Readers of classic European literature will know Gascony as the birthplace of d’Artagnan, the hero of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel The Three Musketeers. Food lovers will know of it as a gastronomic paradise, famous for its fattened geese and duck livers (foie gras d’oie and foie gras de canard, respectively) as well as their meat and by-products, including the rendered fat.
In Foie Gras, Magret, and Other Good Food from Gascony (1988), André Daguin, who was at the time of publication chef of the Michelin two-star Hôtel de France, in Auch, and writer Anne de Ravel, have penned a cookbook/love letter to Daguin’s native Gascony, the region’s people and the famous Gascon stubbornness that d’Artagnan displays again and again in The Three Musketeers.
In the introduction, they write, “This region holds itself distinctly apart from the rest of France. A true Gascon is before all a Gascon, cherishing his unique heritage and history with pride. When Charlemagne rode with his armies to attack Montauban, the Gascon scouts ran back to their fortress shouting, ‘The French are coming! The French are coming!”
De Ravel also writes, “[Gascony’s] peasant cuisine has not changed significantly over the centuries. The farmers of the Gers region of Gascony eat the same food that their grandfathers’ grandfathers ate and enjoy it just as much for its compelling simplicity and heartiness. The flavours of Gascon cuisine are strong and robust. The dishes are typically pungent with the essences of mushrooms, game, duck, foie gras, cloves and garlic.
“Gascony is characterised by a tranquil, dreamlike landscape. The hills are topped with medieval fortresses, the hillsides and valleys dotted with sheep and rows of golden sunflowers. It is an area that tends to be less travelled (and hence less spoiled) than others in the south of France because it is relatively inaccessible, lying, as it does, south of the main road linking Toulouse and Bordeaux.”
Of course, it’s impossible to review a book with foie gras in its title without addressing the issue of gavage (force feeding), which fattens the birds’ livers. The technique has changed a lot in the 30 years since the book was written, and producers tend to take much better care of their animals. Some are experimenting with ways of letting the birds overeat on their own; in the wild, geese and ducks preparing themselves for the long migration to warmer climates eat much more than they would typically, leading to livers that, while not as fat as those from force-fed animals, are still larger than normal.
Even if you skip the chapters on foie gras, confit (using the legs and fat from the fattened geese and ducks) and magret (fattened duck breasts), there are plenty of dishes still left to make from the book. They include oxtail soup with fennel; sautéed crayfish and ham in chenin blanc; calf’s liver and spinach salad; sea bass in armagnac and red wine sauce; squabs with garlic and merlot wine sauce; veal kidneys with shallots and garlic; prune tart; and flaky apple pie.