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

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.

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.

Then there are the geese, the quail eggs poached and served in three china cups, topped with fine herbs, foie gras, and whatever sauce happens to catch the chef's fancy that day.

constantly on the lookout for new products and new food combinations, Chef Daguin invented a melon sorbet mixed with bits of smoked duck and celery. He also combines fresh duck liver in foil with lobster, two different sauces, truffle juice and fine herbs, sealing it so the flavors blend while cooking. Pears or peaches marinated with peppercorns for a very special dessert is another of his own dishes.

Coscuella, who lost a Michelin star, without reason in my opinion, serves food in his garden during the moderate months, or year- round in an antique and rustic dining room filled with fresh flowers. Some of his creations are masterpieces: Wilde Pigeon Pie or Mousse de Palombe are two of his special dishes. He also serves boned duck marinated in raspberry vinegar, red peppercorns, and herbs. It is in the true sense a sweetmeat, pungent, tender and highly original.

His Terrine de Sardine with fresh tomato sorbet and gazpacho sauce is mild and fresh with no hint of oil. The perfume of the sorbet with its slight essence of tomato is perfect with the more spicy gazpacho sauce. The Gratine des Fruits, full of red and black currants, raspberries, strawberries, and pieces of plums bathed in a light slightly sweet sauce and grilled for just a minute permeates the room with a wonderful aroma recalling grandmother's kitchen.

And finally, there is Guerard, presiding over his elegant spa like a little elf to his wife, Christine's, fairy godmother. He alternates between seriousness and smiles. She is always the hostess, giving an aura of quiet elegance, her old-fashioned clothes eerily resembling the painting of Queen Eugenie of the 18th century, who had often visited this chateau.

As earthy and alive as Daguin's Hotel de France is, the Guerards' sylvan spa makes you feel subdued and forced into a quiet that could be even too serene after a few days. The food is superb, an experience in exquisite dining all the more amazing when you choose the Cuisine Minceur, which, if you stay for a full two weeks will change at every meal.

Chef Daguin, whose description of Cuisine Minceur is another bon mot from a man who's as sharp as he is talented, says "They show you the egg and somebody else eats it," but this time it wasn't true.

For the first course of my Cuisine Minceur meal, the egg was extracted from the shell, cooked and mixed with fresh herbs and farmers cheese, then returned to the shell and topped with fresh caviar -- delicious. Lotte, or Monkfish, came next dressed in a mild but spicy sauce made with tarragon and farmer's cheese. Tomato and pieces of carrots and onions just slightly braised were exquisitely arranged on the large flowery plate as accompaniments.

Next came foie gras with a puree of artichoke, mixed with a mild vinaigrette, accented with chervil and sweet basil, and for dessert, a flourless souffle with just a hint of sweet, served with passion fruit sauce to be spooned over it. The calories in the whole meal were minimal but the total taste sensations of these masterful creations were completely satisfying.

Guerard's regular cuisine is also light, innovative, utilizing herbs and vegetables from his garden, and other foods of the region.

These three chefs, members of the same group, using the same or similar ingredients, prepare food that is entirely different. Daguin's is the food of the earth, rich, sometimes heavy but full of vibrant life. Guerard's food is of the air, light, will-o-the-wisp, as delicate as a leaf in a summer breeze. And Coscuella is in between, taking something from both -- the rich dark sauces of the earth combined with the light touch of fresh vegetables lying in the sun.

These, and all the other chefs of Gascony, represent a regional cooking that transcends the current fads, and fortuntely for us, they periodically travel to different parts of the US, preparing their specialties to promote the dishes of their land.

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