Halfway through the holidays, I realized that the gastronomic temptations of Gascony were formidable. My wife suddenly gave me the nickname "Crème Brulée." After 10 days...
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SEMPESSERRE, France Halfway through the holidays, I realized that the gastronomic temptations of Gascony were formidable. My wife suddenly gave me the nickname “Crème Brulée.”
After 10 days in this sun-dappled part of France, I started getting the complexion and was close to achieving the consistency of the flabby pudding with the golden-brown, grilled crust.
But I wasn’t about to let a facetious gastronomic barb interfere with our ultimate holiday ambition. Kilocalories or not, we would prepare our very own foie gras.
After all, temptation was everywhere as soon as we left the highway from Paris and hit the roads winding amid the soft hills of this region of southwestern France.
It seems every farm has a cutout of a duck or goose invitingly pointing its beak toward the stone entries, begging us to try some fatted liver, pâté or confit de canard. All of half an hour was what it took us to succumb to the lure.
Even on a lazy Sunday afternoon when few shops are open, we soon had the goods. A crusty loaf, a few tins of goose pâté and a hearty red wine from Cahors proved a fine appetizer for the next three weeks.
The problem with Gascony is the sheer impossibility of staying focused too long.
You may be thinking goose when you enter the summer market in any of the villages but, next thing you know, you’re sniffing at the wonderful goat and sheep cheeses in the adjacent stall. You’re gently pushing your thumb into the pork sausages another vendor offers you, testing whether it is already dry enough. And you absolutely have to taste the juiciest apricots you have ever seen.
Eaten enough? Try a myriad of local Armagnacs, Gascony’s answer to Cognac. The producers are willing enough to have you taste. If that is too strong, go for the Floc de Gascogne, a golden or ruby aperitif and a far cousin of the Pineau de Charentes.
Sit in the garden of your cottage and order from your farmer neighbor some of the Lectoure melons that are ripening right in front of your eyes. Succulent, sweet and still hot when they arrive at your doorstep, they are even eaten sprinkled with pepper for an appetizer.
And those are only the gastronomic decoys. Whether you come for the medieval art, the gastronomy, the climate or the sheer joy of the landscape, once you tire of one thing, there are plenty of others.
History permeates the whole region around Condom and Auch in the Gers department.
The area is dotted with the medieval fortified villages bastides built on hilltops during the One Hundred Years War when the English and French battled for control of Gascony in the 13th and 14th century.
Some of the bastides were built by the English, some by the French king’s forces and some by the local lords. Most are pictures of Gothic architectural planning, square grids of streets built around a small church and a central market square, usually surrounded by arched hallways.
Around Condom, try Saint Clar, which is also the center of local garlic production. Vianne is even more impressive, built by the English and still fully walled. It also has a quaint evening market.
And then there is Larressingle, a perfectly intact medieval village surrounded by vineyards and fields of corn and sunflowers. The bastide had to fend off aspiring conquerors from all sides. Once inside the walls, there are no streets as such, only flower-lined pathways that lead you from church to inn to tower.
For the family, some of the greatest fun can be had in a field just outside where the intricacies of medieval battle are explained. Huge catapults and slings have been rebuilt and visitors can find out firsthand how far some of those projectiles really went.
We made our way back past some of the many Gothic and Romanesque churches and abbeys, so beautiful they made us briefly forget about our quest for homemade foie gras.
Little did we know what we were up against.
When tourists like us go down to this corner of southwestern France to enjoy sunflower fields that even Van Gogh couldn’t paint more yellow, and the subdued ochres of medieval villages basking in the setting sun, the foie gras industry goes into hibernation.
“Mais non, it’s not the season,” says Jeanne Berthelot, the owner of our holiday cottage and who is an expert cook.
Since we were not going to get our raw livers straight from the farm in high summer, we were reduced to an airtight plastic package from the supermarket.
After the livers themselves come the earthenware pots in which they are prepared, and all over the world you see them with delicate paintings of fowl or statuettes of ducks as pan holders.
“What you need is the simple thing,” warned Madame Berthelot, as she sent us out for the plain beige-and-brown ones at the local farm appliance store. The purpose is to be effective in the “bain-marie” the hot-water bath inside the oven not necessarily to look pretty on the dinner table.
Then the real work was left to my wife, Reine: She broke up the liver to get the veins out and make sure no bile was left, leaving one of Western cuisine’s most cherished ingredients: a messy jumble of unseemly blobs.
Next the liver was doused in salted, iced water for an hour. The water was replaced by a local sweet Bergerac wine for another hour of marination before the liver was shoehorned into the pot and put in the bain-marie on low heat for just over half an hour.
Once the liver comes out of the oven, it is left for a couple of hours before a weight is put on top to condense the texture even more and drain much of the golden fat. After sitting in the fridge for several days, it was ready for that special moment.
Sprinkled with a little sea salt, put on a piece of brioche and, suddenly, a sigh of contentment said more than a dozen accolades.