Food and Travel (UK) - - Gourmet Traveller -

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. ar­

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...

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