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Gastronomy in Gascony

12:41 05 March 2014

Castelnau des Fieumarcon

Castelnau des Fieumarcon

Archant

Nicky Godding embraces the Gascony ethos on a cookery holiday at Castelnau des Fieumarcon

“Come and join us on a ducky weekend,” said the jolly PR lady from Stonehouse-based Authentic Adventures.

I’m not quite sure that’s me, I thought fingering my wedding ring, but OK, tell me a bit more about it.

“We’ve just launched brand new cookery holidays at Castelnau des Fieumarcon, a fabulous 13th-century fortified village in Gers, rural Gascony. Four days of cookery and duck discovery in Southern France.”

Gascony is the home of all culinary things duck-related. Fois Gras, rillettes, confit. A quick bit of online research confirmed that the venue was as gorgeous as she’d gushed.

So three weeks later, courtesy of Easyjet from Bristol to Toulouse followed by a 90-minute drive through the rolling countryside and picturesque villages that make up this region of rural southern France, a small group of us – two journalists, two travel consultants and our Authentic Adventure hosts – arrived just in time for dinner.

The village of Castelnau des Fieumarcon near Lagarde is 16 individually restored houses within ancient walls. Owner and former millionaire, now an ecologist Frédéric Coustols (he spent all his money on rebuilding this village along with a palace in Portugal and a village in Japan) related its history. “I discovered this village in the 1970s as a total ruin. The French authorities don’t value our heritage in the same way as your British National Trust.”

It took two decades to restore the village and it’s stunning. Each cottage is exquisite; individually refurbished with gorgeous French furnishings, many of them antiques. My bedroom suite had views across the valley and the sofas were deep enough to get lost in.

Over dinner the first night (endive, pear and Roqueford salad, confit de canard with duck fat roasted potatoes and pear tart tatin with star anise and cinnamon for dessert), we meet Castelnau’s general manager, Didier Billes and our cookery tutor, Anneli Faiers. Despite her name she’s English, but relocated to Gascony six years ago with her entire family (husband, children, parents), where she’s embraced the rural cuisine and traditions. She now works as a cookery tutor, outside caterer around the area and has an award-winning food blog, www.delicieux.eu.

The idea of the Authentic Adventures cookery holidays isn’t to fly you 700 miles across France just learn to cook Gascon food, you could probably do that in the Cotswolds (Last year I learned to cook Middle Eastern food at the Thyme School of Cookery in Southrop). Instead it’s about embracing the whole ethos of the local cuisine, which can only really be done when you’re there. Yes you’ll learn to prepare local dishes with Anneli in one of Castelnau’s big kitchens, but before that you’ll discover why they cook as they do, the local markets they shop in and what they buy. You’ll also learn about the region’s wines, and its particular white Armagnac.

Gascon food is robust, hearty food. It’s country cooking for a country life. Gascons embrace the seasons and have a strong sense of place, or ‘terrior’ as it’s known here. “It’s a kind of philosophy and we talk about it a lot,” says Anneli.

Ducks are an obsession in this region, though if you don’t want it for breakfast, lunch and dinner there’s plenty of other things to choose from including rabbit, guinea fowl, Toulouse sausage and oddly, oysters (apparently very popular in land-locked Gascony). Outside my bedroom window was a fig tree and a pomegranate tree for in-between snacking.

Every bit of the duck is eaten and everything is cooked in duck fat (which apparently, as fats go is a good one as it’s mono, not saturated). “The desire to live off the land purveys everyone’s life here,” adds Anneli. “People sell what they grow.”

I see what she means when we visit to the local market in nearby Fleurance on Saturday morning. Stalls are piled with breads, meats, honey and vegetables all grown or made by the stallholders themselves who are so determined that you try before you buy that I wonder whether there’s much point in cooking later.

But of course, that’s why we’re here. Back at Castelnau we are invited to roll up our sleeves and learn to cook a typical Gascon meal, which being seasonal and the trip taking place at the end of the summer, includes a courgette gratin. Another of our cooking sessions is totally duck-related. We learn about each part of the duck, from magret, the most expensive cut of duck meat (the breast), frittons (fried duck skin reminiscent of pork scratchings) to fois gras.

Following an interactive cooking session with Anneli we process to the dining room to eat what we’ve prepared. Over dinner that evening we are also treated to an incredible Gascon light show as a thunderstorm rolls around the valley. Huge lightening flashes briefly illuminate the gorgeous landscape below the village and lashing rain punctuates our dinner-table conversation but it doesn’t stop us. Three hours later, under a dark and empty sky we roll back to our rooms full of authentic Gascon food and wine.

The next day dawns and by 11am we’re off to local chateau Domaine d’Arton where our impeccably-dressed and aristocratic host Patrick de Montal has laid out six wines for us to taste in the beautiful orangery next to the chateau, along with his unique white Armagnac. Traditional Armagnacs are aged in oak until they turn a rich brown. Blanche Armagnac can be drunk between courses or after dinner and its popularity is growing. Arton has 60 hectares of vines producing red, white and rosé wines and the white Armagnac.

We taste them all. A perfect end to a gastronomic weekend, though I don’t remember much about the flight home.

Authentic Adventures doesn’t just run cookery holidays. You can sing, walk, paint or take photographs too, though possibly not all at the same time. The Stonehouse-based company is run by managing director John Brough, a teacher in a former life but now an experienced and passionate organiser of authentic adventure holidays for those seeking to embrace life to the full.

From walking holidays in India or Spain, singing in France, photography in Cuba and Romania, or cooking in Italy rather than Gascony if you don’t like duck much. Wherever you go with Authentic Adventures, there are going to be a lot more stories to share on your return than from two weeks on a sunbed in Torremolinos.

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This article by Nicky Godding is from the March 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.

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