Where to stay
La Bastide In the ancient village of Barbotan, overlooked by its medieval church, and surrounded by Armagnac vineyards, La Bastide is based in a former 18th-century Carthusian monastery, with a spa and healing waters at its heart. With suitably luxurious, spacious rooms, there’s also a restaurant under the three-Michelin-starred guidance of Michel Guérard. Doubles from £170. 32150 Cazaubon, 00 33 5 62 08 3100, bastide-gasconne.com
Les Bruhasses This 18th-century farmhouse run by Hélène and Jean
Royer is set in its own private gardens complete with pigeonniers
(dovecote towers) and surrounded by sunflower fields. Jean makes
breakfast every day with an assortment of wild jams and pastries,
including bread and butter pudding with plum jam. He also cooks when
there are six guests or more. Doubles from £77. 32100 Condom,
00 33 5 6268 3835, lesbruhasses.fr
Château de Fourcès Found in a unique setting in Fourcès, one of the
most picturesque villages in the region, this Renaissance-style private
château dating back to the 15th century is located in its own woodland.
Owners Olivier and Maria Lesaffre serve breakfast and dinner on request
and offer five bedrooms, all with four-poster beds. The property also has
a pool, plus a gite that can host six people. Doubles from £130. Rue du
Château, 32250 Fourcès, 00 33 5 6229 4953, chateau-fources.com
La Ferme de Flaran Owners Gérard and Michelle Tête sold their foie
gras farm of 25 years and, having seen this once-renowned restaurant
turn to ruin, they decided to take it on, modernise it with an outdoor
pool and air con, and make it their own. The rooms are neat and the
place is ideally located in the middle of the region – 8km from Condom,
35km from Auch. The owners are always at hand and the food is heavily
Gascon-based. Doubles from £57. Route de condom, 32310 Valence-
sur-Baīse, 00 33 5 6229 3983, fermedeflaran.com
Hôtel de France At the very centre of Auch, with views across the
square and towards the cathedral, location-wise it’s impossible to beat.
Once home to the great Gascon chef André Daguin, it boasts quirky,
spacious rooms full of eccentric Seventies character (so don’t be
surprised to find your bed overlooked by a faux-Romanesque bust).
There are also two excellent food options: a grand dining room and a
relaxed terrace bistro serving local fare at a very reasonable £20 for
three courses. Doubles from £72. Place de la Libération, 32000 Auch,
00 33 5 6261 7171, hoteldefrance-auch.com
La Villa des Remparts In the village of Labastide-d’Armagnac in the west of the region, the Armagnac en Fête takes place every October to celebrate the distillation of the eponymous spirit. Host Bertand has four bedrooms in this wonderfully shabby-chic villa, offering a home-cooked dinner with plenty of advice on local hotspots. Doubles from £60. Rue de la Chaussée, 40240 Labastide-d’Armagnac, 00 33 6 7296 6835
Armagnac is a region in south-west France. Flights from the UK take about two hours and time is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the euro. In October, the average high temperature is 20C and the average low is 9C.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Toulouse-Blagnac
airport several times a day from £140 return. britishairways.com
easyJet flies from Gatwick to Toulouse from £55 return. easyjet.com
Armagnac Office BNIA is the official website for the brandy. armagnac.fr
Gers Tourism offers information for planning a trip. tourism-gers.com
Duck Season by David McAninch (Harper Collins, £12) is a witty memoir of the writer’s travels through Gascony, trying local delicacies, hunting pigeon, harvesting grapes and distilling Armagnac brandy.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses, without wine unless stated
La Bastide Under the creative guidance of three-Michelin-starred
Michel Guérard, there are different menus that offer a choice between
rich but refined – chunky Gascon pork chops, foie gras with apricot
toast and duck terrines – or a ‘health and nature’ alternative, with
poached and roasted seafood, or meat prepared with the
lightest touch. Both are excellent. From £44. 32150 Cazaubon,
00 33 5 6208 3100, bastide-gasconne.com
La Bonne Auberge Owned by Eric Sampietro’s parents – lovingly
referred to by everyone as Pepito and Pepita – this is a wonderful
old-school restaurant time warp. It serves tried and tested local dishes
and there’s no skimping on portions. They’ve been here for 45 years
and few chefs know duck like Pepito. From £11. Place du Pesquèrot,
32370 Manciet, 00 33 6 6208 5004, labonneauberge.weebly.com
Hôtel de Bastard This elegant restaurant is set in a 29-room boutique
hotel that was once a private mansion dating back to the 18th century.
Dine alfresco in the cobbled courtyard terrace and try a good-value
three-course set menu that includes – season permitting – boudin noir
with wood pigeon, garlic and ginger. From £17. Rue Lagrange, 32700
Lectoure, 00 33 5 6268 8244, hotel-de-bastard.com
The Loft Café With a relaxed atmosphere, and unfussy but delicious
local cuisine, this friendly brasserie right on the town square of historic
Eauze is hosted by the convivial Jean-Pierre. Expect excellent steak frites
and a good selection of Armagnac. From £24. 7 Place d’Armagnac,
32800 Eauze, 00 33 5 6209 9076
La Table de Cordeliers Despite being located in a renovated chapel
complete with original stained glass windows, and boasting a Michelin
star for its chef Eric Sampietro, La Table de Cordeliers avoids the frills
and fuss of other starred establishments. A bistro sits alongside a fine
dining restaurant, and Eric has been known to completely change his
menu after a visit to the market. A standout plate is foie gras with fig
and Floc de Gascogne jelly. From £21. 1 Rue des Cordeliers, 32100
Condom, 00 33 5 6268 4382, latabledescordeliers.com
La Vie En Rose In the centre of the historic regional capital Eauze, people flood to this 30-cover restaurant for pan-fried foie gras with peaches, steak entrecote with cep sauce or the signature 'Vie en Rose' salade, which highlights asparagus but in a bed of ducky goodness: duck breast, stuffed duck necks and duck rillettes. Croustade with prune and Armagnac ice cream is another favourite. From £13. 22 Rue Saint-July, 32800 Eauze, 00 33 5 6209 8329, restaurant-la-vie-en-rose.com
- Duck (in Gascony this usually means the Moulard duck
- Local fleshy and sought-after mushroom (also known as porcini)
- An ancient Occitan country (the historical region that included parts of the south of France) custom of adding a little red wine to the end of a soup and drinking from the dish
- Confit de canard
- Preserved duck legs
- Confiture de cerise noire
- Black cherry jam – often served with sheep’s milk cheese
- A tart usually made with flaky or puff pastry, hollowed out with a sweet or savoury filling
- Peasant stew of slow- cooked meat, often beef, cooked with vegetables in a broth
- Literally meaning ‘young ladies’, but used here to refer to a duck carcass roasted on open fires to crisp up the little remaining bits of meat
- Foie gras
- A major part of the regional economy, literally meaning ‘fatty liver’. Force-fed duck or goose liver is served in various forms – whole, fresh for pan- frying; terrine, mousse, etc.
- Fromage de brebis
- A hard sheep’s milk cheese
- Fromage de chèvre
- Goat’smilk cheese
- Traditional and hearty local peasant soup or stew made with cabbage, beans, potatoes, preserved duck and ham hock
- The physical act of force- feeding a duck or goose
- Gesiers de canard
- Duck gizzards
- The breast of a duck raised for foie gras
- Little yellow plum
- Migratory wood pigeon. A traditional dish is a salmis de palombe (roasted pigeon stew with red wine)
- A lodge used for hunting palombe in October when they pass over the Pyrénées
- Pastis Gascon
- A regional tart comprised of Armagnac-soaked apples with very fine pastry
- Petits gris
- Small, grey snails found in south-west France
- Porc noir de
- Gascogne Local rare breed of black pig
- Poulet au pot
- Whole chicken stuffed and cooked in a pot
- Pousse Rapière
- Local orange and Armagnac cocktail
- Pruneaux d’Agen
- The best prunes in the world come fromthis region (Agen is 40 minutes north of Condom in the Lot-et- Garonne). Ente plums are driedin ovens, then rehydrated. Around 3-3.5kg of fresh plums will give 1kg of prunes. Used for both sweet and savoury dishes, often associated with Armagnac
- Fibrous shredded-meat (often duck or pork) pâté
- Wild boar
- Dry cured sausage
Food and Travel Review
Tucked away in the farthest south-west corner of France, Armagnac is far enough west of Toulouse to elude the city’s pink glow and far enough south of Bordeaux so as not to get their vines entangled. The Pyrénées are at arm’s length, providing a dramatic backdrop without casting a shadow. It’s deserving of every cliché you can throw at it. But unlike many other parts of Europe, Armagnac isn’t just a few photographic opportunities dotted around – the whole region is an endless album of blushing watercolour landscapes, medieval architecture, faces that tell a thousand stories, and ducks. A whole flush of ducks.
But what is Armagnac? Technically, it’s a region of yesteryear, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Today, it resides wholly in Gascony, but is spread across three departments: Gers (mostly), Landes (a decent-sized chunk) and Lot-et-Garonne (a sliver). What binds the area is, fittingly, the brandy of the same name. To best define Armagnac (the region, that is) one need only to look to the vine-leaf-shaped borders in which the spirit is made (according to its AOC ruling) – 15,000ha of vines across the plantation areas of Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Armagnac-Ténarèze.
The landscape is cobbled with fields of every hue. From above, the region looks carpeted with squares of vine greens, sunflower yellows and burnt oranges – and that’s only on a Tuesday. By the Wednesday, fields could have entirely transformed in colour, as seasons seem to change dramatically overnight.
In contrast, one thing that resolutely remains the same is the architecture. Every village, every town and every city – don’t be misled by the term; a ‘city’ here might contain only 7,000 people – has been moated, walled, fortified, turreted and fiercely defended for hundreds of years. Caught so often in the battles between the French, the English and various religious factions, at some point around 700 years ago, an expert builder of fortifications – with an awful lot of beautiful golden sandstone – made an absolute killing. If you decide to play historical bingo with the centuries, you'll find them all represented here, and very soon you will be so accustomed to stumbling across moated 13th-century villages that anything post-1800 will hold all the appeal of a brutalist Seventies housing estate in Hounslow.
In Condom, a city in the heart of Armagnac, giggling tourists aren’t exactly uncommon, although for any Russians who find themselves outside its 16th-century Gothic cathedral, the cause of their tittering is less likely to be the city’s name than the 2m-high bronze statue of The Three Musketeers. ‘It was a gift from a Georgian sculptor,’ explains our guide, ‘but apparently it looks just like the musketeers from a Russian television show.’
Don’t let it steer you from the truth, however. Alexandre Dumas based his D’Artagnan on the very noble and very real Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan – captain of Louis XIV’s Musketeers of the Guard and one of the region’s most famous sons. Proof, if needed, is found to the west of Condom, at Domaine d’Espérance, one of around 250 family-owned Armagnac houses. ‘We do have to play the game sometimes,’ explains Claire de Montesquiou, wife of Earl Jean-Louis de Montesquiou – a direct descendent of D’Artagnan – as she holds up a bottle adorned with a musketeer- esque figure. ‘The Russians just love the musketeers.’
A former headhunter, Claire has only been making Armagnac
since the early Nineties, but set about the task with the same
ferocity that you imagine she once applied to her fast-paced city
job. ‘I love the craft, the distilling. I love the fact that we’re trying to
do the very best we can,’ she says. ‘We’re in one of the 30 best
areas for the Armagnac grapes – we have confidence in our
vinification process and we use the best.’
For the uninitiated, unlike its French cousin Cognac, Armagnac – which is made using four main grape varieties: ugni blanc, folle blanche, colombard and baco – is generally distilled once, as opposed to twice. This has led to the over-quoted phrase, ‘If Cognac is silk, then Armagnac is velvet’, the implication being that the latter is rougher around the edges, which is almost a dig at the region as well as at the drink. It is also, as Claire points out, untrue. Her 1999 is a drop of lustrous beauty – smooth yet fruity, with notes of orange and dried fruits, and delicately floral. The bottle, as with all those for the European market, contains no mention of D’Artagnan or any musketeer gimmickry. There’s no need, as this is one of the best Armagnacs you will find and tells its own story.
The family’s deep roots in the Gascon soil almost certainly helped Claire achieve such quality so soon. It’s also testament to her tenacity, especially given that the spirit has been around since the 1300s and many of the houses have a distilling heritage that goes so far back that family trees are on parchment.
At Delord, in Lannepax, south of Condom, that history goes back to the handsomely moustachioed Prosper Delord, a one-time travelling distiller who would go from town to village after the harvest to set up shop. Eventually, in 1893, Prosper founded the house of Delord, and today his grandson, Jacques, and Jacques’ sons Sylvain and Jérôme run the show. ‘Getting the right blend is the real job,’ explains Jérôme. ‘Whatever you do, the blend must always be the same, and balancing those different vintages to get the consistency is an art form. My father and brother have the talent – they know the tastes. I’ll find two aromatics; they’ll find 12, and I think they have this beautiful connection because of it.’
The complexity, colour and flavour of Armagnac comes from the ageing, traditionally done in French oak. As a blend it can be designated VS (one/two years); VSOP (minimum four years); XO (minimum six years), or Hors d’Age (minimum ten years), with the youngest year blended defining the label. This rule benefits the drinker: Delord’s entry-level Hors d’Age might only need a minimum 10 years, but is actually 15 years, and is bursting with candied fruits. A step up and the 25-year-old is far more complex, but only achieves bursting point as it warms and opens up, taking you from cream soda through to caramel and all the flavours of Christmas.
In Armagnac, ducks outnumber people 30 to one, and it’s a fair bet that for many, their final stop will be La Bonne Auberge in the village of Manciet. It’s a restaurant that wears its 45 years on its sleeve, with the decor more a collection of memories than stylised design. Those memories belong to chef Joseph ‘Pepito’ Sampietro and his wife and front of house, Pepita. If the ducks had a choice, I think they’d actually want to end up here. Pepito is a master of his trade, who treats them with utmost respect.
Indeed, the parts that are often thrown out by other chefs are turned into headline acts on the menu, including duck tripe, which is marinated in red wine vinegar with leeks, carrots and thyme for around five days. Pepita reveals it with a flourish as she lifts its little china lid – the delicate crockery belying the richness of the tender duck within its red-wine stew. The tripe is a thing of splendour, even after a starter of slivers of rich duck carpaccio covered in healthy-sized slabs of salted foie gras, dressed with hazelnuts and what feels like some token greenery.
La Bonne Auberge is unashamedly old-school, and locals wouldn’t have it any other way, but Pepito has inspired at least one Michelin-starred chef, namely his son Eric, who runs La Table des Cordeliers at nearby Bas Armagnac. ‘It’s different,’ says Pepita simply. ‘But the basics are the same,’ interrupts Pepito. ‘He was influenced by what I make; he just puts it together his way – tripe, the foie gras, the magret [the breast of a duck raised to produce foie gras] is the Gascon way; it’s all the basis of Gascon cuisine.’
Eric does indeed do things a little differently. Pepito puts a fig in his foie gras; Eric does the same, but somehow he’s extracted even more sweet figgyness, and it’s topped with Floc de Gascogne (fortified regional wine) jelly for a boozy burst. It’s this attention to detail that twisted the Michelin man’s arm to give Eric a star in 2009.
A trained chocolatier, he also spent a year at Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, which helped him hone his craft. ‘I focus on one or two products in a dish, that’s it. Then it’s about the combinations of sugar and salt. That’s one thing I learnt from Mr Blanc – it’s about keeping it simple.’
Here, local, seasonal produce dictates. A morning visit to the market can see Eric change his whole menu, and his small team will spend a frantic few hours working on new plates before opening. He has his own pig’s trotter dish – chopped finely and served with vegetables, shallots and garlic in a crépine (lace fat) parcel – but he knows another Gascon chef is the master in this field. ‘[Pierre] Koffmann is from here and I went to his restaurant La Tante Claire when I was very young, and all I remember was the pig’s trotter. I’ve been trying to do it ever since and never succeed, but the other day I met a chef who’d worked with him and he explained how to do it, so I’m going to try and master it.’
Should Eric nail that trotter, he could do far worse than visit his fellow Gascons Benoît and Audrey Bourrust, who breed the black Gascon pigs, a relative of the Spanish Iberian and responsible for some of the finest jamon north of Spain. Benoît’s 1.85m, 124kg frame, complemented by a fine set of cauliflower ears, give away the fact that he’s a rugby player. He played professionally for ten years for Cardiff and Sale, then two years ago, aged 30, he packed it in to run his wife Audrey’s family farm. ‘I was just fed up,’ he says. ‘For the past five years, Audrey had been staying here while I played abroad. I don’t miss it all.’ ‘He prefers being with the pigs than playing rugby – he gets very attached,’ says Audrey. Meanwhile, as if to prove the point, Benoît has picked up a piglet and is stroking it with sausage-like fingers.
The acorns on which the pigs feed for three or four months add an almost hazelnut taste to the jambon, and the porc noir de Gascogne is as flavoursome as it gets – sweet, creamy and richly meaty. The Bourrusts’ attachment to their animals does exact an emotional toll, however. ‘It can be hard,’ admits Audrey, ‘After we took our first pigs to the butcher, almost on autopilot, later that day I went back to give them water and only then twigged why they didn’t come.’ It’s the reality of rural life – the creatures that they care for will eventually end up on someone’s plate.
It’s ducks on considerably more plates than others. And here the thorny question of foie gras gets raised, for this is the home – spiritually at least – of that particular delicacy. ‘It was the Egyptians who invented foie gras,’ explains Christine Labatut, who runs Terre Blanche, an estate near Saint-Puy that raises 5,000 ducks at any one time. ‘They started noticing how the ducks and geese would overfeed on figs before migrating, and as they began to feed, their pecs – breasts – would get bigger, which is when they were eaten. The Romans brought force-feeding here, then it was taken up by the very poor, originally as a way to preserve the duck, with the foie gras saved for Christmas.’
As with Pepito, and indeed every Gascon, nothing gets wasted in Christine’s kitchen. One of main reasons for the switch from goose to duck for foie gras has nothing to do with waste, and everything to do with being able to use the rest of the duck in cooking. Tongues are grilled, carcasses are roasted and the feet, wings and head go into soup. The neck meat is slow-cooked in duck fat to make rillettes, and the bill... well, that’s her treat.
In her kitchen, Christine proceeds to devein a duck liver, complaining as she goes. ‘TV chefs butcher this job – it looks like a massacre when they do it,’ she says as she cuts thin slices from it, which she seasons, puts on a bit of bread and offers to us, truly raw. Getting past the slippery texture, the delicate, creamy, familiar flavour is all there. She throws a few more slices in a sizzling hot pan with garlic, salt and pepper, then offers it to try. The foie gras bursts in the mouth, filling it with the most unctuous pool of buttery duckiness – a more indulgent snack you’ll never find.
But what about the guilt factor? Other than being unashamedly decadent, should there be any? ‘People think it’s cruel because they imagine themselves being force-fed, but it’s not the same,’ insists Francis. ‘Ducks don’t have vocal chords and we don’t have gizzards. There are no nerves in the oesophagus, so they don’t feel it. A seagull eats a fish whole – it doesn’t do it with cutlery, does it?’
Christine is resolutely a Gascon country girl. Taught by her grandmother, she’s been making foie gras since she was 14 and is now responsible for 5,000 of the area’s 5 million ducks. ‘I had a husband,’ she says, ‘but he was a town man, and I didn’t support living in the town; I’m a pesan.’
And a very proud pesan too, like so many others we meet. No sooner have you met someone here than a glass of Armagnac is proffered, often with duck rillettes smothered on crusty bread. Stories flow as freely as the spirits, but that’s hardly surprising – this is a land with a history as rich as its foie gras. You can see it etched in the gnarly stone faces of every barn, turret or castle you pass.
It’s what makes this corner of France so unique – no matter what
battle it has witnessed, and whichever ruler has proclaimed
sovereignty, it surely just shrugged its collective shoulders, took
another swig of Armagnac and waited for it to pass so they could
get back to the ducks. In a modern world, this is a rare occasion
when refusal to change is what makes this place so special.
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