I ticked off another destination on my bucket list and, in retrospect, am finding it hard to determine which vacation I loved more: the South African Safari http://singita.com/ or a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Rafting in the Rio Paquare, Costa Rica was an exhilirating, heart thumping experience

Aperitif on the beach at sunset, in Grand Cayman, is priceless

These two teenagers fighting were so amazingly close you could hear their tusks clanking

"Positano, like Capri is more of a way of life than a tourist destination.  La Marina Grande is the small main beach."

View from our Dorado Beach Hotel terrace.

Gascony September 1996

By: Esilda Buxbaum

Toulouse

We were tired, but hungry and eager for some local food when we arrived in Toulouse. Using the Michelin and Gault-Millau guides, we picked three bistros as likely candidates to satisfy our appetite and mood. The first two, we discovered, were no longer in business. The outdoor tables of the third were on a street befouled by car fumes, and the menu was disappointingly devoid of local dishes. As we ambled our way through the old part of the city, we came upon a street lined with small restaurants. One, busier than the others, featured an inexpensive menu with local flavor.

We settled into La Lechefrite and enjoyed a small complimentary apéritif of white wine with crème de mûre (blackberry). The 99 F dinner began with a salad of fresh mixed greens, thin slices of smoked duck breast and duck confit, and a small slice of foie gras. This was followed by maigret de canard, served "bleu" as requested and accompanied by potatoes cooked in goose fat. The meal was lighter than it might sound and provided just the right touch for our first night. No "stars," but very satisfying.

Toulouse, built largely of red brick, is often described as rose, rouge or mauve, depending upon the time of day and setting of the sun. Having revisited most of its justly famous sites fairly recently, we thoroughly enjoyed walking around and sitting in cafés, free of responsibility to sightsee. Most of the renovations in the central Place du Capitole are finished and it's one of the great places for cafe sitting and people watching.

Last January, we were introduced to the bastides of the area and we set off again, to continue our exploration of these towns and Gascon cuisine. The sun was a lot brighter and hotter, now, early in September than it had been then. By midday we were glad we chose shorts and polo shirts. Some of the old vilages are well kept and some suffer from centuries of neglect. Frequently only parts are preserved, but many bastides still have a covered market in the square.

We ran across one weekly market with but a few tables and two wood burning pizza trucks. We've had some of our best and worst pizzas in France, and pizza from trucks has usually been at one extreme or the other. Although not originally native to this area, pizza has become ubiquitous in France and these were too enticing to ignore. We had a slice with chorizo and peppers as a foretaste of our eventual Basque destination. While it wasn't traditional fare, it was delicious.


Auch and the Hôtel de France

Auch is the administrative capital of the Gers, one of France's least bustling and industrial departments. In the last century and a half, the Gers has led all French departments in depopulation, with many of the young leaving for nearby Toulouse or Paris. One British travel guide notes that "Auch seems to have no ambitions to be anything more than an overgrown farmers' market." Perhaps that's so, but I don't know why they prefaced it with "Unfortunately." We still enjoy reminders of an older agrarian France.

The venerable Hôtel de France, itself, is a reminder of the time small city hotels were way stations for those traveling by coach. Today, it maintains a traditional feel while offering contemporary comfort. While not all the rooms are as spacious and luxurious as Suite 24, a duplex with jacuzzi, sauna, several tv sets, fax machine and minitel, they have airconditioning, sound insulating double windows, modern bathrooms, cable tv with remote control and the amenities one would expect in a first class hotel.

Please be advised that the Hôtel de France is now under new management since this page was written.

You might come to Auch to see the early 16th century artworks in the cathedral, and you shouldn't miss the notable stained glass windows or the even more fascinating choir stall carvings drawn from a variety of biblical, mythical and secular themes. The main attraction for us was André Daguin's Gascon fare.

The ducks and geese of André Daguin

Alas, the Hôtel de France of André Daguin is history. MonsieurDaguin retired and sold the hotel in the fall of 1997. The man who introduced rare duck breast to diners in Auch is no longer cooking it professionally, but diners the world over may be eating magret de canard and we all owe a debt of gratitude to Monsieur Daguin for his inspiration and creativity. Continue not out of anticipation of following our route, but to read of an era now gone. André Daguin's three children continue his gastronomic tradition elsewhere. One daughter is here in the states producing foie gras, confit de canard and pates commercially under the company name of Dartagnan. Another married a pastry chef and they run a patisserie in Provence. His son operates a Michelin starred restaurant in Biarritz.

One look at the menu and you will quickly discover that André Daguin has a one track mind. Fortunately, the track runs through rich and rewarding gastronomic territory, namely the land of geese and ducks, and, of course, their foies gras. Daguin has revolutionized Gascon cooking while remaining faithful to it's very hearty and homespun nature.

The menu advises that one particular offering will feed two or three Gascons, or three or four Parisiens. Daguin notes that Gascons consume great quantities of fat, salt and sugar and live to ripe old ages. According the University of Toulouse, goose fat is more like olive oil than it is like butter and the longevity of the local citizenry is the result of a diet rich in goose fat and red wine. One should remember , however, that the typical Gascon is a farmer working long hours in the field and not at a sedentary desk job.

M. Daguin, a large and imposing figure in his chef's whites, greets guests and takes orders in the dining room. We ordered the tasting menu on our first night. For 505 F, plus wine, but including tax and service, one chooses either "a few large plates" or "many small ones." In either case, the menu promises a meal "composed of dishes we like to cook, serve and eat, a menu about the goose, duck and all the riches of Gascony."

We enjoyed two wines from vineyards not far to the southwest of Auch: a glass of sweet Jurançon with the foie gras and a bottle of Madiran, bearing Daguin's private label, with the rest of the dinner. Our first course consisted of four slices of foie gras (aux noix, aux prunes, aux truffes and au sel). Differences in taste were subtle, but they were all about the finest foie gras we had ever had.

Dinner proceeded with fresh foie gras, langoustine and a julienne of vegetables en papillote, pouches puffed with steam, which arrived at the table on a bed of hot coals. The aroma and flavor of the dish were sublime, but unfortunately, the foil packets spent a few seconds too long on the hot coals before they got to our plate, overcooking the foie gras and the langoustine a bit. The next course was a duck breast marinated in red wine and served in a rich red wine sauce. While the taste was intense and delicious, the marinade changed the texture of the meat, partially cooking it. As a result, the maigret was not as rare as we had hoped.

Ice cold Blanche de Gascogne, a clear eau de vie, arrived next, in small conical glasses without bases. This spirit should not be confused with Armagnac, the Gascon brandy, sipped and savored at the end of the meal. This digestif was meant not only for the food consumed but to burn a hole for that to come. In this case, a wonderful confit with a warm garlic vinaigrette. We commented that we had asked for a menu of "petit plats," and the waiter replied that "in Gascony, this is a petit plat, it's only a leg, not half a duck." We were content to see a simple green salad, with a slice of excellent sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrenees, next. For desserts, we chose the poached figs with honey, topped with fig flavored whipped cream, and a simple dish of prune ice cream with Armagnac. After a healthy shot of Armagnac was poured over the ice cream, the bottle was generously left on the table.

In spite of the fact that we felt the service could be improved at times, notably when our papillotes were brought out, but not promptly served, and when we had to stretch across the table to refill our empty wine glasses, we greatly enjoyed our dinner. Although the Michelin Guide awards only one star to the restaurant, we felt that the local character of the food as well as its quality, are exactly what makes travel so rewarding.

In addition to his restaurant gastronomic, Daguin operates the Restaurant Côte Jardin and the Bar Le Neuvième, under the hotel's roof. We intended to dine in the bar, or other restaurant, the second evening, but neither offered the Gascon treats we desired, thus we returned, a second evening, to the main restaurant to feast upon more of Daguin's specialties including a rare duck breast. Grilled maigret, (or magret) served rare, was put on the menu by André Daguin in 1959 and has remained a tradition here, as well as becoming a popular dish world wide. Maigret appears in at least six guises on the menu.

In answer to our our question, André Daguin explained that sauce Auscitaine (for Auch) is similar to sauce Bernaise, but lighter, with the butter replaced by goose fat. We wondered if goose fat could be as appetizing as butter, but out of curiosity or a feeling that our bluff was being called, we ordered the grilled duck breast for two, "bleu, à la sauce Auscitaine," for our main course.

Our second dinner was shorter and simpler, but excellent. This evening, we chose a Château Montus, a Madiran with more tannin, offering a contrast to the fruitier wine we had the previous night. We both wiped our plates clean to get the last bit of sauce Auscitaine as we polished off our wine and the perfectly cooked, very rare, maigrets.


Eugénie les Bains, dinner at Michel Guérard

Michel Guérard's notoriety may stem from his cuisine minceur, but his three Michelin stars were earned serving cuisine gourmande. We arrived on time for our dinner reservation and were ushered into a lounge furnished with easy chairs, sofas and coffee tables. At first we thought our table wasn't ready, but soon realized we had been invited into the lounge for an apéritif and some splendid hors d'oeuvres, while we perused the menu and ordered dinner.

The extensive dining area is comprised of several luminous rooms, varying in style and hue. The overall impression is one of relaxed elegance and great éclat. Service is exceptional, although perhaps a little too noticeable when waiters gather around a large table to simultaneously remove the silver domes from each plate. The bustle of the large restaurant is either a distraction or a bit of theater, depending on one's mood or attitude.

Our dinner began with elegant comfort food, scrambled eggs, brouillade aux oeufs truffées, to be more precise, and foie gras served with figs. For our fish course, we both chose Dorade, in a flavorful stock and cream sauce with tomatoes and wild mushrooms. This was followed by a rustic duck pie and ravioli with Bolognese sauce. As expected this was neither your mother's Bolognese nor ravioli, but two loose squares of pasta with finely diced duck and vegetables perfectly cooked in a rich reduction of brown stock. The duck pie, served on a bed of sauteed cabbage, was indulgently rich with duck liver as well as meat. Both dishes were a tribute to artistic license, in the hands of an artist. Desserts were a perfectly poached white peach served with verbena ice cream and raspberries, and a plate of intense chocolate desserts.

Our dinner, selected from the 550 F prix fixe menu, one of several offered, was superb from hors d'oeuvres through desserts. Wines and coffee were extra. A glass of Jurançon with the foie gras, another with the peach dessert, a bottle of wonderful Tursan from Guérard's own vineyards, a half bottle of a decent Madiran, mineral water and two espressos, added another 450 F to the bill. Tax and service were included in the prices, as is the custom in France. It was well worth the price.

In addition to the food, the Tursan, a Baron de Bachen, the better of the two bottlings from Guérard's vinyards, was a real treat. An aromatic wine with grapefruit, pineapple and herb flavors, it reminded us a little of a very good California Sauvignon Blanc as well as a dry Alsatian Gewurtztraminer. It was a wine we hadn't even heard of until we read a recent article in Wine Spectator about vineyards owned by French chefs . Guérard invests in a local vineyard not entitled to the rank of Appellation de Origine Controlée, in the same spirit that inspires him to include andouille, the wonderful rustic sausage of rolled tripe, sliced to a transparent thinness, as an amuse bouche. Luxury and elegance abound, but good taste comes first.

Patricia Wells, in her Food Lover's Guide to France, suggests that Les Prés d'Eugénie might be the perfect French country inn, although she admits perfection is relative. We felt a bit like the country was Southern California and the scale of the operation did not say "inn" to us. Christine and Michel Guérard operate a small empire of hotels and a thermal spa, dominating the tiny village, and offering accomodations varying in price. In addition to the Relais et Châteaux, and very posh, Les Prés d'Eugénie and Le Couvent des Herbes, a restored 18th century convent, there is the moderately priced La Maison Rose, a charming guest house with it's own swimming pool. The gracious and bright Guérard spirit imparts a relaxed and sunny mood at La Maison Rose, with its baskets of dried flowers and herbs, and interior decor of yellows and white. La Ferme aux Grives, a restored country inn specializing in rustic cuisine, is the latest addition to the compound. The village is named after the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, but Guérard les Bains might be more appropriate.