Michael Ruhlman heads to southwest France, where the rich, earthy gastronomy is newly alive and very well.
The New Adventures of Old Cuisine
Not since the Three Musketeers unsheathed their swords centuries ago has Gascony seen this much excitement. To savor le dernier cri in French cooking, Michael Ruhlman heads to southwest France, where the rich, earthy gastronomy is newly alive and very well. En garde!
THE CHEF WAsN’T HAPPy, and he was unhappy in the way only a French chef can be. I didn’t blame him. In my clumsy French, I’d asked him if he might bring us a bottle of wine and pointed to where my wife, Donna, was laying out a picnic overlooking the sunflowers of southwestern France. His expression said it all: Why are these guests at my château not ordering my food? But when he grudgingly appeared with bottle in hand, he did a double take—“Ooh!”—pushed out his lips, and nodded. He’d seen our lunch of dry-cured magret (duck breast) with a goodly layer of fat, a second duck breast wrapped around a huge chunk of foie gras, two hefty cheeses, a loaf of country bread, olives, nuts, tomatoes, and nectarines. At least the Americans know how to eat in Gascony, his smile seemed to say.
It had been a hellish travel day that began with a manic zigzag through Italian traffic to the Genoa airport, a dash through Charles de Gaulle, just making our connecting flight to Toulouse, and then ninety minutes on the autoroute. To find ourselves, then, suddenly in the lush fields and forests of rural France had felt like falling into a cool pool after a long hot day. The winding, sloping roads had been a pleasure to navigate, the air perfumed with onions growing by the roadside. It had been a pleasure even to be slowed by one of the many tractors hauling hay–all the more time to take in the endless fields of sunflowers, their backs to the late-afternoon sun. We’d rolled beneath an arbor tunnel to our destination, the Château de Lassalle, a country house surrounded by pastures of cut hay, everything glowing yellow and gold and green. Already I was in love with this rugged land called Gascony.
I’d come forewarned. Ariane Daguin, who runs the New Jersey-based food company D’Artagnan, is a true Gascon, a hearty woman who trades in the products of her land—duck cooked in duck fat, sausages, foie gras. She had told me, “Gascony is the best region in the world, period. The quality of life, the weather, the beauty of the country. People say, ‘Oh, Tuscany, Tuscany.’ They have never been to Gascony.”
Donna and I had just come from Tuscany, and now we understood precisely what Daguin meant. Our picnic lunch had been provided by Kate Hill, who runs a cooking school called the Kitchen at Camont, in Ste-Colombe-en-Bruilhois, a thirty-minute drive from our château. “It’s Sunday,” she’d announced. “Nothing will be open, so I’ve brought you a picnic. And a bottle of Floc!” The Floc de Gascogne, an aperitif made from local grapes and fortified with Armagnac, was sweetly refreshing, the perfect elixir after a gritty trek across southern Europe.
Kate Hill is an American expat and one of the reasons I had determined to find my way to Gascony. In the early 1980s, she and a lover had traveled to Amsterdam; together they’d bought an eighty-five-foot barge and floated it down canals, transporting tourists, until the barge broke down in Agen, a small city on the Garonne River between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The lover left, but Kate stayed. “Gascony!” she said. “The Three Musketeers! Rugby! Armagnac! Duck! Nothing is subtle here.”
Kate is a big woman in every way. And from the standpoint of culinary knowledge and her generosity in sharing it, she’s Julia big. Her friends often stay on the barge, while her employees occupy the 1970s-era trailers that dot the overgrown property, surrounded by roosters crowing, quail cooing, fruit ripe on tree branches. And it was Kate who’d brought a butcher named Dominique Chapolard to an International Association of Culinary Professionals gathering in Portland, Oregon, that I’d attended two years previously, to promote what she calls seed-to-table eating.
Chapolard speaks little English, so Kate had translated to the packed Portland kitchen as he broke down half a hog in his fashion, more elegant and thoughtful than the American method. Indeed, his whole being—the giant mustache, the mellifluous French, the way he caressed the animal—so clearly exuded a care for our food and animals that I rarely encounter in America. I was ready to pack my bags right then.
In the weeks and months that followed, the idea of Gascony got under my skin. One of the region’s specialties, duck confit—fatty duck legs poached in fat, stored submerged in snowy duck lard for months or years—is my favorite food on earth. The other specialties—blood sausage, prunes, Armagnac—also spoke to me, as hearty, fearless food. I-love-life food. Charcuterie—the pig preparations that I’d written an entire book about—was still being practiced in Gascony as it had been ceaselessly for centuries. And, as I was well aware, Gascony’s food culture has had a positive and lasting impact on America’s fine dining scene. Jean-Louis Palladin was a Gascon, lured from his restaurant in Condom to open Jean-Louis in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate Hotel. He brought over a young chef named Eric Ripert, who went on to helm Le Bernardin in Manhattan. And the San Francisco-based chef Laurent Manrique grew up in a tiny town just outside Condom (pronounced cohn-DOHM, by the way).
From foie gras to fresh fruit, Gentl & Hyers capture the beautiful bounty of Gascony in this slideshow of photos and digital extras.
And now at last I was here. Kate emptied her glass, bid us adieu, and vanished up the arbor tunnel, leaving Donna and me to our proper Gascon repast. The grit and travel tension washed away as the sustenance of food and wine soaked into us.
Gascony is so ancient that it has no actual boundaries, though most consider it to be roughly bordered by the Garonne River, which originates in the Pyrenees and runs northwest through Toulouse and Bordeaux and out to the Atlantic. Roman mosaics are buried here. The Vandals roamed these hills during the Dark Ages, only to be outmatched at their own vandalizing by the Visigoths, who reigned for a century after. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in the world here in the twelfth century.
Towns and villages formed in the Middle Ages as pilgrims made their way through Gascony to Santiago de Compostela. In the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas transformed an actual Gascon named d’Artagnan—a man to whom all Gascons feel spiritually related—into a legend with his Three Musketeers. The land here—rolling hills and dense woods—is so rich with rural hiding places that it became a hotbed of the Resistance during World War II. Unlike the regions of Bordeaux, Provence, Burgundy, Brittany—oft-written-about places—Gascony resists description, defies capture.
“I fell in love,” Franny Golden, another American expat who, like Kate, had come to Gascony and never left, had told me. “The food, the drink, the agriculture, the markets, the history—from the Middle Ages to the world wars. The Gascons are feisty folk who fought off the Brits, the Huguenots, and the Nazis. And for a woman who teaches painting and art history, this is a profound place to live, since the markets and the crops and the preparations have not changed much since the Middle Ages.”
Gascony is literally fertile turf. Close to the river, where the air is cool and moist, you’ll find orchards of stone fruits—peaches, nectarines, and of course the many varieties of plums the region is known for—as well as apples and kiwis. Move south of the Garonne and the land grows warmer and drier and supports countless crops: abundant corn for animal feed, acres of wheat cut in early summer and bundled into gigantic rolls of hay, and too many vegetables to count. Tellingly, the vegetables are not grown for themselves but rather for their seeds, which are sold locally and internationally—parsley and onion and sugar beet, carrots and cabbage and sorghum. This place is about origins.
Indeed, the towns and cities—Agen, Lectoure, Nérac, Condom, Auch, Mézin—and tiny villages like Montréal and Francescas are infused with a sense of the past. One of the great pleasures of travel in Gascony is to feel the ease and authenticity of place, and it often seemed as though we were the only tourists for miles and therefore not tourists at all, just welcome visitors. There were no lines, no traffic, no hustle, and you could park anywhere.
“Once they built the highways between Toulouse and Bordeaux, Toulouse and Biarritz, no one had reason to stop here,” Daguin, who grew up in the town of Auch, smack in the heart of Gascony, had told me. “So tourism has deserted Gascony.”
“What comes first when you barbecue the spareribs?” Kate asked me as we barreled between pastures toward Chapolard’s farm in Mézin. “Not the meat. It’s the seeds.” The seeds that were everywhere around us. The grains that Chapolard and his brother grow on their farm, a colorful, diverse mix of corn, wheat, barley, oats, sunflower seeds, and féverole to feed the animals they breed. We bumped down a long road between pastures shorn of the seed crops, parked by a crumbling stone barn, and exited into the midday heat of rich barnyard smells and the sound of clucking chickens. Kate walked us away from the centuries-old wreck toward more recent construction, where the pigs were rutting in open-air pens. Their sows give birth to piglets that the brothers raise (on the day we arrived, a hundred or so piglets were in the weaning barn, kept very warm even in summer). When they’re big enough to live outdoors, they’re moved to spacious pens where they get plenty of fresh air. The mature hogs seemed happy, rushing to us when we approached their pen.
When they reach between 350 and 400 pounds, they’re ready for the abattoir, in nearby Condom. Eight to ten pigs a week are slaughtered and chilled. I was there on a Tuesday as Dominique, his wife, Christiane, and two assistants transformed five of the beasts, making use of all parts of the animals they’d raised: everything from belly to pork chops, to hams, both fresh and cooked, to hundreds of pounds of sausage. They have a fermenting chamber and dry-cure rooms where colored string indicates the number of weeks each sausage has been drying.
But it wasn’t until the following day that the full circle was apparent, at the morning market in Lavardac. Dominique had traded a butcher’s hairnet for his red beret as he and Christiane—using a scale, a cutting board, and a knife—sold all their pork out of a small deli case to a line of customers that had formed at 7 a.m. and didn’t cease for more than four hours.
Michael Ruhlman shares his picks for the best places to stay and dine while in Gascony.
“When I’m here, it’s like I’m on stage,” said Dominique, taking a break when the crowd had thinned. He seemed to be always grinning and happy. The decision to quit his job as a school administrator eleven years ago and return to the family farm to work with his brothers agrees with him. “I want to share our philosophy with people and for them to understand the chain of production. Part of it is protecting the southwest of France and the region’s producers. A fight against modernization, to keep this way viable.” Everything is about sharing, he said.
“Tout seul, tu meurs,” he said. All alone, you die. “You can’t be a solitary farmer. We all need to rely on one another, share equipment, share knowledge, help with work, share the abattoir.”
He returned to his wife’s side to continue selling. When they’d begun, their case was packed with belly and chops and loin and sausage and dry sausage and small cuts of dried ham, paupiettes (lean pork wrapped in bacon), slabs of head cheese, crépinettes (sausages wrapped in caul fat), short pieces of ribs for stews, pâté, blood sausage, and offal—heart, tongue, kidneys, liver, brains, ears. Now it was empty. But their work was not done: Dominique and Christiane would break down the remaining hogs the following day for the Saturday-morning market in Nérac.
While the Chapolards’ seed-to-table philosophy is uncommon, their earthy ethos is not. Everyone in Gascony seems to not simply revere food but take the time to appreciate it (Dominique and Christiane Chapolard return home daily to eat lunch together). Whenever we arrived somewhere, the first question was inevitably, “Have you eaten?” Kate noted that when friends leave one another at midday, they say “Bon appétit” rather than “See you later,” because it is presumed you are going to sit down to a meal. As we did on the day we strolled the lovely main city of the region, Agen. We had a fabulous lunch at La Table d’Armandie, which serves contemporary Gascon cuisine like a big bloody côte de boeuf for two, smothered in raw shallots and carved tableside. We ate foie gras three ways, sautéed magret, a dish of fried eel and one of lamprey, both aquatic creatures from the Garonne River. And we drank local wines: a white made from Ungi blanc and Colombard grapes and a red from Elian Da Ros, a Côtes du Marmandais, an appellation at the western edge of Lot-et-Garonne that, until Da Ros returned from Alsace to his homeland and began producing wines, was not on the map even for people who care about wines.
Armagnac is another astonishing product of the region. In the town of Fourcès, rightly designated one of the most beautiful villages in France, after a lunch of confit de canard for me and a salad of gizzard confit, gésiers, lardons, and foie gras for Donna, we stopped in on Alexandre Ladevèze in the small shop where he sells the Armagnac that he makes from grapes grown on the family’s vines. While brandy from Cognac is better known and better marketed by big houses, Armagnac is created by numerous small producers and therefore is more individualistic and eccentric (boastful Gascons will add “superior” to that list). Many producers, including Ladevèze, share a communal, traveling distillery each fall.
Ladevèze gave me a lesson in proper Armagnac tasting, showing five different levels of complexity and quality by carefully turning the glass to aerate the brandy but holding his palm over the opening as he did so. After several minutes of such twisting, and sniffing to ensure all the harsher attributes of the alcohol had lifted off, he would pronounce it ready to taste.
It’s a measure of the openness and friendliness of the people that the following day, as we were exploring yet another “most beautiful” village—Montréal—in the early evening, Ladevèze spotted us from a table at a café and, cigar in hand, invited us to join him and his friends for a glass of wine at one of the town’s most notable establishments, Restaurant Daubin.
The next afternoon found me again barreling along empty, curving roads, sided by the most gorgeous fields and pastures I’ve ever seen. I was headed up into the hills north of the Garonne, to La Ferme du Roc, above the town of Port-Ste-Marie, where the seed-to-table connection comes in the form of bread. Jean-François Berthellot calls himself and his team paysans-boulangers (“peasant-bakers,” the word peasant being one of deep pride). He grows small amounts of 250 varieties of wheat and sells the seeds to other growers. In so doing, he joins the movement against monoculture—the planting of a single species across a wide area, which makes the entire crop vulnerable to disease. Berthellot has also created his own blends of wheats, which he and his wife, Cecile, mill for bread that they bake in their large wood-fired oven.
There’s no avoiding foie gras in Gascony, and I was curious to visit Souleilles, a foie gras farm in Frespech. As an advocate for humane animal husbandry but an opponent of the anti-foie gras legislation in the United States, I had yet to witness the controversial practice known as gavage, in which corn feed is delivered by tube into the duck. For those who are passionate vegetarians, there are the same compelling arguments against gavage as there are against the treatment of any of the animals we raise for our food, such as, How can we justify doing to animals what they wouldn’t do naturally on their own?
I arrived at Souleilles and was greeted by Yves Boissière, whose large mustache rivaled Chapolard’s. He and his wife have created a foie gras museum and put huge windows on the gavage pens so that visitors can watch. We passed the open field where the ducks spend most of their lives waddling the hundred or so yards across the grass from one feed box to the other, to encourage plenty of healthy walking. The gavage was done by an old woman in a hairnet who carried a stool from pen to pen, holding the ducks between her legs for their twice-daily feeding. The ducks pointed their beaks skyward; she inserted the tube and then spent a few more seconds massaging the food toward their gizzard. Fed, the ducks waddled off squawking and flapping.
And this was day twelve of the fourteen-day period of gavage. “On Monday, they go into the casserole,” said Boissière. Then, quietly, “But don’t tell them or they’ll go on strike.”
Boissière raises and dispatches between ten thousand and twelve thousand ducks a year. “I helped my father do this, and I enjoyed working with him,” he said. “I want to maintain the tradition and move it into the future.” He spoke proudly of the quality of the grain he used, and I noticed that his care of the animals was everywhere on view, from the clean barns and the health of the ducks, vigorous even at the end of gavage, to his pride in a foie gras tasting he gave me in the store. And the region’s history speaks through him, literally: When alone with his family, he speaks the Occitan language common to the area in Roman times.
I was beginning to understand what had always been at the bottom of my need to write about food: people. Here I was in the heart of French paradox country—where people who don’t diet or avoid food but embrace it with vigor live longer, with a lower incidence of heart disease than we in the land of chicken-breast-on-salad. It’s because they continue to grow, cook, and eat food much as they have for centuries, a fact that the Chapolards, Ladevèze, Boissière, and the Berthellots embody with their lives.
On our final night in Gascony, we had an aperitif at Kate’s farmhouse, which had filled to bursting with culinary gypsies, and headed to a marché nocturne, a night market, perhaps the truest expression of the terroir we’d experienced.
I’d noticed throughout our trip how lovely it was to tour towns and villages that were so untouristed, so tranquil. The night market was in Nérac, home of France’s Henry IV, or Henry the Great, the sixteenth-century king known, it may be no surprise, for his embrace of peasant farmers, believing that there would be peace in the land if the people could grow their own food and promising a chicken in every pot. During the day, we had dined and shopped along the town’s uncrowded streets.
But on the night of the marché nocturne, we could scarcely find a place to park. Crowds streamed over the bridge from the city down to the canal, to a large open area that had been transformed into a gigantic dining room. The region’s farmers, chefs, and winemakers had come to sell their food and drink. An African band was on stage, and people were dancing. Row after row of tables, each a hundred feet long, stretched in the center, packed with friends and family and neighbors eating and drinking. Here there were lines, many lines, people waiting hungrily for plates of confit de canard and duck fat–fried potatoes, escargots, sausages, brochettes, cheeses, bottles of wine, to eat and drink in the lovely summer twilight.
We staked out a circular table at which to stand and eat and were joined by several strangers. It was as if the entire town were one big family that had come out to celebrate food and wine and each other. Two years earlier, I’d been powerfully moved by the honesty and integrity of Dominique Chapolard—not by his knife skills but, I knew now, by the way he embodied the land he comes from. Dominique found us at the night market in Nérac, music rocking, seven-dollar bottles of rosé spread on the table, containers filled with snail shells, plates of sausage and potatoes, and andouillettes, duck and Gascon beef—a carnival of food and wine and music and community. Gone was the hairnet from the butchery, gone too the beret and apron from the market. He was dressed in shorts and a summer shirt, with a grin so big a silver premolar caught the low sun.
I thanked him for showing me his work, how he broke down the hogs, and the drying rooms where his sausage cures. He became serious and shook his head no. Kate was on his left, and he looked to her, urgently, because he leaned on her to translate for him, but then turned to me to say something in my language, though it was difficult.
He touched my chest with his fingertips and said, “You honor us by being here.”
I was struck by a thought—more a feeling, really—that was hard to put into words. I stood before a man who quit his desk job at age forty-four and took up hog farming in probably the most physically grueling way possible, whose wife churned out hundreds of pounds of meat daily beside him and still found time to stop midday and join him for a home-cooked lunch, a man with a mustache bigger than his head who’d returned to his land because he knew what mattered and said so with his very life, in the midst of a throbbing, dancing, chomping, swilling crowd—a people to whom that was no surprise at all.