Magazine article The Spectator

La France Profonde

Magazine article The Spectator

La France Profonde

Article excerpt

I must start by declaring an interest, as we are lucky enough to own a farmhouse in the Gers, one of the most beautiful départements in France, deep in the heart of Gascony. On a hot August day, sipping a glass of the local Arton rosé wine under the shade of our walnut trees, watching butterflies fluttering over the wild meadow flowers, is to enjoy la France profonde at its unspoiled, peaceful best.

Gascony is holiday heaven. There is something for everyone to enjoy. Stunning countryside, meandering rivers, Roman roads and ruins, Romanesque churches, fine wines, delicious food, the region's equally delicious Armagnac to drink -- and as much great and often gory history as anyone could wish for.

For us British, centuries of intertwined history between England and Gascony have left an indelible mark. The wine-rich and fertile land was part of Eleanor of Aquitaine's spectacular dowry that passed into British hands when she married Henry of Anjou, thus handily delivering to the future King of England an area roughly covering one quarter of France. Thereafter the English fought the French fiercely over it for several hundred years, eventually losing it at the end of that mediaeval madness the Hundred Years War, during which time the Gascons had suffered from both the Black Plague and the Black Prince. When we bought our house, I quipped to our Lectoure-based estate agent, Laurent Lameille, 'I feel as though we are coming home', to which he replied, 'Yes, but this time we are making you pay!' He wasn't entirely joking.

Patrick de Montal and his wife Victoire de Montesquiou, who have revived the tradition of wine-making on their family lands, are, by dint of hard work, enjoying the upsurge of interest in local wines. At their Domaine Arton, housed in a pretty 19th-century chartreuse (albeit built over 12th-century cellars -- their respective families having been part of 1,000 years of local history), they have 60 hectares of land under cultivation. Describing the resurgence of the industry, de Montal says poignantly about the Gers: 'Wine was so much a pillar of the rural economy but after the Revolution, and the phylloxera which devastated the vines, the land here fell asleep.' The region was hugely depopulated throughout the last 150 years by economic migration and catastrophic first world war losses, but it is precisely because there is so little industry that the area is so undeveloped -- and so beautiful.

Today, the Gers remains serious farmland, growing wheat and vines, but is perhaps best known as the garlic centre of France -- a third of the country's garlic is produced here. The weekly markets in our local towns of Fleurance and Lectoure have stalls groaning in the stuff in a delectable colour palette of the palest pink through to violet and white. At times it also seems that every duck (along with most of the geese) in France is in the Gers. This is serious foie gras country and duck in one form or another is served pretty much everywhere with the thrifty locals making good use of every scrap, right down to roasting the carcasses and cooking almost anything that grows or moves in the fat.

You soon become a convert -- especially when you learn that the Gersois not only live longer than anyone else in France, they also have the lowest levels of heart disease in the whole country. …

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