Conor Power visits an historic hotel and restaurant in the heart of the Dordogne and finds as good an example as any of traditional French hospitality at its mouth-watering best
The whole notion of French hospitality is an elusive one. To some, it means the sniffy, stuffy variety that many people associate with high-end restaurants. This kind of service has been replicated around the world and it’s often bettered. In Denmark, for example, or in Spain. Closer to home, there are plenty of examples of how cutting-edge cuisine has shown a knowledge for food that’s hard to match anywhere else.
France is considered the home of modern cuisine and there are good reasons for this, but does it have any saving qualities that make a culinary visit to France unique?
If you look around the twittersphere, you’ll find no shortage of those who say that France’s day is over as a culinary nation; that there are many other countries where the experience is fresher and nicer all round.It is wonderful to see really good cuisine taking off in so many places, including here in Ireland, of course, but the marked difference in France is that cuisine is in the blood here. We might be hot on cuisine for the last 20 years. In France, the traditions go back over the centuries.
Which is a long way of introducing the hotel/restaurant La Couleuvrine. Located in a towering edifice (that did formerly serve as a watchtower) at a corner of the old walls of the remarkable town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, this is typical of the kind of family-run institution that you don’t find replicated so easily in other countries.
This is no a place with a Michelin star and it’s not a hotel of the clinically perfect world of international anglophonia. This is a cosy hostelry set in one of France’s real gems in one of the gastronomic beauty spots of Europe. It’s also a place where the food is good… damn good.
Inside the door, there’s a rustic charm to the place that’s draws you in. the ample dining room of the restaurant is set over two rooms. The first one has doors leading to the terrace in front. The decor features heavy timber joists and exposed stonework, lending an air of country lodge to the room. Just off, is a larger dining room with more of a classic “dining room” atmosphere and there’s more dining space again in a smaller room overhead.
It had been a long drive down from Cherbourg port earlier that day and it was with weary and hungry bodies that we arrived in Sarlat. By the time we’d dressed and changed, it was getting to the peak eating-out time in France – i.e. about 8:30 pm. The main dining room was full of relaxed diners in semi-formal and casual dress.The soup consommé starter contained little bits of foie gras floating around in it. On paper, it sounds slightly frivolous and very wrong but in practice, it was deliciously right. Sarlat is in the heart of Périgord (the old and oft-used name for the Dordogne) – a place where the knowledge of how to cook and prepare every piece of duck and goose known to man is part of the cultural DNA.
So it was a no-brainer to go for the duck confit as a main course. One of the ultimate French comfort foods, the Couleuvrine version was produced to perfection and accompanied by pommes sarladaises. The French do all kinds of wonderful things with potatoes that the average Irish person would not dream of and this was no exception.
There’s a lift to the upper floors and rooms of the Couleuvrine and access to them via the extended parts of this 16th-century building can feel a bit like negotiating your way through a mediaeval village, but that just adds to the character of the place and the rooms are bright, tastefully decorated and well-equipped to a good modern standard, with free WiFi in all the rooms.The following morning, we had breakfast in the very light and slightly funky bistro restaurant. The sun hits the front of the Couleuvrine in the morning and it was time to take it outside amidst the strategically-place vines on the street-level terrace, admiring Sarlat’s picture-postcard buildings and watching the good people of the town pass by.
Before we left, we took a brochure about the truffle festival in early 2015 and swore we’d be back. The Couleuvrine has been dominated by women since it became a hotel over 30 years ago. The current head chef – Marion Martel – is the granddaughter of Annick and Serge Lebon, who came down from Paris to become hotel & restaurant owners all those years ago. Their wish was to earn a living by serving people good food and warm hospitality – something that the current generation is continuing to deliver.
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For further information, contact Hôtel La Couleuvrine, 1, place de La Bouquerie, 24200 SARLAT, France. Telephone : 0033 5 53 59 27 80. www.la-couleuvrine.com
Menus go from €22 to €34 for the evening meal and the quality standard makes them well worth it at that level. There is another bistro-style restaurant that serves the very comprehensive breakfast for what is still officially classed as a 2-star hotel and their lunch (which we didn’t get to try) has €15 and €22 menus.