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October 16, 2008

This month's feature: The Food of Gascony

Bonjour et bienvenue to the third issue of La Marmite. Hopefully I'm starting to get the hang of this newsletter thing but as always I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to Contact Me with any questions or suggestions. Merci!

In this issue, you'll find featured:

  • The Foods of Gascony: Hope you have a good appetite, because this is not eating for the faint of heart.
  • Garbure: A thick vegetable and duck confit stew from Gascony, perfect after a long walk in the woods on a cool fall day (perhaps hunting for mushrooms).
  • Toussaint: Halloween is just around the corner, but here in France it's the day after Halloween that garners most of the attention.

The Gascony Region

During the Middle Ages, Gascony was a principality that occupied the south west corner of France. In modern times there is no official demarcation, but the south west region of France, which includes the city of Bordeaux, is still popularly called Gascony. The area is rich with colorful history and characters from the past including the famous soldier d'Artagnan who lived in the 17th century and later served as a character in Alexander Dumas' novels, including the Three Musketeers.

Gascony is a bucolic region, an area of rolling hillsides for the most part, and the local economy is principally orientated towards agriculture and tourism. An excellent combination for anyone interested in good eating. (Map provided by Wikipedia.)

Here are nine specialities of Gascony that everyone should enjoy at least once. Each, like most French food, receives lavish attention in its fabrication and each has a starring role in the fascinating history of French cuisine. As always, I encourage you to learn about your food, it can only increase your enjoyment.

  1. Foie Gras. This is the fattened duck or goose liver that I'm sure you have heard of. The birds are force fed (called le gavage) so that their liver grows disproportionately large. Although controversial with some, the artisanal fabrication of foie gras has been practiced in Gascony for hundreds of years. The result is a rich delicacy so popular at celebrations in France that Christmas just wouldn't be the same without it. You can learn more about foie gras here.
  2. Duck Confit. This is duck that has been preserved in salt and fat. The result is a flavorful and incredibly tender meat that goes so well with many flavors. Lots of cooks in France make their own duck confit, but what you can find in a can is of excellent quality as well. You'll find it in the recipe for Garbure below and you can learn more about duck confit here.
  3. Canneles Bordelais. You could think of these as French cupcakes. They are little caramel covered cakes that are made in a special mold with a grooved side and usually flavored with rum and vanilla. Their origin is much discussed and not certain, but they have been around for many centuries anyway.
  4. Bordeaux Wine. Need I say more? The wonderful wines of Bordeaux are famous the world over. Do not die without having savored a good bottle of Bordeaux with a good friend. I'm just getting started on some wine pages for Easy French Food, but you could start here with how to serve wine, where I tell you about one of my formative wine tasting experiences in the Bordeaux region.
  5. Le Jambon de Bayonne. Bayonne is in the south of Gascony, almost at the border with Spain. There they make this delicious raw cured ham similar to prosciutto. One of my favorite appetizers, for its simplicity and pure deliciousness, is a piece of Bayonne ham wrapped around a juicy prune and grilled for several minutes. Look here for more ham appetizers using Bayonne ham.
  6. Le Cepe. You may know these as Porcini mushrooms. They are gathered in the wild in the Gascony region and are considered by some to be the tastiest mushroom around. They have a brown, rounded cap that looks a bit like a hamburger bun. Very popular in Gascony cooking when fresh, these mushrooms are also available dried and preserved in oil.
  7. Cavier de Gironde. During the first part of the 20th century, France, like many places in the world, saw its sturgeon population nearly wiped out from over fishing. However, for about the past fifteen years, due to the efforts of one fish farm in the Arcachon Basin, French cavier has made an acclaimed comeback and France has begun earning a reputation for producing some very good cavier. If you can read some French (I tried their English version but couldn't get it to work), you can learn more about the production of le Cavier de Gironde here.
  8. Sheep's Cheese. The southern part of Gascony includes the French Pyrenees and it is in these beautiful mountains you will find sheep grazing and making the milk for a large number of delicious cheeses. One of my favorites is Ossau-Iraty and there are many others to try. Check out my French cheese store for a place to stock up on French cheese.
  9. Armagnac. This is a brandy that is made in the area surrounding the town of Condom, located between Auch and Agen. Many say it is superior to Cognac, its much more famous brother from further north. Armagnac is fabricated with considerable care and is a brandy meant to be savored. Learn more about Armagnac and other types of brandy in France here.

Garbure Recipe

You can cook up a taste of Gascony tonight, with this delicious cabbage soup. This varied vegetable and meat stew is called simply Garbure in France. It should feature whatever fall vegetables you can find that look fresh and lovely. You'll find Garbure made with different cuts of pork as well and you could easily leave out the duck confit and still have a a very hearty stew, good for fattening up any vegetarians in the house.

Please note that I used canned beans for this recipe, but the more traditional method would be to start with uncooked beans and add them at the start of cooking. Either way works fine.

  • 3 turnips, peeled and diced
  • 2 leeks, cleaned and sliced in rounds
  • 4 carrots, sliced in rounds
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • bouquet garni
  • pepper
  • 1 can of 4 pieces of duck confit
  • 3 cans white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 head of cabbage, chopped
  • 4 potatoes, cubed
  • 1 loaf of slightly stale French bread, cubed
  • 2 to 3 cups of shredded cheese - Gruyere works well, but you could also use Swiss

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot on medium heat and add the turnips, leeks, carrots, onions, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes or until the vegetables have started to soften. Add the bouquet garni and about 4 cups of water. Season as you wish with pepper. The vegetables should be just covered with water and you may have to add some more as they cook.

Put the heat on low and allow the soup to simmer uncovered for 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the duck if you are using it. Open the can and remove the pieces of duck (do this carefully or you'll soon end up with duck fat everywhere). Remove the obvious fat from the duck and take the meat off of the bones. You should end up with about 3 cups of duck meat. (You can save the duck fat for cooking something else if you wish.)

Add the duck meat, the beans, the chopped cabbage and the potatoes to the soup pot. Simmer for another 90 minutes, adding a minimal amount of water to keep things from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

When you are ready to serve, pour the soup into a large oven proof baking dish. (Alternatively you could use individual onion soup bowls.) Cover with French bread cubes and push these down into the soup somewhat. Top with shredded cheese and bake in 350 degrees F oven for 20 minutes or until golden on top.

Makes 6 generous servings.

Touissant - November 1st

Toussaint literally means all saints, and was originally a day the Catholic church created to commemorate all the saints. Over time this practice has become confounded with the Fete de Morts (or Day of the Dead) which was celebrated on November 2nd, the day after Toussaint. The scene below depicts Toussaint day at about the turn of the 20th century and was painted by the French painter Emile Friant.

In modern France, the celebration of Toussaint on November 1st has evolved to become a day of remembrance of those dear who have passed on. During the last few days in October you will find chrysanthemums for sale everywhere and these are bought in huge bunches to decorate graves. Toussaint is an official holiday in France and families gather in remembrance of those parted. After a trip to the cemetery a big meal will be served, and what is eaten varies considerably from region to region and family to family.

Next Issue

Thanks so much for spending some time with me. In the next issue, due out on November 18th you can learn about how the French traditionally celebrate Christmas, just in time to add a French touch to your holiday festivities.

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A bientot and remember to enjoy your food!

Your friend in France,


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