When you get invited to lunch in Sarlat, you had better make sure you don’t eat too much for breakfast. This is a town that loves a feast and has the best of the best of French produce to offer its visitors and guests…
When I visited Sarlat in the Dordogne area, I was invited to a lunch like no other I’d ever been to. It was a most unexpected, amazing food experience; a meal that celebrated local produce such as truffles, foie gras, walnuts and wine. The invitation was courtesy of my friends at the Sarlat Tourist Office but please don’t think this was one of those exclusive press trip lunches with a few people quaffing small and expensive flutes of champagne.
There were 798 people for lunch that day.
Seven hundred and ninety-eight people. Most of them (including me) had been in the Sarlat town square the night before celebrating Fest’Oie. A band had played rousing music and there had been singing and dancing, lots of wine and a barbecue , it was February but the atmosphere kept us all warm. I spoke to a couple from Toulouse who had come specifically for the weekend’s fete de l’oie. This was their second time and they’d booked their tickets for lunch 6 months in advance because this gourmet experience has gained enormous popularity since the Mayor of Sarlat launched it six years ago.
This is not any old lunch. This is a banquet. A feast. This is a fifteen course indulgence. 11,970 meals to be prepared, cooked, plated, served and eaten.
This is a lunch date that lasts 6 hours and from which you emerge feeling like a stuffed goose, much like the one you enjoyed eating earlier.
I want you to know that we 798 hardy souls did not just sit there and simply fill our faces with foie gras, seared goose breast with oranges, goose gizzard salad, marinated goose escalope, Salardaise potatoes, goose sausage, goose and haricot beans, goose terrine, apple pie, walnut ice cream and various other dishes.
Line Dancing to be an olympic sport
We danced. Well some of us did. In between courses served by dozens of resilient locals, a band with a lady accordionist played popular tunes including “Le Madison”. The effect on the seated diners was electrifying. Men and women began heaving themselves out of their chairs and onto the empty space in the middle of the vast municipal hall where the wining and dining was in full swing.
They formed into rows and started to line dance (Le Madison has been popular for about 20 years in France and just about everyone knows the steps). After my delicious walnut wine and walnut liquor I felt that I could probably dance with the best of them and made my way to the row of laughing dancers… and the music stopped. It was probably for the best, I have not lined dance since… well actually I have never done it. Line dancing is an incredibly popular activity in France, I believe that if the French win the bid for the Olympics, it will probably be added to the agenda as a sport, which the French will win. Arriving back at my seat, course No. 11 had been delivered in my short absence.
A new band appeared in the hall, sporting nuclear coloured yellow sou’westers, they played a rousing rendition of the local rugby song. This is a region that loves its rugby. 797 people waved their yellow and red napkins in unison and sung along. Just one person sat there forlornly wishing they knew which napkin to hold up and which to swing round – me. It seemed like an opportune time to go and have a look in the kitchen.
Chopping and chipping, paring and peeling, salting and stirring, pouring and plating
What sort of pan I wondered, is big enough to hold enough goose confit to serve 798 people? A dustbin sized pan is the answer. A makeshift kitchen had been set up at the side of the hall under a huge marquee. Dozens of ruddy faced chefs were dashing around, chopping and chipping, paring and peeling, salting and stirring, pouring and plating. I stood in the doorway and thought how pleased I was to be on the other side of the fence and enjoying the fruits of their labour.
One of the chefs called to me to ask what I wanted “Anglaise” I said “Presse”. Everyone stared and then someone said, “come in and give us a hand” and they all laughed heartily. I declined on the grounds that I am a completely useless cook and so they urged me to come and just look. They were so proud of what they were achieving and believe me they had every right to be, it was superb quality, dished up with aplomb and with a deep respect for the goose. While I was there the Mayor of Sarlat, Monsieur Jean-Jacques de Perreti came in to tell them how good the food was, this whole festival was his idea, pure genius.
I returned to my table in time to join in a lively rendition of La Mer, my table neighbour pressed a glass of wine into my hand and we all linked arms and swayed in unison to the music. It was without doubt one of the biggest, memorable, fun and friendly lunches I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend. It is also the most amount of food I have ever eaten. Ever.
If you want to attend the annual Fest’Oie Sunday lunch, details can be found on the Sarlat Tourisme website but book well in advance, this is a very popular event.
The Fete de l’Oie in Sarlat – an excuse for a party!
A visit to the fabulous Sarlat market