Duck season, p.1
Duck Season, page 1
For Michele and Charlotte
Gascon-headed man, will you have done?
—ALEXANDRE DUMAS, PÈRE
2. Market Day
3. The Country Life
4. Old School
6. À Votre Santé
7. La Fête
8. Beautiful People
10. Dinner at Henri’s
11. Into the Mountains
12. Poule au Pot
13. Hills and Valleys
15. A Day in the Vines
16. Slow and Low
17. To Bag a Bird
18. Noble Spirits
19. Aux Armes, Citoyens!
20. Chez Guérard
21. Le Saint Cochon
22. Foie Gras
25. Last Supper
About the Author
About the Publisher
The making of dinner began auspiciously enough. Having stumbled onto—rather, into—a small barbecue pit in the backyard of our new home, I decided to kick off our eight-month epicurean journey in the Southwest of France with a dish as elemental as it was delicious, a dish that would root us firmly in the local culinary idiom, a dish that, not for nothing, was hard to screw up: grilled duck breasts. As if to endorse my decision, the rain clouds that had been dogging us since our arrival a few days ago were finally breaking up. Tonight, I would cook under the open sky and we would eat like Gascons.
At a nearby duck farm, I purchased two magrets, as duck breasts are called in France, from a woman in rubber boots and a white smock smeared with blood—a duck’s, I presumed. The two heavy red ingots were topped with a layer of fatty skin as thick as my finger. They looked as if they’d belonged to a creature larger than a waterfowl—say, a creature with hooves. For a few euros, I also bought a mason jar filled with rendered duck fat, an ingredient as indispensable to Gascons as olive oil is to Sicilians: “a balm for the wounds of the soul,” as I’d sometimes heard it referred to. The fat, in which I intended to roast some potatoes, looked like white cake frosting.
Gascons like to grill duck over dried vine cuttings. I had to settle for damp firewood left over from the previous winter, but eventually I got the flames going. While the logs popped and hissed, I swirled my wine and took stock of my surroundings. Looming above me was our rented house, a 200-year-old converted textile mill. It was an austere-looking edifice, of a style common to early-nineteenth-century water mills in this rural corner of France: plastered-stone façade, red tile roof, tall casement windows, and stout dimensions that called to mind the plastic houses from a Monopoly game. To one end of the structure a small balcony had been tacked on. Perched on it at present, enjoying a pre-dinner snack of goose rillettes on toasts, were my wife, Michele, and six-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who was peering at me through the balcony railings. I looked up and waved.
The most interesting thing about our dwelling, in my estimation, was that a river ran through it, or at least a stream. From where I was standing, I could see where it emerged from dense foliage on the south side of the house, trickled under three arches cut into the mill’s foundation, flowed beneath the roof of the old wheel shed, and emptied into the greenish-brown waters of the Arros River some twenty yards on. The meeting of the stream and the river created the grassy wedge of land, shaded by walnut trees and garlanded with stinging nettle, that served as our yard.
This private eden—a robust habitat for insects, it must be said, and also river rats, which I’d seen lumbering along the stream’s pebbly shoals—offered a fine view of the sand-colored stone bridge that spanned the Arros and led to the heart of the village, which was named, agreeably enough, Plaisance. An old stone bridge being a fine thing to gaze at while sipping a drink, I watched idly as a tractor rumbled across, followed by an old man on a woman’s bike, then a dog that appeared to have taken a dip in the river. If I looked east, past the shallow ravine that edged our property, I could see a grove of oak trees and a muddy cornfield. Beyond that, just out of sight, gentle hills and rolling vineyards rose up from the alluvial plain. If I climbed atop the stone retaining wall near the stream embankment, stood on my tiptoes, and looked south, I could make out the serrated silhouette of the Pyrenees. On the other side of those mountains lay Spain.
Had I been a pin on a map, I’d have been sticking out of the lower-left edge of the Gallic hexagon, halfway between Toulouse and Bordeaux, in a Delaware-size swath of countryside devoid of highways, major train lines, and big cities—about as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get nowadays in mainland France. This was the Gers, the most rural of France’s 101 départements, a place where ducks outnumbered people twenty to one. This was the verdant heart of Gascony.
I swatted at a bug and glanced at the fire. It was ready. After three jet-lagged days of supping on bread and pâté, it was time to put heat to meat.
I’D BEEN A CARD-CARRYING FRANCOPHILE for most of my life. I felt the first stirrings in high school, in a French classroom adorned with paper tricolor flags and furnished with a wastebasket on which the teacher, Madame Liesman, had taped a sign reading INTERDICTION DE CRACHER ET DE VOMIR—“No spitting or vomiting.” But the love affair really blossomed in my early twenties, when I lived in the South of France as a student for a year and then for another year in Paris, working as a teacher and, like so many feckless expats before me, leading a life of splendid dissipation, hopping trains and hitchhiking all over the country every chance I got. I traveled wide and deep. I had my first tastes of magret and foie gras and cassoulet. I became a habitué of cheap, chalkboard-menu bistros. I fell in wholeheartedly with the French conviction that meals should be long and relaxing, that they were the day’s focus and that work was merely a necessary intermission. I learned to speak the language well enough that French people sometimes thought I was Belgian, or at least not American. I went back home and got a master’s degree in French literature. I honeymooned in France with Michele. I started cooking coq au vin and boeuf bourguignonne regularly. I pursued a career as a food writer largely so I could return to France as often as possible on someone else’s dime. Indeed, as is the case with so many Francophiles, food became the lens through which I viewed my travels, and life in general.
I don’t recall precisely when Gascony slipped onto my radar—I’d passed through the region a few times as a tourist, not pausing long enough to really see or taste the place—but I do remember when I first fell hard. It was 2012. I was on assignment for the food magazine I worked for, researching a story on duck, an ingredient I’d always loved but which got short shrift in the United States, usually taking a backseat to the exalted beefsteak or the oh-so-fashionable pig. Driving around the region, I discovered a land where duck is king—four and a half million were being raised each year in the Gers alone, twenty-five million across the greater Southwest of France. Duck got top billing on virtually every restaurant menu from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Cooks in Gascony used every part of the bird—the breasts, the legs, the wings, the neck, the feet, and, of course, the fattened liver—and they cooked its flesh every which way: They grilled it, roasted it, sautéed it, braised it in wine, and, most famously, cured it lightly in salt and simmered it in its own fat to make confit, that pillar of farmhouse canning cellars all over southwestern France.
Once back home in Chicago, I immediately started angling for another Gascony assignment, and within a few months I got one: to cover a wine festival in a village called Viella. On the first night of my trip, the founder of the wine cooperative, a genteel older man named André Dubosc, invited me to a dinner at the home of a matronly widow named Nadine Cauzette, who was the president of the Friends of Pacherenc Society—Pacherenc being a little-known white wine made in this particular sliver of Gascony. The meal started in a sitting room with duck rillettes, duck sausage, and glasses of chilled Pacherenc; progressed to the dining table with pan-seared foie gras, duck confit, cabbage-and-white-bean soup, potato gratin, wine-braised wood pigeon, several bottles of inky Madiran, four kinds of cheese, and a sheet-pan apple tart; and wound down, several hours after it began, in front of the fireplace with chocolate truffles and snifters of very old Armagnac. Every dish brought to the table had been made from scratch, including the sausage, the confit, and the truffles. It was an excessive, magnificent meal. I was sure Monsieur Dubosc had put Nadine up to it, insisting she pull out all the stops for a visiting journalist. And yet, toward the end of the evening, when I said something to the effect of “Nadine, you really shouldn’t have,” she flashed me the same perplexed look I’d received from the hotel waiter—as if to say there was simply no other way to do things.
The dinner at Nadine’s upended whatever notions of balance and restraint I’d hitherto associated with French cooking. And yet there was something about the over-the-top-ness—the sheer more-ness—of that meal, and of the other meals I’d eaten in Gascony, that appealed to me in a deep and emotional way. Here was a cuisine that modern gastronomic trends—Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s, the diet crazes of the ’80s, the small-plates fad of today—seemed to have passed over completely. Whereas in other parts of France, the sacred institution of the two-hour lunch was in decline and bottled water was overtaking wine as the midday drink of choice, in Gascony nothing much had changed. The Gascons I met drank wine with lunch every day. They ate what they craved. They always ordered cheese or dessert and often both. They sang a lot. On my trip to Viella, I went to a winemakers’ lunch where everyone was calmly eating their soup one moment, and the next they were standing up, waving their napkins in the air, and belting out a song in the old Occitan tongue: “Qu’aimi lou men oustau, las bios e la lano / Quand boulho lou Boun Diu, aquiu que mouriréi.”—“How I love my home, its fields and vines / When God sees fit to take me, it is here that I shall die.”
What’s more, people in Gascony seemed more open-minded than many of their compatriots. I never once heard a Gascon complain about “freeloading immigrants” or witnessed a Gascon throw money back at an American tourist who offered the wrong bills. The Gascons were French through and through, and yet not—there was a hint of the Spaniard about them, an easy warmth and boisterousness.
On top of it all, Gascons lived a long time—longer, in fact, than the residents of any other part of France. The Gers had more than twice as many men over the age of ninety as the national average. Gascons were the paradox within the French Paradox.
They had their duck and ate it, too.
Soon, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the cuisine of this tremendously fertile patch of France—at one time a duchy and now a fuzzily bordered cultural area. To my surprise, there wasn’t much out there, especially when compared with the glut of cookbooks and culinary memoirs about Provence, to Gascony’s east. What few books I could find—most of them in French—tended to be small-press publications of the “recipes from my grandmother” variety. Elizabeth David, the British-born gastronome, dipped into southwestern France, if not Gascony in particular, in her now-classic 1960 omnium gatherum French Provincial Cooking. Some twenty years after that, Paula Wolfert gave Gascony’s signature foods lengthy consideration in The Cooking of South-West France, alongside specialties from the Quercy, the Languedoc, the Bordelais, the Limousin, and Basque Country. A towering achievement of culinary scholarship and recipe sleuthing, it remains the only definitive English-language cookbook—and the only truly exhaustive and authoritative book I’ve been able to find in any language—on the cuisine of the region.
I took from those books what I could, and over time a clearer picture began to emerge. It depicted a land moored fast to tradition, populated by cooks at once overflowing with generosity and yet resistant to change, painstakingly creating dishes of immense depth from a limited palette of local ingredients that hadn’t expanded in generations and, with the exception of a dab of Iberian influence, seemed impervious to intrusions from other countries or even neighboring regions.
I grew fascinated with the old farmhouse practices that still underpinned Gascon cooking: confit making, first and foremost, but also the annual tue-cochon, or pig slaughter, and gavage, the ancient technique of force-feeding ducks and geese in order to engorge their livers for foie gras, and to generate more precious fat. I studied the history of Armagnac, Gascony’s aged grape brandy, which mellows in casks of Gascon and Limousin oak, sometimes for many decades. I read about Madiran, the Southwest’s blackish, tannic wine (and drank it whenever I could find a decent bottle). I learned about peasant dishes like garbure (the confit-studded cabbage soup that is still a Gascon staple), long-braised stews known as civets and daubes, and tangy sheep’s-milk cheeses, fermented at high elevations by Pyrenean shepherds and sold in every outdoor market from Agen to the Spanish border. Other peculiarities intrigued me, too: Spanish-inflected dishes like piperade and paella, brought into the Gascon fold by the neighboring Basques; age-old preparations for obscure game birds and wild boar, hunted in the remnants of Gascon forests; rustic cakes and tarts, like croustade and gâteau à la broche, that required the better part of a day to make.
As curiosity sometimes does, mine blossomed into an obsession. This hilly region of duck farms and vineyards began to shimmer in my imagination like France’s Last Best Place, a kind of Brigadoon. The unabashedly rich food, the long meals, the fanatical devotion to tradition, the indomitable joie de vivre—not only did these things intrigue me as a writer, but I began to believe they might be an excellent cure for some ills in my own culinary life. Which, suffice it to say, was no longer living up to the spirit of my youthful Francophilia. An insidious expediency and—even worse, at least from a Francophile’s perspective—abstemiousness had crept into my cooking and eating. So had a certain jadedness. I’d grown weary of urban food trends, of chefs’ obsessions with novelty, of strenuously artistic dishes that were more titillating than satisfying—what Paula Wolfert had called “front of the mouth food”—to say nothing of the theatrical repackagings of traditional comfort-food cuisines: Alsatian brasserie! Japanese izakaya! Italian enoteca! Jewish deli! It had all started to feel slightly ridiculous.
Gascon cuisine was immune to trends. It relied on simple preparations and ingredients. It defied shortcuts. It insisted on slowness. It adamantly required wine. In short, it was like the concentrated essence of all the pleasures that had caused me to fall in love with France in the first place. Even better, the entire Gascon way of life was, as far as I could tell, predicated on the belief that those pleasures were nothing less than a right—a right to be exercised not just on special occasions, but every day.
It felt like a personal call to action.
After convincing Michele that moving to rural France would be both doable and life-changing—in a good way—I made a four-day house-hunting trip to the Gers. After visiting a dozen summer rentals lost in the hills, I made a handshake deal on Plaisance’s old water mill, enthused by the idea of living above a river and being able to walk to the bakery in the morning. The principal of the village school informed me that enrolling Charlotte in classes would be as simple as filling out a few forms—and assured me that she would pick up French in no time. Soon, the other puzzle pieces started falling into place. I obtained visas and residency permits. I found renters for our condo. Michele got a sabbatical from the music school where she worked—the director happened to be a Francophile, too, and a sentimental one at that. Michele and I went over our budget again and again—sometimes, perhaps not wisely, while drinking wine—and determined we could pull off a sojourn of half a year or so.
In the end we decided to give ourselves eight months, from May to December. This way, we’d avoid the coldest and rainiest part of the year—this wasn’t the Côte d’Azur, after all—but still get a taste of all four seasons. We’d arrive when the best spring produce was hitting the markets and stay through summer’s village festivals, the fall harvest, and the early-winter rituals of gavage and confit making. We promised Charlotte we’d be home by Christmas Day.
I had every hope that this would give me enough time to immerse myself in the Gascons’ art de vivre. At the very least, I had to believe some Gascon-ness would rub off on all of us, one way or another.
by David McAninch have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes