Mercredi Gras

We began our day yesterday with a visit to the Wednesday market at Laverac, where vendors, including Dominique and Christiane, have tables set up displaying the best of the region and beyond. Besides stopping by to chat with the Chapolards–and so I could say thanks and goodbye to them–we also provisioned ourselves for lunch, dinner, and a final project: cassoulet.

After buying ventrèche, saucisses de Toulouse, ribs, and andouilles (made from chopped cooked skin and meat) from the Chapolards, we worked our way through the market, picking up the rest. We got several terrines from a woman who makes wonderful duck and pork products: a duck pâté, a pâté de Grandmère, and the pig tongue terrine you see her slicing here for us. Her hands are ruddy from the chill; the sun was warm, but under the shade of their canopies the vendors were cold. We also got some of her crépinettes de canard aux pruneaux.

Next we visited the beef butcher. As I mentioned in the last post, he slaughters his animals at between four and five years of age. We bought some flank from him to grill for dinner. Kate asked him some questions about his cows, and he rushed around to show her pictures of them on his phone, as if they were his children. He mostly raises Blondes d’Aquitaine, the local breed, but he has some other types including the rare Bleus d’Aquitaine. The cow in the case was slaughtered at four and a half years old, nearly unthinkable in the US.

We stopped by one of the cheese stands, which held a compelling variety of options. We settled on three: Gruyère, Mont d’Or, and a chèvre (one of the little oval ones with the green label). We grabbed a few apples from one of the organic stands, and some mesclun for dinner. The boulangerie on the corner provided a baguette and two éclairs, and the Bar du Sport further on furnished a much-needed jolt of caffeine and some not-at-all-nostalgia-inducing old school plumbing.

Thus equipped and refreshed, we headed off to a nice spot for a picnic: there are a couple of tables in a little walled yard on the outskirts of Clermont-Dessous, a lovely little hill town West of Agen. The sun was out, the air was clear and still, and we had an epic spread of treats to enjoy. All lunches should be this pleasant.

After eating, we wandered around the town a bit, visiting the church and enjoying the view. Then we piled back in the car for a trip up to the Musée du Foie Gras in Frespech, a working duck farm that decided to make its entire operation transparent to help educate the public about the product and the process. There are windows into all of the buildings so you can look in on all phases of the production, and little didactic signs for kids in French, English, and Occitanian, known locally as Patois. It’s a mixture of French and Spanish with bits of Catalan and a soupçon of Basque thrown in, and is the ancient language of Southern France.

The ducks live on pasture until two weeks before slaughter, at which point they come inside for gavage. Twice a day they are fed corn through a funnel, which fattens up their liver (and thickens the creamy white fat on their breast) dramatically. These ducks are all moulard hybrids, and they are hefty birds: a liver runs about 500g (1lb) and the meat can total five pounds or so.

After a tour of the outside, which included admiring this rabbit and a couple of turkeys who put on a show for us, we went in to the museum. They worked with an exhibit designer from Madame Tussaud’s to set it up, and the result is a nice mixture of folksy and slick. It begins with ancient history: the Egyptians were the first to observe gavage in the wild–ducks and geese gorge on grain to fatten themselves up before migrating–and attempted to duplicate it for birds in captivity. From there, Jews spread the knowledge around the Middle East and into Europe; since Kosher law prohibits cooking animals in fat from any milk-giving animal, so duck and goose fat were excellent alternatives to butter.

The exhibits included descriptions of the grain used, other migratory species, and the evolution of the technology and gastronomy surrounding the practice. There’s even a little section on the traditional predators, which those people who keep poultry are all too familiar with. (Kate lost all her ducks to foxes recently). For your edification, I offer this really, really well-taxidermied weasel:

And this hilarious didactic showing the digestive system, which is also a remarkably accurate map of Texas:

This being France, and the museum being after all part of a business, the museum tour concludes with a tasting in the shop, which is packed to the rafters with every kind of duck product and a few other local goods as well. This farm does not wholesale; they process and sell all their animals as magret, confit, foie gras in myriad forms, cassoulet, sausage, and even Bolognese sauce. By far my favorite was the foie gras “marbled” with local prunes and prune liqueur: the slight sweetness and acidity of the fruit set off the creamy fat of the foie to marvelous effect. It was like having the glass of Sauternes mixed right in.

There were a few other people at the tasting, including this little girl. Presented with a piece of foie on bread, she took the foie and left the bread. They start ‘em young in these parts.

Upon return home, we ate grilled flank and crépinettes while we prepared the cassoulet, but that’s a story for another post.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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