A Thanksgiving among the militants

by Tom Fiorina on December 4, 2014

Horloge tower in Auvillar.

“Horloge” tower in Auvillar.

Having lived in France and Italy for most of the past 25 years, I’ve accepted the idea that I won’t be joining my father and my sisters and brother and their families for a typical American Thanksgiving feast. But my immediate family and I usually manage to organize a Thanksgiving-style meal in France on the weekend after the last Thursday in November. Living in Toulouse, with its large American expatriate population, many of whom work for the city’s largest employer, Airbus, makes it easy to find turkey and cranberries, and the other foods associated with this holiday.

But rather than write about my Thanksgiving, which was very nice—thank you, this blog post is about a wonderful hotel-restaurant that I discovered thanks to David Cobbold, an English wine writer who lives in Paris. He writes a personal blog, More than just wine, which, like its name, is about his varied interests, which include, besides wine, motorcycles, painting, art, architecture, literature, rugby, and a myriad of other topics. He also writes, along with four other wine journalists, a French-language blog called Les 5 du Vin.

My agenda for the last Thursday in November included a visit to the wine cooperative in the Brulhois appellation near Agen, located mid-way between Toulouse and Bordeaux. I emailed David, knowing that he had a country home in that area. He immediately got back to me, recommending that I have lunch in L’Horloge, a hotel-restaurant in Auvillar, considered to be one of France’s 100 most-beautiful villages. Since it is only a short drive from the Brulhois wine cooperative (which I will write about in a future blog post), I made a reservation for the bistro portion of the Horloge, which also has a Guide Michelin-recommended restaurant.

Le Bouchon is the name of the Horloge's bistro. My "menu du jour" is listed here, on a board outside of the restaurant.

Le Bouchon is the name of the Horloge’s bistro. My “menu du jour” is listed here, on a board outside of the restaurant.

Auvillar certainly merits its “100-most-beautiful-village” designation. Its center is dominated by an enormous 16th-century, red-brick and white-limestone clock tower (horloge in French), the inspiration for the restaurant’s name. Only one of the three principals in the hotel-restaurant’s operation, Chef Serge François, was present on this off-season Thursday afternoon (the Horloge manager, Valérie Hartig, was off work). “Aubergistes militants” is what they call themselves on their website. This is a difficult term to translate into English. “Aubergiste” is clearly “innkeeper.” And although “militant” is often used today to denote an extremist or radical, the proper translation in English of the French word “militant,” in this context, is “activist.”

Indeed, “Aubergistes militants” goes beyond activism into the realm of passionate creativity and the desire to revolutionize or change the dining experience. I can’t speak about the hotel accommodations, but based on the lunch that I ate, the Horloge succeeds in offering more than just sustenance.

"Salade d'Harang" with a Château Lassolle white.

“Salade de Harengs” with a Château Lassolle Semillon-Sauvignons Gris and Blanc white.

I ordered the fixed menu for my lunch. The first course was a salad of thinly sliced, new potatoes, carrots and onions, topped with smoked slabs of herring, a drizzle of virgin olive oil, and some dill-weed sprigs.

On David’s recommendation, I had opted to have Chef François select my wine—available, by-the-glass, from wines from southwestern France and the Languedoc-Roussillon region that had been selected by the restaurant’s sommelier, Jérôme Riols. My first wine, a Semillon-Sauvignons Gris and Blanc white from Château Lassolle, was fittingly filled with ripe, autumn-harvest aromas. An initial, slightly reductive nose, with Riesling-worthy petrol aromas, was soon balanced with very ripe peaches, honey, almonds and dried flowers. It was dry, with a medium body and a medium-long, saline finish, and its acidity and minerality made it the perfect wine for the slightly fatty herrings.

Château Lassolle is an 8-ha biodynamic vineyard in the Côtes du Marmandais, located between Bordeaux’s Sauternes and Graves wine appellations. Stéphanie Roussel, the winemaker, is from Normandy. She owned a Bordeaux wine bar before she purchased the vineyard in 2002. Unlike many Bordeaux Semillon-Sauvignon blends that can be on the flabby, round side, this Château Lassolle white is precise and angular, with refreshing acidity, complexity and depth.

My second dish, Petit salé aux lentilles (savory lentils baked in a rich sauce with sausage, bacon and tripe), arrived in a Staub cast-iron cocotte. The delicious meat, carrot and onion casserole, hidden beneath a crusty, bread-crumb surface, had me giving thanks.

"Petit salé aux lentilles" with a Brulhois red wine from the Domaine du Pountet.

“Petit salé aux lentilles” with a black Brulhois red wine from the Domaine du Pountet.

The accompanying wine, a 2009 red Côtes du Brulhois (named, coincidentally, L’Horloge) from the nearby Domaine du Pountet, was another good match. Made from 100% Malbec grapes, this wine had the intensely dark color characteristic to Brulhois red wines. Ripe blackberries, damp earth aromas, and a slight touch of vanilla, the only indication of its barrel aging, were wrapped around silky tannins. The body, texture and ripe fruit flavors of this wine were able to stand up to the rich taste of my main course.

The vast majority of the products used at the Horloge come from nearby organic farms. This goes beyond just offering fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables. Their bread, poultry, meat, fish, shellfish, butter, yogurt, flour, and even the cleaning products are chosen because of the proximity of the suppliers and their emphasis on sustainable development and environmental impact. Each producer’s name is listed on the menu, and the hotel-restaurant website has photos of the producers, their farms and their products.

This sort of militancy merits giving thanks. I think that the church militants, otherwise known as the Pilgrims, and the native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts who sat down with them at the first Thanksgiving would agree.

Two Place de l’Horloge, 82340 Auvillar
Telephone: +33 (0)5 63 39 91 61
Email: hoteldelhorloge@wanadoo.fr
www.lhorlogeauvillar.com
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