Gascogne Day #3: La Vie Gersois

After spending time in Gascogne, falling in love with the people and products made here, I imagine that this would be the ultimate destination for any foodie craving an authentic experience. It’s certainly not an easy place to get to, and, beyond the Chemin de St-Jacques that meanders its way through the region, there’s very little tourism. I discussed the reasons for that with my friends Bernard and Vero in Montréal-du-Gers on Sunday. You may remember some of the insane meals that they’d prepared for us over the years at Bernard’s restaurant Chez Daubin. For a number of reasons, Bernard and Vero were forced to close the doors to the special spot in Montréal, and they’d spent the last year in Aix where Bernard worked in a kitchen at some swanky restaurant.

Needless to say that was not the life they wanted to live. So when I pulled into Montréal on Sunday afternoon after eight days straight of travel and meetings, I was filled with joy to see Bernard and Vero at the café on the town square eating oysters and sipping Gascogne Blanc. The whole town was out enjoying the gorgeous weather, and I’d happened on the festivities by chance. After nearly two years away, I simply walked back into their lives and it was as if nothing had changed. We talked about work, family, responsibility, and particularly that most unique and enigmatic condition that afflicts all who accept it, “La Vie Gascogne.”

While Bernard forced oysters and wine on me, Vero talked about how incredibly difficult it was to make a living in this tiny town serving food that the locals had no interest in. I was genuinely shocked that they weren’t able to keep the restaurant open considering the incredible quality I’d experienced there. But, Bernard was unpredictable, stubborn, and uncompromising, personality traits that work great if the Chef doesn’t leave the Kitchen.

But at Chez Daubin, Bernard isn’t just back of the house, he IS the house. If someone doesn’t like his food, he’s just as likely to kick them out as he might be to cook their magret further. And in a tiny town with mostly hikers and religious pilgrims visiting, that sort of bullheadedness, despite how authentically Gascogne it may be, is not great for business. That’s not to say that Bernard doesn’t have his proponents. He’s known throughout the region (for better or worse) and has garnered an incredible following of people who came to eat from all over France. Nonetheless, to continue on as usual was just too much for the pair.

So they’ve blown up their old way of life to try something new. I suggested he call it, “Omakase Daubin.” I’m not sure the name will stick, but he’s done cooking for anyone but himself. The idea is to close the restaurant and turn it into a supper club. In order to get access, you must have the card. In order to get the card you must have access. This concept that’s become extremely popular in Los Angeles at some of the most high-end Japanese restaurants, and it strikes the perfect balance for someone like Bernard. He can spend the week preparing and catering and schedule two or three nights of dinners over the weekend. He’ll have more flexibility and less overhead, not to mention total control over who actually shows up. And it’s a concept that is altogether foreign for many in Gascogne.

As we moved into the old restaurant to eat a little lunch I asked Vero about why the people of Gascogne don’t do more to attract tourists. Over a plate of sashimi du Gascogne and this delicious duck andouillette (yes that’s duck stuffed into pork intestines), I  found myself trying to figure out why we don’t see more food tourists, Francophiles, history buffs, and general interest in this wonderful little region. It’s impossible to understand why the incredible rise in interest in French food and culture hasn’t resulted in increased interest in one of the most historical and important sources for both. I asked Veronique about why the Gersois don’t do more to attract international tourism. She was a bit coy in her response; she explained that people here do not like change.

You see, once you’re in, you’re in for life. They’ll share everything with you. But, if you’re out they don’t want you in. While they’re perfectly hospitable and gracious hosts, they simply don’t want to include everyone in this special way of life for the simple reason that it’s precious and seems like it needs to be guarded. In retrospect, it took me years to ingratiate myself here, and as I learn the culture it becomes easier to connect with people I meet. It’s a catch 22 considering the region desperately needs more tourism and outside money, yet locals aren’t actively interested in bringing them here. The level of skepticism toward the outside world reminds me of my own home country. Only the Swiss have a more broad definition of what it means to be a stranger. It’s not easy to achieve, but once you’re in you’re in for good. And once you catch the sickness, that deep aching love for this place, you can never shake it. Your affliction is a badge of honor here, something people here can sense on you. It’s a shared passion and pain that endears you to your fellow participant in “la Vie.”

I shared this feeling with the man I met the following day, Mr. Denis Lesgourgues. His family has run one of the most prominent and well-regarded Armagnac estates since 1974, Château de Laubade. It’s situated on a pristine 260-acre single vineyard outside of the town of Nogaro, in the tiny village of Sorbets. The Château was originally constructed in 1870, but rose to national prominence when French statesman and agronomist Joseph Noulens took over in 1904. His second wife was the influential fashion designer Jeanne Paquin, who dressed queens throughout Europe and contributed significantly to the international reputation of the wonderful estate.

Over the last 35 years, the Lesgourgues Family has been determined to resurrect the historic prominence of this unique property. The beautiful site is spotted with modern art, designed by resident artists commission by the family to create art inspired by the gorgeous surroundings. From the beginning, they began by amassing a portfolio of aged Armagnac from small producers across the region and now represent some of the largest stocks of old brandy. They’re also committed to creating an authentic representation of the famous brandy, but aren’t so stuck in tradition that they’re unwilling to experiment. Almost everything they bottle uses multiple grapes varieties, as they believe that each provides a unique element to create a whole picture of what this special brandy is about.

While I still believe the best things they’re doing are the full-strength, undiluted single barrel -something not generally marketed in the states- there is no question that, of the larger scale producers, Château de Laubade is one of the best. Few are so connected to the land and completely devoted to the production at this scale at such a high quality level. For example, the estate is more than four times bigger than the Domaine Boignieres in Le Frêche to the north. We’re trying to coax some single-cask cask strength out of the vast cellars at Laubade and I’m convinced we will one day achieve that goal. Nonetheless, we’ll have some high-proof offerings from them soon and hopefully build a relationship going forward that will allow us access to some of their amazing stock.

This eye-opening and all-too-quick trip to France’s Southwest has finally come to an end with one final stop, thanks to my friend Denis, Brasserie Bordelaise. A little taste of Armagnac after a poulet rôti and a glass of Bordeaux leaves you in an utter state of bliss, desperate to cling to this special way of life. We can only approximate this state of being and thank god we can take a little piece of the story home and savor its complexities for hours: that golden nectar in all its idiosyncratic glory, the perfect allegory for the unusual place from which it came, warming you like the embrace of an old friend who will never forget you.

-David Othenin-Girard

David Othenin-Girard