July heralds the start of the tourist season here in southern France. Markets swell to five times their winter size, chefs sharpen their knives in eager anticipation and the rest of us try to remember where we found that tiny nook that was always available to park the car. But in congested Cahors, things have changed a little, with the opening of the long awaited Parking de l’Amphitheatre. Why is she telling us about a car park for heaven’s sake? I hear you all cry from your collective desks in the grey north. Well hush and I’ll illuminate.
This is not just any old car park, it should have three Michelin stars and a mention in every guide book worth its salt. It is a work of art, a day out on its own. You descend into the gleaming depths of a brand new underground parking area, and are confronted by the staggeringly beautiful remains of Cahors’ ancient Roman amphitheatre. There it is, all laid out for you to see, with detailed guide and a plan to show you just how it must have appeared in its glorious past. All this and parking thrown in. Fabulous. When you have feasted your eyes enough, you will want to ascend to the sunlit place, now beautifully landscaped and planted with trees, to stroll and muse and end up in one of the cafes on the boulevard. And from there, to the market. They were selling apricots last week, juicy, sunny globes from the sweet orchards of Perpignan. Melons from the hot fields and numerous crates of the pride of the region, Marmande tomatoes, just on the point of that sugary, carmine perfection that you find only at this time of year. I bought five kilos on Wednesday and that was a mere fourteen tomatoes. On the same stall prickly but oh so delicious artichokes had tumbled in price and were going for just a few centimes each, so I greedily helped myself to four fat ones.
I’ve become a bit of a demon cook with artichokes since one of my own plants yielded no less than eighteen this year. I was as proud as a pink hen. Artichokes are tough, unyielding customers and it’s very easy to give up and not bother. But you’ll notice that the markets in southern Europe are piled to the blue skies with them at this time of year and for good reason. So if you’re an artichoke virgin, follow the chef’s example, sharpen your knives, whip out your lemons and practice. I promise you’ll be so glad you did.
When Henri of Navarre became the first Bourbon King of France he promised his subjects a chicken in the pot every Sunday. The delicious dish that has grown up around that legendary promise is known as Poule au Pot, and there just happens to be a ferme auberge in these parts that has perfected the recipe to such an extent that their wonderful restaurant is named after it. I went along there with a few friends the other day, to do as much damage to my summer diet as is possible in the course of one afternoon. We decided on the €14 menu, a five course extravaganza that I really shouldn’t indulge in if I’m hoping to get anywhere near a bikini this year. We started with a glorious soupe, nothing fancy, just a delicious vegetable with a boullion concocted by a culinary genius. We progressed to charcuterie, fat, homely chunks of pate, slices of ham and sauccison, with lots of bread which I didn’t eat – first rule for a long lunch, go easy on the bread – and more wine than I could drink. My main course was a splendid duck confit accompanied by the most delicious potatoes I’ve had for a long while, not quite Sarladaise, but in that style. That was quite enough, but this menu includes cheese and dessert as well. I gazed at the platter of creamy cheeses, surrounded by little discs of Rocamadour. It was fortunate that at that point I realised I was late for my massage, and made an effective escape bid, but I shall have to go back, after a week on water and lettuce leaves, to see if I can stay the course.
Maybe I’ll do justice to Le Bon Roi and try their renowned Poule next time.