Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Armagnac - 2nd Day

We dragged our weary asses out of bed early-ish. . . .considering how late we had dragged in, so we would not miss the breakfast at the hotel . . . 16euros apiece for whatever is one step above a continental brekky . . . the kindest thing we would say about it is that the papaya juice was excellent, and the coffee from a machine, passable . . .

The plan was to walk-a-bout for the morning, then head on over to Eauze to begin the vacation proper’. We had no plan nor any direction, I just set out in a grand circle and Mrs followed me . . . the streets were a mess, like after a giant party, there were broken bottles and litter everywhere, but the cleaning crews were already out, desultorily attacking their sysyphean task.

At one corner while we puzzled which direction to go, a car full of young hoodlums (I say with the kindest of intentions) pulled up . . . the front passenger spoke to me with the tone of voice that I couldn’t distinguish between ridicule and jocularity. I gave him the gallic shrug and he responded, “Oh, do you speak English?”

I said yes, and walked over toward him.

“Do you like Toulouse?” he asked.

“Oh, yes!” I said, “it was very charming.”

“oh m’seuir,” he said, “to be young and to be in Toulouse . . . “ and he kissed his fingers in the universal gesture.

“Well,” I said, “to be young is always better than to be old!”

And we both laughed. The light changed. They drove off, hooting. . . I still don’t know if they were making fun of me.

The hoteliesse at our Chateau in Cabuzon told us later that there are three universities in Toulouse . . . which explained the Rabelaisian riot . . . to be young in Toulouse, indeed . . . 8^D . . .

We walked along the river, seeing nothing much beyond mild interest, till suddenly we were in the middle of the farmer’s market, which was just reaching critical mass - - some vendors were still unpacking, but others were in full-swing. I don’t know the shopping habits of Toulousians, was it weekly or daily? But this was an entrancing social scene . . . wicker baskets, cheeses, roast meats, vegetables & fruits, an indescribable pastiche of colors and smells. We walked back thru. . . Mrs wanted a wicker basket . . . we concocted a strategy for our return trip . . . we would stop off in Toulouse and provision for the long way home. No more burger king or cello-sandwiches!

With the prideful feeling that we had accomplished what we had not known we needed to do, but that was essential, we moseyed back towards the hotel thru the flea markets adjacent to the farmer’s market. Only the diminutive size of our rental car, already over-allocated to wines and armagnacs we had not purchased yet in addition to our luggage & my golf clubs, kept me from buying the treasures on display.

We reclaimed our luggage from the hotel, reclaimed our car from the garage, and began to inch our way out of Toulouse.

It was but a short drive from Toulouse to Cabuzon, an hour and a half . . . but it was poorly timed . . . over the lunch hour . . . meaning that we missed lunch . . . the TomTom directed us directly to the hotel, but we had to creep thru heavy traffic because it was the time of the village fete . . . and here I realized the import of the traffic sign we had seen the night before, where Barcelona was only 100km past Toulouse . . . the fete was in the parking lot of the bullfighting arena in the center of town . . . I don’t think there was a bullfight as part of the fete, we didn’t ask and we didn’t intrude on their celebration, other than driving thru the crowds of pedestrians on the street/parking lot.

As we were checking into The Chateau Bellevue, http://www.chateaubellevue.org/ a couple checking out whispered that the Armagnac and Foie Gras vendors recommended by the hotel were superb, so without much ado, we turned around and headed back out.

As it turned out, the Armagnac place was one that I had picked out from the internet, anyway . . . Domaine de LAGAJAN-PONTOUAT http://www.eryximachos.de/armagnac/dlp.htm . . . I am not sure, in retrospect, that it was anywhere near one of our favorites, but one has to start somewhere, n’cest pas?

The woman who served us our degustation was amiable enough, a smattering of English, but distracted by houseguests, and the fact that it was Sunday afternoon, when they are not as inclined to be attentive as at other times, perhaps . . . or it could be that armagnaciers are a rather independent and indolent class of people, anyway, rather than cold-eyed businessmen and women, if you see what I mean.

Her shop was full enough of arcane books on Armagnac crammed onto shelves, old farming & distillery equipment, dusty bottles and shabby, rustic furniture to convey the sense of an multi-generational-familial enterprise, so that our expectations were set & met at the same time. She also introduced us to Floc du Gascone, an aperitif made with grape juice and Armagnac. Too sweet for us, and a waste of good Armagnac, I should say, but the French, themselves seem partial too it, so WTFDIK. . . .

So armed with a few bottles and a few tidbits of Armagnac lore she had idly, disinterestedly imparted to us we headed off to the Foie Gras place, now roaring with hunger . . . we figgered a few nibbles of goose liver pate would get us thru to dinner . . . it was now 4:30 . . . but there was no body home . . . sadly, we left.

As we drove back to the hotel, with nothing to look forward to but a couple of hours doing nothing but listen to our stomachs growling, I spotted another vendor of Armagnac that looked promising . . . so I whipped off down their driveway . . . to Chateau de Millet . . . they weren’t one of the 3 on my itinerary, but this was my plan . . . to happen upon the distillers and experience them spontaneously . . . these people could not have been nicer . . . the woman here spoke very passable English, and tho’ it was Sunday afternoon, enthusiastically lectured us on Armagnac, and her particular vintages . . . we developed what would become our modus operandi here: start at the bottom and test until we can’t tell the difference any more, then buy everything we liked . . . 8^D . . .

The Chateau Bellvue is a creaky old joint, with the sort of shabby elegance that is very French, if not just European. In places, the wallpaper was peeling, the lighting was peculiar, the plumbing was, hmmmm, not ancien, but ennobled by time, certainment’. It’s a spectacular looking place, in a very romantic setting.

When the appointed dinner hour came, we were the first downstairs, too hungry to be fashionable . . . . After a desultory consultation with the sommelier-cum-maitre d’, the dinner began:

We managed to control our excitement as he revealed the aperitif: floc du gascone . . . we struggled not to cut short his spiel – we don’t even like the stuff – too sweet . . . but they had also brought some thin slices of bread with garlic-oil-&-parmesan cheese nits . . . the aperitif didn’t do anything to quell our appetites, and we scarfed the bread up like it was manna from heaven.

We got him to bring us some eau minerale naturalle, too, tho’ he didn’t seem to know what jemne perliva meant . . . 8^D . . . oh! Gasseus!

Mirabile Dictu! The first course was local foie gras with a toast point, a schmear of framboise, and a snippet of vanilla bean that looked like a dead cockroach . . . we found it all more amusing than disgusting . . .I just hope we didn’t hurt their feelings . . . we’d managed to get a bottle of white wine ordered with the sommelier’s help, and it was quite fine with the foie gras . . . based on our usual diet, that would have been enough for dinner. The foie gras was huge. We fell back in the meat sweats after that . . .

So naturally, nothing would do for a follow up, but a veal roast served on a bed of zucchini roasted with olive oil and thyme – and one radish . . . 8^D . . .haute cuisine is so .. .. .. haute, if you know what I mean . . .

Desert was a prune cake iced with chocolate with a shadow of cocoa powder and an accent of Aztec chocolate . . . that was pretty good, if I can damn with faint praise, here . . . 8^D . . .

I had some coffee au lait with dessert, but when the sommelier asked if I wanted some Armagnac, I declined, having done nothing but drink Armagnac since 3:30 that afternoon . . . he reeled away in shock and dismay and that was the last we saw of him that night. Sorry.

I was even sorrier a couple of days later when I saw in the bar that I’d never gone in the variety of armagnacs they had in there . . . the sort of collection I’d aspire to, except I’m not a hotel . . . .

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