AUCH, FRANCE — IN a region where ducks outnumber people 10 to 1, Andre Daguin is the undisputed champion of Gascon products and lore.
''France has the most renowned agriculture and the most renowned chefs in the world. The two go together,'' he says. ''McDonald's serves beef and potatoes. Unless we keep up our close association between quality chefs and quality products, we'll go the same way.''
Mr. Daguin was born above the kitchen where his father was chef and his grandfather a cook.
The coal-fired stove that once stood against the outside wall has since been exchanged for a gas model and moved to the center of the room, but otherwise the layout of the kitchen has not changed since his grandfather kept detailed notebooks of the Hotel de France's daily menus.
Heavy copper pots full of duck bubble on the stove, as cooks hasten to finish a sauce or serve a soup. A marble table at the edge of the kitchen serves for tasting and talk. Daguin's conversation shifts easily from the influence of Asian spices in the Middle Ages to the perils of pitted copper pots and what he calls a misplaced fear of fat in diets. ''Without fat, you can't taste food,'' he says.
The heart of good cooking is quality produce, Daguin says.
''The population of this region is now half what it was 150 years ago, but agricultural production has doubled or tripled. Gascony is still the greatest region for fine agricultural products in the world.''
In France, good cooking has evolved from something women were expected to do daily to a practice reserved for holidays or restaurant visits.
But Daguin doubts that the world is moving toward a future of standardized fast food. ''There are still 3,000 to 4,000 restaurants where you can eat well in France,'' he says.