25 October 2013

Ducking Down at La Serpt

There is a tiny hamlet with the curious snaky name of La Serpt, miles from anywhere (the closest town is Villefranche du Périgord), with a stone farmhouse, built in 1730. Actually it could just as well have been built in 1630 or 1870; things around here change pretty slowly. You realize that just in the getting there, over the meadows and through the woods; it's a journey back in time, to a sweet and peaceful place.

Like many traditional farms here, this one here has always raised ducks, and for over two decades at least, it has also functioned as a farm restaurant, a ferme auberge. When we first moved here, there were four pretty good ones in easy driving distance; now there is only one, Aux Délices de la Serpt (although everyone just calls it La Serpt) but it’s exceptional, the Ritz of ferme auberges.

Like La Terrasse, it’s small (with only 30 covers or so) and you have to book. Only at La Serpt there is no guessing about what’s on the menu. But that’s just how their clients like it. Everyone who likes duck, that is. If you don’t, stop reading now!

We recently went with first-timers Betsy, Susanna, Nancy, and Harvey, and locals Marianne, Laurence and Tom. Only two decisions are required: basically, agonizing between the foie gras (on the €25 menu) or other ducky treats (on the €23 menu) for your starter, and then, the confit de canard (duck leg and thigh, preserved in its own fat) or magret de canard (the steak-like duck breast) for the main course. There is also duck sausage, which is also delicious, but the confits and magrets are so amazing that 99% of the customers choose one of those.

Wine and coffee are included, as is the apéro—a fénelon. In the 17th century, the erudite François Fénelon from Périgord was archbishop of Cambrai, poet, writer and tutor of the son of the king of France, but just how his name became attached to Quercy’s traditional aperitif (equal parts vin de Cahors, walnut liqueur and crème de cassis) is a mystery. Maybe he guzzled them when he was a student at the long-gone University of Cahors?  The Fénelons had one of the great châteaux of Périgord. It’s only about a half-hour away, east of Sarlat; you could visit before lunch.

For those who have been to the Serpt before and know what’s coming, the apéro is the gastric equivalent of the opening da da da dum of Beethoven’s Fifth. First comes the  tourin, La Serpt’s take on the local garlic and duck fat soup, filled with country bread and molten cheese. This is truly the stuff soup dreams are made of, and the first dish Michael learned to synthesize at home after we moved here (it’s also an excellent hangover cure!). When you get to the bottom, it’s time to faire chabrol (sloshing the dregs of soup around with a splash of red wine); if you don’t perform the ritual they’ll think you’re a Parisian or worse.

Next comes a generous serving of the rich foie gras made on the farm, or (on the €23 menu) pâté with foie gras, or a salad made with warm gésiers (gizzards, preserved in duck fat. like the confits), or my favourite, the salade fermière, with gésiers and thin slices of smoked magret along with  fritons de canard (fried skin and fat—a bit like duck porkies or pork rinds, I guess, but a gourmet treat).

Then in a waft of heavenly aroma the main event on big platters: golden crisp confits or succulent magrets grilled and topped with a light cream sauce. Gorgeous potatoes sautéed in duck fat and garlic, with nice brown crispy bits everyone digs into. Plates are wiped clean, belts are adjusted out a notch.

It is useful at this point to recall the so called French Paradox (first theorized in 1819 by Dr Samuel Black of Ireland, long before 1991 when  60 Minutes introduced it to the United States) and remember that duck fat, garlic and red wine, combined together, are good for you!

Next, cheese. More bread. More wine.  Somehow we manage to squeeze in nibbles of fresh, tangy Rocamadour cabecou (the local AOC goat cheese) or Cantal entre deux (the local hard yellow cheese).

Orders are taken for dessert: here too there is a choice and all are of the comfort homemade variety. Our daughter Lily always talks about her ‘dessert’ compartment, which has nothing to do with the rest of her stomach, and I think most of us must possess one because we somehow managed to polish off the chocolate and pear bavarois, the fig tart and crème caramel, without bursting.

Those who would not be returning for a while bought tins of foie gras and confits in the Serpt’s little shop to take home. If you like, you can have a peek in the barn and pick out a duck for next time (as if you could tell one from the other).

You’ll be lucky to get out in less than three hours; you’ll be lucky if you can still walk. There’s a good reason why you have to book a Sunday at the Serpt long in advance—because after all this delicious food and wine, the rest of the day tends to be a total write off, devoted mainly to naps.

I forgot the camera again, but Harvey and Marianne were better prepared: thanks to them for sharing their photos.

                                                                      —Tennessee girl learns to faire chabrol

La Serpt, tel 05 65 36 66 15
How to get there: La Serpt is on the D28 between Puy-L'Évêque and Villefranche-du-Périgord. There are directions on its website (rather endearingly the menu here is still in francs—they haven't had one printed for years!)