The Other Bali

It’s almost as if there are two Balis living side by side: sometimes they collide and intertwine, but most of the time, they exist in different time zones and spiritual planes. I’m always searching for the old Bali, or the other Bali, once the allure of warm swimming pools, unlimited breakfast banqueting and cheap trinkets begins to pale. The other Bali is always there: you can enter at any time just by going in the opposite direction, walking away from the tourist enclaves with their playgrounds full of bling and beer. Walk in the opposite direction, down concrete lanes and into local suburbs or onto the beach before the sun worshippers arrive, or into a hidden Pura ( Hindu temple)  or an unassuming warung,  a simple tin shed right on the sand for a coffee and a chat. Walking away might take you into the local Pasar (market) to buy a hand of bananas, or past a dozing grandmother, ancient, honey skinned and worn out, dressed in faded kabaya and brown ikat sarong, long silver hair wrapped turban style, curled up in sleep on the front porch, or past younger women, balancing enamel trays full of Canang Sari, flowers arranged in little palm leaf baskets, thoughtfully engrossed in prayer as they make their daily offerings to the gods and their ancestors. If you head to the beach at dawn in the hope of catching a glimpse of the holy mountain, Gunung Agung,  on the horizon, you’ll find the dawn brigade, a busy uniformed crew of sweepers and cleaners, slowly but methodically removing leaves and rubbish, all signs of yesterday bagged up and taken away, the sand raked then watered down.

Boats at dawn, Sanur, Bali. 2018

This year marks an anniversary for me. I first came to Bali in 1978. Over the last forty years, Bali has changed enormously, and like all change, the blessings are mixed but much of it has been beneficial to the Balinese. During the next fortnight, I hope to relate some stories in the words of the locals, mostly on the theme of tradition and change, a topic close to my heart. Chatting to the locals comes easily: I’ll need a bit more bravado to seek permission for some portraits to accompany the stories.

Morning offering, canang sari, by the sea. Soon to be washed away.

Dawn, Sanur, Bali 2018

Secret Osteria, Lake Como and a Special Risotto

Wander around the little lanes and back streets of the smaller and less touristy villages of Lake Como and you will find some real gems. One perfect but modest osteria can be found in Cernobbio, a village accessed easily by bus or ferry. I  prefer the ferry option, not only for the wonderful views of the Palazzi and gardens along the way, but just to hear the ferryman call out the names of the villages en route, “Torno, Moltrasio, Blevio, Cernobbio”, lazily trilling those ‘r’s and the nautical sounds of whistles, ropes and gangway planks landing.

Lake Como ferry on the way to another small village.

The day we went to Cernobbio, the wind was icy and the ferry was almost empty: we were well rugged up for the day. It was early November and most of the large gardens had closed for the season. Among our fellow travellers was a young chap, honey blond hair perfectly groomed, sporting a mustard coloured scarf carefully arranged over the shoulder of an expensive and conservative blue outfit, tanned ankles bare above sockless and effeminate boating shoes, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. Too affected to embody the insouciance of a Castiglione courtier, la bella figura gone awry. An aimless and idle palazzo owner perhaps? He was the only other passenger to leave the ferry at Cernobbio. The place looked deserted.

We wandered around Cernobbio: it had that empty, out of season look. Although not accustomed to taking coffee at 11 am, it seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the weather. And this decision led to a most wondrous find, the Osteria del Beuc, a small worker’s cooperative and restaurant up a back lane in Cernobbio. This is where all the locals were hiding on that cold November morning. At one large table, a group of older men in sensible jackets were grazing on morning snacks to go with their pre- lunch wines. A few tables away, couples were partaking of coffee but there was a sense of expectation in the air. More people were beginning to arrive. I glanced at the paper sheet listing the menu of the day. The gregarious waiter/front of house/barman advised that I should book immediately as there was only one table left for 12.30. Good advice. I ordered a Spritz and settled in for some more people watching, buoyed by the glowing euphoria that only a Prosecco laced with Campari can produce at such an ungodly but most welcome drinking hour.

By 12.40, the place was packed. The elderly gentlemen reluctantly vacated their morning table and wandered back to the safety of their separate homes, wives and a home cooked meal. The table was then replaced with a large group of hungry young office workers. Smaller tables were occupied by elegantly dressed couples, some accompanied by small, pampered dogs on leads: the place was alive as the enthusiastic waiter theatrically went about his business.

But then, dear reader, you didn’t come all the way with me to Cernobbio to simply ogle the locals, although if you’re a bit like me, you probably enjoy a bit of people watching as you travel through life, inventing scenarios and stories for each one. The food at Osteria del Beuc is well priced and seriously very good. Honest and simple food cooked perfectly. The lunch menu came with prices for one, two or three courses, 9€/ AU$14, 12€/AU18/ €14/AU22, which included a 250 ml carafe of wine per person. Of course I went for the three course option. 

For il primo, I had a composed salad of endive, spinach and soft white cheese, beautifully dressed while Mr T had a zucchini frittata. Then came a creamy risotto dish, perfectly cooked, nicely moistened, cooked in red wine, with rosemary and Taleggio cheese, the latter still visible and just beginning to melt. Sadly there is no photo, but if there were, it wouldn’t look great- just a pile of wet white rice on a plain plate. And yet it tasted sensational. The bread supply was generous. A fairly ordinary chocolate mousse followed. This didn’t detract from the overall delight of the meal and the venue: I have come to expect unimaginative desserts in Italy and should remember not to order them, unless there’s a visible nonna on site who may have just baked a homely torta of fruit or nuts.

I have worked on recreating that lovely risotto dish and will continue to refine it. The Cernobbio version retained a lovely creamy white appearance and perhaps used less red wine and a little less rosemary than my version. Every time I make this, my heart flies back to Lake Como. Below is a version but feel free to play with it to suit your palate.

Risotto, red wine, rosemary and taleggio. Large serving for two or three. Ugly but good.

Risotto al Vino Rosso, Rosmarino e Taleggio. Risotto with Vino Rosso, Rosemary and Taleggio.

Ingredients for two smallish serves. Adjust quantities to suit your appetite, bearing in mind that it’s a rich dish and best served with a simple salad before or afterwards.

  • 150 g Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
  • 150 ml good quality red wine ( the one you’ve opened for dinner is best)
  • 350 – 400 ml vegetable stock ( it’s always better to have extra on hand)
  • 20 gr butter
  • 40 gr or more of Taleggio ( substitute Stracchino if on a budget)
  • 40 gr grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or more to taste
  • a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt and white pepper to season

Method

In a small saucepan, warm the vegetable stock and keep it on a low heat. In a separate cast iron casserole, choosing a suitable size for the measure of rice you are using, add the butter and saute the onion gently until soft and pale golden. Add the rice and toast for a minute or two. Then add the red wine and heat, stirring, until it is fully absorbed. From this point, begin to add a ladle of hot stock to the rice and stir through on low to medium heat. Don’t stir too vigorously: an occasional stir is enough. Once that stock is fully absorbed, continue to add more ladles, one at a time, for around 20 – 25 minutes, as per the usual method of risotto making. The only way to judge the readiness of the rice is by biting it. If the centre is still hard, continue cooking. Once ready, turn off the heat, and add the rosemary and Parmigiano and half the Taleggio chopped into smallish chinks. Stir through then cover with a lid and leave to steam for a few minutes. When ready to serve, add the remaining Taleggio to the dish.

For Helen Legg.

Osteria del Beuc, Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 – 22012 – Cernobbio, Como, Italia

 

 

All Time Favourites

The weekly photographic word prompt by WordPress has been one of the highlights of my blogging week. Released every Wednesday, (Thursday morning for Australians), it has enabled me to sort through my travel photos, forcing me to edit some and discard others along the way.  Sadly, this lovely distraction is about to disappear as WordPress has announced that today’s prompt, All-Time Favourites, will be the last. I wonder why?

Seasonal produce

If you are an avid photographer, try to imagine choosing your favourite image? Or your favourite 5 images? I am sure many would feature family snaps that capture a happy memory, photos that you’re not inclined to share generally. Others might include beautiful travel photos, memories kept alive by regularly sorting through the digital shoe box.

Hong Kong noodle maker and window cleaner, 2017

This little research project could take days, so I’m randomly choosing a few nice pics to share, some that appeal to me, not because they show any photographic skill but simply because I like them. My selection today includes a few portraits, some Chinese themes, a basket of apples and some native flora. I’ll miss this weekly challenge.

Principessa Carlotta, Winter, 16
Way out West. Native Australian plants in winter.
Girl with peach. Summer 17

The Classic Pasta and Fagioli

There are so many versions of Pasta e Fagioli in Italy and on the web, it almost seems superfluous to add my two bob’s worth on the topic. Anyone who has an Italian nonna makes a more traditional/better/regional/authentic version. During winter, Pasta e Fagioli, (pasta and beans) is one of the most useful dishes to know. Is it an entrée, a soup or a main dish? It can be all of these but given the heartiness and distinct lack of brothy elements, I tend to make this dish as a piatto unico, a stand alone dish, to be served with bread, a few drops of new oil, and perhaps some Parmigiano. Most versions are thick with beans and pasta and very little broth: some are made slowly with fresh borlotti beans, while less desirable versions are thrown together with canned beans, canned tomato and cheap industrial pasta. It is a timeless classic rustic dish, Cucina Povera Italiana, made in the past through necessity using simple ingredients stored for winter. Today, it satisfies that need in us all for comfort food on a cold winter’s day.

Like many other Italian dishes, this one also starts with a classic soffritto, that holy trio of flavour, emerging from the slow sauté of carrots, onion and celery. The soffrito vegetables must be chopped very finely so that they almost disappear once they are cooked. Another element often added at the soffrito stage is pancetta and lardo. I omit these ingredients given my dietary preferences but try to find other umani elements to flavour the dish, either through rich stock, herbs, garlic or even anchovy fillets, reduced to a salty mash. I also reserve a little deep vegetable stock to thin the mixture.

First pressed and just delicious. The first harvest of Cobram’s new oil. Only for dressing up.

Ingredients

  • 200 g borlotti beans, either fresh or dried
  • 250 gr tomato passata or finely diced tomatoes
  • 80 gr onion finely chopped
  • 30 gr celery finely chopped
  • 30 gr carrot finely chopped
  • 1 garlic finely chopped
  • 1 small branch fresh rosemary
  • 3 Bay leaves
  • 10 g EV olive oil
  • black pepper
  • fine sea salt
  • 100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.

Method

Cook the beans. If using dried borlotti, soak overnight then cook in water for around 80 minutes. Add the bay leaves to the water but no salt which may make the beans remain hard. If using fresh borlotti, there’s no need to soak them and they should cook in under 30 minutes, depending on their their freshness. Keep the cooking water.

When the beans are done, make a soffrito with the onion, celery and carrot. Add the oil to a large heavy based soup pot and gently saute these vegetables until soft and golden, adding the chopped garlic and finely chopped rosemary towards the end. (Traditionally, the garlic would be added to the cooking oil first, cooked until just golden then fished out before adding the soffrito ingredients. If you don’t love garlic as much as I do, consider that method. I like to keep the garlic for more flavour)

Add the beans and a little of the cooking water. Then add the tomato and heat through gently. Remove two ladles of the mixture and puree with a hand mixer. Return this back to the soup pot. If too thick, add a little bean cooking water or vegetable stock.

Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Watch the pot at this stage as the pasta and beans have a tendency to stick when this thick. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve in lovely wide and shallow bowls with a drizzle of fine oil and some good bread.

Bread of the day with Pasta of the week.

Other Pasta of the Week ideas:

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

Ditalini with Cacio and Eggs

Gnocchi Sardi with Gorgonzola, Silver beet and walnuts.

Pantacce with Borlotti Beans and Rugola

 

 

 

 

 

Liquid Sunsets

Down by the shore of Port Philip Bay, Melbourne, there’s so much going on during the sunset hour. Seagulls frolic and chase phantoms, paddle boarders glide by, silhouetted in liquid gold, a passing puppet show on water, cargo vessels float weightlessly upon the shipping lane, black swans gently pose, and aluminium dinghies turn bronze. Mesmerizing and always new.

Aluminium turns to bronze
Sunset gulls and paddle boarders, Port Philip Bay, Melbourne
Swans,  silhouette and ships. Port Philip Bay, Melbourne
Paddle on by. Gentle and noiseless water sports by the bay.

Sourdough Panmarino. Memory and Beatrice d’Este

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

Ophelia, Act 4, Scene 5, Hamlet.

The most exquisite and evocative bread of my sourdough repertoire is Panmarino. Now that’s a big call I know but it might have something to do with the fragrant mixture of Rosemary and Salt, the soft comforting texture of the bread, or the dramatic diamond encrusted star on its baked dome. I have only recently converted this yeasted bread to sourdough, and must make sure that I don’t make it too often. I prefer to think of it as a festive bread, perhaps best associated with reminiscence and memory. It would be a lovely bread to make for the anniversary of a loved one. Pray you, love, remember me.

This bread was first popularised by Carol Field in her classic work, The Italian Baker.¹ According to Field, it was invented by a baker named Luciano Pancalde, the baker with the perfect hot bread name, who created this bread as the encapsulation of one he had read about in a biography of the d’Este family of Ferrara. I really like this idea on many levels. That he read about a Renaissance bread, visualised it, then recreated it makes it rather special but that this bread was eaten at the courts of my favourite historic family makes it even better. I plan to come back in my next life as Beatrice d’Este. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a virtual memory. Rosemary does that. It’s the time traveling herb.

Beatrice was here. Castello Sforzesco. Vigevano.

The recipe listed by Field is for a yeasted bread: it is easy to make, and it tastes good too. But to my mind, the bread made in the Renaissance courts of the d’Este family would have been made with something like a biga or lievito madre. Using my standard sourdough starter, a very fine traditional Panmarino can be made. Some of the recipes I have drawn on suggest a long gestation time of 4 days. I’m happy with a 24 hour time frame, given a ready starter, one that has been refreshed over a day or so. I also like to add a little wholemeal to mine, in keeping with a loaf of the past.

Slices and keeps very well, if it lasts.

Sourdough Panmarino, un pane per la bella Beatrice d’Este.

I have simplified this bread for speed and ease of making. I’ve played with the proportions of starter and am happy with the results so far. If you would like to follow one source of this recipe, see here. Before making this recipe, refresh your starter three times over a day or so, then start the process in the morning.

  • 150 g bubbly active sourdough starter
  • 150 g water filtered or tank, at least not chlorinated
  • 150 g whole milk
  • 500g baker’s white flour or a mixture of baker’s white flour, ie 400g and wholemeal plain flour 100g
  • 5 g diastatic malt 5g  ( optional)
  • 10 g sea salt
  • 40 g olive oil
  • 20 g or less chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt flakes such as Maldon for the shaped loaf

Directions.

Weigh the the starter, water and milk then add to a large mixing bowl. Add the flour (s) and malt and mix roughly with your hands. It will look like a shaggy pile. Cover with a shower cap or plastic film and leave for 20 minutes or so.

Mix the chopped rosemary, olive oil and salt and work this through the dough with your hands. You will feel the gluten begin to develop. Cover with cap. Leave the covered dough at room temperature.

Do some stretch and folds every 20- 30 minutes, inside the bowl at least three times. You will feel the dough become smoother each time. Now leave the dough on the bench, covered, for 8 hours. It should be well risen by this time.

Place the covered bowl into the fridge for an overnight rest, coinciding with a rest of your own.

In the morning remove the dough from the fridge, have a peep at it, then let it come to room temperature, again still covered.

Using a bread scraper, place the dough onto a large silicon mat or good bench top, adding a small amount of fine semolina to the work surface. Stretch and fold the loaves a few times again, then shape the dough into a nice boule shape. Let this sit for 30 minutes or so, then place the boule into a round shaped and dusted banneton. Cover for 30 minutes to an hour. It will rise a little more.

Meanwhile preheat your oven to 225c FF. Turn the bread out onto a sheet of parchment paper, then lift the paper with the dough and place inside an enamel roaster/baking tin. Using a lame with a sharp blade, slash a star shape on top of the loaf and sprinkle generously with salt flakes. Cover with the lid of the roaster and place in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the lid and continue baking for a further 20 minutes.

Remove the bread to a wire rack and let it cool completely before slicing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Panmarino, star burst greater on the sourdough version. Better crust.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Yeasted version.

Thanks Maree for alerting me to the sourdough version of this bread.

Waiting for Beatrice d’Este, Vigevano

‘Then, when a memory reappears in consciousness, it produces on us the effect of a ghost whose mysterious apparition must be explained by special causes.’  Henri Bergson. Of the Survival of Images. Memory and Mind. 

Heaven and earth!/ Must I remember. Hamlet, Shakespeare

Rainforest Paradise in Far North Queensland.

The first thing you notice when entering the lush rainforest world of Tropical Bliss B&B in Far North Queensland is the sound of rushing water and the deep umbrous green light of the rainforest. It’s a soothing sound, reminding me in many ways of Ubud in Bali. Tropical Bliss B&B sits high above Utchee Creek and just below the platformed gazebo, the rapids rush loudly. If you are lucky enough to stay in the Ulysses Butterfly room, you will feel totally immersed in this environment. It’s another world. The bedroom windows are flywired but open, the doors are French and best left ajar so you can hear the sounds of the night forest or the startling early morning chatter of the Wompoo fruit doves. An afternoon read is a luxurious pastime but it only takes a page or two before succumbing to that water world: the words blur and its off, once again, to the land of nod. Call them naps, or call them dreams or trance, they happen often here. Chillax, as the hosts say.

Driveway into Tropical Bliss B&B.

To get to Tropical Bliss B&B, drive south from Cairns down the Bruce Highway to the thriving country town of Innisfail, then head on through the sugar cane fields and banana plantations until you reach Utchee Creek. This is rich Queensland farming country but there are a few small settlements dotted throughout these fertile lands, especially along the creeks where the rainforest has historically been left intact. The rainfall in this area is the highest in Australia: it’s hard to imagine an average rainfall of 4,000 millimetres ( 160 inches) per year. The forest seems to grow before your very eyes. The thought of all this rain is quite overwhelming.

The wet season continued later this year, with huge downpours throughout April, making Utchee Creek more teeming than usual. You can swim here- it’s too high for crocodiles. The small rock pools below look very tempting, though the staircase down is precipitous. Peter, the host, will happily guide you through his rainforest garden of 2.5 acres. Some is accessible and safe: other steeper sections along the creek are wild and primordial. Some plants have thrived here since the age of the dinosaurs. There are colours, shapes and textures unseen in safer southern lands and stories and legends abound. We passed one plant with incredibly sticky leaves: when torn, they have the property of super glue. Then there’s the Wait- a While stinging vine, ( the only way to become disentangled is to wait a while so you don’t get injured by the toxic stinging barbs) and then there’s Gympie Gympie, the devil- like bush with extremely painful and toxic leaves. Along the driveway, lush red flowers remind me of hydrangeas- they are beautiful but apparently invasive.

The Pagoda Bush

Beyond, in a small grassy clearing, black bamboo canes soar above, while black sapote trees, strangler vines and pepper creepers compete for light. For those interested in tropical plants, Peter can give you a list of palms, ferns and vines in his garden. Research has been conducted on site by world-famous botanists who itemised around 20,000 plant species, including grasses and smaller microscopic plants. I was rather taken with the Zamea Furfuracea, or Cardboard Plant, a bush with thick leaves like sandpaper, good tucker for those ancient creatures from the mists of time. It’s a plant wonderland here.

In a tropical garden.

Peter can tell you about local activities, which might include a visit to Paronella Park, the Atherton tablelands, Mission beach, or the prosperous inland art deco town of Innisfail with its waterfront boats and fish shops. Perhaps you might be tempted to buy some fresh green tiger prawns or a slab of the beautiful white fleshed Coda fish or a coral trout? It is possible to buy some lovely produce in Innisfail to take ‘home’ to Tropical Bliss where you could use the BBQ or, by pre-arrangement, the kitchen.

A chilled white wine or G&T in the rainforest, a bird call, and a pile of freshly cooked tiger prawns with a squeeze of lime is a pleasant way to spend the early evening. Otherwise, the nearby Mena Creek Pub serves meals. Peter offers a variety of breakfast options. He has just mastered the art of sourdough bread so expect some good toast and sugar-free tropical fruit jams, along with a tropical fruit platter and home-made yoghurt, or banana pancakes, eggs and a good coffee.

Coffee and croissant on the deck.
Huge tropical breakfasts at Tropical Bliss B&B.

The house itself is an inviting open space, though most guests spend their time on the deck overlooking the jungle. Inside you’ll want to kick off your shoes and wander about in the shady lounge area, tastefully decorated in Graham Greene style, with wooden shutters, French doors and Chinese antiques. There are two tiny old dogs on site, both friendly and quiet, and the bathroom facilities are shared. It is, in many ways, like a small and friendly guesthouse. Many ‘celebrities’ choose to stay here, given its private location, to recharge batteries and commune with nature. Some come to write, others to watch birds, backpackers to learn about Australia, and family groups come to have fun. There are two bedrooms and one overflow bunk room for children. Your hosts, Peter and Steve, can be as invisible as Ninjas or delightfully hands on and entertaining; it’s up to you. All you need to do is leave all your preconceptions behind. A short stay at Tropical Bliss is restorative and unique.

Photo of Cassowary and chicks in the neighbourhood. Photo courtesy of Peter Dameaon. These chicks are now 30 months old and this male has cared for two more clutches since. I saw a Cassowary but I was too slow with the camera.

I stayed at Tropical Bliss for 6 days, courtesy of the owners. The views expressed here are entirely biased, and I can honestly say, I loved it all. Contact me with any further queries or book through the usual channels or ring the owners via the link below.

Tropical Bliss B& B,  257 Utchee Creek Road, Utchee Creek, Queensland. Australia

 

 

A Visit to Testaccio, Rome

Testaccio in ancient times was the centre of trade along the Tevere, and in the centre of this suburb stands Testaccio Hill, which is made up entirely of broken clay amphorae or vessels, a kind of Roman midden pile, providing archeological evidence of ancient everyday Roman life. I would love to go digging in that pile of remains, a highly unlikely prospect. In the meantime, I went digging for culinary treasure at the Testaccio market, a venue often heralded as one of Rome’s food havens.

On the way to Testaccio Market
Testaccio, a Roman working class suburb with great bars and restaurants. Gentrification here we come. Just like Brunswick, Melbourne, complete with hipsters too.

Testaccio is a plain looking working class suburb that is on the turn. The bars and restaurants look more appealing than many of those located in the tourist traps around Rome, though they are being discovered and some are beginning to blandify their offerings to suit small tour groups run by American food bloggers. In one such establishment, Flavio Al Velavevodetto, I had the best Carciofi alla Giudìa, that classic Roman Jewish dish of deep-fried artichoke, and a rather insipid Pasta e Ceci, redeemed only by the cute bottle of their own freshly pressed olive oil, which went straight into my handbag. The restaurant is carved into Monte Testaccio and you can view amphorae shards in the hill through carved out arches in the rear wall.  Perhaps this is a worthy reason to visit in itself.

The best of Rome’s Carciofi alla Giudea at Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Not like Nonna used to make. Pasta e Ceci at Flavio Al Velavevodetto

The Testaccio market building is modern, fairly ugly, and not particularly appealing. However, If you have an apartment in centro and are after fresh ingredients, this is the spot to shop. Other offerings include an outdoor cafe, a shop touting a list of so-called Strit Fud snacks, a concept I still find jarring in the Italian context, and a wonderful little corner bar offering a tall glass of Prosecco at any time in the morning for €2

Prosecco for breakfast at Testaccio Market.

 

I was intrigued by the padrone of the prosciutto shop, who hand cut his special cured meats. A small crowd gathered as he carefully shaved off thin slices of Cinta Senese, that Tuscan pig with its own DOP.

Hand cut Prosciutto
The art of hand cutting prosciutto
Cinta Senese

While the produce is fresh and appealing, the market was, for me, underwhelming. We needed that glass of Prosecco.

Rome you seduce me

and begging me to return

Obsessed, I obey.

 

For Unlikely, at WordPress and Ronovan’s weekly Haiku

Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, My Favourite French Village

Recently I’ve been contemplating what makes one French village more lovely and desirable than another and came to the conclusion that it all depended on the day, time and season of the visit. Maybe I was very fortunate on the day we visited Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère: the weather was warm, the day bus visitors had vanished for the season, and the lunch offerings were most appealing.

Around the village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère

The village of around 500 residents sits right on the Vezere river which flows like liquid molasses, gently and lazily around the village and nearby woods. Sparkling miniscule mites buzz in the golden rays, the warm air tinted with the colours of Autumn. A leaf strewn walk beside the river, a crunch through carmine and russet, provides a wild contrast to the benign and domestic village. St Leon’s tastefully restored church invites quiet reflection. The hardest part of my fascination with this village is sorting through the prolific amount of photos I took on the day. Come for a walk around Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère with me.

Late September is still warm in the Dordogne and the colours of Autumn paint the walls.
Glimpses of cottage gardens, ramshackled and stone-walled.
Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère has many picnic tables by the river, an unusual and rare gift in France.
Inviting tracks along the river.
Can I move in and tend your gardens?
The Immobilier( real estate agent), always high on Mr T’s list.
St Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère village church with a difference.
The castle is privately owned.

Next time I visit, I’l stay a while, hire a canoe, walk till the paths run out, and visit the cemetery. But then perhaps beautiful memories should not be tarnished through revisiting.

Dordogne’s Most Beautiful Villages

What makes a French village so special? It’s a question that taunts many a traveller. The answer may be found in one of those many photographic coffee table books on the subject or perhaps in the long list published by the association, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the most beautiful villages of France. When staying in the Dordogne departement of southwestern France, it’s a delightful and popular pastime to explore these designated Plus Beaux Villages as well as the small but undesignated communes of the district, thus creating your own list. With advice from the hosts of our rental house in Monpazier, Giselle and Jean-Pierre, together with a bit of reading, we embarked on a busy two weeks of driving around the Dordogne and only now, I’m a little closer to answering that question, though I would be quite keen to do some more research on site.

Market square, Monpazier, our home village for two weeks. Taller gap between these arched walkways allows a horse with mounted rider to pass through to the square.

The association, Les Plus Beaux Village de France, was set up in 1981 by Charles Ceyrac and today the association includes 157 villages spread over 14 regions and 70 departements. The aim of the association is to

“avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, “theme parks”. Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.”¹

The departement of the Dordogne has its fair share of beaux villages and if we count a few in the neighbouring Lot et Garonne, the list grows longer. Belves, Beynac, Castelnaud- la- Chappelle, Domme, Limeuil, Monpazier, La Roque Gageac, Saint- Amand- de- Coly, Saint- Jean- de Cole, and Saint Leon sur Vezere have received this prestigious title. Most villages have a market day, though after a few markets, you will begin to recognise many stall holders. Still, there will be surprises and very local specialties in each of them. The smaller villages and hamlets not on this list are often more beautiful in many ways.

And so back to that question. What makes a French village so special? It really does depend on the day. My ‘best of’ list is naturally informed by my own value judgments as no doubt yours would be too. Many factors affect that judgement, such as, the weather on the day, the density of tourists which goes hand in hand with the season, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the proximity of the village to a river, the attraction of a market in progress, the arrival of a cavalcade of day tourists in small buses, turning your favourite village into a theme park, the blustering cajolery of les Anglais, the Dordogne’s more recent residents from over La Manche who are omnipresent in some villages, congestion or its opposite, deathly quiet, the authenticity of the architecture, signage, cuisine, and friendliness, just to name a few factors. Although food is often high on my agenda, my main interest in this area is medieval history and architecture, as well as following the course of the Vezere river, a most enchanting river, as it winds its watery way through this verdant rural land.

Limeuil from across the river
A picnic spot on the Vezere, Limeuil France

Of the 50 or so villages, hamlets and towns that I visited in 2017 and 2011, my favourite villages include Saint Leon sur Vezere, Belves, Monpazier, Issigeac, Limeuil, the small commune of Biron, and the larger towns of Le Bugue and Bergerac. During a visit to this area in 2011, we stayed in Brantôme en Périgord and grew to love that town and the little hamlets nearby. We also have a list of our least favourites, which includes Eymet ( nice architecture but oh- so -English) and La Roque- Gageac, beautifully situated on a steep slope next to the Dordogne river, but frequented by a long procession of bus tour groups. Below, a media show of the picturesque village of Eymet.

The history of the region can be read in the architecture, with castles, chateaux, churches, abbeys, bastides, and cave fortresses along with the more modest domestic architecture and streetscapes such as medieval market halls, bastide walls, village squares, fountains, laneways and half-timbered houses. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter where you stay, so long as you have a car to tour the myriad of hamlets, villages, and towns that dot the countryside.

There are 520 communes in the Dordogne, 1500 castles and 18 Bastide towns. So much to see and so little time. More research is definitely required.

Wet day somewhere in the Dordogne.

For Helen and Chris, who will be there soon enough. Tomorrow, I’ll return to my favourite village, Saint Leon Sur Vezere.

My previous posts on the Dordogne, France

A Village Church at Saint Leon sur Vezere.

Out to Lunch in the Dordogne

Another Lunch, Monpazier

French Country Markets

The Bastide Villages of the Dordogne. 

¹. les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france