delight was following the valley’s tiny roads to treasures of the culinary and wine variety.
In tiny St. Medard, a village of only 150, for instance, a former schoolhouse is now home base to one of the area’s top chefs, Alexis Pelissou, of Le Gindreau, who looks a bit like Mark Twain with his thick hair and handlebar mustache. His eyes twinkling behind very blue glasses, Pelissou, who has earned one star from Michelin, likes to talk about food as much as his other passions — philosophy and gardening.
The chef presented me with a glorious meal on his restaurant’s open-air terrace, showcasing local products including foie gras, first introduced to the region by the Romans. His foie gras creme brulle was downright sinful. He also generously uses truffles, which he finds hidden under trees in winter with the help of his truffle dog. A five-course feast at Le Gindreau is only $68 per person and lasts several hours.
Pelissou said his cooking philosophy embraces local artisan ingredients and regional wines, and is based on a respect for history.
“You are not the first, you are one of others, part of the past, your parents and ancestors, and you must respect that,” he said.
The region’s wine producers are small when compared Bordeaux and Burgundy, but many go back several generations. And don’t underestimate the ambitions of the current generation in putting French Malbec on the international wine map.
Many of today’s vintners welcome visitors for tours and complimentary tastings. It is somewhat surprising to visit a small producer such as Clos Siguier, only to discover wine created here is exported to acclaimed restaurants in Paris and New York, as vintner Gil Bley told me, while taking me through perfect rows of vines and showing off his grapes with pride.
The wine produced in the Lot Valley is reasonably priced — starting around $11 a bottle. You can find an excellent reserve for $30 to $60.
The Lot truly feels like France’s hidden secret — except that it is currently being discovered more and more. British tourists rent gites (rental homes with kitchens) for weeks at a time. The former president of Cartier, Alain Dominique Perrin, purchased Chateau Lagrezette, a 500-year-old castle, and is producing wine and offering tours. The Queen of Denmark has a castle here, too.
The 37-year-old mayor of Cahors, Jean-Marc Vayssouze, said he hopes the increasing popularity of the wine will show the world that Cahors is indeed a place “where there is much to savor.”
I couldn’t agree more.