French cook gives of her happiness. Marie-Claude Gracia serves simple, hearty country fare

Here in this little village southwest of Bordeaux, ducks and geese easily outnumber the featherless residents. Not so surprising here in foie gras country, in a village of just over 300 people. In a small clearing beneath a stand of locust and poplar trees, across from her one-star restaurant, La Belle Gasconne, chef Marie-Claude Gracia is about to carve up a freshly plucked mullard duck.

Mullards - the duck of preference here - are a mallard-Muscovy cross.

In the warm, dappled summer light Mrs. Gracia, a petite woman with red hair dressed in starchy-white chef's apron and rather risqu'e, razzle-dazzle open-toed shoes, sharpens a 14-inch knife. A group of curious food writers move their chairs along the blue and white linen-topped table for a lesson in anatomie d'canard.

All along, she explains her technique of confit, the preserving of duck in its own rendered fat. This method was especially popular in the area before refrigeration, and is used to preserve goose and pork as well.

Gracia is the fifth generation of female cooks in her family. Her son Jean Antoine has broken the feminist tradition and proudly wears the white torque at prestigious Caf'e des Artistes in New York City.

The Gracias now bask busily in the brilliance of their one-star roadside restaurant. Madame even does demonstrations on French television. But it was a long time coming.

When they first came to this village, they were too poor to afford the luxury of a whole duck. Mrs. Gracia would go around to the local market and gather the skinny duck necks, the only part of the bird that was discarded. She and her family would sit around the table and patiently pick out the stringy pieces of neck meat to make rillette, a spread of seasoned duck meat and duck fat. She became noted for the delicacy.

Gracia has been involved with every phase of duck preparation - ``except the killing,'' she is quick to say, explaining that that is ``something I could never do.''

Her favorite dish is the leftover carcass of duck, grilled over an open fire. It's a dish she doesn't serve at the restaurant, because ``I don't want people to sit around and eat it with a fork, and not use their fingers.''

The Gracias opened their restaurant in May of 1978 after Mrs. Gracia received professional culinary training in Grenoble.

Marie-Claude Gracia's food is simple, hearty, and honest. It's country fare. The food of the earth, forest, and farms. No frills here. No concession to the nouvelle cuisine. It's doubtful a kiwi fruit has ever crossed the kitchen threshold.

After our demonstration we adjourned to one of the two small dining rooms in Gracia's restaurant, covered with trumpet and honeysuckle vines.

Gracia disappeared into the tiny dark kitchen while her husband, Richard, graciously hosted a ``modest'' three-hour lunch.

First came the prized fresh foie gras, silky-smooth and sublime. We eagerly spread it on thick slices of still-warm crusty farm bread. Duck was next, simmered gently over many hours and served simply with a side dish of thickly sliced zucchini simmered in heavy cream. A flan flavored with verbena, fruit tarts, and a cheese course followed. There was hardly room for the chocolate g^ateau.

As James Villas, food editor of Town and Country magazine, kept repeating between bites, ``Now this is real food. This is real food!''

Next to the restaurant is a corner store where the Gracias sell jars of goose and duck confit, cans of foie gras, and bottles of graisse vierge d'oie - virgin goose fat - a tablespoon of which (people say in these parts) ``turns a simple soup to sainthood.''

So what is the inspiration behind this gentle master of French country cuisine? ``I used to be jealous when I saw people cook,'' said Mrs. Gracia. ``They were giving of their happiness. I wanted to give mine, too.''

She does, and those who eat here are the richer for it.

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