Fiona Maclean goes to attend the Fest’Oie in the town but discovers a lot more
There are areas of the Dordogne, France where the 100 Year War might linger on. Where the expat British community all but dominates and where Franglais is the norm. Sarlat however, seems quintessentially French. Perhaps it’s the perfectly restored town centre, completed in the 1960s under the Loi Malraux – a policy introduced in France in the 1960s when Andre Malraux was Minister of Culture. Or perhaps it is just that this particular town unlike much of the region only briefly fell under English rule, when, by the treaty of Brétigny, Edward III of England renounced his claim to the throne of France in exchange for the South West of France. After ten years, the English were chased from France, though the Wars of Religion continued to rage and the town was under constant seige until the Edict of Nantes under the reign of Henry IV brought peace.
Much of Sarlat was rebuilt from the late 15th century onwards. The town centre is now a maze of narrow streets lined with stunning buildings. Bars and restaurants have a timeless quality and the thriving market sells local specialities without the mark-up of a tourist town.
I was there ostensibly to take part in the Fest’Oie, although almost every month of the year there seems to be a festival or celebration in Sarlat. Fest’Oie is of course, a celebration of one of the region’s specialities – foie gras d’oie. Spreading over a weekend, events range from visits to local farms and street parties to a 15 course goose feast!
At a nearby farm in Paulin, we were reassured to see flocks of geese in the field. The farmer told us that the geese are free range until they are 5 or 6 months old, at which point ‘Gavage’ starts. We watched as he demonstrated the controversial process of fattening up the geese before slaughter on a mixture of maize and maize meal. The aim is to increase the size of the liver from around 200g to around 1k over a period of three to four weeks. The farmer takes a goose in his arms and uses a flexible tube to ensure that each goose is fed the correct amount. It didn’t look horrific. While I’m not going to pretend it is a natural process, it didn’t look cruel, the geese were not choked by the feed and nor did they appear to be particularly frightened by the process. If anything a gaggle of people with cameras seemed a more upsetting event for them. The French in our party were surprised that any of us thought it might be controversial.
Later, we learnt how to cook with foie gras, the difference between the various foie gras products you will find for sale and then joined in the lively Bodeg’oie street party which turned out to be just a prequel to the full on festivities the next day when geese were driven through the streets as they would have been in medieval times.
For those who are not foie gras fans, earlier in the year in January the truffle festival celebrates another of the region’s specialities and there’s also a film festival in the Autumn. Every other year the Ringuette pays tribute to the Occitinan heritage of the region with traditional games and Felibree, on the first Sunday of July takes place in one of the towns of the department and provides an insight into Occitanian traditions, from costume and dancing to food and music.
Even if your visit doesn’t coincide with one of the festivals, there’s plenty to see and do. The town has a stunning and fascinating Cathedral, which dates back to the twelfth century and originally belonged to a Benedictine abbey. Then there’s the curious Lantern of the Dead – a bullet shaped construction thought to date back to the crusades. Or, just a few miles away you’ll find the gardens of Marqueyssac, a fascinating maze of perfectly manicured boxwood bushes. While the château is 17th Century, the gardens were planted in the 1860s by new owner Julien de Cerval. Carved into fantastic shapes they cover some five kilometres of walks. The gardens were restored and opened to the public by new owner Kleber Rossillon and are now classified as “Jardins remarquables” by the French Ministry of Culture.
All of that, complemented by superb food and wine. Regional specialities include truffles, foie gras, walnuts and chestnuts. And now, you can reach Sarlat with ease, flying directly to Brive from City Airport or from Stansted. A perfect weekend for those looking for a French experience.