Shopping in the Southwest
Unlike some of my American wine industry counterparts, I had no experience with French regional cuisine before I started working at K&L. When I first heard my colleagues talk about things like cassoulet or fois gras, I had no idea what they were talking about. If there was a conversation in the store about pairing Burgundy with magret (duck breast) or confit, I would sit there silently, trying my best to ascertain what exactly those things were. I grew up in Modesto, California eating classic American fast food as a kid. While my parents were well-traveled and both very good cooks, they were more Mediterranean-oriented in their interests. We ate pasta and grilled steak with olive oil and herbs. We were cultivated, but not adventurous. Never once was there an instance of organ meat; not one pâté, nor a single ounce of terrine. It wasn't until I came to France in 2012 with my friend Charles Neal, the southwest to be exact, that I got a crash course in true French country cuisine—a style of cooking that at first completely overwhelmed my organs, but one that I eventually grew to love.
You have to forget all of your preconceived American notions while traveling through Gascony because even at rest stops and gas stations you can find pretty fantastic selections of local wine, brandy, and various preserves. We pulled in for petrol in the town of Dému and managed to find not only a boulangerie, but also a wall of more than fifty local Gascogne wines and Armagnacs, along side a shelf of various duck products. Duck fat is a big part of the cuisine in southwest France. There is no such thing as a vegetarian or vegan in these parts. Even if you buy a jar of lentils or a can of beans, you can bet they've both been macerated or seasoned with hefty amounts of goose grease.
We've been staying in what's called a git for the last few nights, a house or cabin that you can rent rather than a hotel room or B&B. Since we have our own kitchen and just about every store has aisle upon aisle of local fare, we've been cooking at home each evening rather than eating out. You won't find much tuna fish or chili in a can at the local marché. You will, however, find endless amounts of duck, duck, goose in just about every form and fashion you can imagine.
I've been thinking a lot on this trip about how our early attempts to proselytize whiskey drinkers over to Armagnac involved comparing our new selections to popular Bourbons in the market, rather than building an understanding of the drinking culture itself. For example, most of the people I know who are interested in mezcal are also interested in Mexican cuisine and the local Oaxacan culture itself. Tiki cocktail drinkers obviously enjoy rum, but they're also enamored with the island pace of living, hanging out in tropical themed bars and wearing Hawaiian shirts. But what about Armagnac aficionados? Do they sit around eating pâté in a can and sorting through their beret collection while pouring a glass of brandy?
Maybe they should.
But first they have to understand the culture. I need to work more on that appreciation as an ambassador for both the spirit and the region. However, as I mentioned before, it's definitely not something that came naturally to me. While I've never had a problem eating incredibly spicy foods, or drinking copious amounts of alcohol until late into the evening, my body has a very tough time processing duck fat. But I'm working on building my tolerance! We're about to double down on another big meal. I've visited with over twenty different Armagnac producers over the last few days, so I'll have a summary about those meetings soon, along with more information about life in the southwest.