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Gascony -- land of ducks, geese and white toqued chefs

By Vicki OstrolenkSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1981

Auch, France

Down the hill they walk, toques toppling in the breeze as they follow the waddling ducks and geese to the water's edge. They are the chefs of Gascony, the "Mousquetaires," the pied pipers of their regional cooking, and they are following the birds that have all but made their reputations.

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Named after Dumas's most acclaimed characters, there are 10 chefs plus cuisine minceurm maven Michel Guerard as an honorary member, in this land of goose liver, succulent ducks, and cassoulets. Spreading the cooking of Gascony is their mission -- without trucking planeloads of their local products around the world, but doing it with aplomb and style.

Unlike Paul Bocuse, peripatetic super chef of the 1970s, who insists on bringing his own French products when he travels, Andre Daguin of the Hotel de France in Auch, two- star dean of the Mousquetaires and, according to some, heir to Bocuse's mantle, travels only with foie gras and truffles. And when he gives interviews, he's always careful to promote the other chefs with him.

Today, sitting with the Mousquetaires in the courtyard of this farm whose owners raise some of the finest geese and ducks in Gascony, Chef Daguin refers almost every question to his colleagues, encouraging and prompting them in turn, to express their views.

The Mousquetaires of Gascony evolved in 1960 when Mr. Daguin thought it would be nice to keep his colleagues in the area, to encourage their spirit as well as their creativity, believing "we'll be rich together, poor apart."

At first it was just an informal verbal agreement to send customers to each other. Eventually it became a closely knit group of men united by the love of their region and its natural foods specialties.

As their reputations grew, the Gascon chefs received invitations to cook all over the world, traveling to the US, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, and Japan.

"We became a team," says Maurice Coscuella, talented chef-proprietor of Hotel Ripa-Alta in the village of Plaisance, "and our friendship for one another continued to grow."

Today, they meet as often as possible, sometimes formally for 10-course dinners hosted by the different members, and sometimes after one calls the others to meet for informal discussions, to judge local contests for the best goat cheese or the best Pastis (a local apple pastry), or to meet with a visiting reporter interested in why their camaraderie outweighs the traditional cutthroat competition of most French chefs.

One begins to realize talking to the chefs that the whole message of Gascony is not individual publicity, but to promote the pleasures of eating in this rich region. And even though all the products these chefs cook with are the same, their styles are amazingly different.

Perhaps to the uninitiated the foods of this area represent heavy country cooking utilizing foods of the earth rather than the ethereal of other regions. It is true Gascony is a traditionally poor region that calls to mind dishes containing all parts of duck and goose, including comfits or preserved duck in its own fat.

But the individual chefs prepare and use these products in ways varying from the earthy but light cooking of Andre Daguin, through the innovative dishes of Maurice Coscuella and the nouvelle cuisine of two-star chef Dominique Toulousy at La Robinson outside of Auch, to the art of the modern master himself, Michel Guerard, whose spa at Eugenie-les-Bains is world famous.

Mr. Daguin, lauded by Michelin, Gault- Milau, and other food critics throughout the world, uses the traditional products of Gascony to produce dreams dishes combining the old with the new. Huge garlic bulbs that, when cooked, are transformed into delicate flavored seasoning with the consistency of mashed potatoes, never leave an aftertaste.

Duck steaks, hearts, liver, legs, even wings (wasting no parts) are prepared in ways to defy the imagination. Duck steaks are as tender and juicy as prime beef: liver is so fresh it has a completely different, milder taste than ours, and grilled heart so delicious as to deter description.