French treats in Tarn: An Absolutely Fabulous road trip
A road-trip through the south-western region of Tarn throws up an Ab Fab feast of food and wine for Audrey Kane
I remember watching the decadent duo of Eddie and Patsy from Ab Fab travelling around the South of France, back in the '90s, and ever since it's been on my list of things to do - minus the carnage, sweetie.
From quaint to grandiose châteaus, wine-tasting and cuisine to die for, I finally fulfilled that dream thanks to a little French delight - Tarn be thy name.
Car is the best way to explore, so our first stop at Toulouse-Blagnac airport was to pick up a rental.
An hour's drive from the airport was all it took to feel Absolutely Fabulous. Gaillac in the north of the region is home to some of the oldest vineyards in France, and here we checked into our first destination - Domaine de Perches, a restored 17th-century château transformed by hosts Alain and Howard into a small boutique hotel that you'll never want to leave. We felt like lord and lady of our own manor, with suites overlooking the rolling countryside, stunning rose gardens and a swimming pool.
After working up an appetite with a quick spin out to Cordes-sur-Ciel - a medieval bastide town where we strolled the craft shops and artists' galleries - we settled down for a four-course meal prepared by Alain, with the first of many Gaillac wines to be tasted on our trip. Think dishes like duck confit, cream of carrots in orange, or a dark chocolate mousse with an orange and raspberry salad... we retired to our elegant suite stuffed, but very happy.
Set between Toulouse and Montpellier, Tarn is a department in the Midi-Pyrénées. Though underrated, it's among the loveliest areas of south-east France, steeped in history and characterised by an enormous variety of landscapes.
Our journey continued on day two as we leisurely drove through the rustic countryside, passing the charming town of Rabasten. Here the colourful local market was in full flow, but with the Musée Art du Chocolat (chocolat-tarn.fr) awaiting in Lisle-sur-Tarn there was no time to stop. No, there was chocolate to be tasted.
The Musée holds a permanent exhibition showcasing amazing skills of building in chocolate - sculptures range from little fish to a life-sized mother and child. As I sat eating rich dark chocolate from Columbia and drinking hot chocolate from Argentina, I realised I had broken Lent - they had found my weakness.
We quickly became accustomed to the French way of life; three-course meals for lunch and the obligatory bottle of wine for two. We were living our best lives, and La Table du Sommelier, a restaurant set on a little square away from the busy main street, did not let us down. The food is simply amazing - you can enjoy a three-course meal here for as little as €28. There is also a fabulous selection of wines by the glass - our favourite was Domaine d'Escausses from the Gaillac region at just €7 a bottle; one for the table and one for the suitcase, s'il vous plaît.
Full of good food, we departed for Castelnau de Montmiral, 30 minutes away, where we had a rendezvous with Duncan Geddes from Château de Mayragues (chateau-de-mayragues.com). Set 10km north of Gaillac in a vineyard on slopes leading down to the Tarn river, it was built in the 13th and late 16th centuries and bought in 1980 by the Geddes family. They have been restoring it ever since. Treated to some organic wine-tasting from the vineyard, once again I left with a favourite bottle - Brut De Mayragues 2017 - this one priced at €15. The Ab Fab theme was proving apt, indeed.
If it's haute cuisine paired with local wines you're after, then the smart, rural Château de Salettes hotel (see factbox below) hits the spot. Dating from the 13th century and set in 32 hectares of vineyards, the castle has been beautifully restored. Polish head chef Ludovic Dziewulski served us an eight-course gastronomic delight (dinner from €29 to €90, depending on how decadent you are feeling), with excellent wine pairings by the house sommelier. Another bottle ended up in our ever-expanding suitcase - Chateau de Salettes, Gaillac Doux - for all of €9.
The final leg of our little tour de France was the episcopal city of Albi. Tarn's capital has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's easy to see why. One of Albi's biggest draws sits at its heart - Sainte-Cecile Cathedral, a towering, redbrick masterpiece which took over 400 years to complete. It's definitely worth having a guided tour of the city, as there are little gems everywhere you may miss such as the Restaurant Le Lautrec (restaurant-le-lautrec.com).
Afterwards, take a trip to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (musee-toulouse-lautrec.com) where over a thousand works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an artist born nearby, are on show.
Our final night was spent at the four-star Hotel Alchimy, located downtown in a very central area, near the cathedral and other tourist spots. It's quiet and very chic. We had dinner at the hotel in the new Albigeois restaurant where almost everything is made in Tarn - Le Pont du Tarn. A three-course menu costs €32.90, with a wide selection of authentic cuisine and great service plus, you guessed it, Gaillac wine. This time we had a bottle of Mas des Combes for €10.
All that was left to do now was to say au revoir to the South of France and also to somehow fit my fab collection of Gaillac wines into the airline allowance.
Time for one more before we go, darling?
If you are planning a trip to Tarn you will need to drive. Having never driven on the opposite side before, I chickened out and let my partner take the wheel. Once you're off the motorway, driving through the rural parts is a lot easier.
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Toulouse-Blagnac airport. Audrey was a guest of the airline (aerlingus.com), and Le Tarn Tourisme, with car rental by Sixt (sixt.com).
Suites at Domaine de Perches (domainedeperches.com) from €155, at Hotel Château de Salettes (chateaudesalettes.com) from €255, and at Hotel Alchimy in Albi (alchimyalbi.fr) from €180, based on low-season.
For more to see, do and eat in Tarn, visit tourisme-tarn.com/uk