I arrived in the small town of Duras and checked into the Hostellerie des Ducs the family owned and operated property in a 19th century convent formerly with sisters of the Holy Family. Since I was jet-lagged I decided to stretch my legs with a walk, knowing that I couldn’t get lost. And within 30 minutes I passed four amazing smelling bakeries, this has to be a marvelous town, I love it already.
On the edge of town is a large impregnable fortress, the Château de Duras built in 12th century, the former residence of the Dukes of Duras. Transformed into a Renaissance-style pleasure residence in the 18th century until the ordeal of the French Revolution, then abandon it finally deteriorated over time. But fortunately, the commune of Duras decided to save its heritage from certain ruin. Now you can visit the 30 rooms including the immense kitchen, rooms with secrets, the oak framed room with its inverted hull model, the Italian loggia in the Renaissance-style inner courtyard, the impressive reception room known as the three marshals' room and the Duchess' apartments... A visit to the castle cannot be complete without a stroll along the courtyard balconies, unique in France, and above all the view from the top of the tower, enjoy a 360° panorama of the Dropt valley.
I returned to the hotel and it was still early. As I said this is a family venture that has grown over the years and now renovated to a more contemporary interiors. Instead of just sitting in the garden and since it was a little chilly for the pool, I poked my nose into the kitchen to see what was happening. Lucky for me both Jean-Francois and Vincent, his son were readying the mise-en-place for the evening. Though my language skills were on the slimmer side, Vincent asked if I’d like to put on an apron and make the foie gras for tomorrow’s dinner- excitedly I said, mais oui! Since we were doing two lobes…Vincent did one and I mirrored all his moves on the other. I have done this several times a year ever since, and every time I think of the Blanchet family.
Jean-François has a reputation of being a master at blending subtle flavors in his inventive dishes. Everything is homemade including the brioche bread he was kneading right now. The Blanchet's, who have been awarded the "Maître Restaurateur" label, making it a point of honor to use only fresh produce bought on the short circuit from around twenty local producers! The Guinguet family provides the Foie that I am learning to make, and it is a house specialty. The Turbot was local, the racks of veal, duck breast from Husson’s and Lanauze goat’s cheese all from local farmers. Eat local that is the joy of travel, gastronomic jewels of the Lot-et-Garonne.
Drink Local, Yes, there is even the Cotes de Duras appellation, cousins of Bordeaux in this northwest corner of Lot-et-Garonne. Cotes de Duras vineyards are largely planted on limestone slopes and hilltops close to town on the river-carved plateau of hills and valleys that is bounded to the south by the Dropt river valley.
But I left out my favorite moments, Vincent’s 7 year old son Hugo, came home from school, greeting kisses all round, even a shy one for me. Grandpa set up a small plastic table and chair in the kitchen by his work table. While he prepared an afternoon snack for his grandson, he placed some dough in front of him for him to knead. Harmony, family that kitchen was full of love. I would have been happy to have peeled potatoes for hours in those surroundings. It’s a family affair (four generations) both wives, Christine and Stephanie run the front of the house with care. They won’t let you escape without a homemade cannelé with prune Armagnac – remember Agen prunes come from only 40 miles down the road and they go so well with Foie Gras !
My Mi-Cuit Lesson
· 1 fresh duck foie gras, whole lobe, at room temperature
· 6g sel de traitment
· 2g Poudre Quatre-Espices a la Francaise (Roellinger)
· 2g castor sugar
· Nutmeg and Espelette pepper (optional).
· 5cl Cognac or Armagnac
Clean lobe of all veins, combine all the spices, drizzle lobe with cognac, sprinkle seasoning on both sides. Arrange on film and roll tightly to remove air pockets then press into the terrine and smooth top. Cook in warm Bain Marie at low temp 180 F. Chill 24 hours before slicing and serving.