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“Food, Bruno believed, was a village policeman’s secret weapon. The more people who came to eat at his table, the more he heard and learned.”
— from “The Templars’ Last Secret,” by Martin Walker
British crime writer Martin Walker’s popular detective novels are set in the Périgord region of southwest France. Known for its history and fine cuisine—truffles, cèpes and duck products top the list of local specialties—the Périgord was once referred to by Henry IV as the gastronomic heartland of France. Few who live there today would disagree. You certainly won’t find any urban gangsters in Walker’s books; the baddies in the Chief Bruno series are truffle fraudsters or archaeological vandals, and the whodunnit aspect seems to be almost an accessory to the important business of food and wine. Bruno’s investigations are regularly paused for a glass of Bergerac red and his neighbor’s homemade pâté de foie gras; you can’t read 10 pages without your mouth watering.
Detective Bruno is the police chief of a sleepy, riverside town modeled closely on Le Bugue (where Walker lives). This hero of 10 books was inspired by Le Bugue policeman Pierrot Simonet; indeed, many of the places and characters are based on Martin Walker’s real-life experiences and friends. When I went to make a story about his Périgord life, this bestselling author (who is also a keen historian, gourmet and oenophile) gave me a two-day tour of the region that made me feel I was stepping right into a Bruno novel.
After starting out at the café where Bruno gets his croissants—every morning, in every book—we went to the local farmer’s market, which has been held weekly for 700 years. Walker was keen to meet local cheese producer Stéphane Bounichou (the inspiration for a book character of the same name). We arrived just as he and his friends were firing up a portable grill behind his stand, piled with various cuts of bacon, sausages and pork chops, and pouring out goblets of red wine—at 9 a.m.! I left them to it and photographed stalls piled high with different types of strawberries (Périgord is famous for them) and cheese, and pots of duck scratchings, goose gizzards and foie gras. When I could restrain my mouthwatering no longer, I tucked into my own Périgord salad. Not a dieter’s salad option; it was topped with eggs, garlic duck liver, cabécou (a local goat cheese) and enchaud (pork stuffed with garlic) and preserved in goose fat.
Humans have lived continuously in the Périgord for more than 70,000 years. From evidence of Neanderthals hunting in its forests and the traces made by Lascaux caves artists, to sites of battles during the 15th century Hundred Years’ War, and memorials on lonely crossroads to soldiers lost in World War II, signs of history are everywhere. We managed to fit visits to many of them around our meals, including the Château de Commarque, one of the largest medieval castle enclosures in western Europe. I photographed the remains of a troglodyte village there, and took a portrait of the Count of Commarque, whose family has ruled the castle since the 14th century—the site has a prominent role in Walker’s “The Templars’ Last Secret.”
The second day was focused on wine. Bergerac’s dry reds tend to be ignored in the global wine economy (Bordeaux, its vastly more powerful seaport neighbor, has historically made sure of that), but Walker is something of a zealous missionary on the subject. We visited many producers and were invited to tastings aplenty, ending at the 800-year-old Château le Tiregand, where the superb Pécharmant appellation is produced—”the grandest of the Bergerac wines” and a favorite of Chief Bruno’s.
This private castle is straight out of a fairy story (literally; the owner is a descendant of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of “Le Petit Prince”). Its caretaker, apparently the only current inhabitant, slowly and carefully opened the shutters of about 30 windows on its façade for me to photograph it. I caught my breath as he then led us into musty rooms with extraordinary hand-painted wallpaper (original, faded by the light and peeling in patches) and endless treasure troves of forgotten Louis XV furniture, clocks and stained mirrors.
International success of Martin Walker’s novels has certainly contributed to Périgord’s allure for tourists, and pilgrims come to see Bruno’s haunts, taste his favorite dishes, or even glimpse the author out and about in Le Bugue. Yet Walker is, more likely than not, to be found in the converted pigeon tower where he does most of his writing, or sharing meals of homegrown, home-cooked food in his garden with neighbors… just as Bruno does, between murder investigations.