The look of incredulity on Madame de Castelbajac's face when I confided that I thought D'Artagnan was just a fictional character had to be seen to be believed. She didn't actually throw up her hands in horror but she left me in no doubt that, while D'Artagnan may well have been immortalised as the naive young hero of Alexander Dumas's novel The Three Musketeers, any Gascon worth their foie gras knows he was born and brought up in the Gers. I had just insulted the region's most revered personality.
This little corner of south-west France is peppered liberally with musketeer references, from its food and drink to statues and street names. So it is no surprise that the latest movie version of Dumas's swashbuckling tale was partly filmed here in the heart of Gascony at the Château de Caumont at Cazaux Saves, which is owned by the Castelbajac family. For a week, the château on the easterly edge of the Gers some 25 miles from Toulouse resounded to the sound of cantering horses as D'Artagnan was resurrected once again in The Musketeer.
I moved on quickly from my faux pas. Meanwhile, Madame de Castelbajac was telling me how, when film-makers created a huge fire for one scene, she was scared that the beautiful 16th-century building, which is open to the public, would burn down. A fire had already ravaged one part of the three-sided château in 1640.
I set off armed with a copy of Dumas's epic novel to the other side of the Gers to discover more about their local hero. It takes less than two hours to cross this gently rolling land full of sunflowers and vines. Ducks outnumber people by more than 20 to one and British cars are in a blessed minority. The further west you go, the proliferation of signs advertising foie gras for sale become interspersed with billboards for Armagnac.
Gascony's most famous hero was born Charles de Batz de Castelmore in about 1611, close to the village of Lupiac. At his childhood home, the Château de Castelmore, a prominent "private property" sign is hung up outside the slumbering, shuttered manor. But driving into Lupiac, I found the D'Artagnan Centre, an incredibly informative little museum which helped me to fill in the blanks about the musketeer's real life.
One of eight children born into minor nobility, Charles followed the tradition of the younger sons by leaving his homeland to seek his fortune as a soldier in Paris, eventually joining the Musketeers, an elitist regiment of guards armed with muskets. The period was characterised by plots and wars, and D'Artagnan – who took his name from his mother's family – soon distinguished himself as captain lieutenant. He was so well regarded that the French king and the dauphin were godfathers to his two sons. After he was killed in 1673 during the siege of Maestricht in Flanders, the king held a special service in his own chapel.
It's a pretty exciting story. But obviously it wasn't good enough for Dumas, who based his novels on D'Artagnan's memoirs. Dumas didn't exactly feel constrained by the facts. He claimed history was only the nail on which he hung his stories, and he had no qualms in taking D'Artagnan to Paris 15 years early to become a hero under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu rather than under Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin.
As for his romantic side, the little we do know is that D'Artagnan's wife left him because he preferred court and battlefield to house and home. If local knowledge is to be believed, he quite liked Armagnac too. Along with other Gascon soldiers, D'Artagnan is widely credited with making the drink popular in Parisian society. I didn't need much more of an incentive than that. I hurried off to investigate this charming little aside.
With about a thousand Armagnac producers in the area, it wasn't difficult to find one. Most are concentrated around Eauze and the town of Condom. Just a few kilometres south of Condom, the Château de Cassaigne has the advantage of being both an Armagnac producer and an interesting historic building. It was a bishop's residence in medieval times, and the château's pièce de résistance is the 16th-century kitchen with its peculiar stone ceiling. This is the place to learn about the liquor rather than the boring and unenlightening Museum of Armagnac in Condom.
Armagnac differs from cognac in that it involves a single rather than a double distillation and its production is limited by royal charter to a certain region. The still was brought to France by the Moors, who used it for scientific rather than alcoholic purposes, and the first mention of Armagnac can be traced back to the 13th century, when it was used by apothecaries for its disinfectant properties. As well as Armagnac itself, there are a host of liquors based on the brandy and a number of different fruits soaked in it. "There's a bit of a crisis in the after-dinner drinks market," confided manager Thierry Roques, adding that today's younger generation doesn't have time to sit after a meal and mull over the good things of life. "All the producers are trying to develop pre-dinner drinks."
Appropriately in D'Artagnan land, I discovered Pousse Rapier ("'sword thruster"), an Armagnac and orange liquor added to sparkling wine, which is particular to the Château Monluc in nearby St-Puy. It's far cheaper to buy Pousse Rapier at Château Monluc than in the region's gift shops, and besides, the château is worth a visit both for the magnificent view from its hilltop perch and its 15th-century stone floor with sunken reservoir.
At the Domain de Laguille near Eauze, Colette and Guy Vignoli make Glengers, an Armagnac with an interestingly complex malt whisky perfume. Glengers also has a somewhat tenuous musketeer connection. The story goes that in 1724, the then musketeer captain Nicolas de Terlon came back from Quebec where he was serving. Together with Aramis and Porthos, he created a drink in memory of their dead friend, D'Artagnan, by mixing Armagnac with maple syrup, which Terlon had brought from Canada.
Head north from the Domain de Laguille and you'll find Larressingle, a tiny and unspoilt medieval fortified village. It takes about five minutes to walk round the village after crossing the stone drawbridge over a dry moat. The rest of the time you can enjoy a mellow moment by admiring the church from the crêperie opposite and munching crêpes flambéed in (you guessed it) Armagnac. And you can't really visit the Château de Cassaigne without stopping off at the impressive Cistercian Abbey of Flaran on the way.
Don't even think of going to the Gers if you're on a diet. And if you don't like duck, you'll be hard pushed to avoid the oodles of foie gras and confit, the leg of the force-fed duck fried in its own fat.
But it's difficult not to think about Armagnac here. I found Armagnac munchies all over the place – in Condom, opposite the cathedral, there's a delightful little shop that makes Armagnac chocolates and Armagnac ice cream is a must-have at Auch. Both cities are worth a visit for more than their culinary lures: their narrow cobbled streets, medieval buildings and stunning cathedrals make for a pleasant afternoon's wandering. Auch's cathedral has a magnificent Renaissance façade and some of the best stained-glass windows in France. Just behind it is a statue of D'Artagnan. He stands proudly, his hand on his sword. Pity he isn't holding a flask of Armagnac as well.
Jane Knight flew with Air France (0845 0845 111, www.airfrance. co.uk) from Heathrow to Toulouse. Prices start at £78 plus tax.
Termes d'Armagnac: Domaine de Labarthe chambres d'hôtes (0033 5 62 69 24 97) where you'll get a friendly welcome, well-decorated rooms with china ducks everywhere and a view of the tower at Termes d'Armagnac plus some of the best food in the region for £28 for two.
Condom: Hotel de Trois Lys (0033 5 62 28 33 33) in an old townhouse where a room for two costs £59. A delicious three-course evening meal can be had for £9.
Le Florida at Castera-Verduzan (0033 562 681322) is widely considered to have one of the best menus in the Gers, with set meals from £13.80. Le Florida and other top chefs in the district have grouped themselves into an association called the Circle of Musketeers.
France Information Line (09068 244 123 at 60p a minute; www.france guide.com).Reuse content