The Cuisine of Aquitaine
In Pays Basque, It’s All about the Peppers
The traditional cuisine of the seaside Pays Basque, or Basque Country, is full of tasty, colorful fish and shellfish, which are often red as if rubbed with a piment d'Espelette (a pepper). This pepper is found everywhere. It is the main ingredient in a local pepper dip as well as in piperade, where it is cooked with tomatoes and onions. Produced all over the region, ham can be found at all meals and in every season. As for foie gras, made either of duck or goose liver, it is prepared here as it is in other major farming regions (Landes, Gers, and Lot-et-Garonne): the bird is force-fed and then the liver is cooked in the traditional way, preserved in its own fat.
You must try some magret de canard (duck breast), simply grilled and served with potatoes, ceps, or fruit. Another traditional and equally delicious dish is poulet basquaise (Basque-style chicken). Sautéed pieces of chicken are served with a savory sauce of tomatoes, onions, and peppers, all simmered with a glass of white wine.
This is also a great region for hunting and fishing. Hunters go to the Pyrenees in search of migrating wood pigeons. These are a real treat when wrapped in a thin slice of bacon and roasted. As for fishing, succulent freshwater fish are pulled from local streams, while tuna, sardines, and chipirons (squid) make their way from the ocean to the table.
The region’s not-to-be-missed ewe’s milk cheeses exist in both hard and soft varieties, with the latter only available in the summer, unfortunately. And finally come the chocolates, a major specialty of the city of Bayonne. Try the cinnamon-flavored kind or taste it confected in génoise-style cake, such as the very symbolic "béret basque" cake.
Périgord: The Right Balance
The cuisine in Périgord receives all its richness from the nature in its midst: wild mushrooms (ceps and truffles, oh my!), walnuts and chestnuts, and fowl (geese and ducks), from which come the ever-prized foie gras and magret. Because contrary to the idea you might have, Périgord is a poor peasant region, and its cuisine is a reflection of that. It is a cuisine from the land, of stuffed dishes, skillfully prepared scraps, canned and jarred foods, and confits (meat preserved in fat). Nevertheless, it is an excellent cuisine, hearty and filling, comprised mainly of meat from corn-fed geese and ducks, which is enjoyed at the most special events. The fat from these animals is used when making confits; it locks in the flavors of the products. The same fat is often used in place of butter and gives a pronounced, succulent taste to sautéed potatoes, magret de canard, and rillettes (potted goose or duck). And don’t forget to wash it all down with a glass of sweet white wine, such as Monbazillac—you’ll be in heaven!
Among the specialties you will find simple yet extraordinarily delicious meals: truffle omelette or pan-fried foie gras, magret de canard, foie gras, and rillettes d’oie (potted goose), in addition to truffle salad, freshwater fish, and farmhouse chicken with mushrooms. In the winter, it is well worth the trip to visit a marché au gras (literally "fat market") such as the one in Périgeux. In the Périgord Noir area, pork dishes and specialty pork products are found on every menu all year round. In the northern part of the Dordogne department, also called Périgord Vert, goats are raised for the production of a strong and tasty specialty: a small mouthwatering cheese called Cabécou.
Bordeaux: A Southern French Cuisine, Spanish-Style
Bordeaux is known throughout the world thanks to its prestigious wines. But this region holds other gastronomic surprises coming both from its magnificent inland and the rich Atlantic coast. In Bordeaux, the splendid regional capital, you can taste a plate of the fresh oysters du jour and a grilled entrecôte steak sprinkled with chopped parsley while enjoying a nice bottle of white wine from Entre-Deux-Mers or a red from Saint-Émilion du Libournais. This is a traditional and spicy gastronomy, close to Spanish cooking, that includes both specialties from the sea (such as sole, eel alevins prepared with garlic and parsley, lamprey à la bordelaise prepared in a red wine sauce, fresh sardines to be eaten grilled at the seaside) and from the land (foie gras, pork tripe, milk-fed lamb, and asparagus). And have you heard of cannelés bordelais? These mini-cakes tasting of aged rum and vanilla present a perfect picture of Bordeaux, a southern city open to the world that was a major port of call in the slave, rum, and spice trades.
And, of course, you can’t discuss Bordeaux without mentioning its exceptional vineyards. Let us mention just a few to refresh your memory and your palate: Premières Côtes de Blaye in Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Sauternes in Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol in Libournais, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac and Margaux in Médoc.
The most famous specialties are foie gras, confit d'oie aux cèpes (goose confit with ceps), confit de canard (duck confit), garbure (a type of vegetable soup), poulet basquaise, salade landaise (salad with duck meat and gizzards), peanut oil, pralines de Blaye (almond candies), gratin de poires au Sauternes (pear dessert), cannelé (mini-cakes from Bordeaux), and macaroons from Saint-Émilion.
Cheeses to enjoy here include Brebiou, Cabécou, Etorki, Ossau-Iraty, Rocamadour, and bleu des Basques.
Wines and Spirits:
- Bordeaux: Médoc, Les Graves, Blaye and Bourg, Libournais (Saint-Émilion), and Entre-Deux-Mers
For red wines, the most common varietals are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Côt
For white wines: Sauvignon, Sémillon, Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Merlot Blanc.
Duck Confit (serves 4)
Simon Mc Garr
Preparation Time: 24 hours + 2 ½ hours
Cooking Time: 2 hours
- 2 fattened ducks from the Landes region
- kosher salt
- After cutting the legs from the fattened ducks, sprinkle them with kosher salt. Let them macerate for 24 hours in a cool place in a container covered with saran wrap.
- During that time, cut or chop all the duck fat. Place the fat in a cooking pot and melt it over very low heat. The pieces of fat will melt little by little. When everything is melted, pass it through cheesecloth or a fine strainer. Press the rest of the meat firmly with the bottom of a ladle in order to squeeze out all the fat.
- Keep this fat in a cool place until you cook the confit.
- The following day, the duck legs will be macerated and the fat congealed. Melt the fat over low heat.
- Rinse the salt from the duck with fresh water. Dry it with paper towel.
- Place the duck in the melted fat heated to 150°F (70°C) and let it cook for two hours. The cooking time is long and the heat must remain low. It is advisable to use a thermometer to monitor the heat.
- The legs will be cooked after 2 hours. Check to see that they are done by sticking a fork in the meat. The teeth should go into the meat easily. Place them in a terrine.
- Pour the fat through a fine strainer and then over the cooked duck legs. Store in a cool place.
- When you want to serve the duck, remove the legs from the fat and place them in a non-stick pan, skin-side down. Cover and cook over medium heat.
- When heated halfway, tip the pan to the side, keeping the lid on, in order to drain away as much fat as possible. Turn the legs over to brown the other side.
- When the duck is warm and browned, it is ready to eat. Serve with a baked potato topped with a pat of salted butter or a dollop of crème fraîche.