On an unseasonably chilly Sunday morning I took a drive through the southwestern French countryside around my home in the Gers, départment 32, the heart of Gascony where all roads feel like back roads. At this early hour they were virtually empty. In this part of France, it’s unheard of for locals to drive for pleasure. The car, van, truck and tractor are simply machines that get you where you need to go. The TGV doesn’t come here, there’s rarely a bus, and the closest airport is an hour a way. It’s hard to believe that a little over a century ago, this region was one of the most popular tourist destinations. Upstaged by the Côte d’Azur and Provence, the Gers has had plenty of time to perfect its rustic charm and authenticity. Let me share some of what I enjoyed when I set off.
Bread – The baking of bread largely remained a home-based function until the Industrial Revolution, though some large villages boasted artisanal bakeries or boulangeries, named after the boules, round loaves, they produced. Just as the French assimilated the croissant into their own cultural lexicon of cuisine (it actually originates from Budapest with a nod to the crescent moon on the Turkish flag), they’ve done so with the baguette, which came from Vienna in the 19th century with the aid of the newly-invented kneading machine and steam oven. By law, every village in France with a certain population must have a bakery selling bread. If there is no bakery in a village, a house or sometimes even the post office will display a depôt de pain, bread outlet sign.My village is so small it only has a boîte de postes, mail box. The closest place I can buy a baguette is in the post office of the nearby village of Campagne d’Armagnac. In the neighboring villages of Cazaubon and Cutxan Mme. Thérèse Garens had been delivering bread locally in her van for 58 years until she retired at the age of 92.
Geese – The Gers is the only départment with more geese, oie, than people. The first agricultural census of 1804 for the Gers counted 140,000 geese. Goose fat was so prized it was used for barter, payment of rent and passed on as inheritance. Of course most geese are raised for foie gras, literally translated from French as “fat liver,” but its origins date back far before French cooking made it a delicacy. Over 4000 years ago the ancient Egyptians hunted and then domesticated geese. They discovered that waterfowl developed large, fatty livers after eating substantial amounts of food in preparation for migration. Relief paintings found on the tombs of aristocratic Egyptians depict the hand-feeding of geese, an important source of nutrition around the Nile region, and though it has enjoyed a long history, foie gras is still produced by artisan farmers the way it has always been.
Armagnac – My house is surrounded by newly planted Armagnac grapevines. Armagnac is most likely one of the finest brandies you’ve never heard of nor tasted. The growing of vines in this region dates back to Roman times. The first use of Armagnac, as a curative for gout, hepatitis, fistulas and many other such ailments, formally dates back to the year 1310 when Maître Vital Dufour, Prior of Eauze (capital of the Armagnac region and 15 minutes from my house) extolled the 40 virtues of Aygue Ardente, water of burning immortality. Its history became intimately entwined with that of Gascony. Gascon eau-de-vie (between 50% and 70% alcohol) the basis of armagnac, was an everyday product commonly sold at village markets. Out of 100,000 hectares of vines devastated by the phylloxera epidemic in 1870, in the Gers, fewer than a quarter remained. Today the region is geared to reproduce its original 100,000 hectare capacity.
Sheep – Do you know the the difference between sheep, ram, ewe and lamb? Quelle est la différence entre mouton, brebis, bélier et agneau? Sheep, Mouton is the general term used to describe a flock. The male is called a Ram, Bélier, which is also the name of a zodiacal sign and its constellation. The female sheep is a Ewe, Brebis, and the Lamb, Agneau, is a sheep under one year old. Transhumance, transhumer — to change ones pasture— is the seasonal migration of shepherds and their livestock between summer and winter pastures. Transhumance dates to neolithic times, when there was a natural symbiosis between man, animals and the seasons. In France, large Roman sheep farms have been discovered from the 1st century AD. During the middle ages, transhumance became an economic practice linked to the buying and selling of sheep for consumption, and the 19th century saw it linked with the rising demand for wool. Today the transhumance serves an agricultural, environmental and cultural purpose. Sheep are often used in place of machines to clean pastureland and fertilize vineyards.
Donkeys – The Pyrenean donkey, Âne des Pyrénées, is a breed of domestic donkey from south-west France, encompassing Nouvelle Aquitaine and Occitanie, which is a large part of the historic region of Gascony. The Pyrenean donkey breed combines two quite different types: the short and powerful Gascon type, and the taller and more elegant Catalan type. In 1913 there were more than half a million donkeys in the southwest, one for every 76 people. Their numbers dwindled dramatically following WW I and II to no more than 20 by the 1990s. The breed was subsequently revitalized with stock imported from Spain.
Pétanque – Pétanque is one in a family of ball games that developed in the Mediterranean, also called boules, and bacci in Italian. One of the oldest games in human history, it involves throwing or rolling an object as close as possible to a bouchon, marker. At the turn of the 20th century, Jules LeNoir introduced le Jeu Provençale, which eventually evolved into the modern sport of Pétanque. It is still played by tens of thousands, primarily in the south of France. The average game takes three to four hours to complete. The most important competitions are the French National Championships, usually in June, and the Provençale, in August. Enthusiasts have made a serious bid for pétanque to become an Olympic sport.
Gascons – Towards the end of the 6th century, the Vascons invaded what became the First Duchy of Gascony. At one time ruled by both the English and French, Gascons have been described as fiery, impetuous, brave, swaggering, boastful, cavalier, provocative, unfailingly courteous, mercurial and appreciative of a good lie. Gascons remain a fiercely independent people, in fact, they often sided with the English over the French. Those who have lived here for generations do things the way they’ve always been done, with an uncomplicated joie de vivre, a love of old traditions and an almost mystical devotion to the land. The sense of contentment simple pleasures provide for them and those who visit are the true secrets of Gascony.
| Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group, slow travel tours into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Provence and beyond. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, England and other European countries.