Taste the most delicious part of France in just 58 seconds. Then travel with us to Gascony to experience it for yourself over 9 delicious days in September.
Click the beautiful photo to join hosts Nancy and Eric Olson for 58 seconds of Gascogne yum! Then come back here to explore our scrumptious 9-day menu of culinary delights. Also, enjoy $100 off when you reserve your space with us by May 16th.
By Eric Olson, Travel Host
Nancy and I had arrived at the colorfully effervescent weekly market at Éauze, (say Ay-OWS) in the middle of the Gers department, the center and heart of Gascony. After parking our Peugeot rental we rounded the corner and found ourselves winding through the market. The air was mild and breezy, with sunlight filtering through the leaves of ancient trees. A faintly vivifying fragrance and an air of anticipation seemed present all around us. The market itself was in the street, filled with booths, with shops and small restaurants along the sidewalks. The more permanent activities were separated from the other by voluptuous banks of greenery. Behind low walls of vegetation, customers seated at outdoor tables sipped coffee, read the paper peacefully, and visited with friends. On the other side of the bushy divide, the market buzzed with people shopping, vendors hawking, and everywhere was chat and laughter.
At a modest table in a corner of the market lay a dozen home-baked bread loaves, each slightly different - one with herbs, another plain, a third flecked with olives. It seemed like a talented home baker’s experiments, taken to market to pick up a bit of extra cash and a chance to socialize and chat with friends and visitors. And that was in fact exactly what it was. The vendor, a lovely young woman, who seemed too pink-cheeked and healthy to be real, offered me a taste of her bread, along with a voluble and happy stream of Gascon-inflected French, none of which I understood. I eyed one of the loaves, thinking to take it back to our room at La Moulin de Laumet along with some delicious-looking cheese resting on the counter of a nearby vendor’s truck. Since neither of us could speak to the other, our baker sought the counsel of a another vendor, a smiling older woman who came over to translate. The price was right, the bread delicious and soon I had the loaf in hand. Then we visited our translator’s booth. Although clearly French, she spoke superb English with the lilt of a British academic. Unlike the snobbish reaction I’d encountered before in more urban French settings, she was plainly delighted to see us and converse, which was typical of the reception we encountered throughout Gascony. Her specialty was home-brewed beer, bottled cleanly and labelled with deft, clear handwriting. Soon some of her offerings were in our basket, we said goodbye with a cordial handshake, and wandered on.
The market at Éauze is a bit of a general store, with something for everyone. Need footwear? Here’s the shoe vendor who implacably piled the street in front of his truck with a wall of shoes of all kinds. Think it might rain? Here’s the man with umbrellas, all displayed in clever tripods. Fabric by the meter, garden supplies, beautifully healthy plants including cactus were offered.
As a cook, I was drawn to the produce. There is an exuberance here, a kind of fertile fecundity that animates the people and imbues the produce with radiance and health. Walking slowly but with avid interest, I saw and lusted after globules of perfect huge green grapes, lettuces with curling gorgeous leaves, baskets of fresh-picked haricots verts, peppers, potatoes and carrots, interspersed with slate signs with curlicued chalk-written prices. Under the energy of the sun, sitting in their wicker baskets, lay large orange gourds, leeks, and shallots, healthy and fresh as can be.
We wandered a bit more, the names of items on sale forming a romantic air of culinary charm: Poitrine Demi-sel, Saucisse de Francofort, Jambon aux Herbes, Pâté de Canard aux Cèpes. Since Éauze is reasonably close to the sparkling Mediterranean, the market also offers fresh as fresh can be seafood - monkfish, filets, shellfish, a heady bouillabaisse of seafood.
All of this food-related stimulation worked it’s way within us, and we became hungry. By this time, we’d reached the end of the market, which turned into a street of small eateries and shops. We chose a small restaurant near the end of the market. There are several such choices such as Le Bar du Marche, famous for tapas, or the Cafe de France, a popular spot situated in an ancient medieval house. This was similar to the market at Lectoure, where we had visited “Le Cochon Bleu” a combined bookstore and restaurant, and sat down among the books to have a bite. Behind Nancy lay a display of little blue pigs. Suddenly we got it: Cochon Bleu means Blue Pig! Although we never got the reason for the name, our “salades,” prepared in a kitchen the size of a small closet, were exquisitely plated and most welcome. To us, part of market day is a pleasant meal to cap it all off, and a chance to review and re-enjoy what we have experienced.
The quiet peace of a tasty meal seemed like the perfect end to the bustle and excitement of market day in Éauze. At the end of our restful meal, we walked out and were astonished to find the entire market had disappeared, except for a street cleaning machine disappearing in the distance. Everything had been cleaned up, booths and trucks packed up and driven off, and the quaint street as quiet as if the market had never been there. But there will be another market next Thursday, as has been the case for hundreds of years.
We will be revisiting the lovely and fascinating market at Éauze on September 20, 2018 on the third day of our 9-day all-inclusive culinary adventure tour of Gascony. Would you like to join us? Instead of The Blue Pig, we’ve decided to sample the lunch Le Bar du Marché, one of the restaurants lining the market. As with all aspects of our style of travel, you’ll be free to explore on your own, if you choose. To learn more about the adventure of exploring Gascony with us, just point your browser here.
By Brandon Hill, International Travel Consultant and Concierge
I grew up on the ranch in northeast Oklahoma where western heritage and the cowboy culture still thrive. We regularly attended local rodeos and thought of bullfights as something that happened well south of us, in Mexico.
Fast forward to this past January. While busy planning our culinary and cultural tour of Gascony, I’m envisioning gorgeous farms and vineyards, fine wines and dining in a pastoral setting like those captured on canvas in the Louvre. Imagine my surprise to suddenly discover that bullfighting is prevalent in southern France! Seriously?
In La Course Landaise, the bull “fighting” is ritualized combat, in the form of teasing, leaping and dodging of the bulls by young sportsmen, known as toreros or écarteurs. The only weaponry used is the écarteur’s athletic ability to either dodge or jump over the charging animals. Agile, daring and dangerous, some of their artistically acrobatic moves would rival those of Cirque du Soleil's most gifted performers.
While well-respected, the écarteurs don’t make enough money to make a living at it, so the sport remains an enduring amateur sport that is the center of yearly village celebrations throughout the region. Teams of young men and a few women, often dressed in elaborately embroidered costumes, venture into the ring to compete for the crowd’s favor.
By Eric Olson, Travel Host
It was once called the “water that burns,” and was feared and respected, for it came from alchemists and practitioners of mystical medical arts. It was the product of a centuries-long search for the water of life, a universal medicine.
We will soon be seeing Montreal-du-Gers and perhaps the villa, along with gently rolling hills, gorgeous fields and old fortified chateaux. It will be a reunion with people who love life, food to die for and lovely wines and… the water that burns.
Some of these Roman grapes are still grown here, including a rich and nearly untamable wine known as Madiran. (Note: Madiran blended with quality Bordeaux is unrivalled when paired with duck. Those who travel with us this September will discover this largely unknown but exceptional combination first hand).
When I feel acquainted with my eau-de-vie, I allow a drop to fall onto the tongue and mix into my mouth. New layers arise, and the hearty aromas fill the nose. This is why only a tiny amount is taken at first – it can be overwhelming to do so otherwise. One appreciates this step. It is amazing that this delicious liquid comes from little grapes, which are transformed in the most interesting way.
This method preserves the complex aromas of the young grapes, which are distilled shortly after harvest both because of tradition and for eminently practical Gallic reason. In earlier times, before the invention of sulfites for preservation, wine would often go bad in the barrel. By raising the alcohol level, the wine could be concentrated – and preserved. To preserve full flavor the gentler alembic method is used. It’s an art, practiced by master distillers who travel the region with 100-year old portable stills during wintertime, the traditional time for this work.
Finally, I allow a full sip. It is gratifying, intricate on yet another level. This is not the crude fire of cognac, it is something also altogether. Warming and soft, yet intense. It is alchemical, releasing it’s deepest mysteries only to those take the time to become acquainted.
But what does it add up to? What am I drinking with such appreciation?
It is of course Armagnac, the oldest and according to many (including me) still the best of the remarkable distilled spirits that come from France.
Viticulture from the Romans, distillation from the Arabs, storage barrels from the Celts. This fortunate triangulation of arts all happened in an oak-leaf shaped "department" of France called Gers, part of a larger region known as Gascony. Almost all of the Armagnac of France is produced in just three areas in Gers: Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenarize, and Haut Armagnac.
In the middle of the region is the village of Vic-Fezensac, which is the location of an ancient water mill now converted into a charming B&B known as Le Moulin de Laumet, or Laumet’s Mill. It is also the home of Vincent Laterrade, our charming innkeeper and a former sommelier at several Michelin 3-star restaurants.
Vincent is now a master cellar master with his own “cave,” or storage room for Armagnac. One enters the Moulin through this “cave,” which is imbued with the gentle and lovely aromas of old Armagnac, thus deftly introducing the inn, the product, and the “cave” to the visitor in a gracious and very French way.
Le Moulin de Laumet (along with another nearby B&B) is where we will stay during our upcoming return tour of Bas Armagnac in September. My wife Nancy and I are hosting a 9-day all inclusive culinary and cultural immersion to experience the charming lifestyle, cuisine, sights and people of this part of Gascony.
On our first evening, Vincent will prepare a “Garbure” – a well-loved regional duck stew – over the fire in the massive old fireplace in the dining room. Later he will teach us the intricacies and traditions of Armagnac, with offerings from his own selections.
The tour is being organized by our masterful travel planners, Matt and Brandon Hill, also known as The Hill Guys. They will also accompany the group to provide concierge support and excellent company. Participation is limited to only 12 people to maintain an intimate experience.
To learn more about our travel tour, which is designed to be informative and interesting, yet refreshing and relaxing and not at all like a “typical tour,” please visit http://www.hillguystravel.com/gear-down-in-gascony-tour.html.
By Brandon Hill
A year ago we started planning a culinary tour to Gascony in southwest France which delightfully proved to be more than we expected. Like many we had heard of the wine-famous region of Gascony with its rolling countryside hills with patchworks of vineyards, farms, and chateaus and castles converted into B&Bs. However, we learned from reading a New York Times article by David McAninch that duck is Gascony's brightest shining star on most Gascon plates from weeknights in simple homes to celebratory occasions at any of the numerous and delectable local restaurants that circle in heavenly Michelin orbits. Duck itself was enough to pique our interest, but our curiosity about this new specific aspect of Gascony presented the question, "Which ducks are preferred for cooking in France?"
I, myself, grew up in a farming, ranching and dairy family in northeastern Oklahoma about 10 miles southwest of Muskogee down Highway 69. While the childhoods of my parents' and grandparent's generations on the farm included lessons on wringing chickens' necks by hand and singeing their feathers, luckily we had progressed exclusively to beef and dairy cattle by the time my brother and I came along. That means names like Holstein, Angus and Hereford are as common as Mom and Dad to us. Yes, there were ducks around, but they and their American duckling offspring were mostly of the Mallard varieties and predominantly served to complete the farmyard aesthetic and provide entertainment.
Living in Oklahoma beef country most ducks weren't raised for eating and on some level I suspect they knew. This was commonly displayed by their demeanor of superiority, especially as they strut-waddled past the cattle sipping from their ponds. I'm not fluent in duck quack. Frankly I would rate myself more as a beginner than conversational, but from what I could make of it they were assertively informing the indifferent cattle of their ultimate futures under cellophane and the unflattering fluorescent lights of a grocer's meat section. To lighten the blow the ducks would often follow with the reassuring prospect of how the cattle could at least hope to wind up on display in a Whole Foods or Central Market or getting all dressed up (in southwest spices) on the Vegas Strip by Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill. French ducks on the other hand do not share the same duck dynasty destiny as their American cousins.
Let's now narrow the field on ducks for dining. The fork for this family tree, as I gathered from Saver, D'Artagnan, and Wikipedia really only has two prongs. Here's the simple story.
Pekin/Long Island: These North American ducks are known for being meaty yet mild in taste.
Moulard/Mulard: "So a South American drake and a sparkling white hen from Long Island meet up in a bar..." This delectable duck is the ingenious hybrid of a Muscovy drake (male) and a Pekin hen and is graced with large breasts, rich meat and an abundance of duck fat, a favorite for amazing foie gras in Gascony.
All the extensive planning for our trip to Gascony comes to fruition this September. We are so eager to explore a culinary scene where more ducks are on the plate and maybe not so smug.