As a 'Catherine' in more ways than one, I celebrate this remembrance day in a typically French way, by planting something. "Tout bois prend racine !" All wood takes root as I celebrate my name day by planting the seeds of a new project: a beginner's book of my France, an ABC of Gascony, and a primer for Terroir 101. A is for Armagnac. In these vanilla-scented old oak barrels, 400 liters of 15-35 year old eau-de-vie rests, evaporates, ages, colors and transform from a young virile hot brandy to a mature worldly bon vivant. This is part of the mythology of armagnac.
From grape juice to wine to brandy to nectar of the angels, it is in the cellar barns or chais of Gascony's modest farms that armagnac makes a slow transformation from a rustic Gascon moonshine to a world class liquor. This week, my good friend Tim Clinch, fab photographer and bon vivant himself, joined me for a romp across the Tenereze, the northern part of the Armagnac producing area and closest to home. We inhaled, tasted and swallowed, then tried to make little indulgent excuses to hide our delight in discovering that our favorite armagnac, hands down, was that of old Dubourdieu and his shambles of a farm.
Like the part des anges, the ephemeral alcohol evaporation that colors the stone walls, beams and even the roof tiles black with a drunken fungus, both Monsieur and Madame D. passed on this year. What they leave behind for their grown son to continue is as folkloric as the Dogpatch barnyard and kitchen at the end of a dirt road. Outside barrels rest against the barn, under a piece of galvanized tin, in the middle of the chicken run; Five-litre bottles with just a small tag reading 15 ans- 15 years, fill a wooden produce box next to the door; There are fifty bottles on the table of every size imaginable; more bottles are under the buffet, on the floor and climbing a staircase to heaven of old cardboard boxes. The fragrant chaos gets us giggling and we can barely nod oui as Pia serves us a generous pour of deep amber into simple brandy glasses. It was a cold late November day until the chill evaporated along with the part des anges. I learn the beginnings of terroir as I drink the earthy eau-de-vie and taste Gascony on my tongue. A is for Armagnac.
Ste. Colombe-en-Bruilhois, Lot-et-Garonne, Gascony, France
I learned to cook from the ground up in Gascony—from the potager, orchard, river, and field. Barns and silos join Michelin-starred restaurants as treasured culinary destinations. The weekly umbrella-ed gatherings huddled on Saturday mornings, rain or shine, are my ‘meet’ market and a source of some of the best cooks in France, the farmers and artisan food producers. My Kitchen-at-Camont is a beacon of good cooking in a long hungry village.
Kate Hill teaches professional and amateur cooks in the close-to-the-bone atmosphere of Southwest France. Long term study, weekend workshops, day classes and private consulting are available year-round at the French Kitchen in Gascony. Contact: Kate@thefrenchkitchen.com