Gascony has rightfully developed a strong reputation for rich, traditional southwestern food enjoyed with hearty wines and strong spirits at a slow pace. These and other traits are why this rural stretch of land has become one of our favorite corners in France.
But it’s also easy to stereotype a region like this one and miss the broader pleasures it offers beyond its famous foie gras, armagnac, and magret de canard. During a last-minute getaway to Gascony, we spent a week sampling the traditional as well as the modern twists offered.
No need to ignore one for the other. We let go of the idea that somehow, it’s cheating to order a wood-fired pizza just because you’re supposed to be eating “authentic” local cuisine. Instead, we decided to celebrate the classics but also relish the diversity and surprising creativity.
While setting out on such a journey can invite disaster and frustration, in this case the lack of planning left us with few pre-conceived notions of what we would do and wide open to suggestions. We were particularly fortunate to have several good ideas offered up by our hosts, Andy and Pam, while we were staying at their new bed and breakfast, Chez Brunet, just outside the town of Gondrin.
But our good luck started before we even arrived.
Château de Larroque
Setting out by car from Toulouse, we had left later than planned. Gondrin was about a 1.5-hour drive, and we were not quite halfway when lunch time came around. The drive across the eastern side of Gers Departement was as lovely as ever. But as we approached Gimont and its famous foie gras market, we frantically searched our mobile phones for restaurant suggestions.
Purely by chance, we passed a sign advertising an afternoon lunch menu for €17 per person at a spot called Château de Larroque. On a whim, we made a u-turn, and turned into a gravel driveway that led us uphill to a red-bricked château perched on a hill. We parked and walked in and were led through a labyrinth of rooms and onto a back terrace where a handful of families were already well into their meals.
The shaded patio was refreshing, and the meal unfolded in the leisurely French pace. First came a delicious tarte aux légumes (vegetable pie). Next was a choice of cabillaud (cod) or bavette (flank steak). Finally, Charlotte aux fraises.
As we hit the two-hour mark, and I sipped a coffee before hitting the road, we remarked upon the pure dumb luck of it all. One can spend hours on Yelp or Google meticulously planning a trip. But the best moments are still often the surprising ones.
Auberges de Fourcès
During a daylong bike trip, we saw a flyer advertising some kind of wine event in the village of Fourcès. We weren’t entirely sure what the event was, but our hosts assured that Fourcès was a lovely little village worth seeing (“It’s a town square that’s actually a circle!” they told us.)
Fourcès is one of Gers’ fortress towns, circular and surrounded by a stone wall and some kind of waterway that appears to have been a moat. We crossed the bridge by foot and entered the round town square that was lined with medieval buildings. The winetasting was being held at the L’Alamboutic wineshop that features Gascony products and this week featured organic wine maker le Domaine D’Herrebouc.
The owners converted their 18-acres of vineyards to organic back in 2005. Now they produce a wide variety of grapes to produce a surprising range of wines. We sipped our way through the selection of wines, and ulitimately opted to buy a dry white 2012 and a red 2012 merlot. When we ducked inside the shop, be also grabbed some beer from two Gers breweries: L’Excluse and Jean Brasse. Now that artisanal beer is a thing in France, microbrasseries like these are churning out some great beers that one day mat put the country on the brew map.
After all the sampling, we realized that we had not eaten in a dangerously long time. To remedy that, we lugged our alcoholic loot box around the town circle square in search of a restaurant. This being a Monday, we were lucky to find the Auberge de Fourcès open and serving what it called traditional Gers cuisine.
In short order, a plate of mi-cuit foie gras arrived and was devoured before I had time to take a photo. Our pace had become more reasonable by the time the Caesar salad arrived (with local chicken and cubes of goat cheese), and my more traditional magret de canard. Both were immensely satisfying and prepared flawlessly. We had selfishly abandoned the kids at the B&B for the evening and so ordered 2 steak hachés to go.
La Vie En Rose
After five years living in France, I have still not truly adapted to French lunch. And by that, I mean not just the quantity of food, or the slow rolling pace of it. But also the drinking that still typically goes with the noon time meal.
My lack of proper training hit me once again when we pulled into La Vie En Rose in Éauze. We were on our way to tour the Gallo-Roman sites known as Elusa in this part of Gers, and the restaurant is located right in front the Elusa museum. The local tourist office had given me a kind of coupon book over the weekend (available to anyone spending a week in Gers) which included some sort of something at La Vie. So once again, our choice of restaurant simply became: We’re here, why not?
The coupon in this case was good for one Floc, the region’s Armagnac-based liqueur. Floc was entirely new to me when I first tried it last year and has slowly been growing on me. But when the waitress asked whether I wanted red or white Floc, I hesitated. So she simply said, “Ok, I bring both.” They were not tiny shot glasses either.
Then, because we ordered the fixed menu, we were entitled to wine. So rather than taking another poll, the waitress came back out with three sizable jars, one each of white, red, and rosé. This amounted to well over six generous glasses of wine between two adults, two teenagers, and our son’s French teenage friend who was joining us for a couple of days. Which meant in reality six glasses for the adults.
Now, the challenge with lunch is that at a restaurant in France, the expectation is that you eat (and drink) everything. The Clean Plate Club is embedded in the DNA here. So we gulped when the entrée arrived: a salad piled high with various charcuterie and terrine, plus lettuce and tomatoes. The four of us worked our way through it, trying to artfully leave scraps here and there to create the illusion of having finished without having finished. Our young French friend was the only one to go the distance, upon which she looked up and exclaimed, “Ah, I am the only one who finished my plate.” Yes, guilty.
As the filet of pork arrived, we continued to sip at the wine and Floc, rationalizing that if we just took in a small bit at a time with steady food then the impact would not be too severe. The pork was tender and juicy, and we heroically finished our plates. But then came dessert, a cream-filled gateau by which time I realized that I couldn’t quite lift my arms to take a picture.
The ensuing tour of the Elusa museum was mostly a haze, alas, as we tried to shake off thoughts of a long, afternoon nap.
Larresingle turned out to be another wonderful surprise on this trip to Gers, once again a recommendation of our hosts.
This fortress village sits on a hilltop and is classified as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” Dating from the 13th century, the fortress had all but disappeared by the 20th century. But then a local duke organized a committee with a group of Boston financiers who raised money through 1938 to restore it.
After a walk inside, we exited and crossed what would have been the old moat to L’Estanquet, a restaurant known for its wood fired pizzas.
This is again one of the moments where one could be tempted to say, “Hey, who goes to Gascony to eat pizza?” Fortunately, the desire to give the kids a simple meal outweighed any sense of self-imposed tourism guilt. Pizza in France has been, too put it kindly, an endless series of overpriced letdowns. But in this chase, my four-cheese pizza (cammembert, emmental, chevre, gorgonzola) and my wife’s Toscanne (emmental, jambon serrano, parmesan) were delightful and quite tasty.
That we enjoyed them sitting on the terrace in the shadow of the fortress, watching the sunset turn the skies from pink and blue to a slowly rising black, confirmed that even the basics can made to feel magical in the right setting.
Sos Night Market
I’m surely not the only one to unironically think while visiting somewhere that this or that destination would be great if it weren’t for all the tourists. The desire to travel and yet truly see a place as it is can be hard to reconcile. But we came close to achieving this while visiting the Sos Night Market.
About 25 minutes from our B&B, Sos is a small Gascony village in the Albret region within the Lot-Et-Garonne Departement. Each Wednesday there is a “nuit marché” in the town center where long tables are set out. They are surrounded by food stands and trucks by local producers of cheese, duck, bread and of course wine. We had duck burgers and frites soaked in duck fat, which were both remarkable, along with a local bottle of rosé.
But in this case, it was the people and the sense of community that were really the highlight. Everyone seemed to know everyone. Families with their kids lingered at the tables for hours. An oddly charming cover band arrived later in the evening to play a mix of live and karaoke-type tunes. While there was a mix of American classic jazz tunes, there were many French standards uknown to us that had the whole crowd singing. “Armstrong, je ne suis pas noir,” a tribute to Louis Armstrong written by Toulouse’s Claude Nougaro. And what was apparently a massive 1970s hit, “La ballade des gens heureux”, which confirmed that truly cheesy pop songs are really the universal language. We were among happy people that the song’s title references. And we were thankful to feel, at least for a moment, not like tourists but guests invited into someone’s home.
La Falène Bleue
As I think back on this last stop, I can’t recall who told us about La Falène Bleue in Lannepax. But it’s clear why this gem has been generating buzz across the Gascony region. Entering Lannepax on a Friday afternoon in August, the village had the ghost town feel that rural areas can get during vacation periods.
La Falène seemed to be the only sign of life on the town square as we entered and were led back to a cozy terrace. Thankfully it was covered by a tarp roof that kept us out of the sun and cool on an otherwise blazing hot day. The name, a waitress later explained, is a play on words. The chefs that created the restaurant are Fabien et Hélène, which combine for “FaLène. And “phalène” is a kind of moth. So, La Falène Bleue.
After a week of eating in Gascony, we were feeling cocky. The sprawling menu no longer intimated us. So we dove straight in and braced for the culinary marathon.
I started with an apéritif : Floc blanc, Curaçao, citron, Perrier. Curaçao has never held the slightest appeal for me, so I was a touch wary. Something about the blue color and the one time I tried a Blue Hawaiian and found it grotesque. But this concoction turned out to be insanely light and refreshing. It took immense willpower not to order a second one. And ever since I have been torn about doing the once unthinkable and buying a bottle of Curaçao.
As the drinks came so did the opening salvo. A trio of “amuse-bouches”: curry-flavored popcorn, green tomato gazpacho, and a tuna confection. We downed them all quickly and confidently, savoring the surprising mix of flavors and textures.
Then the entrées: Chicken curry spring rolls and a “Déclinaison de betteraves” which was a carnival of beets beets beets. Chioggia beets, a mousse of beets and goat cheese, and yellow beets, with quail eggs and a breadstick thrown in.
By now, we had hit our stride. It’s hard to say whether the portions were just well-sized, or whether a week of Gascony eating had prepared us for this moment. But we felt no hesitation when the main courses arrive: Filet mignon of pork on a bed of zucchini, and the epic sounding “Duck Trilogy” (a bit of magret, aiguillette, and duck confit rolled in a ball with fried breadcrumb exterior.)
There was a long pause after this. We had come a bit late to lunch, and most of the other customers had cleared out. We had passed the 1 hour 30 minute mark and needed to collect ourselves a bit for dessert. The choices that came were outstanding: a chocolate and caramel mousse; and tarte mirabelle with lime.
But these were nothing compared to the climax: chocolate mint sphere. A chocolate sphere was filled with chocolate ice cream, sprinkles of fresh mint, and chocolate mousse. At the table, the waitress lifted a pot of hot chocolate sauce which she explained with some degree of solemn ceremony that she would now proceed to pour over the sphere to make the whole thing melt. “Like a volcano,” the waitress said.
We sat mesmerized as the sphere collapsed, before snapping out of our collective daze and realizing that we needed to hurry and eat it. Dessert became a slight scramble as we passed plates around and compared. All were excellent, though the chocolate sphere offered the added sense of spectacle that the meal, and the week, deserved.
While the finish line was in sight, there remained one last hurdle to clear. The waitress arrived with a plate of tiny blueberry muffins and coconut marshmallows. This was now a battle of wills, and we were determined not to fail this close to the end.
This was our last Gascony meal for the week and it proved a fitting conclusion. We left both with a sense of amazement that such a place existed in this tiny country village, and feeling immensely lucky to have been told about it.
The adventurous and non-traditional approach to the food felt as much a part of this region’s culinary personality as foie gras and magret de canard. No need to choose between one or the other.
Tourists may come for Gascony’s classics, but the definition of this region’s culinary heritage is evolving. When you come, don’t be afraid to embrace it.