We may have been unusual in choosing to arrive at the five-star Domaine D'Auriac by public bus, which costs €1 and stops at the nearby hospital, rather than taking a taxi or arranging a private transfer. Certainly the staff on the front desk looked a little surprised when we strolled in wearing our rucksacks and walking clothes!
I'd be the first to admit that this kind of establishment, with its Michelin-starred restaurant, isn't generally in my price range. It is, however, very much the sort of thing I appreciate, so I was thrilled to find a weekend break at a very reasonable price.
Our package included one dinner in the hotel's gourmet restaurant. I didn't take my camera to dinner as it felt like it might spoil the ambiance (I know, I know, what kind of blogger am I?) but I certainly couldn't help commenting on the food, which (along with the walls of Carcassonne) was the highlight of our trip.
We were greeted with a Grand Marnier cocktail, a bowl of olives, and a copy of the menu. A huge slate covered in freshly-picked ceps was presented to demonstrate to us the quality of the produce, and to advertise the chef's recommended starter for the evening.
As a vegetarian, eating at upmarket restaurants can often be a less-than-perfect experience. Finding veggie food in France isn't always easy, either, so when we first planned this trip I made sure to email ahead and check that they would be happy to cater for me. I'd reminded them again when we checked in, just to be on the safe side, and when we were presented with the menu I thought that might be a good time to mention it again. Our server glanced at the menu, informed me that I'd be fine with one of the regular starters (the ceps) and with either dessert. He thought for a moment and offered me a plate of vegetables as my main course.
If you're not vegetarian, you may not appreciate the way that my heart sank at this point. In particular, in the past I've had a promising-sounding "plate of vegetables" manifest itself as a plate full of lettuce with a few scattered tomatoes and slices of cucumber, or as a plate of potatoes, or as a soggy mass of over-cooked greens. I love vegetables, but being offered a plate of vegetables in a restaurant in lieu of a proper meal often seems to end badly. I think our waiter must have spotted my disappointment, as a moment later he offered "with a little risotto, madame?" which sounded far more appealing.
Andy opted for the same starter as me, which turned out to be a huge bowl full of pan-fried ceps, flavoured with garlic and loads of fresh herbs. It was definitely a generous portion, though they were so delicious I could happily have eaten twice as many. Meanwhile, the sommelier plied us with large glasses of local white wine.
Our main courses looked very similar: although Andy had fish and I had risotto, the selection of accompanying vegetables was identical. This was the first time in my life that I've been served vegetables I couldn't identify, in a restaurant. I asked if it was possible to get a list, and by the time we returned to our room, a small printed card had appeared with the details (in French, naturellement). Having done a bit of translation with help from Wikipedia's multilingual links, it seems that the highlights included black radish, salsify, and baby pattypan squash. I was seriously impressed, everything was cooked to perfection, and again I would very happily order the exact same dish again.
For dessert we both selected the soufflé, which was huge and incredibly fluffy. This was served with a jug of hot suzette sauce, which the waiter poured into the middle of the souffle. On the side, a scoop of ice cream was arranged on a crunchy base, on top of which was balanced a crispy candied orange slice. My one resolution of the evening was to learn how to create these candied slices (so watch this space).
By the time we finished our desserts we were both stuffed to bursting, but there was still coffee to come - and a selection of tiny petit fours, just in case we hadn't had enough to eat. We retired to our room thinking we wouldn't need to eat again for days (although of course, we were more than happy to tuck into breakfast the next morning).
The October weather wasn't really suitable for a dip in the outdoor pool, but in the summer I imagine it would be lovely, not only to swim but to relax on the terrace.
There's also a golf course at the hotel; unfortunately, a large sign warned that access was for golfers only, and emphatically no walkers! Which rather spoiled our plan to go for a gentle stroll around the grounds.
We'd paid a small supplement to upgrade to a superior room, so our bedroom had loads of space, with a coffee table and armchairs. As the hotel is a little way out of town, we tended to spend our evenings playing games and doing crosswords, so it was great to have that extra space to stretch out. The decor was a little faded in places, but generally it was a nice room with a comfy bed.
Breakfast consisted of a generous basket of breads and pastries, various conserves, fruit salad, yoghurt, a plate of ham and cheese (which we ignored), and a little pot of scrambled eggs. Plus, of course, as much coffee as you could possibly drink. The fruit salad was especially nice, with a huge variety of different ingredients, from local grapes to more exotic flavours such as dragonfruit.
On our way from the hotel into town, we passed this sign pointing towards the Service Protection des Végéteaux, and we couldn't help wondering if there was any connection to Domaine D'Auriac's great selection of heritage vegetables. I like to think so!