Where Is The Gers?
Taking a back road into Auch, France (population: 22,000), the remote ersatz capital of the Gers, in a rented Renault time machine, two hired housesitters pinched themselves. Auch! As the 15th-century Cathedral de Sainte Marie and the 14th-century Tour d’Armagnac, both protected by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, rose up into the elegant cobalt sky, our aching eyes climbed the Escalier Monumentale’s 232 steps (count ‘em) to the swashbuckling statue of the region’s most famous cadet: D’Artagnan, the Fourth Musketeer.
With a bright and breezy irreverent tone suitable for a Paid Advertisement, we decided that life doesn’t get much better than this: a three-month housesitting job in the remote French countryside. We were deep in the heart of gastronomical Gascony, the stomping ground of ghostly gourmets, a center of the foie gras trade, and the birthplace of Armagnac.
Gently Rolling Landscape
Known for its bien mangé (good eats), the Gers, France’s least visited and most rural département, with more ducks than people in it, is a leisurely two-hour drive from Bordeaux or Toulouse, and only an hour from the ski lifts of the gleaming snow-capped Pyrenees.
Newly expatriated from Les Etats Unis, we found this gently rolling landscape of ancient farms, vineyards, and fortified towns, dating back to the Hundred Years War (1337-1453)–which was neither really a war, nor did it last a hundred years–the ideal spot for adventurous eaters (gourmands) to explore the art of Gascon cuisine and live like aristocratic budget nobility against a backdrop straight out of a Medieval-era illuminated manuscript.
Boules-playing, beret-wearing Gascons are the first to admit they are “stuck somewhere back in the Dark Ages — but with electricity.”
What’s more, the Gers abuts the edge of the Pyrenees National Park, which boasts, besides birds like vultures, eagles, capercailles, ptarmigans, woodpeckers, and pigeons, also mammals such as marmots, chamoises, and bears. Unfortunately, maybe the fault of terroir chefs, there are only six bears left!
Since everything here involves festive sightseeing, there are not many things to do other than eat in idyllic mise-en-scenes out of your most extreme expatriate fantasies, except take part in the yearly Marciac Jazz Festival.
Here, in what many prefer to call the “Midi Pyrenees,” you can travel on no dollars a day (only euros)—but ten euros goes a long way, even with the hefty markup of French Elf “essence.”
Or, the occasional, blown Michelin “pneu.”
The Gascons derive their name from, but are not related to, the nearby Basques (Vascones). A vrai Gascogne (real Gascon), is recognized by the yellow mud sticking to his Wellingtons and will tell you he is Gascogne first. Yet, unlike his Basque neighbors, he is quite happy to be French second.
Gascons fought on the British side during the previously mentioned Hundred Years War, and the Gers was the battlegound. The “Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux,” ideal for cycling around the over 50,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of grapevines, but fraught with pariah dogs, took us past some of the most dramatic scenery and sights, such as the 12th-century Cistercian monastery Abbaye de Flaran, filled with inebriated monks, and the so-called “Carcassonne du Gers,” Larressingle, also the name of a popular Armagnac.
Remember, a bastide is a purposefully built fortified town with distinctive grid-patterned streets and arcaded central squares; while a castelnau is an unplanned town growing up around a castle or a church, all built by either the French or the English. Fources, the only circular walled town, was, despite its froggy-sounding name, architected by the British.
If you think in terms of historical Gascony, this jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped piece of geography includes both Les Gers and Les Landes, and is sometimes referred to as “Midi Pyrenees,” full of traveling Cirques, Roma caravans blasting “The Gypsy Kings,” and Course Landais stadiums, which hold bullfights without the bull, instead they use horned heifers. Even though they do not kill the cows here, they sometime end up as ingredients in such restaurants as “BASTARD” (really!) in Lectoure.
The gist of the Gers is, of course, Armagnac, and this is where the amber after-dinner drink is distilled, bottled, and shipped worldwide. There are three Armagnac appellations: Haute-Armagnac (center: Auch), Bas-Armagnac (center: Eauze), and Tenareze (center: Condom). For obvious reasons, Condom is a popular place to pick up postcards to amuse one’s friends back home.
Predating cognac by over three hundred years, Armagnac was once believed to be a snake-oil-like aphrodisiac and cure-all. A 14th century cardinal, Prior Vital du Four, spake, “[Armagnac] restores the paralyzed member by massage; and heals wounds of the skin by application. . . . And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit if someone timid from time to time permits.”
During various “degustations,” I was taught to cup the glass and swirl it to release the aroma, leaving behind long golden Midas tears streaming down the edges. If you really mean business, pour some into your palms, rub them, and sniff them like the locals do.
“Hey, did you know if your hand is bigger than your face you are retarded?!”
“Hey, did you know if you rub your hands together they smell like pizza?!”
These two tricks do not really work among the cognoscenti in France.
One day a gregarious neighbor initiated me as a vrai Gascogne, giving me a glass of unaged White Armagnac to chug, which brought tears aplenty to my eyes.
“Cin Cin!” the producteur toasted.
“Tintin!” I managed with a pursed moue, leaking scalding tears reminiscent of the cartoon menace “Caillou,” the bald neo-fascist baby.
Or an infant Mr. Clean or Howie Mandell.
Fill Er’ Up
The region’s main magnet, though, is its mean cuisine. When the farmers aren’t protesting for unpasteurized Camembert, they are to be found with forks in their mitts, meandering over multi-course meals that last two hours or more.
Over the border in the département of Les Landes, also part of historical Gascony, one may visit one of the best restaurants in the world at the spa Eugenie Les Bains, where master chef Michel Guérard won three Michelin rosettes and invented “cuisine minceur” (less food for more money).
But one of the joys of the Gers, we found, was driving or cycling around aimlessly, stopping at historic family-run inns serving more than just glorified peasant grub, like the Vieux Logis in Aignan (the former capital of the Gers), to enjoy four-course Gascon fare with regional VDQS Cote de St. Mont wine (fill ‘er up in plastic jerrycans at local vineyards), all for about twenty euros.
In the Gers, the two standout Michelin-rosetted restaurants are the Hotel de France (Auch), where master chef André Daguin invented “magret de canard,” and the Ripa Alta (Plaisance), where stuttering chef Coscuella served me, of all things, “pig’s feet” surrounded by a largesse of truffles. Plus, “palombe” (a kind of wood pigeon which makes a sorry little carcass).