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Fine food and wine when house-sitting in France


Where is the Gers?

Michelin map anyone?

Taking a back road into Auch, France (population: 22,000), the remote ersatz 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, both protected by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, rose up into the elegant cobalt sky, our aching eyes climbed the Escalier Monumentale’s 232 steps (count ‘em) to the swashbuckling statue of the region’s most famous cadet: D’Artagnan, the Fourth Musketeer.

With a bright and breezy irreverent tone suitable for a Paid Advertisement, we decided that life doesn’t get much better than this: a three-month housesitting job in the remote 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.

Gently rolling landscape

Known for its bien mangé (good eats), the Gers, France’s least visited and most rural département, with more ducks than people in it, 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 (1337-1453)–which was neither really a war, nor did it last a hundred years–the ideal spot for adventurous eaters (gourmands) to explore the art of Gascon cuisine and live like aristocratic budget nobility against a backdrop straight out of a Medieval-era illuminated manuscript.

Boules-playing, beret-wearing Gascons are the first to admit they are “stuck somewhere back in the Dark Ages — but with electricity.”

What’s more, the Gers abuts the edge of the Pyrenees National Park, which boasts, besides birds like vultures, eagles, capercailles, ptarmigans, woodpeckers, and pigeons, also mammals such as marmots, chamoises, and bears. Unfortunately, maybe the fault of terroir chefs, there are only six bears left!

Since everything here involves festive sightseeing, there are not many things to do other than eat in idyllic mise-en-scenes out of your most extreme expatriate fantasies, except take part in the yearly Marciac Jazz Festival.

Here, in what many prefer to call the “Midi Pyrenees,” you can travel on no dollars a day (only euros)—but ten euros goes a long way, even with the hefty markup of French Elf “essence.”

Or, the occasional, blown Michelin “pneu.”

Historical Gascony

The Gascons derive their name from, but are not related to, the nearby Basques (Vascones). A vrai Gascogne (real Gascon), is recognized by the yellow mud sticking to his Wellingtons and will tell you he is Gascogne first. Yet, unlike his Basque neighbors, he is quite happy to be French second.

Gascons fought on the British side during the previously mentioned Hundred Years War, and the Gers was the battlegound. The “Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux,” ideal for cycling around the over 50,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of grapevines, but fraught with pariah dogs, took us past some of the most dramatic scenery and sights, such as the 12th-century Cistercian monastery Abbaye de Flaran, filled with inebriated monks, and the so-called “Carcassonne du Gers,” Larressingle, also the name of a popular Armagnac.

Remember, 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. Fources, the only circular walled town, was, despite its froggy-sounding name, architected by the British.

If you think in terms of historical Gascony, this jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped piece of geography includes both Les Gers and Les Landes, and is sometimes referred to as “Midi Pyrenees,” full of traveling Cirques, Roma caravans blasting “The Gypsy Kings,” and Course Landais stadiums, which hold bullfights without the bull, instead they use horned heifers. Even though they do not kill the cows here, they sometime end up as ingredients in such restaurants as “BASTARD” in Lectoure.

Mysterious Alchemy

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 one’s friends back home.

Predating cognac by over three hundred years, Armagnac was once believed to be a snake-oil-like aphrodisiac and cure-all. A 14th century cardinal, Prior Vital du Four, spake, “[Armagnac] restores the paralyzed member by massage; and heals wounds of the skin by application. . . . And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit if someone timid from time to time permits.”

During various “degustations,” 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.

“Hey, did you know if your hand is bigger than your face you are retarded?!”

“Hey, did you know if you rub your hands together they smell like pizza?!”

These two tricks do not really work among the cognoscenti in France.

One day a gregarious neighbor initiated me as a vrai Gascogne, giving me a glass of unaged White Armagnac to chug, which brought tears aplenty to my eyes.

“Cin Cin!” the producteur toasted.

“Tintin!” I managed with a pursed moue, leaking scalding tears reminiscent of the cartoon menace “Caillou,” the bald neo-fascist baby.

Or an infant Mr. Clean or Howie Mandell.

Fill ‘er up!

The region’s main magnet, though, is its mean 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.

Over the border in the département of Les Landes, also part of historical Gascony, one may visit one of the best restaurants in the world at the spa Eugenie Les Bains, where master chef Michel Guérard won three Michelin rosettes and invented “cuisine minceur” (less food for more money).

But one of the joys of the Gers, we found, was driving or cycling around aimlessly, stopping at historic family-run inns serving more than just glorified peasant grub, 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 euros.

In the Gers, 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 stuttering chef Coscuella served me, of all things, “pig’s feet” surrounded by a largesse of truffles. Plus, “palombe” (a kind of wood pigeon which makes a sorry little carcass).

Every writer’s dream

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. But how did my galpal and I land the job? We had met a nice British couple, the Brays, at a cocktail party thrown by ex-“Condé Nast”-boss James Truman’s mother, 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,” Mr. Bray, with accent-aigu-shaped Robert Morley eyebrows, complained. Surely we were more qualified to housesit for them than a dirtbag flaneur?

So 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, such as what happens later in this essay.

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. No TV. Our only contact with the outside world was a telephone and a shortwave radio to listen to BBC broadcasts.

Expatriate Life

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, upon which this article is loosely based, 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 on “The Way of Saint James” was Lupiac, hometown of Charles de Batz, the real-life D’Artagnan immortalized by Alaxander Dumas in The Three Musketeers. His abode, the Chateau de Castlemore, was closed on the day I visited, but I seriously admired its grand façade, somehow resembling Tintin’s manse Marlinspike Hall.

It was near Lupiac, in fact, that I broke my tooth on a wild-boar cassoulet bone while dining in the village of St. Mont at a restaurant that requested anonymity (maybe: “The Auberge de Saint Mont”), overlooking a charmed 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 demonic dentist drill hit dent, Mr. Butterfly 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, not effing euros, I couldn’t complain much. At least they had doctors in this Medieval demesne, most of them living quite comfortably in ancestral chateaux.

The Hunter’s Feast

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 after we’d settled in at the local “Fete de Chausseurs” (hunters’ feast), a word similar to the French for “shoes,” 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. And speaking of geese, as my girlfriend and I got a gander at the unlearnedly accent-less hunters’ feast menu, we began to wonder if our own goose was cooked:

Garbure
Assiette composee fruits de mer
Truite sauce champagne
Civet de chevreuil
Roti de chevreuil
Legumes
Salade
Foret noire
Cafe
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 must-try white wine called “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh” –which is fun to repeat after a few snootfuls.)

Shades of Monty Python

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, played by an evil John Cleese, to eat until he explodes. Which adds new meaning to “amuses bouches” (happy mouths) and “amuses geulles”(happy faces)—small gourmet bonbons to induce evacuation, Roman-orgy-style.

The only other people at the “fete” who spoke English were an Anglo-Irish Earl, “T,” 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 were not “too dear.”)

Though this festive final 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!

Another moveable meal

Our bellies still bursting, we arrived at the collombaged half-timbered abode of a Gascon couple who collected antique carriages. Monsieur Carzana, who helped repair our sewage system gratis, resembled Napoleon, and perhaps all too 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. I felt like Baby Huey about to suffer a funnel full of grain for foie gras, in a land where quack-quacks outnumber people over 200 to 1.

Pas probleme, petite repas, petite repas!” our enthusiastic hosts assured us, quickly handing us glasses of Floc d’Armagnac (an addictive local aperitif made from grape juice and Armagnac). Unfortunately for us, Monsieur C.’s idea of “petite” would pass only in Brobdingnag [the land of giants in Gulliver’s Travels].

The outrageously memorable meal began with a huge whole platter of liver de canard and d’oie made by “des amis.” Though already stuffed like Christmas carcasses, we were fools for cold foie gras entier, and we 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 confit de canard in it), an ice cream cake, and an apple pie called “pastis” (not the minty drink), plus coffee and Armagnac. We ate it all (urp!) and asked for Alka-Seltzer.

Traditional fantasyland

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. By far the best in France.

Also, the Gers, with its lack of industry and motorways and hypermarchés, has the cleanest air in Europe. You can even get very cheap decent plonk (vin de table), often called “claret” by unsophisticated British palettes, at the local Casino grocery, good enough.

Though in the end, my relationship didn’t work out and I tossed my attempted novel in the “poubeille” (trashcan), I have kept with me the menu-like memory of living in a transitional and traditional fantasyland where time stood still in over 146 registered castles, waving hello to Monsieur Philipponet riding by on his horse and nodding with a stately bonjour, exploring little fortified towns and wines where friendship comes in the form of a phantasm of free drinks, and learning the meaning of a firm handshake with sturdy farmers quite happy with their lot.

Le nouveau beaujolais est arrivé!!!” all the locals exclaim in their unique Occitan accent, parroting the seasonal posters up everywhere.

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!

In praise of Pacherence du Vic Bilh

“Allo! Allo!”

Must have been a wrong number.

Mostly sitting around on my fat ass, with a guelle de bois (“face of wood”) for three months in a 15th-century farmhouse in Gascony never gets boring, especially with, I must re-iterate, a backyard view of the snow-capped Pyrenees! But one day I picked up a bottle of white rather than red, and finally I began to develop a taste for white wine.

But not just any white wine.

In a land dominated by red AOC Madiran and VDQS Cote de St. Mont, I found myself addicted to a whimsical mouthwash of unpronounceable syllables (previously referenced): “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh!”

Introducing the gas-can Gascon white wine chilling in a plastic jerrycan directly filled up at a local “producteur” to my neighbor Kevin, a British wanderer then employed by “T,” the aforementioned Anglo-Irish Earl renovating a chateau nearby down a discreet trunk road in the Gers, I stood awaiting his verdict.

“Wow!” He drained the glass. “Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.”

I filled his glass again.

“Wow!” He drained the glass. “Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.”

The daze of wine and roses

We had spent many hours together drinking Gascon wines, with their fruity and floral noses, available in plastic gas cans straight from the local “producteurs,” while dreaming aloud to the starry asterixes in the night sky over this charmed rural demesnes, filled with medieval fortified towns with terracotta roofs vaguely resembling Tuscan villages. Even the locals say, “La Toscane Francais.”

Unfortunately, dashing and debonair Kevin (resembling silent-film-star John Barrymore), who used to be in a band with the merry prankster “Django Edwards” (no relation to yours truly) told me that “T” had just fired him and asked if he could camp out on my land.

I remembered a while back to when Kevin and his French wife Annick had invited us over for dinner, which inevitably turned into a conversation about travel. The topic was rudely interrupted by a Escoffier cleaver swing into a cutting board: Chop! “Am I right that we are both happy just staying here at the chateau?!” Kevin scolded his wife severely. Now I could tell by her absence and the wild look in Kevin’s eyes that a breakup was imminent.

What would I do now?

I settled upon, “I’m really sorry, Kevin, but I can’t let you stay without the Bray’s permission, and also ‘T’ comes over frequently to check up on us.”

I could tell Kevin was on the very edge of going loco.

“Also, my friends, Mox and Jox, are coming for a visit.”

Kevin looked madder than hell, but stiffly thanked me for the present bottle of “Pacherence du Vic Bilh” anyway. “Be careful,” he warned in farewell. “There are poisonous adders everywhere!”

Mox and Jox

When Mox and Jox finally arrived, I told them about the “sitch” with Kevin, and after discovering the remains of a spent campfire on the land, we speculated wildly whether Kevin might be hiding out here. In case he was spying on us we began referring to him as “Tim,” wondering if we were going to end up as victims in a B horror movie involving vampire viniculturists—an idea for a short story I’m working on called “Vendage.”

(Much later I bumped into Kevin at a remote Portuguese campground, where he was employed to paint the outhouses, and who said, “This is a coincidence, isn’t it?!” before making me a meal (probably poisoned) and gifting me with a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, with the cover ripped off.)

Here in the generous Gers, for the Welcome Meal, we dined “al fresco” (outside) on fresh Foie Gras and “Magret de Canard” (invented by nearby master chef Andre Daguin at the Hotel de France in Auch), with roasted potatos and carrots. Although, the meal was paired with an oaky red Madiran evidencing noble rot, obtained from the nearby Producteurs de Plaimont, I went inside and returned with the coup de gras: a bottle of friendly Pacherenc du Vic Bilh.

Since I felt pleasurably mean, I of course, insisted my guests first try a glass of unaged white Armagnac to be initiated as blatant freeloaders.

We had a field day, spittalking the satisfying collison of sounds: “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh! Pacherence du Vic Bilh!” Jox felt so free out here in the countryside, that she peed on the lawn.

Then we downed several bottles of locally produced Armagnac, which once again so you will not forget, unlike Cognac being distilled twice, is put through the alembic (from the Arabic “el embic”) only once. Once known originally, at least in the 14th century, as “aygue ardente” (fire water), Armagnac is considered by many to be better than Brandy.

Including me.

In fact, here the moveable alembics, with copper boilers and networks of pipes on wheels, resembled something out of a Steampunk novel. But Armagnac is Gascony’s real claim to fame, and we enthusiastically took our chances with the other side of sleep.

Pig’s feet and pigeon pie

The following day, I made the mistake of taking Mox and Jox to one of my favorite eateries in Plaisance: “The Ripa Alta.” The master chef Coscuella, who had an endearing stutter and a Michelin rosette, made us a special dish: pig’s feet with truffles. Jox, drunk as a sanglier, began complaining, “No way, disgusting, I’m not going to eat that!”

“Jox, shh! We eat here all the time; we have to live here!”

So instead Jox mistakingly ordered a dirty evil “palombe” (pigeon), a sad carcass considered a delicacy here—and nowhere else really.

As if in revenge for taking on a Michelin-rosetted restaurant serving four-course art to farmers with a famine of francs, Jox screamed like Janet Leigh in “Psycho” when the hot water heater at our beloved “Ferme Lasserre” conked out.

The Anglo-Irish Earl “T” came to fix it. His wife handed me another business card: “The Countess de Mayo”: as I have already mentioned, but not enough, she dabbled in real estate, mostly small chateaux. Not bad, having royalty at your disposal like that.

“Pacherenc du Vic Bilh! Pacherenc du Vic Bilh!”

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