Itâ€™s raining cats and dogs in France. The only consolation is the thought of spending the night in Vieux Mareuil, a tiny village in the Perigord region of the Dordogne. We are sleeping in a quintessentially French inn. Auberge de l’Etang Bleu is somewhere well disguised in green and overlooks a huge pond with swans bobbing around and quacking ducks. We arrive just in time for dinner. The lady of the house, Madame Colas, an elegant appearance who reminds me a bit of Sybil from Fawlty Towers (tight, two-piece suit with knee-length skirt, small waist belt, perfect, eighties make-up and ditto hair) welcomes us and shows the way to the round table in the romantic, candlelit dining room. The Auberge is almost a museum with of sorts of antiques, brocante, collections of porcelain ducks and other memorabilia. Pierre-Henri Colas is nowhere to be found, he is in the kitchen, between the copper pots and pans, and is busy preparing a three-course dinner for his guests.
This dinner consists of an extremely typical French menu (an affordable 27 euros pp.) with dishes like terrine de cĂ¨pes Ă la farce the Maroons and delicate, fried foie gras a speciality in the region, followed by for example cuisse de canard confite and to finish a collection of delicious local cheeses with even one made by nuns. For those into the real, traditional, perfectly prepared French cuisine without too much fuss, this is the place. Our waiter is 100% French: white-black uniform, polite (a couple words of Dutch in between the courses), precise, proud of his metier and clearly someone who fits the dĂ©cor. When Pierre-Henri, a round cheerful appearance, finally pops out of his kitchen, it is already late and he invites me for a glass of Cognac. He explains how he took over from his father as a young lad and how he loves his hotel and restaurant and hopes his daughter, who is actually an engineer, will one day follow in his footsteps and take over Auberge de l’Etang Bleu.
“Every morning, when I open the door and walk through the building, I say to myself “comme elle est belle”. He grins. I tell him that it must be such a joy to sit by the crackling open fire in wintertime (the right size to roast a complete sheep), afterwards enjoy Pierres French kitchen accompanied by classic wines from Bordeaux and then have a wonderful, deep sleep upstairs in the cozy rooms after a hearty digestive. “Ah yes, he says, this was the case in the past but now we close for the winter, the crisis, the economy and we are not getting any younger, you knowâ€ť. Pierre talks about his little hotel as if it is a loved one he has to leave behind in the fall when the winter is knocking on the door. I tell him as a consolation that staying here was a perfect ending for this long road trip and that his gentilesse and passion for the hospitality industry is really beautiful. He asks what the highlights were during this 8,000 kilometre journey through Europe. Actually thatâ€™s quite simple: discovering arts and crafts in Innsbruck, Venice waking up, triple baked bread with Tome de Savoie from La Clusaz with some local rosĂ© wine in Carcassonne, an unexpected roadside lunch in La Mancha, sleeping among the olive trees in a cortijo in Andalucia, Chipiona and Sanlucar de Barameda as a summer hotspot and in search of pata negra pigs in Extremadura. Last highlight is now here in France, after a good nightâ€™s rest and yesterdayâ€™s copious dinner, and with as a gift two bottles of good local wine offered by friendly Pierre who, along with his cocker spaniel beside him, is waiving us bye bye. “Bonne route! A bientĂ´t! ”