There are about 300 bastides (bastidas in the provencal language, or the langue d’Oc) in Gascony and the Guyenne to the north of Gascony. These fortified towns were built in the 13th and 14th centuries for military, political and economic reasons. When Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, inherited the English throne as Henry II, in the middle of the 12th century, he also claimed a large part of what is now southwestern France by virtue of the dowry brought by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Bastide d’Armagnac, rainy day in January 1996

France and England waged war over these lands until the middle of the 15th century when Charles VII, with the help and inspiration of Joan of Arc, defeated the English. The French king’s victory in the Hundred Years War ended three centuries of fighting. However, during the conflicts, both the English and the French staked out their territory and defended their claim to the land by building bastides.

Interestingly enough, the French and English towns were similar and designed on square or rectangular grids, with the exception of Fourc’s, which was built on a circular plan. At the center of each town is an open square surrounded by an arcade or covered passageway. A covered market originally occupied the square. Though the markets have disappeared, the bastides are worth exploring before they become gentrified.

Ecole de Cuisine du Domaine d’Esp?rance

No sooner had we decided to drive west across the south of France from Beziers to Bordeaux, during our New Year’s trip to France, than we became aware of the Ecole de Cuisine du Domaine d’Esprance. A small cooking school in the heart of the rural Bas-Armagnac area of Gascony just west of Toulouse and southeast of Bordeaux, the Domaine d’Esprance is surrounded by some of the best brandy producers in France, as well as a slew of bastides, small, sometimes tiny, picturesque 700-year-old villages. The information we received piqued our interest and before we left for France, we made an appointment to see the school and meet the owner.

Eaux de Vie – Saint Gayrand

Patricia Wells has been one of our most reliable sources of French food information. Although her nine-year-old Food Lover’s Guide to France has begun to show signs of obsolescence, it remains a trusted trip planning reference. Thus we were delighted to find mention of Saint Gayrand, an artisanal distillery south of Agen along the route we were planning to take on our visit to the Domaine d’Esprance.

Saint Gayrand is not a very commercial operation. In fact, we missed the small sign along the road side and had to back track to find it. When we arrived, the proprietor, Claude Doubesky, asked if we had been sent by The Food Lover’s Guide to France. We learned that not only does Patricia Wells’ guide bring Americans to the distillery but it is also responsible for many French visitors since a French version of the guide is published.

We quickly found ourselves seated at a table covered with a score of brandy snifters, most of which we would eventually use. Blind samples were poured and we were asked to identify the fruit from which each brandy was made. Along with each pour, came a steady flow, in very patient French, of information about the production and appreciation of eaux de vie. With so many glasses being poured, we were worried that we might have given the incorrect impression that we were wholesale buyers or importers. Then we began to suspect we might not be allowed to buy anything unless we passed the test.

I’d like to say we identified each brandy without fail. Such was not the case. We found the taste of most of these to be extremely subtle and missed “a few.” Esilda’s taste buds scored a little higher than mine, confirming M. Doubesky’s belief in the superiority of female taste sensitivity. In his opinion, Belgian women do best of all. I commented on the intensity of flavor that remained in my mouth long after I swallowed the Poire, although I found the original flavor subtle and elusive. This earned me a few points and a rather detailed explanation of the importance of capturing only the center of the distillate and throwing away the unpleasant first and last parts.

We spent a good part of the afternoon with a man who is passionate about eaux de vie and very gregarious. We wanted to share his passion by taking home at least one of each of his excellent brandies, but we compromised and selected bottles of the Poire Williams, the Prune d’Ente and the unusual Muscat vielle en ft. The wood imparts additional flavor to those eaux de vie briefly aged in casks (vielle en ft), but has little effect on the inherent smoothness.

We left contentedly, but not before we had toured the charming bed-and-breakfast the Doubeskys also run. It was a most enjoyable and informative afternoon.

Paris, January 1996

Paris, January 1996. We spent three days in Paris at the end of our trip. It had been almost two years since we stayed there. We’re fond of promoting the delights of the French countryside and telling travelers how much further one’s money goes in the provinces, but there is no place like Paris. Many years ago it was the newness and excitement of a foreign city that delighted us. Now it’s the chance to slip into a favorite cafe, pastry shop or familiar brasserie for oysters or an adouillette, that stirs us as much as the chance of discovery.

We returned to the Hotel Lutetia to find the ground floor refurbished and restored without loss of charm or comfort. We’ve still not managed to try the starred restaurant Paris, but can recommend the brasserie Lutetia first hand. In anticipation of meeting clients’ requirements, I visited several hotels in other parts of the city. The Hotel du Louvre’s central location, across the street from the Louvre and the Palais Royale Metro station, is convenient for most visitors. Although the hotel has limited public spaces, the comfortable bar resembling a gentlemen’s club, and the mirrored brasserie, complete with leather banquettes, are most appealing. The Luttia and the Hotel du Louvre are both Concorde hotels and offer us excellent corporate rates.

We were fortunate enough to have missed the strikes which ended just before Christmas, but we found hotel managers in agreement that the tourist industry is suffering from reaction not only to the strikes but also to the French atomic tests in the Pacific. President Chirac announced an early end to the atomic tests, but the effect on tourism will be felt through the year as many conventions and group arrangements are planned far in advance. Competition for guests will be keen and this should be a good time for us to secure the best rooms at great rates. Hotel managers with whom I spoke, expressed an eagerness to accommodate our clients.