The Gers, the Midi-Pyrénées département just west of Toulouse in southwestern France, is filled with farms. There are considerably more ducks and geese than people, which helps to explain why the department is famous for its magret (duck breast) and confit (duck leg), and its fattened duck and goose liver foie gras.
This is part of the historic Gascony region, and Gascons (which sounds infinitely better than Gerscons, which is more like some sort of pickle) are proud of their waterfowl-based gastronomy. A legislator from the Gers tried to issue a bill in the French Senate banning products from California in reaction to that state’s recent ban on foie gras in restaurants.
I recently received an invitation to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Oenophilia Wine Club of Gascony. I had no idea that an Anglophone wine tasting club existed in the region, but the man who extended the invitation, David Yeates, explained that they have been meeting three or four times a year for the past decade. When I found out that the club’s president was Paul Strang, the author of one of my favorite books about wines from southwestern France (The Wines and Winemakers of South-west France) I immediately accepted the invitation for a tasting of a selection of Portuguese wines.
An added bonus was the venue, the La Florida restaurant in Castera Verduzan. This Gers culinary mecca is near and dear to me, as I had been there to eat with my father, my two sisters and my sister’s husband during their trip to visit us several years ago. And my wife and I had returned there to celebrate our 15th Wedding Anniversary.
There’s an interesting aside about this restaurant and its chef that involves Jeremy Clarkson, the star of Top Gear, the British television program about motor vehicles. This digression relates to a rerun of episode one of a series called “Jeremy Clarkson Meets the Neighbours” that I happened to see. Clarkson is known for his provocative commentary, and he didn’t disappoint in this particular program that turned his bad-boy sense of humor on the French.
My wife was watching the program with me, and we both almost fell off the couch and onto the floor when we saw Clarkson arriving at a southwestern France restaurant to eat what he tells us is “the height of French cuisine,” the banned ortolan bunting. Now, if California animal activists ever get wind of this dish, which makes the production of foie gras seem particularly innocuous in comparison, we would likely see a jihadist-worthy reaction.
The ortolan bunting, which is a sparrow-sized songbird, is first drowned in Armagnac, baked in an oven, and then eaten bones and all, traditionally under a white cloth napkin. Legend suggests that the napkin is either A) to capture the dish’s ethereal odors, B) to prevent a mess, as the bird is traditionally placed in the mouth whole and eaten bones and all, or C) to conceal the diner’s greed from God. Former French President François Mitterrand notoriously feasted upon several ortolans at his “last supper” while terminally ill with prostate cancer.
The Clarkson television program referred to above was first aired in 2002, so I’m thinking that the statute of limitations has probably expired. At any rate, there is a YouTube video of this nefarious meal, and (wink, wink) he does say at the end of the meal that he has somehow gotten around the interdiction of eating ortolans (which was illegal even when Mitterrand was regaling on them) because “no money changed hands at the end of the meal.”
My wife and I had simultaneous déjà vu moments when we immediately recognized La Florida’s owner/chef Bernard Ramouneda in the Clarkson program and then, despite the pixellated effect used to hide the restaurant’s name, we recognized the scene of our anniversary meal. So either through general French indifference about enforcing laws, or maybe it was Clarkson stiffing the restaurant owner, he and the chef seem to have gotten away with an illicit meal. Maybe there’s a lesson here for Californian foie gras enthusiasts. They might consider placing their napkins over their heads while eating, or they might just (wink, wink) arrange to not pay for their foie gras meals.
The Napoleão Wine Shops of Lisbon provided the white and red Portuguese wines we tasted. From my notes I see that two of the reds—a 2009 Quinta Alorna Touriga Nacional and a 2005 Adega Pegões Selected Harvest—stood out from the others.
I hope to return to another Oenophilia Wine Club tasting as I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and keen appreciation for wine and good food. The members’ varied backgrounds (most of them were retired, but there was also a selection of expatriates in attendance from the USA, Great Britain, northern Europe, South Africa and Australia who work in southwestern France) made for an interesting mix of wine experience.
And I’m hoping that I’ll meet up with the club’s president, Paul Strang, at a future meeting that I attend. He wasn’t at this particular one, as he was out of the country.
And my very favorite wine writer, Andrew Jefford, whose book The New France is, in my opinion, the essential book about French wine, is scheduled to be the speaker at their August meeting. Unfortunately, I’ll be away on holiday on the meeting date, so I’ll need to wait a little longer to meet him. As he now lives in the Languedoc, near Montpellier, it will undoubtedly happen someday.
At any rate, if you’re arrested in California for eating duck or goose liver under a napkin or for skipping out of the restaurant for not paying the bill, please don’t use this blog as any form of defence. Such actions only work, I imagine, for British television stars.