Travel: Foie gras (and the rest) in Sarlat

By Jon Massey on July 4, 2014 1:18 PM |

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LIFESTYLE

As a semi-devotee of Doctor Who, the name of the beautiful French town in the Dordogne Valley where I spent a few days earlier this year, recalled time spent hiding behind the sofa.

Sarlat sounds like it might be up there with the worst kind of rubber foam beasts ever to plague the holder of the Tardis' keys.

Arriving in the impeccably restored Unesco World Heritage town - all medieval architecture in honeyed sandstone - I'm momentarily concerned a great monster does indeed dwell within.

Jarring with the historic buildings, the broken back of a former church is sealed with four-storey iron doors that could easily prevent the escape of a ravening beast.

The only animal we're interested in though, is the goose. It looms large, partly because we're here for the Fest' Oie, but mostly because foie gras is the regional speciality.

I suspect you could visit Sarlat at any time of the year and feel as stuffed as a bird undergoing the gavage - there's no shortage of opportunity to buy or indulge.

Beyond the inevitable tourist traps though it's a charming little town. Tiny cobbled streets run into one another to create a complex labyrinth of cafes, shops, cafes, bars, hills and bistros.

It's not exactly a party town, although one bar in the main square has a late licence. But with all the gastronomic delights on offer you're unlikely to have the stamina for much more than rolling back to your hotel room to collapse in any case.

It's those delights that bring me to the strangest part of our visit. The crowning glory of the Fest' Oie turns out to be a trip to the local arts centre, which hosts what feels like the town's entire population for a 15-course feast.

Every dish is goose, including an astonishing quantity of foie gras and a sausage stew that's smokier than an ashtray. Throw in a middle of the road jazz band, copious amounts of table wine and you have something inescapably French.

Nothing like this happens in England - we don't come to an auditorium purely to appreciate food. It's at once joyous and baffling.

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But is consumption right? In a bid to answer that question, the trip organisers take us to see, what I imagine, was one of the kinder goose farms in the area to see the gavage and make up our own minds about the process of force feeding.

The geese, we are told, have a nice life up until the fattening portion of it, which is, however you wish to look at it, unpleasant.

Nevertheless, with modern machinery it seems relatively quick and is probably not a great deal more barbaric than many of the other things humanity subjects animals to in preparation for slaughter or to keep livestock producing for the food chain.

Ultimately, if you're going to eat meat, some degree of suffering for the animal involved is inevitable.

The insulation for this is provided in everyday life by the way we package anonymous cuts, even bending and wrapping the carcasses of poultry so they barely resemble a living bird.

A trip to the Dordogne strips that comfortable lie away. This is not a French region that is sentimental about the killing and use of animals for both sustenance and pleasure.

The hedonist in me is delighted. The tastes, scents and textures are remarkable.

But the ethical part of my brain is appalled by the excesses we're prepared to sanction for our own enjoyment.

In the middle, the traveller simply wonders whether radical changes would consign a sizeable chunk of culture in this region to the dustbin.

You'll have to visit to make up your own minds.

FACTFILE
■ Jon flew to the Brive Dordogne Valley Airport (aeroport-brive-vallee-dordogne.com/en).

■ He stayed at the Hotel Renoir Sarlat (hotel-renoir-sarlat.com), a short walk from the town centre.

■ For more information about the town go to the Tourist Office website sarlat-tourisme.com.

■ Jon flew CityJet (cityjet.com) from London City Airport. Flights are on Friday and Sunday with an additional return flight between July 23 and August 31.

■ For those keen to visit, Fest' Oie takes place on February 15-16 each year

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