Gascony: spring and food by Marie-Aude Koné
INTERVIEW WITH A WORKING PARTNER – NO 1
It's official, spring is finally here, a season that we love at Simply Gascony! We can at last say hello to longer and warmer days. If you have read our previous blogs, you probably know the numerous activities that one can enjoy during spring in Gascony, and if you don’t, I strongly encourage you to have a look at them [link], as I trust the amazing services offered by our working partners will not disappoint!
Now if you're anything like me, there is one thing that always gets my attention when I am on holidays, and to be honest, even when I am not: food, or shall I say good food.
It is no wonder that France is widely known for its cuisine. Every region has its own identity and offers a unique twist to French gastronomy. Gascony is no exception: any foodie would be instantly conquered by its fresh products mostly found in amazing local markets, producers or farmers.
If you're new to Gascony and don't know where to start on your spring Gascon culinary journey, have no fear, Simply Gascony has you covered. When renting one of our wonderful holiday rentals, you can not only do any activity you feel like doing, but also discover Gascony through its food.
This has become possible thanks to our working partner Laura Washburn Hutton, owner of Atelier Cuisine Fourcès, who offers cooking workshops and various activities dedicated to her love of Gascony food.
I had the pleasure to interview Laura and to learn more about her business, what cooking means to her, and simply to get her take on adapting her cooking throughout the seasons.
Interview with Laura
Q: I know you have travelled a lot, and lived in different countries, so why have you now decided to live and work in Gascony?
A: I was really taken by the beauty of the area. I know France well but Le Gers is not an area I had previously visited. It was always an area I travelled through on my way somewhere else, but when we were looking for a place to set up the Atelier it seemed worthwhile to stop and properly take the time to get acquainted.
They call it “Little Tuscany” because of the gently rolling countryside and it certainly does share many traits with that part of Italy. But most importantly, the Southwest of France has many qualities that resonate with my project. Time slows down, but it’s still modern and comfortable. Like elsewhere in France, but here especially, people stop for lunch. A complete stop. Everything closes for two hours at midday. The pace of the place is so peaceful without being backwards. It is the best of all worlds.
Q: You live in Fourcés – one of the most beautiful villages in Gascony – and your business is called ‘Atelier Cuisine Fourcès’ – why have you chosen this name and what does it mean?
The name was a difficult choice: Because it’s in France, I want it to be understood in both French and in English. Not all English-speakers know what ‘Atelier’ means, but everybody knows what cuisine is, I hope! I also wanted to name it after the place because it’s very much about the place I am in. It was important to me to find something in a village and not isolated, because what I offer is an experience and that comes as much from cooking in my kitchen as it does being in the village. Here in Fourcès, the atelier is part of the community, and what I offer to people is not only the chance to come and cook, but also to experience a day in a French village. It is subtle, but if I lived in a rural setting, the atmosphere would not be the same.
I also did not want ‘school’, as it’s not one. To me that has connotations of formality and rigour, which is not at all what I aim to create! The Atelier is a place to experience some cooking and enjoying the results, so ‘atelier’ - a workshop – feels more suitable. A session at Atelier Cuisine Fourcès is as much about discovering local produce and taking the time to eat a lovely meal in the garden as it is about cooking.
Q: The department of Le Gers is one of the most agricultural in France and farming is the most important industry in this area. What effect does this have on the Gascony way of life and on the village and town markets?
I am always happy to share the road with the tractors, which is a good thing because there are always tractors, especially in the autumn! And what better way to understand the connection between the land and the food on our plates? The fields surrounding Fourcès are full of the food we eat: lentils, sunflowers, wheat. Local farms produce the most brilliant goat and sheep’s cheeses, the eggs I get from the village shop come from a local organic farm and the rolling hills are covered in vineyards; for wine but also Armagnac which is only produced in this part of France. Many people who live here work the land, as their families did before them. Such a focus on agriculture means the population is not as dense as in other departments, and the people who are here, live here.
What it also means is that when you go to the markets, you get a lot of local food. I think the only thing that is not 100% immediately local might be fish and seafood, but it does not travel huge distances; Arcachon and the Basque coast are not that far, so there is always something good from the sea.
The markets are so representative of the people in the area and the food that is produced; even if you do not intend to cook while you are here, a visit to a market is a glimpse into the daily lives of the locals. And if you do buy, you will see that the flavours of the food you cook are very much connected to the place.
Q: There are many great ‘farmers’ markets in Le Gers. Which are your favourites and why are they appealing to you, why do you choose to buy your food in these markets?
My favourite market has got to be Nérac, which technically is not Le Gers, but is in Gascony, but because I am in the north of the Gers and it’s so close to me. There is rarely a Saturday I do not go to Nérac! I lived in southeastern France for a time, in Provence and I find Nérac is on a par with those more famous markets. It is bustling, the quality of the food is excellent, it has everything: produce, cheese, local poultry, baskets, clothes, herbs and plants in pots, flowers, things to eat, places to have a coffee and the setting is picture perfect. It extends down a big avenue with Plane trees that fill out to give shade in summer. An absolute delight!
But the main reason for shopping at a market, rather than a supermarket is the sellers themselves. They know their products. They grew them and tended them,and they love them; they are more than happy to talk about what they have grown and how to prepare it. They always have an idea and a suggestion, they are not just producers, they know what to do with their products in the kitchen.
Compare this experience of buying food with going into a supermarket, where it’s cold and everything is wrapped in plastic and food is mass produced and you don't have anyone to talk to - of course we have to buy some things at the supermarket - but shopping at the market is a privilege and luxury, it’s such a pleasure and it must be experienced.
I always say cooking starts with shopping. So when you go to the market, you get a different kind of shopping, it’s much more connected to the seasons and it’s a shorter chain. Some of the products you buy came out of the earth the day before or even that morning, and it goes straight to your kitchen; there is nobody in-between.
The atmosphere is also a big part of it: to be honest, I have never been to a market I didn’t like. Each one has different qualities, and it’s a very pleasant and sociable way to spend your time.
Q: France is well-known to be a ‘country for foodies’ – but what makes Gascony/Le Gers special in terms of its food and drink? Which are the iconic products of Gascon farming?
Firstly, Gascony is practically synonymous with Armagnac. There are three Armagnac regions in Gascony: Tenareze in the north, Bas-Armagnac to the west and Haut-Armagnac to the east and south of the region.
Armagnac is made by distilling the fermented juice from specific local wine grapes, it is similar to Cognac but never confuse them! When you are in Gascony, you are surrounded by the terroir of the Armagnac vineyards; the specificity of the soil and the types of grapes, which may not be visible to the eye but it is present and it is an important part of the place.
Duck farms are also another tradition of the region. Many of the southwestern traditional recipes are centered around duck and duck fat takes pride of place in Gascon kitchens.
Excellent Garlic (white and violet) is grown in the east of Gascony and in autumn you will see furred and feathered game in abundance in the markets, pheasants, partridge, deer and wild boar.
Cassoulet is perhaps the best-known dish of the region, made with duck confit and a delightful local bean called ‘Tarbais’, a white haricot bean,
But to define Gascon cooking in terms of the Gers alone is difficult. As for many areas in France, divisions are not natural, they are often simply political lines that people draw for organizational ease. But the Gascony of history spreads a bit wider: a bit further to the East and a bit further towards Spain. There are strong connections to Basque country, so you get things like ‘Piment d’Espelette’ - chilli peppers, which are quintessentially Basque but no less part of the cuisine here in the Gers.
Overall, the cooking is very rustic, but when you dig deeper, there are so many really nice, light, easy everyday dishes that are very much of the place. But you will have to come to a workshop and find out!
Q: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about spring in Gascony and food?
I like all the seasons, I love the idea of food being seasonal and of anticipating the arrival of the next new food, whatever that may be. Spring in the Gers is really exciting because it is asparagus time, and all the markets are full of asparagus. In France there are two types of asparagus and it is the white spears that I prefer. You don’t often see these outside of France and it’s one of those few products that are genuinely seasonal.
Overlapping with the asparagus and then carrying into the early summer are the strawberries. There are so many varieties here that I do not see elsewhere. You haven’t eaten a strawberry until you had a strawberry from a French market!
The other joy of strawberries is that when you get to the end of the season, it’s hotter and they spoil more quickly so the producers need to get rid of them and they sell big trays in the markets, which are perfect for strawberry jam.
Another use for the end of season strawberry glut is to make homemade ice cream. Not a patch on the taste of commercial strawberry ice cream and perfect for hot summer days.
Q: What sort of cooking / catering services do you offer to your clients and please tell me about your ‘guided shopping visits’ to local markets?
The idea of my Atelier sessions is to create a communal experience: so it is both cooking food and then enjoying it during a long leisurely lunch, in my garden under the shade of the Linden trees with a view onto the chateau.
The market tours are all about having the experience in the market, rather than simply having the food ready and waiting. These tours offer the chance to chat with the producers and growers at the market, hear what they have to say and then translating this for my clients, on the spot but also back in the kitchen in Fourcès if it is a shop and cook tour.
What I offer is an experience of the market they might miss if they didn’t have someone to guide them through. Ideally, I am there to give people a window onto what life is like in the place they are staying, so that they come away with a souvenir that might not be something they can pack in their suitcase, but it is a memory and an understanding of the place, and it is also such a wonderful way to spend a morning.
I also emphasize my big table in the garden because cooking is as much about the eating as it is the doing. If not more so! Here in the Gers, things do not happen quickly, and this is to be embraced. So cooking, and then a long time spent eating is a perfectly legitimate holiday activity. And when you are on holiday, you eat in restaurants a lot, which is part of the fun, but it’s nice sometimes to be in a home kitchen, in a place where there is a garden, somewhere peaceful with a comfortable vantage point to sip something and watch the world go by.
The ‘guided shopping visits’ are very much tailored to where people are staying and what day they have available for me because there is almost a market every day of the week somewhere nearby - it really depends on what people want.
Some markets are bigger than others. I mentioned the Nerac market. but there are other wonderful ones like the Lavardac market on Wednesdays which are smaller but no less splendid.
As an extra or Simply Gascony clients, I offer compact versions of my workshops in the kitchen where they are staying because I know the properties, or they can come to me in Fourcès, where I will also offer a bespoke session. I am always happy to have a conversation about an experience tailored to particular needs or groups of people.
For 2023, I am adding Cheese Tasting sessions to my calendar. There are wonderful cheeses in Gascony and it’s time to talk about them! These Cheese tasters are very easy to take on the road so I can easily offer them to Simply Gascony clients in their rental properties.
The concept is the same as a wine tasting; we taste and discuss a selection of cheeses, both local to the Gers and also cheeses from all over France. Discussions range from how the cheese is made, where it comes from, where the cow was raised, why that matters, and then tasting and understanding it, really appreciating it, and we also look at how to put a cheese board together.
These workshops are less focused on cooking but they still include lunch in the garden after the cheese tasting, and this goes for the in-situ bespoke sessions as well.
For people who don’t want to spend the day cooking, it’s another way to experience and learn about the food of the place and they can easily be combined with a market tour because so many of the good local cheeses are only available at the markets.
Q: Imagine I am a client of Simply Gascony, coming on holiday to this area for the first time, and I am interested in food and wine – what advice would you give me so that on my holiday I can learn and enjoy the most I can about Gascon food and wine?
Make sure you go to the markets as it is the best way to learn and to observe the people who live there, it’s like a living museum of what people do. Buy something at the market, buy bread and cheese and ham and strawberries and go for a picnic.
There are lovely things to do in Gascony, but ‘doing nothing’ is also essential when you’re on a holiday. Gascony is possibly the best place to come recharge your batteries: simply enjoy the beauty of the countryside, drink some of the excellent local wines and Armagnac, have a simple meal made with local ingredients.
My best advice is: Don’t do too much!
Thanks to Laura, you now have all the information you need to start your culinary journey in Gascony. When renting one of our holiday houses, you are only one step away from exploring Gascony through one of the most important parts of its identity - its food.
This is the first of a new series of interviews by Marie-Aude with Simply Gascony Working Partners, to be published in the Gascony Life blog.
Photos sources: https://ateliercuisinefources.com/
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