Gerrit Jan Groothedde on moving to France and one of his favorite cheeses, La Trappe d’Échourgnac.
What is your profession and where are you originally from?
Gerrit Jan: I’m a food writer and author, originally from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I did, however, spend several decades abroad, mainly in Brussels, Belgium and in Orange County, CA.
Tell me about Peyrat-le-Château (Haute-Vienne)?
Gerrit Jan: Peyrat-le-Château is a gem of a village of about 1,000 inhabitants in the heartland of the Limousin region: it is in Haute-Vienne, but right on the border of the Creuse department and only a short drive from the Corrèze. The village itself, though small, boasts an amazing array of amenities: we have a large and a small supermarket, a butcher, a baker, a chemist, a bookstore and tobacconist, a hardware store, a hotel, a B&B, two restaurants, two bars, two infirmaries, the resistance museum housed in a monumental medieval castle on a small lake right in the village itself, a library attached to the school and even a cinema with a good offering at pre-war prices. There’s also a branch of the French organization Familles Rurales, offering general services to inhabitants. In the central market square, a tiny market (fruits and vegetables, cheeses, eggs and dairy, poultry, sundry regional products) is held twice weekly. Close to Peyrat is the gorgeous Lac de Vassivière, a large man-made lake surrounded by more hotels, restaurants and campgrounds which attracts quite a few tourists in the summer. Equally nearby is the somewhat larger town of Eymoutiers. It’s a one hour drive to beautiful Limoges, capital of Haute-Vienne and by far the largest city in the Limousin and roughly the same distance to the far smaller capital of the sparsely populated Creuse department, Guéret.
How long have you been living there and what attracted you to live there?
Gerrit Jan: My girlfriend Greet and I have been living in the Limousin for a little over a year now, and in our current house since May 2018. Finding this house was a bit of a fortunate accident, as was our discovery of the Limousin, a region we’d heard about but where we’d never set foot. In fact, in October 2017 we were on a trip to Champagne-Ardenne in a different part of France altogether and decided to use part of the time we were there to look for a place to live. Rummaging through real estate websites, I stumbled upon a beautiful little house in nearby Eymoutiers. We decided we might as well extend our stay in France by a few days and drive further south. We got in touch with the estate agent and agreed to visit the house and a few others he had on offer, and we booked a hotel nearby. As it turned out, this was in Peyrat-le-Château, which we immediately loved. By yet more sheer coincidence, the hotel owner heard on the morning of our departure, after we had looked at the properties and decided we would make an offer on one of them, what our business had been and he informed us that he knew of a house for sale here, and that someone to show it to us could be there within five minutes. We agreed that we might as well take a look, so we went there together and it was love at first sight. Things sometimes have a wonderful way of working out!
What do you enjoy most about living in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region?
Gerrit Jan: What we love most of all is that we are surrounded by the most beautiful countryside abounding with birds and wildlife, in what is one of the most thinly populated areas of western Europe. There’s green wherever you look and it’s stunningly quiet, especially when you come from the very crowded Netherlands. Especially outside of the summer season, you can actually drive for an hour here without seeing more than five or six other cars. The people over here are all wonderfully welcoming, helpful, generally friendly and polite and we were really accepted from day one, although I’ll readily admit that it must have helped that we are both quite fluent in French. A thing we definitely enjoy is the food over here: great quality fruits and vegetables, the best bread you’ll ever taste, fabulous meat, especially the world renowned Limousin beef and of course the French wines as well as an amazing array of cheeses which generally come at surprisingly low prices.
What makes La Trappe d’Échourgnac cheese so special?
Gerrit Jan: This cheese was recommended to us by our favorite cheese shop in Limoges, run by a lady who must be close to eighty years old and her assistant. Every time we go there, they have at least one or two cheeses that they insist we must try. La Trappe d’Échourgnac is a cheese produced in Bretagne, then transported to the monastery of Notre-Dame de Bonne Espérance in Échourgnac in Dordogne, close to Haute-Vienne to mature. Part of the cheeses are first rinsed with a local walnut liqueur and this is the variety we took home. What you have is a beautifully creamy cheese with a structure slightly reminiscent of Gouda, with an overwhelming aroma of walnut. The first time we had this cheese, we served it for deserts to friends from the Netherlands who were visiting and they, upon tasting this cheese, all but replicated the famous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. They’re right! It’s just about the best cheese we’ve stumbled upon anywhere.
How would you recommend serving it? Is there a wine you would pair it with?
Gerrit Jan: This is a great cheese to serve for dessert and while a nice oaked chardonnay would certainly do it justice, my somewhat whimsical recommendation would be to serve it with a glass of good farmhouse cider, especially in summer. I mean, apple and walnut—how can you go wrong? Also, after a copious meal, cider is so much lighter and more refreshing than wine!
For people who are visiting your department, what do they need to see/experience?
Gerrit Jan: Limoges is definitely a must-see, with its historic center and nearby Halles which, even if you buy none of the fare on offer—but how could you resist?—is a paradise for anyone interested in good food. Also not to be missed there is what is probably France’s most beautiful railway station, Limoges Bénédictins, with its stunning dome entirely in art nouveau style. There is not much to do there (the restaurant closed last summer), but it’s a sight to behold. For food, go to Brasserie le Versailles at Place de l’Aine, which has been around since 1932. A meal in France doesn’t get more authentic!
Whilst not the most cheerful of outings, one shouldn’t miss Oradour-sur-Glane, a village where in the late days of WWII a massacre took place in which almost the entire population perished. The French authorities decided to leave the village exactly as the Nazis left it back then and declare it a monument: a most impressive experience!
To the east of Limoges is the charming town of St Léonard de Noblat, great for a stroll and with a church definitely worth seeing. Another must-see is obviously our dear Lac de Vassivière and its surrounding countryside including the decidedly bucolic Pont de Sénoueix, which is in the Creuse department. Also, while in the Creuse do not miss the breathtaking Viaduc de Busseau, a train viaduct from the mid 19th century in Eiffel style and still in use, almost 60 meters high and 320 meters long. The nearby restaurant Le Viaduc offers a great view and you could do far worse for lunch. While there, do also visit the quaint village Moutier d’Ahun as well as the old tapestry town of Aubusson.
Somewhat further out but still in the Limousin are charming Ussel and bustling Brive in Corrèze, both well worth a visit, the latter not in the least because of its great offering of restaurants.
However, one of the best things you can do here is just drive out into the countryside and let the ever-changing views surprise you, as we still do today!
Top Image: Autumn morning mist as photographed from the front of Gerrit Jan and Greet’s home
(All images courtesy of Gerrit Jan Groothedde)