As dusk approached, Captain Kate and I headed to the garden, pushing a wheelbarrow through the early October chill. The Captain -- a longtime canal sailor and owner of the French Kitchen Cooking school outside of Agen -- took the fork, and started turning the dry, loamy soil, uncovering round, golden potatoes with every flick of the wrist. "Here, work along this row," she said, handing me the fork and smiling down at the dirt-encrusted tubers. "These will be just perfect." After a 40-minute sizzle in clarified duck fat, the fresh-dug globes would become God's own crispy cubed French fries.
After landing in Paris -- long considered the seat of European cuisine -- I headed southwest to the region locals call "France Profunde" (Hidden France). Four hours on the bullet train and I stepped into Gascony, where the simple cuisine reigns supreme and monster ducks roam the earth. As culinary regions go, Gascony keeps a lower profile than Paris or Provence, but that's not to discount its importance to French cuisine. The rolling hills of this rural district produce the finest French foie gras and distinctively fragrant armagnac (the local brandy). Traditional slow-cooked soups are rich with garden vegetables and plump local hens. "Fatted ducks" -- corn-fed quackers that produce rich foie gras livers -- also provide meat for preserved confit and flavorful fat for everyday cooking. When friends in the city heard that I was headed to Gascony for a week of "school," they nodded knowingly and rattled off the tasty regional specialties, then handed me their shopping lists.
The setup of Kate's cooking school reflects the straightforward nature of Gascon cuisine. In its former life, the property at Camont was a simple farm beside the Garonne River's "lateral canal" -- an age-old waterway that connects smaller towns of the region. The kitchen/lodge was an 18th-century pigeonnier, a roost for domesticated birds that's been converted to spacious inn connected to a two-story stone kitchen. Students at the school spend the nights in the immaculately renovated rooms and their days around Camont's kitchen, which, appropriately, extends to the villages, markets, farms, and gardens of fertile Gascony.
Kate Hill, an American who has lived in France for 14 years, takes her students on an edible exploration of the area's rustic cuisine. Day trips, farm tours, and country drives put students in touch with the French concept of terroire, or strong links between the food and the land from which it comes. Before modern trucking and refrigeration, people ate with the seasons, and Hill designs her classes to show off the perpetual Gascon bounty.
During my visit in early October, we prepared and feasted on earthy wild mushrooms gathered from local poplar groves, crisp-skinned partridge roasted on the kitchen's eight-foot hearth, and sweet apple tarts sprinkled with armagnac. And of course, there were the oh-so-noble ducks -- the trademark livestock of the region and source of insanely rich terrines de foie gras, fresh-grilled meaty aiguillette (tenderloin), and pté spread on fire-toasted roties (local bruschetta made with crusty French breads).
Captain Kate and her pan-Gallic conspirator Vetou Pompele -- a good-humored Breton-turned local -- simultaneously take the students into the kitchen and around the countryside to see the connections between land and table. The two work the kitchen and two languages for their stories and demonstrations. A little chopping, a little translation, and much laughter flavor the days of gathering, cooking, and savoring this essential French cuisine. On one afternoon, they team up to get the Julia Hoyt -- Kate's 86-foot barge/home -- underway for a floating picnic. This waterbound version of the French kitchen floats along the canal at a leisurely four miles an hour.
The kitchen sessions at the school may lack the starched white hats and formality that many Americans associate with French haute cuisine, but a five-day immersion in the Gascon countryside may just change the way you look at French food. All you need to do is start with the earth and start working that pitchfork.
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