It was inevitable: no sooner had we driven past the signposts to Condom than the guffaws started. My wife, Marina, and my mother giggled like schoolgirls, cracking dire jokes about French letters and Dutch caps, prompting even six-year-old Ferdy to join in. ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’ he chirruped from the back seat, silencing us all. It was going to be a long day.
I fell in love with Gascony earlier this year while researching the delights of Armagnac and had vowed to return en famille for our summer hols. Marina, loath to be done out of her fortnight on the beach, had taken some persuading. She was unmoved by the prospect of a gite with pool, set in unspoilt country dotted with mediaeval villages, forests and vineyards. Nor was she swayed by the promise of unlimited foie gras, magret de canard and confit (she has a thing about duck), fine wine and bucketloads of Armagnac.
In desperation I played the health card. Dammit, I said, the good folk of Gascony have lower levels of heart disease than anyone else in France and live an average five years longer. Their wines are jam-packed with antioxidants, I explained, while the liquid gold that is Armagnac supposedly helps prevent heart attacks and thrombosis. Not for nothing is it an eau de vie. It will be like going to a health farm, with rillettes rather than Ryvita.
I finally resorted to quoting Cardinal Dufour, who in the 14th century declared that Armagnac ‘cures gout, cankers and fistula by ingestion, restores the paralysed member by massage and heals wounds of the skin by application…. It enlivens the spirit, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, book it,’ sighed Marina.
And so there we were, driving through Condom towards our neat little gite, Domaine de Mirane. It was a bewitching spot, nestled on the side of a hill surrounded by ancient oak trees, sweeping meadows and endless fields of glorious yellow sunflowers.
The boys were soon off chasing butterflies and lizards, returning pink with excitement. ‘I love here this much!’ exclaimed four-year-old Ludo, stretching his arms wide in an angler’s ‘one-that-got-away’ manner.
Our nearest village was mediaeval Fourcès, with its enchanting circular colonnaded place. We spent many an hour in the local café, where the boys only got ice cream if they ordered it themselves — in French. They might be a pound or so heavier, but Ferdy and Ludo sure know their cassis from their chocolat.
We visited Bastide d’Armagnac (with its enchanting square-colonnaded place), and nearby Notre-Dame des Cyclistes, a tiny 11th-century chapel set behind penny-farthing gates. This is where heroes of the Tour de France come to pray: ‘Mary, we humbly ask you to bless and protect the cyclists of the world and help them to finish happily the main and final stage, which leads to heaven. Amen’, and shoot up performance-enhancing drugs (sorry, I made that bit up).
In the hamlet of Larressingle, we made friends with Raphael, the local foie gras producer, who proudly showed us his 600 ducks running happily about. Marina and my ma came over all squeamish as he led us to the barn where he force-fed the birds with corn. The ducks flapped with delight as Raphael prepared to shove the shiny funnel down their throats.
‘Is this where he kills them?’ asked Ferdy, eyes shining.
We bought Larressingle’s fruity, mellow Armagnac from the guy who distilled it and scrumptious apple croustade (the local speciality) from the lady who baked it. In the market at Eauze, we found the sweetest tomatoes, the juiciest langoustines, the richest pâté de sanglier and the freshest pink garlic.
If for the adults the highlights were culinary, for our boys they were animal. Ferdy and Ludo saw birds, butterflies and lizards completely new to them, along with red squirrels and a beautiful doe that came to graze by the gite each evening with her faun, absurdly Disneyesque in the glow of the setting sun.
Best of all, though, was a trip with some mates who were staying in a palatial gite in Estaing to the dusty bullring of Cazaubon. Course Landaise isn’t bullfighting as the Spanish know it, but something altogether more daring and graceful. Here the flower of Gascon youth showed off to the adoring local girls by jumping, vaulting and somersaulting over the careening bulls, and Ferdy and Ludo were utterly transfixed.
This spectacle made a fitting end to our holiday. Completely won over, Marina has already booked us in for next year, pointing out that browsing and sluicing for a fortnight like true Gascons has probably added a good quarter of an hour to our lives.
Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph.