Reilhaguet in the Lot, FranceI am a great fan of the Lot département (46 Midi-Pyrenees), initially from wine-hunting around the town of Cahors, and more recently further upstream on the Rivers Lot and Célé, where the landscapes get even more enticing. A recent trip was greatly enhanced by having Helen Martin’s book Lot: Travels Through a Limestone Landscape in SouthWest France, which tells the story of the landscape and people of this region of South West France.
It was her recommendation which led us to the stunning view at Reilhaguet (46 Lot) (see above) which she accurately describes as “the view to end all views, a roof of the world view, a heart-stopping, aching, yearning view” (about 25km north of Cahors just east of the N20).
But one of the undoubted joys of the region has to be its gastronomy and the richness of its markets, and with Helen’s permission we can share an extract from her chapter on “Food and Drink in the Lot”

Eating and drinking in the Lot is not so much gastronomy, it is more a way of life. Simple pleasures like early-morning mushrooming results in gastronomic treats at meal times.
The food used to revolve around the polyculture practised by the small propriétaires, less so today. But fruits are still bottled, geese are still stuffed, pigs are fattened, påtés are tinned, ducks are turned into hunks of confit, and yellow chickens, dotted with oil and butter and legs akimbo, are forced into ovens to emerge an hour or so later, tasting simply sensational. It is a day-in, day-out, year-long occupation. Tout es bou per sa sason ‘To everything there is a season’ takes on new meaning. ©Helen Martin

Helen Martin writes more about the Lot in her blog at

To read more about Food and Wine in the Lot see………
From Helen Martin’s Book Lot: Travels Through a Limestone Landscape in SouthWest France
CHAPTER SIX: Food and drink

You arrange to meet at half-past five in the morning. Bleary-eyed, you rise and throw open the shutters to the day. The sky is white-blue and a thin summer mist, like half-whipped egg white, swirls over the valley beneath you, smothering the familiar landmarks. Only the pigeonniers can pierce it. It looks like a gigantic plate of îles flottantes.
As the mist lifts you see smoke rise from the cottage chimney. Across the fields you can hear the children shouting and then the slow rumble of the car. You pile in on top of the chatter and drive to the farm.
Everyone is up already, so we leave the children and plunge down the meadows behind the farm buildings towards the woods. Our feet are wet. The grass is soaked with dew. Through the woods we go, heads down. ‘Attention vipères!’ says Reine, but we do not see any snakes.
We are mushrooming and our eyes are skinned for the little yellow girolles with wavy up-turned caps and big bold ceps.
The floor of the wood is soft with the mould of centuries. It rained yesterday and our feet sink into a bed of moss and leaves.
For two hours we walk thus, abreast, eyes down, following the forest’s invisible paths, mushroom paths, etched across Reine’s mind in an almost subliminal way. Every year since childhood she has followed the same tracks.
We don’t find many- enough girolles for breakfast, and only one cep; it is too early in the year for ceps. We leave the woods and wade back through the grass, heading towards the children’s cries. The sun is up, the light is limpid. We enter the dark warmth of the cottage and sit at an old table in front of the fire.
Madame, Reine’s mother, examines our finds and sets tiny cups of thick black coffee in front of us. The talk is relaxed and convivial.
“Did you go to such and such a spot? What! There were none under the fallen chestnut? My God! Do you remember the ones we found here the year before last?’
It could be any day, any year, any century. We divide the spoils, sink a drop of eau de vie and I make my way home. It is only half-past ten. The day has begun well.

Eating and drinking in the Lot is not so much gastronomy, it is more a way of life. Simple pleasures like early-morning mushrooming results in gastronomic treats at meal times.
The food used to revolve around the polyculture practised by the small propriétaires, less so today. But fruits are still bottled, geese are still stuffed, pigs are fattened, påtés are tinned, ducks are turned into hunks of confit, and yellow chickens, dotted with oil and butter and legs akimbo, are forced into ovens to emerge an hour or so later, tasting simply sensational. It is a day-in, day-out, year-long occupation. Tout es bou per sa sason ‘To everything there is a season’ takes on new meaning.
hotel au dejeuner de sousceyrac If you want to know about eating and drinking in the Lot, you should read Pierre Benoit’s novel Le Déjeuner de Sousceyrac, a piece of writing in which is immortalised what was a rather dreary looking hotel in the slightly unprepossessing town of Sousceyrac, For a long time and in spite of its dreariness it had a Michelin star.* Today, it has to be said, the hotel has been renovated and the town cleaned up too.
In the days of the fictional book, Mme Prunet surprised her uninitiated guests with the offer of a simple chicken. It was just that she forgot to mention that it would be preceded by foie gras of duck and little freshwater crayfish straight from one of the many Ségala streams. Maybe she was being a touch mean, she wondered after the crayfish. Should she send the youngster to the épicerie for sardines? Then there was the trout and the dish of stuffed ceps, followed by jugged hare, then, at last the chicken, ending with a sumptuous omelette au rhum……

So what do you wash all this down with? What do Lenin, the Orthodox Church, the Tsars, Pope Jean XXII, Henri IV, Clément Marot, and the Romans all have in common? The answer is the wine of Cahors. The Orthodox Church adopted it as its communion wine; the Tsars used it at official functions; Pope Jean invited Quercy wine growers to cultivate his new vineyard at Chateauneuf (du Pape); Clément Marot called it ‘une liqueur de feu’; Caesar drank and exported it. It is thought that the slaves accompanying the Roman invaders brought wine-making skills to the area.
The English liked it enough to make the wine-growers of Bordeaux feel so threatened that they started to operate a protection racket of taxes and constraints against the Cahors growers during the Hundred Years War, François I planted Cahors vines at Fontainebleau.
A long history, therefore, but not always a proud one. Quality declined drastically in the fourteenth century, for example, and at subsequent times the wine was so poor it was only fit to be added to Bordeaux to give the latter depth. The region clawed its way back to prosperity in the nineteenth century (as much of the local architecture attests) only for phylloxera and war to drag it back down again. Cahors reached a milestone in 1971 when it was promoted to be an AOC wine and today the region produces 30 million bottles annually on about 4,000 hectares.
Traditionally a black wine full of tannin, Cahors is made from 70% Malbec, ( sometimes known Auxerrois or Cot grapes) combined with Merlot and/or Tannat, usually 15% of each, though the proportions are now being slightly modified to attract a wider market. Cahors is the only European stronghold of Malbec, a grape that has declined in popularity in Europe and which is very sensitive to frost. In recent years it has been grown very successfully in Argentina..
In spite of the tannin you can drink it young, when it is at its fruitiest, but also, sometimes, a bit harsh. Best to lay it down down – Malbec does need ageing to develop into a full-flavoured, robust, purple wine, with a long finish. It’s good with game and, as already mentioned, astonishingly good with the local cheese and duck.
But the tannin in the wine is a source of some discussion among the wine growers, some feeling that the essential nature of the wine is being altered to accommodate more modern palettes. Fingers are often pointed at incomers to the area, though there are some growers like Philippe Bernède of Clos La Coutale who are local and who successfully export less tannic, lighter wine, more adapted to contemporary taste.
The Jouffreau family take an opposite point of view. It is almost as if the wines are designed to be provocative and they pander to no one’s taste but their own. The wines they make, though, speak loudly of terroir and tannin as well as individuality and they are honest, earthy and often very, very good.
With your foie gras try a dessert wine by Jean Baldès who also makes the Clos Triguedina award winning wines- Triguedina meaning in Occitan “I am looking forward to dinner, me trigo de dina. One of his new offerings are the Vin de Lune ( white ‘moon’ wines) picked by hand in the dark, or very early in the morning when temperatures are cool. This is an apparent revival of a sixteenth century habit when the peasants used to creep into the manor and steal the grapes, which cool and fresh as they were, retained their fruitiness. Baldès also produces the 100% Malbec Prince Probus and recently started making the New Black Wine, based on a thirteenth century method of production when the black wine of Cahors was famous all over Europe.
The cradle of the Cahors wine is the area between Catus and Bagat, Soturac and Arcambal, but again disagreements arise on which is the best land, though tradition has it that wine produced higher up the coteaux of the river banks is best, albeit production on the steep slopes is also the most expensive. The wine grown along the river valley tends to be full-bodied and deeply fruity, that of the causse, lighter and elegant.
The growers’ aim is firmly set at quality now, the AOC appellation being hard-won and for this reason they try to stick together. But reclassification of the vineyards is now the big fault-line in the area, with some, like Alain-Dominique Perrin (see p 133) feeling that poorer land must be dumped in favour of zones de cru and others afraid that it is their land that will be dumped and that there will be little compensation.
Many of the château vineyards are visitable …and the Chateau de Haute Serre, high on the causse offers an interesting tour as well. Rows of vines are a heart-warming sight somehow and here in the Lot, as in some other places you will often see roses planted at the end of the rows, not to look pretty, although they do, but as an early warning system for mildew
At the end of the last century, the phylloxera parasite, all but wiped out the wines of the area. The propriétaires were advised to replant with American vines, which were resistant to the disease, but these were expensive and many of the small farmers could not afford such a venture. Moreover the wine produced was of poor quality. It was a devastating time. It is impossible to overstate the effect phylloxera had on the rural economy. Production fell dramatically, livelihoods were lost and it was in desperation that some turned to truffles.
The slow climb back, therefore has been all the more impressive, though there have been other blows along the way, such as the hard frosts of 1956 that killed the young vines, and things seem to be at another crossroads just now when harsh decisions will need to be made if the appellation is to go on improving. It boils down to quantity or quality.
The big cooperative, Côtes d’Olt (Olt is the old name for Lot) which incorporates about 250 growers, is at Parnac, where a modern plant is capable of bottling some 9,000 bottles per hour and produces 25% of the entire appellation.
You can buy direct from the cooperative at very reasonable prices, but it would be a pity not to buy direct from some of the vineyards. There is a list available of all AOC producers- livret du vin de Cahors
Names to look out for are Perrin’s Lagrezette; Bernède’s Clos La Coutale; Jean-Luc Baldès at Clos Triguedina; Georges Vigouroux at Haute Serre and Clos de Gamot, home of the late, great Jean Jouffreau. However there are many others.
And although Cahors is associated with red wine it now produces both white, rosé and even desert wines too. The white and rosé are sold as vin de pays however not Appellation Controlée.
The best years of recent times are said to be 1990, 1995 and 2000.
Lesser wine, if honest, is that produced by the Coteaux du Quercy and the Vins du Pays du Lot.
Not all that long ago it was a common sight to see portable stills, the Hell’s Cauldrons as they were known, being dragged round the communes by tractor, going from farm to farm as people distilled their year’s supply of eau de vie de prune, a strong colourless liquid smelling strongly of plums. Twenty litres was the maximum allowed, but at up to 50% alcohol.
In an effort to stamp out the practice and earn a bit of money, the government introduced a licensing system. Licenses were issued to the head of the household for life only. As the men die off, so the right to distil dies with them and soon the only eau de vie will be that available on supermarket shelves. Vieille Prune is available in pretty bottles all over the département, taking 10 kilograms of plums to make one bottle.
Another popular digestif is made from walnuts. Eaux de noix is a dark brown sticky drink, too sweet for me, although I quite enjoy its companion drink, vin de noix, an equally sweet aperitif. This is made from walnuts too though the fact that it is served on ice reduces the sweetness a bit. Noisette is a digestif made from hazel nuts and there is also now a new Valentré aperitif which combines Cahors wine, walnut and blackcurrant and is not as dire as it sounds. At Arcambal, Christophe Ratz is making Bière d’Olt, good for quaffing in the summer heat, but unlikely to make toomuch impact on the wine production of the area.
Of course wine in France is always associated with food and it is the simplest meals that are sometimes the most enjoyable. A glass of Cahors and a cabécou or Rocamadour and all seems right with the world
Oun y a pa et bi Lou rey pot Béni – Where there is bread and wine a king may come.

*Michelin star regained post-publication

©Copyright: Helen Martin
Lot: Travels Through a Limestone Landscape in SouthWest France

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