THAT’S THE Spirit
In south-west France you’ll find the historic region of Armagnac, a land forever ready for battle, yet more inclined to share a glass of its eponymous spirit and a duck feast than draw arms, discovers Alex Mead
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 musketeeresque 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
The grand 18th-century farmhouse, Les Bruhasses in Condom epitomises rural idyll
Clockwise from top left: the scenic town of Lectoure; Auch countryside; a taste of Armagnac Delord; vineyards in Condom; Armagnac Delord; Jacques and Jerôme Delord; the Residence in Lavardens; Benoît Bourrust of Bidache Farm; a foie gras snack at Terre Blanche; Michelin-starred Eric Sampietro of La Table des Cordeliers; the medieval village of Lavardens; vistas from Château Lavardens; Gilles Barholomo of Bartholomo cooperage in Le Frêche; the wax stamp of approval, at Armagnac Delord
'It achieves bursting point as it warms up, taking you from cream soda to caramel to all the flavours of Christmas'
Clockwise from top: Armagnac hour at Château in Sorbets; honey, thyme and lemon dish at La Bastide; Jerôme Maribon Ferret's pastis Gascon
Clockwise from top left: Abbaye de Flaran, Valencesur-Baïse; a peak inside Château Laubade, Sorbets; Les Bruhasses; ripe vines at Château de Millet,
Eauze; a historic facade in Eauze; La Bastide; faded chic at Armagnac Castarède; Armagnac from Domaine d'Espérance; the medieval arches of La Bastide; sweet cod at La Bastide; a sculptural nod to The Three Muskateers; peach melba at La Bastide; modern and ancient charm at La Bastide; veal fillet; resting in the grounds of Château de Laubade
Above, from left: Hôtel de Bastard's bream tartare; Motréal du Gers; wild fruit conserves punctuate the breakfast table at Les Bruhasses Clockwise from above left: the fields of
Lectoure; Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, Auch; fresh duck carpaccio at La Bonne Auberge; Pepito's flavoursome goose tripe is served daube-style