A non-touristy, small town food mecca...?
I am considering a four or five day food-centric trip to a central-european city, perhaps in France. I would be driving from the Netherlands in mid-July, and my dream would be to find a pension in a smallish city to hunker down and explore the food in the surrounding areas. No budget for fine-dining....and any other sightseeing would be secondary to finding wonderful breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks...wine too. I don't speak a word of French, but am not rattled by trying to communicate. I will be a solo gal this time around, looking for low-key deliciousness. Someplace that offers a very specific regional specialty (Steingarten's choucroute search comes to mind) or a lot of different places and tastes... I'm totally open at this point, just needs to be moderately priced, away from the mid-summer throngs of tourists, and delicious. Any and all advice welcome!
You may want to consider Toulouse. It is a lovely city that has a number of really good restaurants in various price ranges, so you would have a lot of choices for dinner that you could walk to. For day trips, you can go to Carcassonne, Albi, Corde sur Ciel, etc. Carcassonne is not only an interesting town to tour, but it has a great restaurant, Le Comte Roger, where we enjoyed a delicious and very reasonably priced lunch. The regional specialty is cassoulet. I am not a fan of beans, so I did not try it, but if you like it this is the area to sample it in all its variations. Your mention of choucroute makes me think of Strasbourg. Also a very pretty city (and not as hot in the summer as Toulouse) with lots of good restaurants serving choucroute and other Alsatian specialties. You can take day trips to charming medieval towns and scenic tours in the Vosges mountains. There is an elegant but not terribly expensive restaurant, les Bas-Rupts, just outside of Gerardmer in the foothills of the Vosges, where a specialty is tripe cooked in Riesling until very tender and served in a mustard cream sauce. Heavenly. Avignon is another beautiful small city with many fascinating towns and villages nearby, though it may not be the best choice in mid-summer, when the French all head for the south. All of the places I have mentioned are in interesting wine regions, where you can find lesser-known but wonderful wines that are much less expensive than the burgundies and bordeaux.
The Dordogne region (of geese and truffles) is probably a very good bet. If you want to be in a large town with services, then Sarlat offers a lot of conveniences. If you want to be in a small, beautiful village with a couple of excellent choices, then check out nearby St Jean de Cole.
The Auvergene features wolrd-famous lentils, aligot (a potato/cheese mixture), and roast beef. Excellent cheese. Riom is the cultural capital of the region, and is very easy to navigate. Hard to go wrong eating in the Auvergne.
Whatever you do, I recommend going south of the Loire Valley for the food - except to avoid the Alps.
I really love all regions in France, but I must say that indeed the one place where you eat very well almost everywhere is indeed the Dordogne/Périgord. There are some great small towns like Beaune, but no region beats the SW. Not that the best food is necessarily from there, or that it would have the best restaurants of the country -- but this is the last region in France (and maybe the World) where standards are truly high.
I agree with Steve's suggestions. The Auvergne is one of our favorite regions of France. The scenery is spectacular, food is wonderful, and it is totally off the tourist path. The Dordogne is also right in line with what you are looking for. We stayed at the hotel Lion d'Or in Gramat which is a comfortable, beautifully kept place in a very central location, with a really nice restaurant, with prices in the budget category. A real gem. In the Auvergne we stayed at Auberge Pre Bossu in Moudeyre, which is a gorgeous country inn with a spectacular restaurant, not cheap but not prohibitively expensive either, a tremendous bargain for the food and atmosphere, and we were the only non-French guests.
I'd probably head southeast, not west, since you're going in July. I love cassoulet, but mostly when it's cold out... provencal food, for my tastes, goes best with the summertime. don't spend too much time on the coast of the mediterranean if you want to keep costs down.
This is just the kind of place we're looking for in France but haven't found. A place quiet enough for us usually doesn't have much in the way of amenities, and both good food and quiet lodgings are important to us. So we stay in the country and drive somewhere different every day.
I would suggest that you look at the maps in the back of the Michelin rouge to see where there are a few Bib Gourmand restaurants in a region that appeals to you and find yourself a chambre d'hotes centered among them. You're probably aware that Saturday night lodgings get booked up way in advance, even in the country. Markets are important, so if you can, get an idea of where the good markets are and on what mornings. If you want to save money, the noon meal is cheaper and can be easier to book, but you usually need to book, and here is where speaking French comes in handy. (Calling for reservations once, my husband couldn't remember how to pronounce the letter "e" so he couldn't even spell our name in full.) Your B&B host may help with the phone call, or at least the vocabulary, and they can suggest good restaurants under Michelin's radar. They'll also know the best boulangeries-patisseries and markets.
Sorry I can't be more specific. I'll be following this thread with interest.
When you combine the landscape, weather, local influence, food and wine, I'd go back to either the area close to Geneva or Burgundy. In the area above Lake Leman (Geneva) in France, the cheese is incredable and people are very kind.
In Burgundy, I like the area from Beaune south to Beaujeu, along route D981. Its good biking, roller blading and walking. And great picnics.
I hope I didn't spoil it.