Stuck Somewhere in the Dark Ages, but with Electricity – Gascony, France, Europe

Taking a back road into Auch, France, the remote capital of the Gers, in a rented Renault time machine, two hired housesitters pinched themselves. Auch! As the 15th-century Cathedral de Sainte Marie and the 14th-century Tour d’Armagnac rose up into the elegant cobalt sky, our eyes climbed the Escalier Monumentale’s 232 steps to the swashbuckling statue of the region’s most famous cadet: D’Artagnan, the Fourth Musketeer.

Assuming a bright and breezy tone, we decided that life doesn’t get much better than this: a three-month housesitting job in the French countryside. We were deep in the heart of gastronomical Gascony, the stomping ground of ghostly gourmets, a center of the foie gras trade and the birthplace of Armagnac. Known for its bien mangé, good eats, the Gers, France’s least visited and most rural département, is a leisurely two-hour drive from Bordeaux or Toulouse, and only an hour from the ski lifts of the gleaming snow-capped Pyrenees.

Newly expatriated from Les Etats Unis, we found this gently rolling landscape of ancient farms, vineyards and fortified towns, dating back to the Hundred Years War, the ideal spot for adventurous eaters (gourmands) to explore the art of Gascon cuisine and live like budget nobility against a backdrop straight out of the Medieval era.

Boules-playing, beret-wearing Gascons are the first to admit they are “stuck somewhere back in the Dark Ages – but with electricity". The Gascons derive their name from, but are not related to, the nearby Basques (Vasquones). A vrai Gascogne (real Gascon) is recognized by the yellow mud sticking to his Wellingtons; he will tell you he is Gascogne first. Unlike his Basque neighbors though, he is quite happy to be French second.

Gascons fought on the British side during the Hundred Years War; the Gers was the battlegound. The “Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux", ideal for cycling, but fraught with pariah dogs, took us past some of the most dramatic scenery, such as the so-called “Carcassonne du Gers", Larresingle (also the name of a popular Armagnac). A bastide is a purposefully built fortified town with distinctive grid-patterned streets and arcaded central squares; while a castelnau is an unplanned town growing up around a castle or a church, all built by either the French or the English.

The gist of the Gers is, of course, Armagnac, and this is where the amber after-dinner drink is distilled, bottled and shipped worldwide. There are three Armagnac appellations: Haute-Armagnac (center: Auch), Bas-Armagnac (center: Eauze) and Tenareze (center: Condom). For obvious reasons, Condom is a popular place to pick up postcards to amuse your friends back home.

Gascons learned the art of distillation from the Arabs. Unlike cognac, which is distilled twice, Armagnac goes through the alembic only once. By some mysterious alchemy, its strange flavor is derived from the new oak casks in which it’s aged. During a degustation, I was taught to cup the glass and swirl it to release the aroma, leaving behind long golden Midas tears streaming down the edges. If you really mean business, pour some into your palms, rub them and sniff them like the locals do. (One day a neighbor initiated me as a vrai Gascogne, giving me a glass of unaged white Armagnac to chug, which brought tears aplenty to my eyes.)

Also worth trying is a regional specialty drink called Pousse Rapier (thrust of the rapier), an orange-based liqueur mixed with Armagnac and served with champagne or white wine and crushed orange and ice in a glass. The region’s main magnet, though, is its cuisine. When the farmers aren’t protesting for unpasteurized Camembert, they are to be found with forks in their mitts, meandering over multi-course meals that last two hours or more. One of the joys of the Gers, we found, was driving or cycling around aimlessly, stopping at historic family-run inns, like the Vieux Logis in Aignan (the former capital of the Gers) to enjoy four-course Gascon fare with regional VDQS Cote de St. Mont wine (fill ‘er up in plastic jerrycans at local vineyards) – all for about twenty dollars.

The two standout Michelin-rosetted restaurants are the Hotel de France (Auch), where master chef André Daguin, invented “magret de canard", and the Ripa Alta (Plaisance), where chef Coscuella served me, of all things, “pig’s feet", surrounded by truffles.

It is every writer’s dream to land a housesitting job in France. I’d have three months to start (and abort) a novel while enjoying the Medieval landscape. How did my girlfriend and I land the job? We had met a nice British couple at a cocktail party in the Caribbean (Montserrat, before the volcano blew), who said a French hippy was housesitting for them in France. “He burns candles everywhere instead of using electricity", they complained. Surely we were more qualified to housesit for them?

The next winter we arrived at the remote village of Couloume-Mondebat and took charge of the 15th-century farmhouse, whose barn had hidden American servicemen during World War II. We would be staying in the gite (guest quarters), which featured a master bedroom, guest bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Hot water was supplied via gas canisters, which had a nasty habit of conking out when guests were visiting, resulting in bloodcurdling cries. Our living quarters also boasted a bookshelf of pleasantly dated books, such as Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming; Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.

Our only contact with the outside world was a telephone and a shortwave radio to listen to BBC broadcasts. Over the course of three months, we lived an expatriate life reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. (My book proposal, Three Months in Gascony, sounded derivative and unsaleable.) The landscape is dotted with vernacular pigeonniers, windmills, churches, and “Inri” crosses – evidence that the Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela passes through here. One of my favorite stops was Lupiac, hometown of Charles de Batz, the real-life D’Artagnan immortalized by Dumas in The Three Musketeers.

It was in Lupiac, in fact, that I broke my tooth on a wild-boar cassoulet bone while dining in the village of St. Mont, overlooking a thousand-year-old Roman vineyard. I paid a visit to the local dentist Monsieur Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), who promised to fix it right up. As the dentist's drill hit dent, he joked that he knew how to deal with Americans: “I am Iraqi! I am Iraqi!” he mocked with his limited English, enjoying my feigned discomfort. Needless to say, my replacement tooth was a little too large, but for only a handful of francs, I couldn’t complain. At least they had doctors in this Medieval demesne, most of them living in ancestral chateaux.

With its many feast days, it’s easy to become a glutton in Gascony. Luckily, cannibalism is no longer practiced in France. After all, it’s been eons since ancient Gauls (like the comic book character “Asterix”) wolfed the flesh and gnawed the bones of barbarians babbling bad French. Still, it was hard to shake the feeling of apprehension, especially one day after we’d settled in at the local fete de chausseurs (hunters' feast) to find the event liberally garnished with Gascon hunters brandishing rifles and aromatic Gitane cigarettes. This was the fairytale slice of historical Gascony where many of the inhabitants come as fattened as the geese they devour. Speaking of geese, as my girlfriend and I got a gander at the hunters-feast menu, we began to wonder if our own goose was cooked: Garbure Assiette composée fruits de mer Truite sauce champagne Civet de chevreuil Roti de chevreuil Legumes Salade Foret noire Café Armagnac. You don’t have to delve into a Larousse dictionary to divine the gist: a meal of more than six courses, including a thick soup (with duck in it), a whole trout, and two deer dishes, accompanied by three kinds of locally produced wine and Armagnac (including a white wine called “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh” – fun to repeat after a few snootfuls.)

Between courses I breathed beaucoup and trop, waving my fork in a feeble attempt to ward off food, and feeling like the fat guy from the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life, who is impelled by the French waiter to eat until he explodes. The only other people at the fete who spoke English were an Anglo-Irish Earl, renovating an 18th-century chateau down the road (his ancestor was the Viceroy of India), and his wife, who handed me a business card: “Comtesse de ____.” (The Comtesse dabbled in real estate and assured me "small chateaux aren't too dear".) Though this lunch was supposed to last the traditional two hours, we were there from 12 to 5. And the worst thing was: we had a dinner date with some neighbors in just under an hour!

Our bellies still bursting, we arrived at the collombaged abode of a Gascon couple who collected antique carriages. Monsieur C. resembled Napoleon, and perhaps all to aware of this, he had a tendency to stick his hand inside his shirt. After a quick house tour, we apologized, in passable Franglais, about our previous grand repas (grotesque overgorging) with the hunters.“Pas Probleme, petite repas, petite repas"! they assured us, quickly handing us glasses of Floc d’Armagnac (a local aperitif made from grapes and Armagnac). Unfortunately for us, Monsieur C.’s idea of “petite” would pass only in Brobdingnag.

The outrageously memorable meal began with a huge whole platter of foie gras made by “des amis". Though already stuffed like Christmas geese, we were fools for foie gras, and greedily painted our palettes with it. Alongside a bevy of bouteilles of red AOC Madiran wine from their relatives’ vineyard, we were subjected to a huge salad, boeuf avec haricots verts, another salad (of course, with duck in it), and an ice cream cake, plus coffee and Armagnac. We ate it all (urp!) and asked for Alka-Seltzer.

On the way back to the gite, fully satiated with France, I had time to reflect on my gorgeous expatriate life in the Gers. Though the region doesn’t have the sophistication of Paris, the cache of the Dordogne, or the allure of the Riviera, it had something better: food. The best in France. Though in the end, my relationship didn’t work out and I tossed my attempted novel in the trash can, I have kept the menu-like memory of living in a traditional fantasyland where time stood still, waving hello to Monsieur Hulot riding by on his horse and nodding with a stately bonjour, exploring little fortified towns and wines where friendships come in the form of a phantasm of free drinks (“Le nouveau beaujolais est arrivé!”), and learning the meaning of a firm handshake with farmers quite happy with their lot.

Like Americans, Gascons even mistakenly pronounce the s at the end of their homeland. In the Gers, the stars shine still – as do all the Michelin rosettes!

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