Q&A: A Taste Of The Dordogne With Author Kimberley Lovato

Monday, November 1, 2010

By Maria Russo

In her latest book, “Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, Culinary Adventures in the Dordogne,” Kimberley Lovato explores the medieval towns, bucolic countryside, and remote villages of this southwest region of France through the fascinating heritage of its people, and the local cuisine that has kept century-old traditions alive and well.

The book’s vivid photos, intimate stories, and pages of recipes, gives it a fresh, more immersed approach to travel writing by escorting the reader on an adventure through the senses. Whether it’s admiring the spectacular Château de Beynac, hearing the cacophonous sounds of the market as vendors prepare for the day ahead, or tasting warm, duck confit in the home of a local chef, Lovato paints a tangible picture that is deliberately enticing. The following is an interview with Lovato about her personal encounters in the Dordogne, and the inspiration behind the book’s vibrant pages.

The Expeditioner: The layout of “Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves” is very unique. It blends pages of photographs, local recipes, and intimate stories about the people of the Dordogne region. What inspired you to create a culinary travel book?

Kimberley Lovato: The book was inspired by Chef Laura Schmalhorst and her culinary tour company Vagabond Gourmet. I was on assignment during her inaugural launch in the Dordogne and I was struck by her passion for ensuring each guest experienced the region through the food, not just by eating it (though that was a bonus too), but also by visiting the markets, the farms, meeting the local cheese makers and vintners, exchanging recipes, and mixing their stories and histories into every meal. This idea developed into “Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves” and it’s a concept that is unique among travel and cookbooks. Add in some gorgeous images by award winning photographer Lou Lesko and our book really shines. I can’t think of another one like it.

The Expeditioner: The personal accounts in the book really seem to connect readers to the very essence of the culture in Dordogne. How did your experiences with chefs, winemakers, hoteliers, and old friends affect the way you came to understand the true lifestyle of the people of Dordogne?

Kimberley Lovato: I have always been enamored with France, but I fell in love with the Dordogne. It’s a place that is a part of me and a place where I feel welcomed “home” each time I return. While the castles and the restaurants and the tourist sites were worthy, they only presented a two dimensional picture of the place. It was the people who lived behind the doors, and who graciously opened their homes to me, that gave the Dordogne life and texture, as well as the context in which I could present a different side of travel that might not be visible to a casual visitor.

The people of the Dordogne are very generous and love to wax lyrical about the region. And they are great raconteurs whose tales divulge small details, anecdotes and expressions that aid in the understanding of the life and culture in the Dordogne. Getting to know them personally was essential.

The Expeditioner: In the book you discuss the markets worth visiting in many of the smaller, “out-of-the-way” towns. How did you go about finding some of these remote locations and what advice would you give to travelers looking to explore off-the-map places?

Kimberley Lovato: I love to get lost and getting lost was often our goal while researching this book. Seriously.  Sometimes we would be on a set path and we’d pass a sign that said “honey” or “walnut farm,” and we’d just deviate. Getting lost has its benefits and it’s a tactic I don’t mind recommending. But if time doesn’t allow you to employ this strategy, I would suggest asking a local. Ask the fruit vendor at one market where he likes to shop, or eat, or what other markets he attends; ask the inn owner where she buys her bread or where she goes for a great meal. This phenomenon of news travelling — de bouche à l’oreille as they say in French, meaning from mouth to ear — is alive and well in the Dordogne and was the source of many, if not most, of our “out-of-the-way” finds.

The Expeditioner: On to one of my favorite subjects discussed in the book: the walnut wine. It seems that this particular aperitif is served with most meals, on most occasions, and carries an intricate piece of Dordogne history in its roots. When is the ideal time to visit some of the region’s walnut wineries, and what suggestions could you offer visitors who may want to learn more about the wine-making process, and even enjoy a tasting or two?

Kimberley Lovato: The interesting thing about walnut wine is that you can’t go to a winery to find it; you have to go to a walnut farm or a private home. It’s a drink that is predominantly homemade and, yes, it is the aperitif of choice at local tables and has been made in the Dordogne by families for generations, thanks to the abundance of walnut trees in the region. Luckily, there are places where visitors can try walnut wine, and I highly recommend the local  Fermes Auberges, or Farmhouse Inns  (pg. 170). These are family run restaurants, and sometimes inns, where ingredients are grown and raised on the property, the farm.  The food is excellent, authentic and a good value. Locals frequent these inns, and smart visitors find them too.

It’s the family/owners that cook and serve the meals and there is always some homemade walnut wine served. These farmhouse inns are found all over the Dordogne, usually in remote settings, and most are open year round. Often there is just a simple sign nailed to a tree that leads the way to a ferme auberge. Visitors could easily plan their days around lunch at one of these farms. I say lunch because, from personal experience, you’ll  probably eat so much that you’ll want a few hours of activity after the meal.

The Expeditioner: I have yet to try making any of the recipes in the book, but they all look sinfully tempting. How did you go about choosing recipes that truly reflect the region’s cuisine?

Kimberley Lovato: Well some recipes were just mandatory. I mean you can’t write a book about the Dordogne and not include duck confit (pg. 46),  pommes Sarladaise (pg. 48),  l’Enchaud Perigourdine (pg 162), walnut wine (pg. 190), and  some kind of foie gras (pg. 185). These are staples you’ll find in just about every restaurant and home kitchen in the region. But Chef Laura Schmalhorst is really a creative talent and had been traveling to the region for 10 years before I met her. She already had a good outline of which  “standard” recipes we should include and then created twists on some of the traditional dishes or  created new dishes using local ingredients.

For example her potato salad (pg. 163) to accompany the L’Enchaud Perigourdine calls for walnut vinaigrette as the mixer and infuses a unique and local flavor (walnuts) into an otherwise boring dish. A large percentage of the recipes we found simply by asking for a popular or old family recipe. These are the recipes that really make the book stand out, and they often came with interesting or heartwarming stories or customs. One of my favorites is on page 98, a guinea hen recipe from Reine Roches, a matriarch of a five-generation deep winery. This is not a Dordogne recipe you’d find in a restaurant but it was a dish Madame Roches made for her family on special occasions. I still recall the joy she took in recounting the recipe to us, and the gleam in her grandson’s eye at recalling the delicious family meals.

The Expeditioner: Travel and food seem to have the perfect marriage. Do you think your book has sparked a new trend in travel writing, where the place becomes more about the relationships among people and, the food that brings them together?

Kimberley Lovato: I think writers and savvy travelers already recognize the symbiotic relationship between food and experiential travel, but I would love to see more writing that uses food and dining as the vehicles that bring people and personalities onto the pages. Who better to shed light on the place you are visiting than the people who live and work there? This was really the impetus of our book.

Daniele (Chapter 1) said something when we first met her and it stays with me today. She said that cooking and eating are about much more than just the food; that much is revealed about a person and a place, a history and a culture, when you cook with them, sit around a table and share a meal and a bottle of local wine with them, and laugh together over a few stories. This is true of anyplace you go, and I do suspect the trend in travel and in travel writing will continue on this trajectory of experiencing a place rather than just visiting it. And to really experience a place I believe you need to meet and eat.

By Maria Russo


About the Author

Maria Russo is a freelance writer who loves natural wonders, good eats, ethical travel, and boutique hotels. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, USA Today.com, People.com and A Luxury Travel Blog, among others.


When Maria is not writing for her all-time favorite site (that would be The Expeditioner), she spends her time blogging about foreign jaunts and delectable food experiences for her site: Memoirs of a Travel & Food Addict. She is also up to no good on Twitter (@traveladdictgrl, @expedmaria).

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