Sally Blyth finds generosity and warm camaraderie on a rain-soaked afternoon in the Dordogne, France
We're staying in a delightful B&B in the small village of Grolejac in the Dordogne and decide to head for the Saturday market in the nearby town of Sarlat (where Chocolat was filmed). It's pouring with rain as we set off and the roads are French-country narrow; driving is difficult to say the least and, of course, on the "other" side of the road.
The rain gets heavier and, all too soon, the roads become flooded. I need to gather all my driving skills to negotiate them. I can barely see out of the windscreen and this little outing has become a mission where turning back is as dicey as continuing. We arrive in Sarlat at the same time as a storm. Sadly but understandably, the market is a shadow of what it would usually be. Somehow, we end up driving right through the market itself and, although this is likely to be neither normal nor permissible, we get a close-up view of things without having to get out of the car. The only stalls doing business appear to be those selling raincoats and umbrellas.
There is plenty of parking today but the rain is pelting too hard and the weather too nasty to even contemplate a walkabout. We decide there is no point in lingering and head back to Grolejac. The drive back is equally as treacherous and we are pleased to make it without mishap. The rain subsides a little and we venture to the local superette to get some supplies — it's not quite the same as rummaging at the market but, in typical French fashion, pretty good, nevertheless.
Coffee is required and we spy a cafe at the end of the precinct. Or is it a bar? It appears closed but the door is open, so we go in. The place is a shambles; boxes everywhere, furniture stacked haphazardly, a dog wandering about and a motorbike parked inside. There are two guys at the bar drinking red wine and talking loudly. It's not yet midday. They give us a friendly mid-conversation nod. A woman appears and says a bright and breezy "Bonjour." Still unsure of the nature of the place, we order coffees and it seems to be appropriate; the woman heads for the coffee machine.
We take a seat and I pick up the newspaper among the chaos. The sports pages are full of French rugby news. We've been in France for only a matter of days at this point, so my rusty French hasn't had much of a workout yet but I manage to make sense of the news of the day and share snippets with my husband as we wait. The photos fill the gaps.
We finish our coffees — they are very good — and are about to get up to pay when the woman arrives and puts a large plate of fresh chicken nibbles in front of us. She invites us, in French, to enjoy lunch. We are a little taken aback and politely decline. We didn't order any food. It's free, she assures us in a friendly manner and motions for us to eat up. We are not convinced. What is this place? It's hardly a cafe. It's not a restaurant. There are no other customers. Perhaps it's a film set. We feel like intruders. The chicken looks deliciously sticky and tasty.
One of the guys leaves with a hearty "Au revoir." He's obviously had enough wine for one morning. The other guy pours himself another glass of red wine from a carafe as the woman sets places at the table where he sits. They beckon us over and won't take "non" for an answer. There are four places at the table; it seems we are staying for lunch with them.
"Act like you're at home," she says in French. "Have some wine," he says, and pours before we can respond. This is infinitely more tempting than heading out into the rain.
A few hours and a few vin rouges later, we feel very much at home and have got to know Jose and Corine and their dog, Cliege, rather well. They've seen a bit of life, these two, and it's evident they embrace it from all angles. Jose is a chef, Corine a born hostess. My husband speaks no French and their English is minimal, so I am busy interpreting while diving deep into my inner dictionary as well as my pocket one. The chicken disappears among the laughter.
Conversation flows, along with the wine and we manage to communicate well enough. We cover many topics, even in the area of law. We discover that the reason for the chaos of the place is that they have sold it. It is effectively closed but they are keeping it open — sort of — while they pack everything up. It's mainly open for their friends to pop in, rather than random rain-affected, coffee-seeking Kiwis but I think we can now loosely call this a friendship, for today at least.
Alas, the purchaser is proving difficult and not fulfilling his end of the deal. They are somewhat frazzled and need legal advice. My husband is a lawyer. He empathises and offers a few suggestions, via my stilted French. The law for this sort of thing is quite different in France than it is in New Zealand but the advice seems helpful to them and they are grateful for it.
We're intrigued to learn that they are planning to escape village life and go even more rural to live in a hut among the trees. Cliege is a talented truffle-hunter and that will be their future livelihood. If the sale falls through, they'll put their truffle dreams on hold, unpack all the boxes and get the bar back in business again.
As the rain continues to fall and the afternoon wears on, Jose brings out his still; it turns out he makes his own Poire Williams eau de vie - potent stuff. He pours it with pride and my husband takes a shine to the colourless drop. I sensibly avoid it. More stories are told, and the merriment escalates until it is time to say "au revoir and bonne chance" to our generous hosts. The sun comes out and we take a walk into the hills above the village to blow away the cobwebs.
It's hard to match an impromptu afternoon like this, getting to know interesting and convivial people who you are never likely to see again. Tomorrow they will continue packing and anticipating their truffle-hunting future; we'll be off to experience a taste of the past at the extraordinary chateau de Beynac.
Postscript Notes: We stayed at La Cachette B&B in Grolejac and returned to Sarlat a couple of times over the following week. It's a charming and well-preserved medieval town with a lively square, great food [especially the foie gras], gorgeous cobbled alleyways — and a fabulous market. For an excellent base from which to explore the incredible scenery and history of the Dordogne, stay in Sarlat or one of the small surrounding villages such as Grolejac. A car is required to make the most of things.
I still think of Jose and Corine and that wonderful experience whiling away a stormy afternoon in the Dordogne. I'm sure, wherever they may be, they're enjoying good food and wine, some homemade Poire Williams — and hopefully a truffle or two.