As a perfect holiday in Gascony came to an end, Martin Evans was thrilled when he managed to track down the ideal souvenir - a very special bottle of fine old armagnac

I've got the bottle in front of me now. It's a litre size, the sort with three stars round the neck that the French sell cheap wine in. They charge you for the bottle; but you get it back when you return the empty.

I've got the bottle in front of me now. It's a litre size, the sort with three stars round the neck that the French sell cheap wine in. They charge you for the bottle; but you get it back when you return the empty.

So why didn't I return it? Well, when I bought that bottle, it didn't contain cheap wine. It held something quite different.

And anyway, right now I can't even see the bottle, let alone the stars on its neck, because wrapped all round it and tightly bound with tape is a copy of the French newspaper, La Dépêche, dated 2 September 2000. It's the edition for Gascony, in south-west France, the home of armagnac, where we had been renting a farmhouse that summer.

I had bought the bottle on the Friday after that issue of La Dépêche. The next day, we were going home and we wanted some wine to take back – not too expensive but worth drinking. We'd been told about Buzet, between Cahors and Bordeaux. You could get good wine there, they said; cheaper than Bordeaux – and better. And there was a modern co-operative, too, they said, full of computers and marble floors and elegant girls in short skirts, where you could even buy the stuff in bulk. So we went and there was and you could, so we did – about 90 litres of it, in three big plastic bags, each with a tap.

But besides quantity, we were also on the hunt for quality – some special armagnac. In the local market that week, I'd seen the most alluring business card. It was all gold; and inside a shield framed by heraldic figures were printed phrases in red and black Gothic type saying, "Eau de vie de Prune d'Ente", "Pruneaux à l'Armagnac", and "Vieille Armagnac". All matured in oak and sold at the farm. My mouth had been watering ever since.

We had lunch in Buzet – a snack of foie gras, salade aux gésiers avec walnuts, soufflé maison, magret de goose, and a choice of about 10 sorbets, not to mention a bottle or two of delicious Buzet red – in the local restaurant, also patronised by a road-mending gang who arrived covered in white dust and spent 15 minutes choosing their wine. Afterwards, we headed south, a little more slowly now, to buy some armagnac.

We eventually discovered the place, a half-timbered, shuttered and ivy-smothered ancient farmhouse slowly sinking into the ground. Surrounding it were dozens of huge barrels, dilapidated carts, a tangled pile of firewood, toppling sheds, and an old Citroën buried beneath a pyramid of maize husks. And starving cats, chicken, geese, ducks, a cockerel on a dung heap, and several fierce and hungry dogs. The arrival of our Volvo estate prompted a chorus of frenzied barking, snarling, howling, fluttering, grunting, slavering, quacking, hissing and general farmyard noises.

While we were musing on the contrast between the Buzet co-operative and the farmyard, wondering how we were going to be able to leave the car without being bitten, savaged, nipped by hostile beaks, or at least gored by several dozen cockerels, a door opened behind us and out came the farmer's wife. Dressed in black, with steel-rimmed spectacles, a shawl, large boots and a charming smile, she looked at our GB plate, smiled again and led us in to safety.

Armagnac? Of course! With an elegant twirl of her hips she turned and guided us through a kitchen squalid enough to trigger a heart attack in a health-and-safety official. The dark parlour contained a mausoleum of a wardrobe, a sideboard the size of a small car, four sleeping dogs, three sleeping cats, and several dozen bottles of armagnac. We sat down and I trod on another sleeping dog beneath the table. After the yelping had died away, she lined up three egg-cup sized glasses before three bottles labelled 1995, 1985 and 1965. She spoke without a local accent and was highly articulate.

We tasted each year and chose the 1965; an armagnac that was as smooth as young flesh, but as warming as a mature love, and so fiery that it gave a new meaning to consummation. She then leaned towards us and whispered that if we didn't mind having a bottle without the label she could sell us a litre of the armagnac for the same price as a smaller bottle. An extra 25 per cent for free. We looked at each other and nodded enthusiastically.

She produced a much bigger bottle and carefully brushed off the dust. The armagnac's warm and delicate bronze hue glinted in the light of a candle as she poured it into a litre bottle – yes, one with three stars on the neck. This she plugged with a cork, upon which she wrote the date: "1965". She leaned forward again. This time it was her spectacles that glinted.

"But you must be very careful," she told us. "The police might stop you and if they see this bottle I, and you, too, will be in trouble. You see, it is so cheap because," she closed one eye and tapped the bottle with a bony claw, "we are not paying the tax on it. But I have an idea!" She raised the claw. "I will hide it with a newspaper."

With her co-conspirators gazing mesmerised, she produced that day's edition of La Dépêche, wrapped several pages of it round the bottle and sealed it with tape.

"Hide it under the seat of your car," she hissed. "And if you are stopped – say nothing. Nothing at all! Rien du tout!" Her voice rose as she gripped my arm and looked me in the eyes.

And under the seat was where we hid it – all the way back to England and through customs. During the journey, we licked our lips and planned a dinner party to drink it with some friends. They would have to be valued friends, we thought. This armagnac was too good to waste.

So we chose them very carefully; and when the day came, we gave them magret de canard to eat, for, after all, that was a speciality of south-west France and it would go well with the armagnac. Over coffee, I brought out the bottle. The wrapping of La Dépêche gave an authentic tone to the occasion. We explained how we had found it, relishing every moment of the adventure.

"That kitchen!" exclaimed my wife.

"And you should have seen the farmyard," I added. "But she actually spoke Parisian French; no local accent," I pointed out – just so that our friends would realise that we could tell the difference.

At last I placed some polished crystal glasses before them, tore away enough of La Dépêche to allow me to pull out the cork, filled their glasses and stood back, holding the bottle to my chest while I watched them taste.

There was a pause. Someone coughed and looked at me over his spectacles.

"My dear fellow," he began. "Well, at least it has a good colour." He held it up to the light, smiled and looked at me.

"Well, don't you like it?" I asked.

"I think you had better try it," said another friend.

My heart began to sink. I poured myself a glass and tasted it. Cold tea.