Who doesn't want to surround themselves with wine and cheese, crêpes and éclairs and black truffles? David Constable enjoys the sweet life in Le Midi
There is something immensely attractive about the French and their born idleness, particularly in the south of the country, where boozy lunches move effortlessly intocafé crème and cramped cheese boards.
While the UK weathers a turbulent swirl of political mayhem, the French, comfortable in their indolence, applaud Macron while twirling their greased moustaches and pouring themselves another glass of Pernod. Now that’s a life.
I wanted to experience all of those things the French do so well: all that loafing and afternoon-flopping; their general sense of insouciance; and the gooey, overly-ripened cheeses; the quaffing of celebrated wines; and lounging in the sticky afternoon heat, smearing hunks of foie gras onto a baguette while an accordionist wearing a beret plays Edith Piaf.
Château de Mercuès, part of Relais & Châteaux, sits majestically upon the hills over Cahors. It appears Gothic-like as you approach, the crenelated towers and turrets dominating the hills of the Lot since the Middle Ages. The road below snakes around the craggy terrain, winding northwards and up, up, up towards the castle on the hill. The River Lot below runs like dark silk.
The 13th century castle was once the holiday residence to the boozy bishops of Cahors and was expended by the English, aided by the marriage of Elenor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet. It reached its peak in 1310, having representing 50 percent of exports from the Port of Bordeaux. Today, wine remains of core importance to Château de Mercuès and under du vinvirtuoso, Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux, and his wife, Christine, the region is enjoying a revitalised approach to Malbec production.
Bertrand took over the reins from his father in 1990, who had set about re-introducing the Malbec grape to the region, cultivating and promoting the “black wine” grape and bringing attention back to the Occitanie region of France and away from Mendoza, the Malbec land of adoption.
With this hereditary passion for Malbec, Bertrand is hoping to increase his exports to the UK from 2-3 percent each year to 5-10 percent but admits “there is still a lot of work to be done.” The Argentinians may have helped raise the profile of Malbec, but the grape’s plantations and vineyards are mostly here. “It is quintessentially Cahors,” boasts Bertrand.
I’m able to exercise my unschooled vinoopinions over lunch at Château de Haute-Serre, another historical Vigouroux estate, just south of Cahors, notable for its truffle and saffron production. The vineyards here extend to over 1,000 hectares and the restaurant, La Table de Haute-Serre, has been awarded the Michelin BIB Gourmand, while the restaurant at Château de Mercuès, Le Duèze (under chef Juien Poisot), goes one step better and has a Michelin star.
It was during these meals in which I could indulge in all things aliment. Regional food here is abundantly rich, so wine helps. Specialities include duck, foie gras, prunes, oysters, mushrooms and black truffles; all leaden foods sure to induce colon gridlock, but too delicious to refuse. Paired with Vigouroux specialities from the cellar – bottles of Grand Vin and Cuvée 6666 – I begin to feel overwhelmingly Falstaffian.
Picture postcard perfection
At the foot of the hill, below Château de Mercuès and past the Lot Valley and Laburgade saffron fields, is medieval Cahors. It’s the sort of place featured on the front of postcards; a town of half-timbered houses, cobbled-streets and narrow alleyways. The14thcentury Valentré Bridge isthe symbol of the town, a six-span fortified arch crossing the Lot River with an eerie legend attached.
It’s said that the architect could not finish the bridgeand therefore sold his soul to the devil in order to secure its completion. Attempting to outsmart the devil, the architect instead infuriated him, and the devil insured that the bridge would never be completed. As for the devil, he is still there; immortalised by the architect Paul Gout who carved a stone devil into the northwestern cornerstone of the bridge’s central tower.
There’s also an impressive food market. The highest compliment I can pay the French (aside from Brigitte Bardot, Emmanuelle Béart and Eva Green) is that their markets are a colossal gathering of residents and tourists who meet over regional fare, abandoning all of that nouvelle nonsense, and share in the gluttonous joy of creamy goat’s cheese, walnut cake, black-cherry conserve and jars of foie gras de canard. French markets are exemplary, and we’ve been copying them for years.
A boat trip on the Lot in the warmth of the afternoon confirmed to me that a life of lethargic indolence is for me. I don’t just mean experienced or sampled for a weekend. I want it permanently. The wine, the truffles and all the trimmings. It’s whatthey call in these parts “douceur de vivre” – a life free from worry. I’m already packing my bags.
Take me there
Chateau de Mercuès, Route du Château, 46090 Mercuès, France. Phone: +33 5 65 20 00 01; email@example.com; www.chateaudemercues.com