As I drove the several hours southeast from Bordeaux to the Gascon city of Auch last summer, it was hard not to pull into driveway after driveway, lured by signs advertising home-jarred confit and foie gras. Farmers in the valley of the river from which the Gers, the area around Auch, takes its name grow corn on an industrial scale, and save some to feed the ducks and geese each family fattens as a sideline. All families put up their own confit and foie gras as a point of pride, even if they don't sell it.
Gascon chefs are famous for showcasing their fantastically rich meats in a whole repertoire of dishes with similarly deep and straightforward flavors. Twenty years ago Paula Wolfert started a Gascon vogue in this country with her great The Cooking of South-West France. But with the rise of fat-fearing nutritionists, even those who wished to believe her promise of "a healthy approach to cooking with poultry fats, lard, butter, cream and crème fraîche" gave up. Now that the Atkins diet, full of proteins and fats, is staging a revival, cooks would do well to go back to Wolfert's book (it has just been reissued).
This cuisine never, of course, went out of style at home. "Fat and meat are what we eat," André Dubosc, a local winemaker, told me during my visit. "We call vegetables 'herbs.' This is the country of the French paradox, remember. Goose fat is why we Gascons live so long."
Dubosc made sure I had lunch at Auberge de la Bidouze, an inn and restaurant near the village of Saint-Mont. Georgette Dubos, the generous hostess and owner, must set a good table in order to live up to the thriving tradition of home cooking. Bidouze is a midday rendezvous for people who are professionally discerning about their plats and vins: the two main Gers businesses are growing corn and making wines to be distilled into Armagnac. Dubos and André Brulé, the big, hearty chef she works with, serve a slightly dressed-up version of local cuisine.
Any Bidouze meal includes vast portions of foie gras and slices of fattened-duck breast—specialties once reserved for Christmas but now affordable every day. The meat of fattened geese and ducks is matchlessly rich; the breast, called magret, is prized everywhere in France. As with foie gras, a simple presentation best reveals the flavor of magret, and as with foie gras the usual accompaniments are rich and sweet, to double the intensity—no wimpy attempts at acidic spareness here.
With magret Dubos serves a sauce enriched with crème fraîche and flavored with quickly made caramel and Floc de Gascogne, a fortified sweet wine served as an apéritif and with foie gras. I found her sauce to be the best I'd ever tried with duck breast. Simple to assemble and calling for no hard-to-find ingredients, it will turn any meal of sautéed or roasted poultry (or leftover slices) into an occasion.
Many butchers stock or will order duck breast. Goose would be even more festive. For his recent A Goose in Toulouse, Mort Rosenblum investigated the current state of the long-standing goose-duck controversy. "Purists still like the stronger goose flavor, gamey and pungent," he wrote about the Gers; he also spoke with a Toulouse chef who called duck "much finer, much tastier, more flexible." Finally he consulted André Daguin, the chef who introduced rare sliced duck breast and sautéed fresh foie gras to the world from the Hôtel de France, his Auch establishment. (He sold it in 1997, and many have still not forgiven him.) Whichever meat or foie gras one might prefer, Daguin (who refused to take a stand) said pragmatically, the fact is that ducks "are so much easier to raise and to fatten" that they vastly outnumber geese. He added that duck and goose fat—the mainstays of Gascon cuisine—are no different in flavor. Ariane Daguin, André's daughter, a high-spirited ambassador of all things Gascon, offers duck fat and duck demiglace on the Web site for D'Artagnan, the company she co-founded in 1985 to sell domestic foie gras. ("The duck stops here" is one cute slogan on www.dartagnan.com.)
To make about two cups of Georgette Dubos's sauce, enough to serve at least four people, bring to a boil two tablespoons of water and a quarter cup of sugar in a small, heavy saucepan. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat until the sugar begins to caramelize and starts to color. Remove from heat and pour in one cup of room-temperature chicken stock (work carefully, to avoid burning splatters, and don't worry if the sugar hardens), a tablespoon of duck or goose fat or butter, and a quarter cup of fortified red wine such as ruby port or Madeira—or Floc de Gascogne if you can find it. (Homemade stock is of course best, though low-salt canned is okay. Diluted pan juices are fabulous. If you substitute D'Artagnan demiglace for the stock, dilute it with an equal amount of water.) Simmer, stirring occasionally, over very low heat, covered, for an hour. (You can refrigerate the sauce now and gently rewarm it later.) Before serving, whisk a quarter cup of crème fraîche (Vermont Butter & Cheese Company makes a very good and widely distributed version) into the warm sauce. Continue whisking over low heat until the sauce thickens a bit, about fifteen minutes.
Diagonally score the skin of four boneless duck-breast halves with a sharp knife, being careful not to pierce the flesh; this will enable the cooking meat to render its fat. Season with kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper. Heat a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat and add the breasts skin side down. Cook until the skin is crisp and brown, about ten to twelve minutes. Turn and cook another five or six minutes. The meat should be pink at the edges and red in the center. Remove the breasts from the pan, cut them into thin slices, ladle on a generous coating of sauce, and serve immediately. Give in to the unapologetically rich flavors.
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