GROLEJAC, France – It looked for the longest time like Agnes Lacoste, a woman with a striking silvery mane, would have no customers for her “Barbe a Papa” (cotton candy) stall at a nighttime “marche gourmand” in the Perigord village of Grolejac.

The paella, grilled duck breast and bottles of rose wine were going down a treat with a hundred or more diners, seated at long tables and being serenaded by a French bluegrass band from a local camping site, while Lacoste sat patiently.

All it took was one young girl to order the freshly spun sugar treat, made to order by Lacoste from a seemingly endless array of flavoured sugars. The distinctive, hot-sugar smell wafted over the dining tables, and within minutes dozens of girls, and an occasional boy, were begging for their own baton of fluffy sweetness.

“It’s a strong product that is one of the favourite desserts for children,” Lacoste said, adding that she’d been making “Barbe a Papa” (‘papa’s beard’) for years.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time, and my parents did it before me,” she said

Delightful as it was, the “gourmet night” in the tiny commune of Grolejac is not something that would pop up on a tourist itinerary of Perigord and the Valley of the Dordogne. The big draws here are the reproductions of the ancient cave drawings at Lascaux, canoeing and swimming in the Dordogne river, or exploring medieval Rocamadour. With more than a million visitors a year, the holy city is one of the top  tourist attractions in France.

But sometimes a small place can come up with a winning formula, and in Grolejac, the Tuesday gourmet nights have proven enormously popular, Sandy Baynat, the manager of the small  market on the village square and one of the organisers, said.

“One night we had so many people we needed to get more tables,” she said. “We are very happy with it.”

Part of the impetus for mounting such events is that many of the smaller towns and villages in the region are struggling to stay alive. In some places it seems that every other house is for sale, and many of the stores and businesses are vacant or boarded up.

That was a large part of the reason why the commune of Auriac-du-Perigord, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Grolejac, mounted its first two-night jazz festival this August. Apart from showcasing two popular French jazz stars, tumpeter Stephane Belmondo and saxophonist Geraldine Laurent, the event was intended to get people to spend some time in Auriac.

“We don’t have a single business left in the village,” a local resident told the regional newspaper Sud Ouest. “We’ve become a bedroom community.”

Listening to music in the village square, eating grilled duck (again) on tables under shady trees, and soaking up the music, it seemed like a return trip to Auriac might be quite congenial.

Michael Roddy

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