In search of... Gastronomic Gascony

Duck liver terrine? Or full-on foie gras, washed down with a few slurps of Armagnac? Kate Simon samples a cuisine that is unrepentantly unreconstructed

The Gascon palate is a robust one. From Roquefort in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, Toulouse in the east to the Basque Country in the west, a culinary tour of the area is a diet destroyer that requires a strong stomach.

The Gascon palate is a robust one. From Roquefort in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, Toulouse in the east to the Basque Country in the west, a culinary tour of the area is a diet destroyer that requires a strong stomach.

Why? Are we going to eat slugs' eyes?

No, no, no. I don't mean the kind of food that makes you screw up your eyes and hold your nose before popping the offending article into your mouth. I mean the food is rich. It's doused in goose fat, supplemented with chunks of salt pork, Bayonne ham or Toulouse sausage, boiled in broths made from knuckles of veal, laced with Madiran, the potent local wine, and all cooked up in big iron pots.

You're making me feel a bit queasy

Then I'm not making myself clear. Yes, it's solid French country cooking, but it's deeply warming, aromatic and sensuous food. It requires tearing and chewing and slurping, yet sometimes slips silkily across your tongue and always leaves you with a sensation of layers of flavour.

So what are we going to start with?

Foie gras ...

Foie gras? Isn't that rather politically incorrect?

Yep. That's Gascony. Ducks and geese by the million are force-fed with corn for the sake of the dinner plate, their livers swelling hideously from six to 12 times their normal size. But the Gascons are unrepentant. Every road in Gers – the area we decided to explore, which is renowned for its foie gras – is lined with cornfields. (This all looks very romantic, especially with the Pyrenees looming in the background, until you notice the Monsanto boards.) And just about every dwelling has posted a sign on the roadside to entice the carnivorous passer-by to buy a fresh goose or duck's liver.

Alternatively, you can pick one up at the special street markets, the marchés du gras, held each morning from Fleurance to Mirande. But if you don't fancy all that messy business of chopping out veins and sinews, you could just buy a terrine of semi-cooked (mi-cuit) or preserved foie gras, available in every food store around these parts. The shop at the Claude Lafitte restaurant on Rue Desoules in Auch is a positive shrine to the stuff. (In between meals, don't miss the statue of the town's famous fictional son, D'Artagnan, on the Monumental Stair, or the extraordinarily elaborate carvings on the spooky choir stalls in the cathedral.)

The duck (canard) liver has a musky, earthy taste, whereas the goose (oie) foie gras, the gourmet's choice, is more delicate. In restaurants it is usually fried from raw (nature) and served in slices with apples, pears, grapes, truffles or figs, or spiked with Armagnac, which is made in these parts. But many chefs pride themselves on inventing new ways to present the fêted liver: at one restaurant it appeared on a dish of canapés encased in pastry like a mini pork pie.

Anything a less brutal on the menu?

Well, staying on the theme of fowl (as you will find you often have to), there's all the other bits to use up. Portions of duck and goose breast, known as magret, are served with a parsley and garlic cream sauce. The necks (coux) of the poor beasts are stuffed with truffles, pork mince or foie gras, while the legs, thighs and wings are likely to be preserved as a confit. The gizzards are used in the meaty salade landaise, along with foie gras and dried magret. And anything else is likely to be potted one way or another, while the fat is used as liberally as the Mediterraneans use olive oil.

Have these people heard of vegetables?

Lots of root veg, for all those stews. But the produce we saw on sale was surprisingly limp and unappealing, not fresh and colourful as you'd expect in the south of France. We had better luck with fungi, though, and bought a bag full of cèpes for lunch at the market in Mirande – rooty things in various sizes that looked like they could well poison us. Back at our gîte, we washed the cèpes and ... ruined them. Never wash cèpes, always rub them clean. They just can't take water and you'll end up, like us, with a sloppy mess.

Never mind the cookery lesson. What was the market like?

Big and bustling, with every ingredient you can think of on sale (alive and dead). We bought the cèpes at the market hall and also picked up a large tub of fried potatoes in a piquant sauce, a pot of snails in tomato gravy, and some strong local beer.

You'll find markets like this open every day of the week. But my favourite was just down the road from our gîte, in the pretty bastide of Trie sur Baise. The vast car park around the arcaded square is closed to voitures on Tuesdays and crammed instead with stalls selling everything from berets to horsemeat (although, I have to say, the horse butcher wasn't doing a roaring trade). We were drawn to the fish stall and, with eyes bigger than our stomachs, bought peppery winkles and plump langoustines, salmon and monkfish, which we ate with wine from the excellent vintner on the edge of the square.

I thought this was a holiday. Sounds like you were tied to the stove.

Not at all. There are plenty of places to eat out and to suit all wallets. At the expensive end, there are two Relais & Chateaux hotels in the area. The Domaine de Bassibé at Segos was the scene of the mini foie gras pies. Book a table here under the plane trees on a balmy summer night. Or try Michel Guérard's Les Prés d'Eugénie at Eugénie-Les-Bains, further west, where the celebrated chef practises his famous low-calorie cuisine minceur. Closer to our gîte, we were rightly recommended La Rive Droite restaurant at Villecomtal, where one of our party went into raptures over a dish of melting foie gras on a bed of caramelised apples.

At the other end of the scale, we had one of our tastiest meals with the traders in the halles café at Mirande. A delicious four-course après-marché menu, consisting of a chicken noodle broth, light salad, confit of duck and chocolate mousse, set us back a fiver a head. But the best meal was the picnic we ate on the roadside in Sainte-Dode, where we munched baguettes stuffed with Bayonne ham and strong Pyrenean cheese, trying to glimpse the maillot jaune as the cyclists in the Tour de France whizzed by.

How do I get there?

I visited the area courtesy of The Gascony Secret (01284 827253; www.gascony-secret.com), which rents gîtes for two to 21 people from May to October from £200 to £2,175 a week. I flew into Lourdes on a charter flight, which can be booked through The Gascony Secret from £190 return. Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) offers cheap flights from Stansted to Toulouse for £80. A week's car hire with Holiday Autos (0870 400 0011; www.holidayautos.co.uk) starts from £134 in May, including a £5 discount if you book online. For information about room rates and menus at Domaine de Bassibé and Les Prés d'Eugénie contact Relais & Chateaux (00 800 2000 0002; www.relaischateaux.com).

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