TRAVEL / In harmony with the fat of the land: Bruce Millar visits Gascony, where foie gras is a sacrament and braggadocio on the boules' pitch has become an art form

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The Independent Culture
THE TAXI wound through semi-deserted hills and valleys for what seemed like hours, although the journey was only a few miles cross- country, not far from the south-western French town of Auch. Finally, we turned into a scruffy yard littered with the detritus of farming, with bales and old tractors. We were ushered into a square, breeze-block building with a kitchen on one side, a simple, waist-high fireplace at the back, and a terrace overlooking the roughest boules pitch I had ever seen.

Monsieur le Patron welcomed us to L'Auberge de Lartigue, with tall glasses of pousse-rapiere - a wicked mixture of orange- flavoured Armagnac and sparkling wine. He then ran through that night's menu: five or six courses and plenty of choice, so long as it was goose or duck. We were deep in the heart of Gascony and, although other regions of France make grand claims for their foie gras - the liver of fattened geese or, more often these days, duck - nowhere else is this dish elevated to the level of a sacrament.

We were offered foie gras nature - cold, with bread - or cooked in a variety of ways, with wild mushrooms or raisins and so on. Other dishes included barbecued squares of duck's heart and various magrets and confits (cuts preserved in salt and fat) of goose or duck, and if you wanted a salad, it came sprinkled with grattons - small chunks of rendered-down fat. The meal was accompanied by a mountain of pommes frites - fried, of course, in goose fat.

This was what we had been looking for: an off-the-beaten-track, regional France, a place defined by its traditional food and drink and peopled by rustic types with just a hint of Straw Dogs strangeness about them. French politicians talk, in their more mystical moods, of la France profonde - a kind of French dreamtime, a pre-industrial Arcadia where people know how to live well and simply.

Gascony certainly fits the bill. It exists more in history and in the imagination than in fact; it no longer has any official status, and its ancient capital, Auch, is now the departmental capital of Gers, named after the river that flows through it. Likewise, its most famous citizen, the musketeer d'Artagnan, is a half-imaginary figure: he did live, in the 17th century, and rose to become the commanding officer of Louis XIV's guard, but he is far better known for his fictional incarnation in Dumas's novel.

The region has remained relatively undisturbed, in a sort of medieval slumber, as the emptiest, poorest, and least developed part of France. This is partly due to its remoteness - it has not been on any major transport route since the medieval pilgrimages to Santiago di Compostela in Spain - and partly to do with a tradition of emigration, which has maintained the population at the same level for 400 years. But it is mainly because of its lack of industry beyond the production of foie gras and Armagnac, the earthier cousin of Cognac.

Auch itself is a solid provincial capital, built on a bluff above the Gers. A monumental staircase, with a statue of d'Artagnan half way up, links the river with the town centre, which is dominated by the cathedral of Sainte-Marie. Five minutes' walk away a more refined version of Gascon cuisine is available at the Hotel de France. Andre Daguin, the chef-proprietor, is both an authority on the traditions of goose husbandry and the main force behind the adoption of his native cuisine beyond the borders of Gascony. M Daguin, who was chosen by President Mitterrand to prepare the state banquet for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, was brought up on a traditional Gascon diet, which contained no milk or cheese, and he still cannot stomach dairy products.

Fashionable medical wisdom appears to favour this diet - less dairy fat, more goose fat. The Gascons do seem to live longer than other Frenchmen, but some people put this down to a lack of hard work. Annabel du Barry, an Englishwoman with French antecedents who has settled near Auch, explained that the women do all the work, and drop dead, exhausted, at 55, 'there's definitely a surplus of idle, widowed farmers'.

Back at L'Auberge de Lartigue, we staggered out on to the floodlit boules pitch to challenge a local team, hoping that their heavy consumption of Armagnac (and in one case, strangely, gin) would cancel out any home advantage. I can hardly remember who won, but I remember only too well the endless badinage, the ceaseless argument about the rules and the side-challenges that accompanied the game. This, it turns out, is a Gascon trait: they are famous in France for their braggadocio. And this may help to explain the character of English football's best player - perhaps Paul Gascoigne, a Geordie by birth, has the style and attitude that his genes have brought along with his name from south-west France.

The game over, our hosts made it clear that Gascon honour would not allow us to call a taxi. No, we were to get a lift home from the gin-drinker. He drove off at a lively pace, swerving from verge to verge, and insisting that we pay a late night visit to his hunting dogs. Only the graphic threat from one of our party to vomit inside his new car persuaded our friend to slow down and drop us, shaken but safe, at our destination. -

(Photograph omitted)

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