When David McAninch first visited Gascony on an assignment for Saveur, where he was an editor, he didn’t know it would turn into a much larger adventure. Months later, he was back for a second article. The next time, it was to stay for eight months and collect material for Duck Season, his first book. The book just came out and was celebrated at Albertine Books, part of New York’s French embassy, earlier this week.
Gascony is a rural region, France’s “last best place,” as he calls it, relatively undiscovered by tourists, without high-speed rail lines or major highways. It’s the Duck Capital of the world, where people eat foie gras twice a week and gift it to their neighbors like Christmas cookies. But its people also boast some of the longest lifespans and lowest heart disease in the country – a shining example of the “French paradox.” When he ordered a green salad at a restaurant in Auch, he got a few leaves of green lettuce with hardboiled eggs, duck confit, a grilled breast and foie gras – but in this part of the world, it’s the balance that counts.
Gascon may be off peoples’ radars, but it’s certainly not empty. “Rural French life is alive and well in the market towns – the burghs – where people go to send mail and fill prescriptions.”
McAninch brought his family to live in a former water mill full of mold (his wife, who has allergies, loved that) as he took notes, drank wine, cooked and ate a lot – mostly duck. They had a rocky start, but “when you go to a rural foreign place, saying you’re there to learn to cook the local food is the greatest door opener. And when you live in a small village, people just knock on your door, they’re not shy. After a few weeks, we were out to dinner and I realized I wasn’t trying to make cross-cultural conversation, but just hanging out with friends.” His wife was also not a huge fan of duck at the start, but “after three months she ordered grilled skewered duck hearts at a restaurant so I knew we’d accomplished that at least.”
His cooking mentor, Nadine Cauzette, taught him about the Gascon methods of cooking the whole bird (not just the liver). “In the United States, duck has taken a backseat to the almighty beefsteak and the trendy pig. A lot of people are put off by the fat, which makes it hard to cook. But if you can learn how to manage it, the fat can be your biggest ally.”
One of the most important things she taught him was patience – the local cuisine is full of 3-to-4-day braises that let go of high heat for slow, involved simmers. There are also many recipes that use just bits and pieces of an animal to flavor the cheaper vegetables and beans – for example, one recipe that he says he makes regularly at home now is garbure, a bean-veg-duck stew that sounds a little like a Gascon cassoulet (recipe below).
make this one thing:
la garbure de Nadine
4 confit duck legs
1 cured or smoked ham hock
10 medium waxy potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small turnips, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large leek, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, quartered
8 ounces dried haricots Tarbais or Great Northern beans, picked through, soaked overnight and drained
1 head savoy cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remove the skin from the confit duck legs and set it aside for making cracklings. Warm the duck legs in a 350F oven for 15 to 20 minutes until heated through. Let cool; pull the meat off the bones and tear it into chunks. Set the duck meat aside.
Add 5 quarts of cold water to a large pot along with the ham hock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the ham hock, skimming frequently, until the water starts to turn cloudy, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, carrots, turnips, leek, onion, and beans and simmer over medium-low heat for 1.5 hours, skimming occasionally as necessary. Add the reserved duck confit and the cabbage and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes, skimming occasionally. Add the garlic and simmer for 15 minutes more. Remove the ham hock, strip off the skin, pull the meat off the bones in chunks, and return the meat to the pot. Discard the bone and skin. Season the garbure with salt and pepper to taste.