Jan and I took a quick trip down to the southwest part of France where my parents retired to some 50 years ago. We still have some land there and we wanted to clean up some paperwork, so we got in a quick four day trip with a few side jaunts to some old favorite spots.
People often ask how on God’s green earth they found this place to retire to. It wasn’t an overnight decision – indeed they scoped out several parts of Europe including a Greek island, my father’s dream, that turned out to be unsuitable mainly because the only fresh water available had to be ferried in from the mainland. This place in SW France did have fresh water and the rolling hills and agricultural and rural way of life enchanted them.
This tree id a smaller one (now quite big actually) of a duo of trees that people all over the region used as a landmark. La Claouzere, as the property was known as, was part of a huge estate owned by the local Duke. The whole area fell on hard times and the Duke had to slowly sell off chunks of land to help pay for the upkeep on the land he did keep. It was a win-win situation for the local farmers who were no longer indentured to the Duke, and to my parents who bought the prettiest parcel of land, a vineyard (small), a huge forest with secret hiding places of morel mushrooms and two old barns that they set to converting to livable quarters. It took a year to do the first house, and another year for the second and they managed to create a family home that three generations so far have been able to call ”home”.
The agriculture in this part of France, as in many parts of France, was based on three components. Corn, wine and ducks. There were basically seven farms in this little commune with acres and acres of corn that was grown mainly for feeding the ducks and maybe a few cattle and pigs that the farmers kept for their own use. And every farm had a vineyard – some were bigger than others -which provided an additional source of income for those farmers, and some were smaller like my parents’ – mainly for personal consumption. “We drink what we can and sell the rest”. We always had wine, but it wasn’t quite the glamour of Napa or Sonoma, nor Bordeaux, nor even Sicily. The wine of the region had a few cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux and a lot of berries from all over the mediterranean. No one ever did fess up to the exact composition of the wine, nor were they required to, and when the farms built a cooperative and sold the grapes to someone who knew how to really make wine, the mystique grew a little. However my mother, a great cook, wouldn’t have a drop of it nor even cook with it. My brothers and myself on the other hand thought it quite drinkable and my father spent the last decades of his life imagining himself the proprietor of a boutique vineyard, and would spend idle time drawing up new labels that he would try to get the cartel to adopt. My brother Michael and I were there one fall when the “vendage” (the harvesting of the grapes) was going on. All seven farms got together over the period of three or four weeks and picked grapes by hand (with scissors so as not to damage the grapes) and put the clumps into huge wicker baskets. At the end of a row was a tractor with a huge trailer that we would drop the full basket of grapes into. This exercise would start at 6am, break for lunch around 10am, and finish by three in the afternoon. At the end of each row stood the ” pater familias”, usually a crusty old gent with what could easily be called bottles of french moonshine. You would lug down these baskets of grapes, empty them, take a shot of swill, walk back up to the top of the hill and start all over again. It was survival. The best part of the day was the meal at lunchtime – a feast prepared by the lady of the house whose farm we were working that day. And of course wine. By three we were ready for bed. Good times.
The main source of income for the farmers was the nurturing of the ducks. Twice a month the local coop would sell little ducklings and the farmers would buy dozens of the little beggars and trot them home – the sole exercise being to fatten them up and return to market and sell the by-products. The ducks had a sedentary life – twice a day they were force fed a regimen of corn kernels (“gavage”) and left to waddle around the duckie homestead. A steady ten weeks of this diet would lead to their extinction and the prize parts would be hauled off to market. This was not a particularly pleasant part of life, indeed, ”foie gras”, or “fat liver” sales have been banned in a number of countries. Not to be an apologist but this was the rural french farmer’s main source of income and a delicacy at French tables to this day. Prices for the livers would go for as much as $120 a pound and about every other part of the duck was also sold. The breasts, called ”magret”, are a delicacy in restaurants (and quite good I might add), the legs, thighs and wings were turned into “confit”, duck parts cooked and preserved in their own fat. As I said – it is a way of life as are a number of other agricultural endeavors.
It was fun to go back there – it had been a few years – and while there have been small changes – for instance there isn’t much duck harvesting going on at the moment – there remains a snapshot of rural France that has existed for centuries and continues to be a major part of French culture.
There were a couple of other towns we visited and I’ll show more of life in this part of France in my next blog.
Aux Tauzins was the hotel/restaurant in the Chalosse region where my parents spent a year while their house was being built. Marie Lingontan was a second generation owner and two more generations have since run the place and have garnered accolades from many tourist organizations. When we sold the main house several years ago we had a ”wake” of sorts at the restaurant replete with all things local including the aforementioned wine and Tournedos Landaises accompanied with the best ”pommes frites” and a delicious salad. I believe a vintage Armagnac followed the cheese tray. Oh my! It was delicieux! So – here is the recipe with one caveat – there is foie gras involved.