You love France and all things French, right? So I’ll bet that you’ve read Michael Sanders’ From Here You Can’t See Paris, the story of the year he spent in the kitchen of La Récréation, watching a young couple committed to serving great food struggle to create a restaurant in a tiny town that’s hard to even find on the map.
Shel and I both loved the book when we read it a few years ago, but never for a moment did we imagine that we’d one day find ourselves dining there. So when we realized that it was not too far from our current temporary home, it was pretty much a done deal that we’d go there tout de suite. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
To get there from Saint Antonin we drove north to Cahors, home of the famous and ancient vin noir, or black wine, and also home of Léon Gambetta. Just about every town in France has a Boulevard Gambetta, but Cahors also has a statue of its native son, a rabble-rousing statesman of the mid 19th century.
Cahors is also home to a covered market with an excellent fromagerie. The selection here was the best I’ve seen anywhere this side of Lyon, so of course we had to buy some local cheeses
as well as some of this beautiful butter.
We did manage to resist the offer of a foie gras sandwich with a free glass of wine, although it was tough. Foie gras is as common as baguette here, and we had better plans for our lunch.
The first part of those plans involved driving for another half an hour into the absolutely most remote corner of France that we’ve seen thus far. Tiny one lane roads through forests with nary a car in sight, which is a very good thing given the size of the roads, lead us finally to the minuscule hamlet of Les Arques, and to La Récréation.
After parking our trunkful of cheese in a shady spot, we were greeted by the vivacious and charming Noëlle Ratier, wife of chef Jacques Ratier. She’s the public face of the restaurant, and we watched in awe as she moved from table to table, lingering with each guest, making each one feel like the guest of honor.
The pretty dining room was empty, because we all wanted to be outside on one of the last perfectly warm days of the season.
Since I was interested in vin noir Madame Ratier deftly helped me choose a half bottle, as well as selections from the menu to complement the wine.
We sat on the sun-splashed terrace under a 68 year old wisteria and started with a light bright tomato bisque that tasted of the last days of summer.
A terrine of foie gras followed for me
and fillets of rouget on a bed of artichoke hearts for Shel. This dish, and the artichokes in particular, were what made me realize that our lunch was in the hands of a maître saucier, a sauce-making genius of a chef. I’d go back to La Récréation just for those artichokes, and I might be tempted to sell my soul for the recipe.
Next I had a ballotine of poultry with girolles, a savory golden mushroom
while Shel had quail with foie gras and a sweet grape sauce that was far and away the best quail I’ve ever tasted.
Following the tiny and perfectly creamy cabecou that we both had as a mini cheese course
Shel had this gorgeous tarte tatin with a caramel crème anglaise and I had an eau de vie of plums that sent me searching for a bottle to bring home. So there you have it, a brilliant 5 course lunch for 33 Euros a person, served in a lovely setting by a friendly and super-competent staff, which has got to be one of the most incredible deals in France.
After lunch we strolled through the town to the other attraction, the Zadkine Museum, which is absolutely worth visiting.
It defies understanding how such an admittedly lovely but minute village, which boasts a population of 181 people, could house two such major attractions. And nothing else, mind you, neither butcher nor baker, not a grocery store, not a hardware store, nothing else at all, in the middle of what really does appear to be nowhere.
As we strolled we talked a lot about what life would be like, so far off the beaten path. But you know what? I kind of have the feeling that if you can see La Récréation, you really don’t need to see Paris.