Chicago Author’s Memoir Details 8-Month ‘Duck Season’ in Rural France

A place where ducks outnumber people 20 to 1 might not sound like somewhere you’d want to move with your wife and young daughter. But that’s exactly what one Chicago author did, spending eight months in the most rural part of southwest France.

The new book on his excursion is called “Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, and Other Misadventures in Gascony – France's Last Best Place.” 

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“(The book) was sort of born of desperation,” says author David McAninch, whose day job is features editor for Chicago magazine. During a bleak Chicago winter a few years ago, McAninch’s mind kept wandering to Gascony, an isolated and rural part of southwest France he’d been to twice before on assignment.

“The people there enjoyed food in a way that I thought was really soulful. And this was at a time in my life when I was too busy, working too hard, and was kind of contenting myself with a Whole Foods salmon fillet thrown under the broiler for dinner and then doing emails while I’m eating,” McAninch said. “I had a revelation that I wanted to do a bit of a retooling of the way I look at food and meals. So I started developing this book idea and made the decision to move my family over to Gascony for the better part of a year to see what we could learn – not just about the food of the region but the way people live and the way people include food and wine in their everyday life.”

  • A pan-seared duck breast David cooked while living in Gascony. (Courtesy David McAninch)

    A pan-seared duck breast David cooked while living in Gascony. (Courtesy David McAninch)

  • Amandine Belmonte, Plaisance's cheesemonger, whom David befriended. (Courtesy David McAninch)

    Amandine Belmonte, Plaisance's cheesemonger, whom David befriended. (Courtesy David McAninch)

  • David in the bodega clubhouse of the village social club, which went by the name Les Esbouhats. (Courtesy David McAninch)

    David in the bodega clubhouse of the village social club, which went by the name Les Esbouhats. (Courtesy David McAninch)

  • David's then-6-year-old daughter outside the village school. (Courtesy David McAninch)

    David's then-6-year-old daughter outside the village school. (Courtesy David McAninch)

  • The converted water mill where David, his wife Michele, and daughter Charlotte lived in Plaisance du Gers, Gascony. (Courtesy David McAninch)

    The converted water mill where David, his wife Michele, and daughter Charlotte lived in Plaisance du Gers, Gascony. (Courtesy David McAninch)

McAninch, his wife Michele, and their then-6-year-old daughter Charlotte moved to a small town called Plaisance du Gers for eight months, renting an old mill on the edge of town. Despite having the advantage of speaking French and having visited the region before, McAninch still had some adjusting to do.

“Commercial life shuts down completely between noon and 2:30 p.m. as people turn toward sacred rituals of lunch. Early on, we got caught short many times because we hadn’t done our morning shopping, and the options were limited,” he said. “Meals became the organizing principle of our life.”

The dominant role of food (and wine) in the family’s life mirrored that of their Gascon neighbors. It’s a place with deeply rooted culinary traditions and a reverent attitude toward cooking elaborate meals and enjoying them in the company of friends.

And despite the stereotype of the French being unfriendly to outsiders, McAninch says Gascons are welcoming and inclusive – though their inclusivity sometimes contributed to the misadventures referenced in the book’s subtitle. During his time in Gascony, McAninch became an honorary member of Plaisance’s social club.

“It was an all-male cooking club that met every Friday. I expressed some interest in cooking wood pigeon slow cooked in wine, a classic Gascon dish. They responded to my interest by inviting me the very next day to go on a pigeon hunt,” McAninch said. “We spent the day (in a treehouse) shooting migratory wood pigeons. I insisted on not handling a firearm, but toward the end of the hunt my pal Basso handed me his 12-gauge when a couple of pigeons had alighted in a nearby tree. I completely screwed up. I fired too late. You’re supposed to fire on a count – if you don’t, the pigeon flies away, and it’s illegal to shoot a pigeon while it’s in flight in France. I not only broke the law, I broke the ultimate protocol and etiquette in the hunting blind. … I acquitted myself in the end, but kind of made an ass of myself in front of all of these French hunters.”

Despite some misfires (literal and figurative) McAninch writes warmly of his time in rural France, especially of the bond he formed with a widowed villager named Nadine, who became something of a culinary mentor. Once a meticulous, extremely organized cook, McAninch says his time in Gascony forced him to slow down and loosen up.

“There’s an expression that Nadine used frequently. In French it was au bout du nez, which means ‘the tip of the nose’ – idiomatically it means cooking from the gut. That was something I had to learn to do. It took time, but I came away with better cooking instincts and more confidence in myself.”

Meet McAninch at a reading and signing at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16.

Below, an excerpt from “Duck Season.”

l'D BEEN A CARD- CARRYING FRA NCOPHILE for most of my life. I felt the first stirrings in high school, in a French classroom adorned with paper tricolor flags and furnished with a wastebasket on which the teacher, Madame Liesman, had taped a sign reading Interdiction

DE CRACHER ET DE VOMIR-"No spitting or vomiting." But the love affair really blossomed in my early twenties, when I lived in the South of France as a student for a year and then for another year in Paris, working as a teacher and, like so many feckless expats before me, leading a life of splendid dissipation, hopping trains and hitch­ hiking all over the country every chance I got. I traveled wide and deep. I had my first tastes of magret and foie gras and cassoulet. I became a habitue of cheap, chalkboard-menu bistros. I fell in whole­ heartedly with the French conviction that meals should be long and relaxing, that they were the day's focus and that work was merely a necessary intermission. I learned to speak the language well enough that French people sometimes thought I was Belgian, or at least not American. I went back home and got a master's degree in French literature. I honeymooned in France with Michele. I started cooking cog au vin and boeuf bourguignonne regularly. I pursued a career as a food writer largely so I could return to France as often as possible on someone else's dime. Indeed, as is the case with so many Francophiles , food became the lens through which I viewed my travels, and life in general.

I don't recall precisely when Gascony slipped onto my radar-I'd passed through the region a few times as a tourist, not pausing long enough to really see or taste the place-but I do remember when I first fell hard. It was 2012. I was on assignment for the food magazine I worked for, researching a story on duck, an ingredient I'd always loved but which got short shrift in the United States, usually taking a backseat to the exalted beefsteak or the oh-so-fashionable pig. Driving around the region, I discovered a land where duck is king-four and a half million were being raised each year in the Gers alone, twenty-five million across the greater Southwest of France. Duck got top billing on virtually every restaurant menu from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Cooks in Gascony used every part of the bird-the breasts, the legs, the wings, the neck, the feet, and, of course, the fattened liver-and they cooked its flesh every which way: They grilled it, roasted it, sauteed it, braised it in wine, and, most famously, cured it lightly in salt and simmered it in its own fat to make confit, that pillar of farmhouse canning cellars all over southwestern France.

This had all duly impressed me, but my come-to-Jesus moment didn't occur until the last day of that duck-filled visit, after a string of rich meals that included, in no particular order, Armagnac-flambeed duck tenderloins, skewered duck hearts with chanterelles, duck carpaccio, and a duck-confit shepherd's pie strewn with shavings of foie gras. At dinner that night, somewhat the worse for wear, I asked the server at my hotel for a green salad. A bewildered, slightly hurt expression flickered across his face. He nodded curtly and returned minutes later with a plate containing a few leaves of Bibb lettuce topped with confited duck gizzards, six slices of cured duck breast, duck-skin cracklings, and a quartered hard-boiled egg. It wasn't what I'd had in mind, but, my God, was it good.

Once back home in Chicago, I immediately started angling for another Gascony assignment, and within a few months I got one: to cover a wine festival in a village called Viella . On the first night of my trip, the founder of the wine cooperative, a genteel older man named Andre Dubose, invited me to a dinner at the home of a matronly widow named Nadine Cauzette, who was the president of the Friends of Pacherenc Society-Pacherenc being a little-known white wine made in this particular sliver of Gascony. The meal started in a sitting room with duck rillettes, duck sausage, and glasses of chilled Pacherenc; progressed to the dining table with pan-seared foie gras, duck confit, cabbage-and-white-bean soup, potato gratin, wine­braised wood pigeon, several bottles of inky Madiran, four kinds of cheese, and a sheet-pan apple tart; and wound down, several hours after it began, in front of the fireplace with chocolate truffles and snifters of very old Armagnac. Every dish brought to the table had been made from scratch, including the sausage, the confit, and the truffles. It was an excessive, magnificent meal. I was sure Monsieur Dubose had put Nadine up to it, insisting she pull out all the stops for a visiting journalist.  And yet, toward the end of the evening, when I said something to the effect of "Nadine, you really shouldn't have," she flashed me the same perplexed look I'd received from the hotel waiter-as if to say there was simply no other way to do things.

The dinner at Nadine's upended whatever notions of balance and restraint I'd hitherto associated with French cooking. And yet there was something about the over-the-top-ness- the sheer mare-ness- of that meal, and of the other meals I'd eaten in Gascony, that appealed to me in a deep and emotional way. Here was a cuisine that modern gastronomic trends-Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s, the diet crazes of the '80s, the small-plates fad of today-seemed to have passed over completely. Whereas in other parts of France, the sacred institution of the two-hour lunch was in decline and bottled water was overtaking wine as the midday drink of choice, in Gascony nothing much had changed. The Gascons I met drank wine with lunch every day. They ate what they craved. They always ordered cheese or dessert and often both. They sang a lot. On my trip to Viella, I went to a winemakers' lunch where everyone was calmly eating their soup one moment, and the next they were standing up, waving their nap­ kins in the air, and belting out a song in the old Occitan tongue: "Qu'aimi Zou men austau, las bias e la Zana I Quand baulha Zou Baun Diu, aquiu que maurirei." -- "How I love my home, its fields and vines I When God sees fit to take me, it is here that I shall die."

What's more, people in Gascony seemed more open-minded than many of their compatriots. I never once heard a Gascon complain about "freeloading immigrants" or witnessed a Gascon throw money back at an American tourist who offered the wrong bills. The Gascons were French through and through, and yet not-there was a hint of the Spaniard about them, an easy warmth and hoisterousness.

On top of it all, Gascons lived a long time-longer, in fact, than the residents of any other part of France. The Gers had more than twice as many men over the age of ninety as the national average. Gascons were the paradox within the French Paradox.

They had their duck and ate it, too.

Soon, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the cuisine of this tremendously fertile patch of France-at one time a duchy and now a fuzzily bordered cultural area. To my surprise, there wasn't much out there, especially when compared with the glut of cookbooks and culinary memoirs about Provence, to Gascony's east. What few books I could find-most of them in French-tended to be small-press publications of the "recipes from my grandmother" variety. Elizabeth David, the British-born gastronome, dipped into southwestern France, if not Gascony in particular, in her now-classic 1960 omnium gatherum French Provincial Cooking. Some twenty years after that, Paula Wolfert gave Gascony's signature foods lengthy consideration in The Cooking of South-West France, alongside specialties from the Quercy, the Languedoc, the Bordelais, the Limousin, and Basque Country. A towering achievement of culinary scholarship and recipe sleuthing, it remains the only definitive English-language cookbook-and the only truly exhaustive and authoritative book I've been able to find in any language-on the cuisine of the region.

I took from those books what I could, and over time a clearer picture began to emerge. It depicted a land moored fast to tradition, populated by cooks at once overflowing with generosity and yet resistant to change, painstakingly creating dishes of immense depth from a limited palette of local  ingredients  that  hadn't  expanded in generations and, with the exception of a dab of Iberian influence, seemed impervious to intrusions from other countries or even neighboring regions.

I grew fascinated with the old farmhouse practices that still underpinned Gascon cooking: confit making,  first  and foremost,  but also the annual tue-cochon, or pig slaughter, and gavage, the ancient technique of force-feeding ducks and geese in order to engorge their livers for foie gras, and to generate more precious fat. I studied the history of Armagnac, Gascony's aged grape brandy, which mellows in casks of Gascon and Limousin oak, sometimes for many decades. I read about Madiran, the Southwest's blackish, tannic wine (and drank it whenever I could find a decent bottle). I learned about peasant dishes like garhure (the confit-studded cabbage soup that is still a Gascon staple), long-braised stews known as civets and dauhes, and tangy sheep's-milk cheeses, fermented at high elevations by Pyrenean shepherds and sold  in  every  outdoor  market  from  Agen to the Spanish border. Other peculiarities intrigued me, too: Spanish­ inflected dishes like piperade and paella, brought into the Gascon fold by the neighboring Basques; age-old preparations for obscure game birds and wild boar, hunted in the remnants of Gascon forests; rustic cakes and tarts, like croustade and gateau a la hroche, that required the better part of a day to make.

As curiosity sometimes does, mine blossomed into an obsession. This hilly region of duck farms and vineyards began to shimmer in my imagination like France's Last Best Place, a kind of Brigadoon. The unabashedly rich food, the long meals, the fanatical devotion to tradition, the indomitable joie de vivre-not only did these things intrigue me as a writer, but I began to believe they might be an excellent cure for some ills in my own culinary  life.  Which, suffice it to say, was no longer living up to the spirit of my youthful Francophilia. An insidious expediency and-even worse, at least from a Francophile's perspective- abstemiousness had crept into my cooking and eating. So had a certain jadedness. I'd grown weary of urban food trends, of chefs' obsessions with novelty, of strenuously artistic dishes that were more titillating than satisfying-what Paula Wolfert had called "front of the mouth food"-to say nothing of the theatrical repackagings of traditional comfort-food cuisines: Alsatian brasserie! Japanese izakaya! Italian enoteca! Jewish deli! It had all started to feel slightly ridiculous.

Gascon cuisine was immune to trends. It relied on simple preparations and ingredients. It defied shortcuts. It insisted on slowness. It adamantly required wine. In short, it was like the concentrated essence of all the pleasures that had caused me to fall in love with France in the first place. Even better, the entire Gascon way of life was, as far as I could tell, predicated on the belief that those pleasures were nothing less than a right-a right to be exercised not just on special occasions, but every day.

One evening, after a late supper of broiled salmon fillets devoured  in  front  of  the  TV-see  above  about  expediency  and abstemiousness- I picked  up Wolfert's  The Cooking of South-West France again and happened on a passage  I'd skipped over. Halfway through the introduction, the author remarks, "One could write a rich and anecdotal book about the region, the people, and the land, the sights and smells and moods."

It felt like a personal call to action.

After convincing Michele that moving to rural France would be both doable and life-changing-in a good way-I made a four-day house-hunting trip to the Gers. After visiting a dozen summer rentals lost in the hills, I made a handshake deal on Plaisance's old water mill, enthused by the idea of living above a river and being able to walk to the bakery in the morning. The principal of the village school informed me that enrolling Charlotte in classes would be as simple as filling out a few forms-and assured me that she would pick up French in no time. Soon, the other puzzle pieces started falling into place. I obtained visas and residency permits. I found renters for our condo. Michele got a sabbatical from the music school where she worked-the director happened to be a Francophile, too, and a sentimental one at that. Michele and I went over our budget again and again-sometimes, perhaps not wisely, while drinking wine­ and determined we could pull off a sojourn of half a year or so.

In the end we decided to give ourselves eight months, from May to December. This way, we'd avoid the coldest and rainiest part of the year-this wasn't the Cote d'Azur, after all-but still get a taste of all four seasons. We'd arrive when the best spring produce was hitting the markets and stay through summer's village festivals, the fall harvest, and the early-winter rituals of gavage and confit making. We promised Charlotte we'd be home by Christmas Day.

I had every hope that this would give me enough time to immerse myself in the Gascons' art de vivre. At the very least, I had to believe some Gascon-ness would rub off on all of us, one way or another.

DUCK SEASON: Eating, Drinking and Other Misadventures in Gascony—France’s Last Best Place by David McAninch. Copyright © 2017 by David McAninch. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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