AOC Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, a certification meaning that the producers have to adhere to strict production guidelines
Alembic Continuous Armagnac distillation system with copper apparatus Armagnac The oldest French brandy, which celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2010. Made in the Armagnac region in south-west France from distilling white wine, and aged in French oak barrels. Min 40% abv Armagnac Ténarèze Central Armagnac zone of production
Bas Armagnac Most westerly zone of Armagnac production
Bastide A type of fortified town typically built in the south of France during the Middle Ages
Blanche Armagnac White unaged Armagnac that is very fruity and often served ice-cold with oysters, caviar, smoked salmon or charcuterie. An excellent base for cocktails
Eau de Vie Literally means ‘water of life’. Generally refers to the spirit when it comes off the alembic in its clear, unaged state
Floc de Gascogne Traditional local aperitif made from this year’s grape juice blended with young Armagnac from the previous year. Usually served chilled, it can be used in cocktails and cooking. About 17% abv Gascony An area in south-west France to the east and south of Bordeaux. Divided between the region of Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées. Gascon/Gasconne Someone from Gascony
Gers, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne The three French departments where Armagnac is produced
Haut Armagnac East and southern zone of Armagnac production
Hors d’Age Armagnac blend in which the youngest Armagnac must have had a minimum of 10 years ageing in oak
Millésime A vintage Armagnac that is purely from the harvest of the year mentioned on the label. Must be a minimum of 10 years old
La Flamme de l’Armagnac The distillation period in Armagnac from the end of October to the end of March in the year following the harvest Sarments de vigne Vine branches
VS or 3 star (Very Special). A young Armagnac blend in which the youngest Armagnac must have had a minimum of one year ageing in oak (two years for exported Armagnacs)
Ugni blanc, folle blanche, baco, colombard, clairette de Gascogne, meslier St François, plant de graisse, mauzac blanc and rosé, Jurançon blanc 10 grape varieties permitted for the production of AOC Armagnac
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale). Armagnac blend in which the youngest Armagnac must have had a minimum of four years ageing in oak Vendange Grape harvest
XO (Extra Old). An Armagnac blend in which the youngest Armagnac must have had a minimum of six years ageing in oak barrels. It is often aged for much longer Labatut, who runs Terre Blanche, an estate near Saint-Puy that raises 5,000 ducks at any one time. ‘They started noticing how the ducks and geese would overfeed on figs before migrating, and as they began to feed, their pecs – breasts – would get bigger, which is when they were eaten. The Romans brought force-feeding here, then it was taken up by the very poor, originally as a way to preserve the duck, with the foie gras saved for Christmas.’
As with Pepito, and indeed every Gascon, nothing gets wasted in Christine’s kitchen. One of main reasons for the switch from goose to duck for foie gras has nothing to do with waste, and everything to do with being able to use the rest of the duck in cooking. Tongues are grilled, carcasses are roasted and the feet, wings and head go into soup. The neck meat is slow-cooked in duck fat to make rillettes, and the bill… well, that’s her treat.
In her kitchen, Christine proceeds to devein a duck liver, complaining as she goes. ‘TV chefs butcher this job – it looks like a massacre when they do it,’ she says as she cuts thin slices from it, which she seasons, puts on a bit of bread and offers to us, truly raw. Getting past the slippery texture, the delicate, creamy, familiar flavour is all there. She throws a few more slices in a sizzling hot pan with garlic, salt and pepper, then offers it to try. The foie gras bursts in the mouth, filling it with the most unctuous pool of buttery duckiness – a more indulgent snack you’ll never find.
But what about the guilt factor? Other than being unashamedly decadent, should there be any? ‘People think it’s cruel because they imagine themselves being force-fed, but it’s not the same,’ insists Francis. ‘Ducks don’t have vocal chords and we don’t have gizzards. There are no nerves in the oesophagus, so they don’t feel it. A seagull eats a fish whole – it doesn’t do it with cutlery, does it?’
Christine is resolutely a Gascon country girl. Taught by her grandmother, she’s been making foie gras since she was 14 and is now responsible for 5,000 of the area’s 5 million ducks. ‘I had a husband,’ she says, ‘but he was a town man, and I didn’t support living in the town; I’m a pesan.’
And a very proud pesan too, like so many others we meet. No sooner have you met someone here than a glass of Armagnac is proffered, often with duck rillettes smothered on crusty bread. Stories flow as freely as the spirits, but that’s hardly surprising – this is a land with a history as rich as its foie gras. You can see it etched in the gnarly stone faces of every barn, turret or castle you pass.
It’s what makes this corner of France so unique – no matter what battle it has witnessed, and whichever ruler has proclaimed sovereignty, it surely just shrugged its collective shoulders, took another swig of Armagnac and waited for it to pass so they could get back to the ducks. In a modern world, this is a rare occasion when refusal to change is what makes this place so special.
Alex Mead and Mark Parren Taylor travelled courtesy of the official BNIA office and CDT Gers. armagnac.fr tourisme-gers.com
Clockwise from top left: Pepita and Pepito Sampietro of La Bonne Auberge; Café Tortore in La Bastide d'Armagnac; Earl Jean-Louis and Claire de Montesquieu from Domaine d'Espérance; vintage Castarède Armagnac; Audrey and Benoît Bourusst, who breed black Gascon pigs; Armagnac
Delord; farmers' market at Eauze; Les Bruhasses hotel, in serene Gers countryside; fresh market produce