Autumn (and we) have arrived in Gascony. At least it's supposed to be autumn...the leaves are turning and there are horse chestnuts littered everywhere underfoot, but it's been 30 degrees Celcius most days with deliciously blue skies and long, light evenings. The locals say this is the hottest October in a century, I am definitely not complaining!
We've done a little bit of exploring over recent days, a little bit more eating and a whole lot of cooking. Renting a car (and buying a GPS) was genius, as we've been able to get out and explore the beautiful, rolling countryside and the medieval villages and market towns scattered over the Gascon hills and woods.
We ate on Sunday at a little restaurant next to a fortified village where we devoured lunch on the terrace, complete with local wine. The cassoulet - a local stew of white beans, duck and bacon - was everything I had imagined (we'll be learning how to cook it this week) although a little heavy in this heat compared with my lightly-fried river fish and an entree of the house foie gras and charcuterie.
Charcuterie seems to be a growing theme in this week's journey. The French love nothing more than a platter of charcuterie (cured hams, pates and rillette) laid out on a platter to nibble over a glass of wine in the evening, or any time really. But here in Gascony the charcuterie tradition seems to be a way of life.
Yesterday we were swept up by Kate Hill, along with our fellow classmates, from our inn in the lovely town of Nerac and driven to our first stop, the home and butchery of Kate's good friends, the Chapolards - a family of local butchers who were busy making their famous sausages and cured haunches of pork when we pulled up. We picked up a selection of these incredible, lightly-smoked and cured meats - and one pink pork belly - to use in our afternoon of cooking (apparently the sausages spend a few days hanging inside Mr Chapolard's chimney while they cure). You'll see in the photos that this bounty of meat, along with locally-grown legumes, provided the inspiration for our dinner feast cooked in Kate's kitchen on the canal in Camont.
But the food of Gascony is about more than cured meats and sausages, although those are pretty special, it has to be said. The duck, the pork, the armagnac and crisp white wines, the foie gras for which they are rightly famous, and the beans and lentils, all flavoured with pepper and salt, bay and thyme and pimento, and the sunlight of the south.
Enroute to Camont we made for a local winery and armagnac house for a tasting. Now, at this point in the post, I must confess to a dark prejudice of mine...I don't like red wines. I don't know why, but the tannin in red wine which everyone else seems to enjoy leaves me cold. I have on occasion enjoyed a small amount of very, very good red wine, but in general I go straight to the white portion of any wine list. So, while I am told the local Gascon red (tannat) is excellent, I have been gushing over the quality of the whites. As demand for the local armagnac has dwindled, the growers of the white grapes used for it have been turning increasingly to white wine to utilise the leftover grapes at harvest time, and diversify their profit base. Well, it's wonderful stuff, and incredibly well priced at around $6 a bottle for some terrific light, well-flavored white wines. The roses are also fantastic, not at all the sickly sweet stuff we often find back home, and perfect for the robust Gascon food and the hot weather.
That said, after a tasting of a number of different years of armagnac, I am very happy that production of this wonderful spirit continues in this part of the work. I might have splashed out on a few bottles to lug home, and Kate also assures me it goes great in cooking as well.
Next, with a supply of delicious local wine in the car to drink with our week's cooking around Kate's table, we ventured to Camont to roll up our sleeves, tie on our aprons and get chopping.
In deference to the hot weather, Kate postponed the cassoulet, and instead guided us through the soaking, simmering and sautéing of local white beans, tossed through with leeks sautéed in duck fat and butter, which served as the based for a long spiral of local sausage.
Next, we simmered some local, tiny green puys lentils with lovage, thyme and shallots. Salted and tossed through with a vinaigrette, we lay slices of the charcuterie bought earlier in the day on top and scattered the dish with chopped cornichons (teeny, tiny gherkins). Finally, Kate scored a small piece of pork belly - the flesh a bright pink not normally seen on Australian pork - and rubbed it with a mix of salt, pepper, ground ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and pimento. She popped it in a hot oven to crisp, turning down the heat for the majority of the cooking, and sliced it, juicy and dripping, on an antique wooden chopping board. (Don't worry, when I get home I will make sure and offer up the recipes!)
This feast was carried to the table, wine bottles in hand, and served up over laughter in the early dusk under the grapevines. I can't imagine a better way to end a day.