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Is Gascony the most
delicious corner of France?

Is Gascony the most <br/>delicious corner of France?


DAVID McANINCH
NYT Syndicate
Look closely at a map of southwestern France and you'll notice it: a blank spot just west of Toulouse where the place names thin out and the train lines and expressways veer away, like a stream flowing around a boulder. That blank spot is Gascony, one of the most rural regions in all of France. Gascons are for the most part proud of their provinciality, and many of them have developed the curious habit of describing their bucolic land in terms of all the things it doesn't have: big cities, mass tourism, traffic, urban stress, high-speed rail service, autoroutes, soaring real estate prices, hordes of Parisians snapping up summer homes and so on. I spent most of a year there to gather material for a culinary memoir and can confirm the absence of all those things.
One sometimes hears Gascony referred to as"the other South of France" by boosterish types mindful of the immense popularity of Provence and the C'f4te d'Azur, which lie some 250 miles to the east. And to be sure, if you plant yourself on a restaurant 'terrasse' on the main square of Auch (pronounced OWE-sh) ” Gascony's historical capital ” in, say, late September, you might easily convince yourself you're in Mediterranean France, what with the date palms and the nice-looking people in sunglasses and talking in the bouncy accent of the Midi.
But then your meal arrives, and the illusion vanishes faster than a cold pastis on a hot day. For Gascon food is richer than the sunny cuisine of Provence. It is unabashedly, defiantly rich. Duck fat, not olive oil, is the local currency. Everything gets cooked in it: potatoes, eggs, and ” in the case of confit, that pillar of Gascon farmhouse cooking ” duck itself. Gascons consume foie gras, which is made on family farms all over the region, with casual regularity.
Gascony is not merely distinct from Provence and the C'f4te d'Azur. It is, in my estimation, better. Gascony is more open, more soulful, more deeply French, and, in its un-self-conscious devotion to tradition, more pleasurably frozen in time. Its cuisine is arguably less sophisticated than Provence's, and yet it is more firmly rooted in the land it sprang from, and it is, I put to you, enjoyed with lustier abandon.
You don't have to live in Gascony for many months, as I did, to discover these truths. Even a week or so spent eating your way around the Gers, the 60-mile-wide d`partement that constitutes Gascony's heartland, is enough to spark a lifelong love affair.
The Gers is not very big, but it gives travellers room to breathe. Only 840,000 tourists visited the d`partement in 2015. (By comparison, a staggering 11 million visited the Alpes-Maritimes, which includes Nice and Cannes.) Though the Gers is not France's most sparsely populated district, it is the most agricultural, with more of its land under cultivation than that of any other French district. Humans in the Gers are vastly outnumbered by livestock, especially ducks.
Also ” interesting fact ” the humans who do live there live a long time. The administrative region encompassing the Gers boasts one of the country's highest rates of life expectancy at birth, and its residents have fewer heart attacks than almost any other regional population in France.
Both those facts tend to be met with incredulity by visitors encountering Gascon cooking for the first time. It is a cuisine best eased into ” perhaps at the H'f4tel de France in Auch, a grand old dowager on the main square that has recently been given a face-lift. The hotel is the onetime fief of Gascony's most famous chef, Andr` Daguin, who is no longer at the stoves but still lives down the street. In the postwar years Daguin vociferously promoted Gascon food all over France, and the H'f4tel de France menu still reflects the touchstones of the cuisine: roasted magret, duck confit with Tarbais beans, a salad topped with cured duck breast slices and confited duck gizzards, a terrine of foie gras.
Gascony ” unlike Paris or the Loire Valley, say ” is not a popular destination for bucket-listers seeking grand chateaus, opulent palaces and soaring basilicas. The region's patrimonial treasures are often tucked out of sight, as if waiting to be given their moment. Take Auch's cathedral. Just down the street from the H'f4tel de France, the 16th-century Cath`drale Ste-Marie is a fine enough specimen, with its handsome twin bell towers and restored stained-glass windows. But its pi'e8ce de r`sistance lies hidden in a vaulted-ceiling choir entered via an internal doorway that admits visitors for the price of 2 euros ($2.12).
Most of the Gers' other guidebook-approved attractions ” and touristy restaurants, what few there are ” are concentrated north of Auch, along a well-beaten trail that stretches between the picturesque hilltop town of Lectoure and the fortified village of Fourc'e8s. The route also encompasses the popular medieval bastion of Larressingle and the imposing 14th-century cloister at La Romieu, as well as the prosperous village of Montr`al du Gers, where, at an inviting restaurant called L'escale, you can have a swank al fresco meal of roasted capon in a foie gras and morel sauce while seated beneath the graceful arcades of the town square.
Lectoure is a typical prim and prettified French village, and in this respect is an anomaly in the Gers. The principal towns of the Gascon heartland are for the most part unprepossessing: gritty market hubs that, on the face of it, hold little appeal for the tourist. And yet they offer the patient and curious visitor a chance to tune in to the rhythms of a rural lifestyle that is dying out elsewhere in France. To spend a market-day morning in, say, Fleurance, Mirande or Nogaro is to witness old-fashioned Frenchness in a very pure distillation ” a collective affirmation of the things the French hold most sacred: fraternit`, gastronomie and, to a lesser extent, cigarette smoking and cheek-kissing.
Held in a covered hall, the march` brings this drab burg of 3,500 souls to crackling life. The vibe is like that of a small county fair, except with much better food. A tour of the stalls offers a crash course in Gascon cookery: confit duck legs nestled in chilled rendered fat, putty-coloured fattened duck livers, goose rillettes, p'e2t` de t'eate, immense rounds of tangy Tommes des Pyr`n`es cheese, fresh brook trout, all manner of nuts and dried fruit, gariguette strawberries, greengage plums, and on and on.
The procuring of provisions always concludes with lunch. Virtually every substantial Gascon town has its bustling, market-adjacent chalkboard-menu joint. Mirande's is called, prosaically, Le Grand Caf` Glacier.
Gascony is fundamentally a rural place, and to imbibe its true essence you have to leave the towns behind and venture deep into the countryside, preferably on foot. This is an easy thing to do, for the Gers is laced with thousands of miles of walkable farm roads and hiking trails, making village-to-village jaunts an appealing proposition. Such excursions are in my opinion the best possible way to work up your appetite.
The French divide hikes into two categories: grandes randonn`es and petites randonn`es. The former are for the type of person who thinks nothing of carrying a 50-pound pack up a mountain and can discuss at length the wicking properties of various synthetic fabrics. The latter are for dabblers, like me, who get kvetchy when an outdoor activity starts to eat into the dinner hour. Though the Gers does have one grande randonn`e route ” a multiday loop that starts and ends in Auch ” the d`partement is a paradise for day hikers.
I've hiked many petite randonn`e routes in the Gers, using the magnificently detailed TopoGuides, published by the F`d`ration Française de la Randonn`e P`destre. One of my favourite spots in all of France is a remote settlement deep in the Adour River valley called Maz'e8res. It consists of nothing more than a few houses gathered around a towering, fortresslike 12th-century church that looks way too big for its back-of-beyond surroundings. To visit the church you have to walk across the road to the house of the"gardien" and ring the doorbell, which is an actual bell hanging from the home's old stone gate. If he is home, the white-haired man, possessed of an impressive knowledge of the church's history and, more important, a key to the place, will show you around the cool, dark sanctuary and point out the room's marble reliquary, which looks like a creepy dollhouse.
Then, in typical Gascon fashion, he will probably engage you in a conversation about the weather and, by way of parting, tell you where you should have lunch.

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