Today’s blog is a guest post from my friend Monica, who occasionally sends over some wonderful content for me to share with you guys. Today she’s sharing her favourite things to bring back from a trip to Gascony in France. Caution, you might be hungry by the end of this post!
I’m just back from another one of my pilgrimages to Gascony, a region in southwest France that I haven’t been able to get enough of since first visited in August 2012. When I go, I almost always go by ferry, so that I can drive my car and load it up with all kinds of local delights.
What can I get in Gascony that I can’t find anywhere else? Fortunately I had my friends Kate, Mardi and Neil on hand to help me answer this question. Kate runs charcuterie courses at Kitchen-at-Camont, her French culinary retreat in Gascony. Kate is how I discovered Gascony, and it is thanks to her that I’ve been able to discovery its rich food and drink traditions, from market days at Nérac to Armagnac tasting in Fourcès.
It is also through Kate that I know Mardi, author of eat live travel write. Mardi is a world traveler, French teacher, master of macarons, wife of Mr. Neil, the best Paris tour guide, and a friend I wish I could call “near and dear” but she lives in Canada so “dear” will have to suffice. Neil and Mardi recently bought a house in Gascony that they are converting to a vacation rental. They helped further my Gascony know-how via a bit of walking and wine tasting on market day in Nérac last December.
As this latest trip wound to a reluctant finish, it was time to put a little extra air in the tires and embark on the long journey home.
12 Things to Bring Back from Your Road Trip to Gascony
Like Cognac, Armagnac is a type of brandy made from distilled wine. However, Armagnac isn’t produced on the same massive scale as Cognac. Producers tend to be small and as a result, the products are more nuanced. You’ll find Armagnac sold all over the place, but for a real treat pay a visit to Alexandre Ladevèze’s shop in the beautiful village of Fourcès and let him show you how to taste Armagnac properly.
2. Agen Prunes
Mardi says “if someone thinks they don’t like prunes, give them one of these and they’ll change their mind.” It’s totally true. Agen prunes ()pruneaux d’Agen) have been developed to have the perfect balance of sugar and acidity. They are moist, delicious and very addictive. They make perfect road trip snacks, or use them in cooking, as Kate does in dishes like clafoutis with prunes.
3. Confit de canard
Duck confit is a specialty of Gascony, made with the leg of the duck which is salt cured then cooked in its own fat. Intense. Duck confit can be used in a multitude of recipes, not least of which is cassoulet, another Gascony staple. But you can buy that too…
This slow-cooked casserole of pork, duck, goose fat and of course the aforementioned duck confit is a true labor of love, taking many hours to make, and many years to master. So it’s worth buying this from someone who’s already done the hard work for you. Cassoulet is easily found sold in cans and jars at markets, grocery stores and charcuteries. But if you insist on learning how to make this yourself, Kate from charcuterie courses at Kitchen-at-Camont is your go-to woman.
Yes, three meats in a row. Gascony is big on its meat, and saucisson is no exception. This is a thick, dry-cured sausage typically made of pork and flavoured with, well, flavourings. At the market in Nérac, saucisson options included roquefort, olives, and pimento d’esplette, a specialty of the Basque country and my saucisson of choice to bring back for my neighbours.
Floc de Gascogne is a sweet aperitif made from local grape juice and Armagnac. It has a fresh fruity flavour with a hint of almonds. Drink it ice cold, as an aperitif or with dessert if you can’t get enough.
As with all of France, you will be spoiled for choice as far as wine is concerned. Côtes de Gascogne is perhaps the most all-encompassing wine-growing district of the region – there are literally more than 20 specific distinct appelations in the greater area. I picked up a bottle of
Domaine les Remparts Gouttes de Lune and Domaine de Pellehaut Harmonie de Gascogne rouge, both from Vins et Compagnie in Nérac which has a pretty amazing selection of wines from all over France. Beyond bottles, Kate suggests doing like the French do: buy a box! And it is for that reason I also came home with a box of Buzet, acquired at the epic Intermarché in Agen. (Buzet wines are similar in style to Bordeaux, and represent great value.)
8. Fresh Garlic
Sold at markets in long hand-braided strands, French garlic serves as both food and decoration. Yes I know you can get garlic anywhere, but is it as beautiful as this?
These waterproof tablecloths are sold by the meter in French markets and various shops. They’re inexpensive, come in quirky patterns, and are totally brilliant if you do any kind of outdoor dining. They are also great for camping!
An essential item at French markets, after all, what else are you going to haul back all your goodies in?
Gascony isn’t a major cheese producing region, but you can find some splendid cheese from the nearby Basque Country. Ossau-Iraty, made in the French Pyrenees from unpasteurised sheep’s cheese, is particularly loved. It is smooth, buttery and slightly nutty and is delicious with wines of the region, particularly Madiran.
12. Bee Pollen
Perhaps not a specialty of Gascony – or France for that matter – but Gascony is where I first discovered bee pollen, little balls of pollen packed by worker honeybees into pellets. Some call it a “superfood” for its high concentration of amino acids and minerals.
I just think they’re tasty, and they’ve become one of my favoured smoothie garnishes. Isn’t this why we go to France – or anywhere for that matter? To discover the unexpected and find new things that can bring joy and happiness to our lives even after the trip is over. Bee pollen is my morning reminder of Gascony. (In the evening, I turn to the Armagnac.)
I travelled to Gascony from Wiltshire, UK, by car and by ferry, using Brittany Ferries to cross the channel from Portsmouth to St Malo. Brittany Ferries also sails to Caen, La Havre, Roscoff, Cherbourg Santander and Bilbao, all perfect launch pads for your road trip to Gascony.
Monica is a freelance writer and internet consultant who writes about healthy food and travel on her blog, SmarterFitter.com. You can find out more about Monica at monicashaw.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.