They say that you know you’re holding a glass of wine from Cahors if you can’t see your fingers on the other side of the glass through the wine. Which is why the malbec wine from Cahors is nicknamed “black wine”.
Peer into a glass of it, and it’s easy to see (or should I say ‘not see’) why.
I didn’t know much about the wine, or the region, before my recent visit. I just knew there were allegedly a lot of truffles, foie gras, and duck dishes cooked up in the Lot. So when I was asked by some folks who were shooting a film about the regional specialties if I wanted to tag along with them, I happily accepted.
(In addition to shooting the grapes, and getting a truffle or two ready for its close up, we made a video of me, too. Which, if I don’t come off as too much of a dork, you’ll see on the site when it’s finished.)
I arrived a day before the two-man crew, which gave me a chance to attend the Fête de la Saint-Vincent, which happens annually to bless the wine harvest. I’ve discovered after living in France for a while, that that’s the best way to learn about wine: just go visit the region and drink. And if sampling a large chalice of red wine was good enough for the town priest, who gave the wine his blessing, it was good enough for me.
For one slightly crazy weekend, everyone in the village of Saint-Vincent Rive d’Olt, and nearby, descended upon the small town for hearty, and lively dinners of beef cheeks and other fare intended to fortify the wine growers and compliment the rich, rich wine of Cahors. How rich is it? It’s so rich, I had to use the word twice.
And even though no one here needs an excuse to pull up to a communal table, it wouldn’t be France if there wasn’t a celebration involving a lot of very good food. Meal times here means sharing large tables, set with unlimited carafes of malbec that were never empty. As soon as one was drained, it was whisked away to the taps outside and replenished.
Meals began with sips of Fénelon, a local apéritif that combines—depending on who you ask…red wine, walnut liqueur, and cassis (black currant liqueur). It was good, although a bit on the sweet side to my pre-dinner palate. So I stuck with the local red.
Dinners were a bit spiffier and weren’t served on trays, but passed around family-style. And although I was enjoying the food, I was transfixed on the hands of the inhabitants of the village, who obviously spent their entire lives in the vineyards, twisting, turning, and pruning vines.
Burly winemaker Arnaldo Dimani of Domaine le Bout du Lieu told me, while constantly refilling my glass, “You should be able to stand a knife up in a glass of Cahors, Daveed.” I don’t think he was kidding, although the more he poured, the more I worried about being able to get vertical myself afterward.
And he even gave me a demonstration of faire chabrot, the local custom of pouring wine in an almost-empty bowl of soup, then drinking it from the bowl, like “a goat”.
I love the custom, but I don’t think it’s something I should try at any swank dinner parties back in Paris.
And yes, we managed to get out of bed the next day, to visit some of the local vignerons (winemakers, who hold a Rando-Malbec, a 3 1/2 hour free-style walking tour of the region, where eleven vignerons hold a sort of open house for the hikers, fortifying them with wine, and letting us taste the various cuvées from their cellars.
Not on the walk, but a few kilometers away was Le Clos d’un Jour, which I was especially interested in visiting because winemakers Véronique and Stéphane Azémar age some of their organic wines in enormous, and obviously very heavy, clay amphoras, which are made in the town of Castelnaudry, in neighboring Gascony. The potter also makes the famous cassoles, used for baking cassoulet.
Recently a friend in Paris asked me about the organic wines sold in the supermarkets, skeptically, because they cost roughly the same amount as other wines. She wondered how they could really be organic and still sold at a similar price? So I put the question to Stéphan (whose wines aren’t sold in the supermarket, but cost roughly €6-€17 in shops), and he said, “Organic wine costs almost the same to produce as other wine because we’re not spending money on chemicals and pesticides.”
With only 7 hectares (17 acres) of land, using handpicked grapes, he only makes about 20,000 bottles of wine a year. And some of it ends up in his Un Jour sur Terre (which has a double meaning: either “one day on earth” or “one day in the soil”), and is aged for about one year (364 more jours than just un) in the clay urns, rather than oak, so it has a clean, mineral flavor, rather than notes of anything oaky or woody.
But the wine is meant to go with foods of the regions, and although duck (and black truffles) play well into the foods of the Lot, there are a few other specialties that merited sampling.
One evening, amiable Chef Hervé Bourg at his restaurant Le Marché made us dinner that began with enormous slabs of velvety foie gras, sliced in eye-popping portions, which he very quickly seared and served with a giant scoop of freshly-diced black truffles held together with mascarpone. I watched him searing them off in the kitchen and the heavy smoke almost caused me to split, and the fire department to arrive. And yes, it was rich. But somehow I managed to eat the whole plate that was set down in front of me in the dining room. Luckily, the next course was a tad lighter.
The food was interesting (although I’m still scratching my head over the main course served on a room-temperature rock), and the dessert was a knockout; warm mango tarte Tatin with coconut ice cream. I wasn’t sure this was “market-based” cuisine (unless there’s a grove of coconut palm tree I didn’t see, nearby), but it was really exceptional. And figured I ate enough locally-foraged truffles and foie gras in an effort to keep the Cahorian locavore contingent happy.
My favorite lunch was at La Table de Haute-Serre. The amazing Chef Philippe Combet serves a special, multi-course lunch when truffles are in season. And even if you’re on the fence about these musky spores, this lunch in the dining room, overlooking the vineyards, was quite an experience.
I’d heard the chef was a very busy guy, and not prone to letting visitors intrude in his kitchen, but popped my head in the kitchen anyway, and the chef waved me in, so I got to see some of the cooking in action. He was searing bit pans of lamb chops (from local lamb), and mincing truffles to stir into a truffled risotto to pile alongside. Another cook was diligently rolling up country ham, after smearing each slice of crisp toast with a paste made of minced fresh truffles, and setting the curl of ham on top of each.
Right before checking out the pastel-colored plate of macarons, I joined the rest of the group at the table and an oeuf mollet was set down before each of us. I’m not sure how they cooked the eggs just-so, but the bright orange yolks made a silky backdrop to the earthy truffles liberally scattered over the top.
Right now they’re buying their truffles from various sellers, but the winery they’re attached to, Château de Haut-Serre, just planted a thousand oak trees, which should be producing truffles in around ten years. Which I would do if I could, since it sounds like a good, money-saving tip.
We had to kind of race through lunch, because we didn’t want to miss the start of the nearby truffle market in Lalbenque.
But since we are in France, we squeezed in just enough time for a cheese course, which was a tartine (toast) of melted Salers cheese and truffles, before crisp tulipes (cookie cups) came out with a smooth oval of heavenly black truffle ice cream nesting inside.
I wanted to try my hand at churning up a similar black truffle ice cream when I got home, and was planning to buy a small tin of minced truffles, figuring a pricey fresh one would be wasted on a frozen dessert. But Madame Gaillard of Hernas insisted—repeatedly, that I should only use a fresh one. And I knew that each and every one of you out there is dying to shell out a hundred bucks on a fresh truffle to make ice cream. But still, I had to resist the urge to splurge.
As much as I love you all, I figured very few of you would be able to make black truffle ice cream with a real, fresh black truffle, so I’m saving my centimes for my next trip to Cahors. Or perhaps I should take up a collection…?
(I mean, for a truffle. Although I wouldn’t mind if anyone wanted to pitch in for a gym membership, which I think I need, to work off all this food and drink.)
Aside from truffles, in the more approachable category, the other specialty of the region is walnuts. And the best local pastry shop, Les Délices de Valentré, claims to make the veritable (definitive) one.
As tempting as the glistening-smooth top was, I didn’t think I could eat an entire 23 centimeter (9-inch) tart by my lonesome back in my hotel room, so I settled on a box of chocolates, which I didn’t have any trouble with.
And similarly affordable is the aftermentioned vin noir, the malbec, which is nicknamed black wine, and is also famous for darkening les dents of the locals.
So if you go, give it a try. Although consider yourself warned: now that I’ve gotten a taste of the black, I think I just might have to go back.
Favorite Places In and Around Cahors
Château Plat Faisant
Tél: 05 65 30 76 38
Saint-Vincent d’Olt/Les Roques
Les Delices du Valentré
(Pastry shop specializing in walnut tarts and chocolates)
21, boulevard Gambetta
Tél: 05 65 35 09 86
27 Place Jean-Jacques Chapou
46000 Cahors, France
05 65 35 27 27
Domaine Le Bout du Lieu
(Malbec wines from Arnaldo Dimani)
Tél: 05 65 30 70 80
St. Vincent d’Olt
La Table de Haute-Serre
(Restaurant, with seasonal truffle menus)
Tél: 05 65 20 80 20
Le Clos d’un Jour
Tél: 05 65 36 56 01
Ferme des Roucans
(Rocamadour cheese producer, open to public)
Tél: 05 65 31 32 46
(Truffle shop and restaurant)
40, boulevard Gambetta
Tél: 05 65 23 74 06
Restaurant L’Ô à la Bouche
(Excellent restaurant with seasonal truffle dishes)
134, rue Saint-Urcisse
Tél: 05 65 35 69
Passé & Présent
(Antique shop with large selection of tableware)
33, place Rousseau
Tél: 05 65 23 03 31
(Friendly, family-owned small hotel, with gastronomic restaurant)
5, avenue Charles de Freycinet
Tél: 05 65 53 32 00
Related Links and Posts
Truffle Hunting (Part 1)
The Truffle Market at Lalbenque (Part 2)
The Black Truffle Extravaganza (Part 3)
Cahors Office of Tourism (In French)
Embrace the Black Wine of Cahors (Examiner)
Cahors (Dr. Vino)