A one-of-a-kind day in the majestic Lot Valley – Meanderings through France n° 115
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Frederic and I had carefully scheduled our plans for the day, but sometimes things don’t go according to plans! We meant to have a busy day visiting two beautiful villages of the Lot Valley, Entraygues and Estaing, then drive to Le Fel to see an unusual pottery workshop and art gallery built in the middle of nowhere. But our day turned out to be a lot more peaceful than planned, after getting for lunch to La Méjanassère Estate, a wonderful guesthouse set in an ancient farm.
As planned, our day started with the visit of Estaing, one of France Most Beautiful Village located at the entrance of the Lot gorges. A beautiful gothic bridge spans over the river and leads to the village nestled at the foot of the tall castle. This castle belonged to the same family, the Estaing, for over 800 years until the French Revolution and went through many transformations and extensions over the centuries giving it an unusual fairytale-like look. Turned into a school and hospital by a religious congregation during the 19th and 20th centuries, its beautiful medieval and Renaissance rooms had been converted into classrooms and dormitories by the nuns.
In 2005 the castle was bought by a private company, initiated by former French President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Huge works of renovation have been undertaken, giving back to the castle all its former beauty. Looking at the pictures on display in the castle that have been taken before the restoration, made us realise the tremendous amount of work carried out here, both outside and inside. Irrelevant walls have been removed, ancient frescoes were rediscovered, while stone floors, adorned ceilings, fireplaces and panelling were cleaned and skilfully restored. Furniture and historical documents are on display in all the rooms and the visit is very interesting. Going up and down the village streets we admired the Renaissance façades and finally got to Saint-Fleuret church and its spectacular strairway built against the charming small medieval houses that surround the church.
Going on our way along the Lot River, we reached Entraygues, an impressive medieval village and fortress built at the joining point of two rivers, the Lot and the Truyere and surrounded by low mountains covered with dense forests. The Lot River used to be a major commercial route between Bordeaux and Cahors. Wines, cereals, cheeses or fishes went up and down the river and Entraygues was a prosperous stop for the gabares, the flat bottom boats that carried all these goods. The village was fortified during the Hundred Years War and today it still has an unmistakable medieval look with its covered passageways, its typical shops and their stone stalls, its half-timbered houses, its elegant stone bridge built during the 13th century and of course the fortified castle protected by two big square towers (the castle is not open to the public).
After this busy morning we were starving and were ready to drive to La Méjanassère to have lunch. When Véronique and Frédéric bought this estate in 1982 the farm had been neglected for years and the once renowned vineyard and chestnut grove had stopped producing fruits for ages. The scale of the task was enormous but didn’t discourage them. And a first 15-year long phase of the project began! In 1984 Frédéric planted new vines on terraces facing south using the local grape variety, the Fer Servadou. But making money, growing vines takes time and in the meanwhile he had to work as studio manager near Paris, living far away from his wife and two young daughters for 5 years. Véronique then moved to Paris and joined him at the movie studio where she created costumes. When finally the vineyard started to produce enough grapes to make wine, they came back to La Méjanassère for good.
But the farm’s income was still not enough, so they decided to create a farm-inn where they would serve lunch and dinner made with local quality produce. Once again it seemed like a crazy challenge since none of them had any experience in cooking for dozens of paying guests. As the French quote goes: “the chance always smiles to those who dare”. Their business was an immediate success and, without having to advertise they were fully booked almost from the start. Their reputation is so good that soon people from all over France and even from abroad come to La Méjanassère to enjoy a wonderful meal. This is the reason why Véronique and Frédéric created four B&B rooms and a holiday cottage. And guess what? It’s another successful business. This success did not happen by accident, they both work hard from dawn till late at night and they deserve it.
The first thing you’ll see when entering the farm is the huge wood stove where Frédéric bakes big smelly loaves of organic bread several times a week. He also cooks the homemade patés in this ancient oven. Next a delicious smell will lead you to the big fireplace where, depending on the seasons, suckling pigs or lambs, poultry or ducks, slowly spit-roast. Whether sitting at a table in the lovely dining room or on the terrace overlooking a breathtaking panorama, you will soon understand why La Méjanassère has such a good reputation. Everything is homemade with produce from the farm or from farms meticulously selected by Véronique and Frédéric.
Hams, sausages, terrines as well as dairy products, ice creams and sherbets made with fresh local fruits, all come from the Dilhac farm where a hundred pigs and forty cows live peacefully, fed with plants grown on the farm’s lands. They make premium quality products, such as their dairy butter that needs no les than 22 litres of milk to make just one kilo! Frédéric gets his organic flour as well as walnut and hazelnut oils in the nearby Méjane Mill where the big stone wheels grind grains since 1635. The Laguiole, the iconic cheese of the area is made in the La Borie farm where fifty Aubrac cows, a local breed, graze all summer long on the nearby mountain plateau. The poultry and young ducks come from the Fresquel farm where they are kept in free range and fed with the cereals. Vegetables, fruits, walnuts, wild and grown herbs, and of course grapes are harvested in La Méjanassère.
Using these great products and local old recipes, Véronique and Frédéric cook simple but tasty food: fresh herbs salads, Aligot, a local recipe mixing mashed potatoes and Laguiole cheese, honey roasted duck and chicken, suckling pigs and lambs, homemade potted meat, dry sausages or pâtés, walnut or rhubarb tarts, elder flower mousse, raspberry cheese cake… And of course Frédéric’s wines, Domaine de Méjanassère, will be served. The “Entraygues-Le Fel” wine area dates back from the Roman occupation and is one of the smallest ones in France with only 20 hectares. Frédéric and Véronique own five hectares of vines planted on terraces of granite ground and, using sustainable processes, produce red, white and rosé wines not only served in their farm, but also in all the gastronomic restaurants of the region.
After such a good lunch we just couldn’t bring ourselves to take the car and drive to our next planned destination. We enjoyed tea and coffee in the garden, lazily sitting in “chaises longues”, using the excuse that it wouldn’t be sensible to drive after having a few glasses of wine… More about La Méjanassère, about Frédéric and Véronique Forveille and to book a table (advance booking is absolutely necessary): www.domaine-de-mejanassere.fr
We finally got to our next destination on the following day. “Le Don du Fel” also is a creation of a passionate couple, Suzy and Nigel Atkins who were both born In the UK, but decided to live in France in the 1970’s. Suzy is a distinguished potter. They first built their workshop in Cantal, a nearby department, but moved to Le Fel in Aveyron where they got a warm welcome to build their European Center for Contemporary Ceramic. In 2007 the extraordinary workshop and art gallery designed by a local architect, Jacques Lacombe opened to the public. At the Atkins’ request five big “dancing pots” were built in the middle of nowhere. Each pot has its own purpose. One is dedicated to Suzy’s creations, the second one is the actual workshop, the third one is a shop, the fourth one is the art gallery and the fifth one is a training centre.
There are six different international exhibitions organised each year by the Atkins and their son Kelian who is totally involved in this successful project. Internationally renowned potter-artists present their work here and every year 50,000 people go there to discover them. The ceramic works of art are on sale in the gallery and you will also find an ever-changing selection of studio ceramics made by potters from all Europe. From functional pots to sculptural works and creative jewellery, the choice is wide and can be found nowhere else in France.
Le Don du Fel also organises clay courses for beginners or for those who want to develop their skills. There are 2-day or one week courses, given by Leonor, who speaks fluent English.
For more information about this year exhibitions or about the courses: http://ledondufel.com/en/
More about tourism in Aveyron: www.tourisme-aveyron.com
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes