THAT’S THE Spirit

Food and Travel (UK) - - Gourmet Traveller - PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK PAR­REN TAY­LOR

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

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