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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dining in Aquitaine. The Products and Produce of its Five departments

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
The modern region of Aquitaine and its five departments.
Aquitaine is in France’s South-West.  Modern Aquitaine’s borders include much of the old Kingdom and Dutchy of Aquitaine and a large part of Gascony. Today’s Aquitaine includes five modern French departments, the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, Gironde and the Dordogne.
Aquitaine and its cuisine.
From the five departments that make up Aquitaine come renowned vegetables, fruits, poultry, beef, fish, wines, cider and, of course, Armagnac brandy.

Basque Cider Barrels
The Pyrénées-Atlantiques
The department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques is the heart of France’s Basque country.  From here comes Jambon de Bayonne, Bayonne ham, Espelette peppers and Ardi-Gasna Sheep’s cheese among many more products and produce seen on tables all over France. The department is also famous for its fish and seafood dishes, especially those made with the Thon Rouge, The Northern Bluefin Tuna and Cod.  For most visitors the unique Basque cider is also a special treat.  The Basques consider their cider to be the precursor for all other ciders; in the Basque language, their cider is called txopinondo or, at least, something like that!  Basque cider is very different to the ciders of Normandy and Brittany.

Jambon de Bayonne with pickled wild mushrooms
The Basque country also has its own variety of tapas called pintxos and like tapas will be offered with wines, cider and other alcoholic drinks. The most well-known wines of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques include the Madiran AOP red wine; the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh white wines and the Irouléguy red, white, and rosé wines, the Jurançon dry white wine and the famous Jurançon sweet white wine. Locally Izarra, a Basque liqueur with two versions (both with an Armagnac base), will be the digestif of choice. (See the appendix: Beer, Cider, Wines and Liquors: Izarra).
The city of Bayonne is the center of Basque culture, but the Prefecture, the regional capital, is the city of Pau just 113.0 km (70 miles) away.  The Atlantic seaside town of Biarritz is 8.2 km, (5 miles) away from Bayonne which is an inland port. Biarritz is famous as one of the earliest coastal resorts that saw the arrival of English tourists in the late 1880’s and it remains an important resort and spa. Just over the border from Pau in the neighboring region of the Midi-Pyrénées is the pilgrimage town of Lourdes, just 46 km (29 miles) away.

The resort town of Biarritz.
Dishes from the Pyrénées-Atlantiques that may be on your menu:
Chorizo au Cidre au Pays Basques – Spicy Chorizo pork sausages cooked in Basque cider. Chorizos are mostly cured, smoked pork sausages, but there are some that use fresh pork and are cooked before being served.
Magret de Canard à la Planxa - Duck breast cooked on the planxa. The planxa or plancha is, at least, two centimeters (6/8”) thick and claimed as their own by the Basques, the French and the Spanish.  This traditional and very even method of cooking uses very little oil and results in a taste somewhere between frying and grilling.

Duck breast with wild rice.
Roulées au Jambon de Bayonne au Ardi Gasna et sa Confiture de Figues – Rolls of thin,  cured, Bayonne Ham served with Ardi Gasna sheep’s cheese accompanied by a fig jam.
The department of Landes is famous for its excellent asparagus, its unique chickens, known as the Poulet Landaise, and their ducks and duck fois gras. Their AOC/AOP Tursan wine is available as a red, rosé, and white. For the traveler the pine forests planted over 100 years ago present many memorable panoramas.

A path in a pine forest in Landes.
Dishes from Landes that may be on your menu:
Duo d' Asperges Blanches et Vertes des Landes à la Vinaigrette de Framboise – A matched serving of white and green asparagus from Landes served with a raspberry vinaigrette sauce.

White and green asparagus
Poulet Landes Rôti aux Cèpes – The much appreciated, Poulet Landaise IGP, the Landes chicken, roasted with France’s cèpe, porcini, mushrooms.

A Cèpe mushroom
Ravioles au Foie Gras de Canard des Landes – Ravioli made with Landes’ duck foie gras.
The department of Lot-et-Garonne is famous for its fruit, especially its prunes and strawberries. The prunes of Agen are the gold standard in prunes around the world and there is a unique Route du Pruneau, a prune road, an inovation seen nowhere else.  The Label Rouge, red label, strawberries of Lot-et-Garonne supply close to 20% of France’s strawberries and the town of Marmande gave its name to the AOC/AOP Marmande tomato; this is the only tomato that has been awarded an AOC/AOP.  
During the season in Lot-et-Garonne  you will be offered the very tasty Garriguette and many other strawberries.  One special strawberry  is the Mara des Bois strawberries; the Mara des Bois strawberry is a cultivated strawberry with a taste fairly close to that of a real wild strawberry.  Lot-et-Garonne is also the kiwi-fruit center of France and in season, they will also be on the menu.

Local menus also offer a great deal of freshwater fish from the 300 km (190 miles)  of navigable waterways with many freshwater fish farms, so consider one of the excellent local freshwater fish-soups. If you want meat then choose your steaks from the local breeds that include the Bœuf Blond d’Aquitaine, the Bœuf de Bazas and the Bœuf de Chalosse.

Half of the Armagnac produced in France comes from Lot-et-Garonne  and so your choice from among local producers will not be limited,

A 1970 Armagnac.
The menus include products and cuisine from the old province of Quercy which was divided between the departments of Lot and Lot-en-Garonne during the French revolution. For your digestif you will drink Armagnac, but for your aperitif try the Floc de Gascogne, a fortified wine made with Armagnac and offered in rose (red) and white versions. N.B.  Floc de Gascogne  is at its best when served cold.
Dishes from Lot-et-Garonne that may be on your menu:
Magret de Canard Grillé aux Fruits Rouge de Lot-et-Garonne Grilled duck breast served with a sauce made from the berries, including the strawberries from Lot-et-Garonne.
Crêpes Flambées à l’ArmagnacCrêpes flambéed with Armagnac.

Crêpes Flambées
Grenadins de Porc aux Pruneaux D’Agen – Small cuts of filet of pork prepared with Agen prunes. (see Grenadin).
The department of Gironde is famous for the wines of Bordeaux and for the many hundreds of dishes made with the addition of Bordeaux Wines. (See the appendix Beer, Cider, Wines and Liquors: Bordeaux)

Bordeaux wines ready for tasting.
Dishes from the Gironde that may be on your menu:
Croustade de Faisan aux Cèpes de Bordeaux -  In most of France a croustade is much like an Italian bruschetta with mushrooms or liver on toast.  However, we are in the South-West of France and a croustade is something else entirely. Here the croustade will be the pheasant roasted on a pie or similar base and served with the Cèpe de Bordeaux , a variety of Porcini mushrooms, that grow wild in the forests and woods around Bordeaux.

Escalope de Poulet Poêlée aux Morilles au Vin Blanc de Bordeaux – Breast of chicken lightly fried with morel mushrooms and a white Bordeaux wine.
L’Entrecôte et Son Os à Moelle à la Bordelaise An entrecote, a rib-eye steak prepared with bone marrow and Sauce Bordelaise, that fabulous Bordeaux wine sauce. For an entrecote, if it is well prepared this is as good as it gets. Sauce Bordelaise is made with a veal stock, a Bordeaux red wine, butter, shallots, and herbs. The sauce on this menu listing is made with the addition of moelle, bone marrow.

Entrecote Bordelaise.
The department of Dordogne, (often called by its old name Périgord), is especially well known for its rare and expensive black truffles, its Monbazillac wines, its Sauce Périgueux, its Salade Périgourdine, its Magret de Canard, duck’s breast, its Perigord AOP walnuts, and its Cassoulet Périgourdine.  Cassoulet Périgourdine is the most highly rated cassoulet outside the old province of Languedoc.  Cyrano de Bergerac, the real one, also came from the town of Bergerac and statues of his parody are found in the town.
Dishes from the Dordogne that may be on your menu:
Steak d’Espadon Poêlé Sauce Échalotes au Vin de Bergerac Swordfish steak lightly fried in a shallot sauce flavored with Bergerac wine.  The Bergerac appellations include 13 different AOC/AOP wines including reds, rosé and dry, medium-sweet and sweet white wines.

A swordfish.
Truffe Noire du Périgord en Feuilleté et sa Sauce Périgueux  - The black truffles of Périgord prepared between thin layers of pastry; this is a pastry similar to that used for croissants and here it is served with a sauce Périgueux.  Sauce Périgueux is made with the Truffe Périgourdine, the Black Périgord Truffles, and Madeira Wine.

A black truffle.
Terrine de Fraises en Gelée Sauce Monbazillac A dish of strawberries prepared with a jelly made with the area’s famous Monbazillac wine; served in the terrine in which it is prepared. Monbazillac AOC cover the renowned sweet white wine produced close to the village of Monbazillac on the left bank of the Dordogne River just across from the town of Bergerac.
Aquitaine, Guyenne and Gascony.
The French changed the name of Aquitaine to Guyenne when they kicked the English out of France at the end of the hundred year’s war in 1453; today the area is officially Aquitaine once again. Despite the official name change, when you travel in the area the name Guyenne will still be seen as part of many local names. The old province of Gascony is divided between the region of Aquitaine and the region of Midi-Pyrénées.
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Bryan G. Newman

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