Gascony’s bounty

When American Kate Hill navigated her Dutch barge down the canals of Southern France in search of Camont, the crumbling, canal-side Gascon farmhouse she bought as a place to moor, she never imagined it would become her home for the next 30 years.

But Gascony—with its tangled vineyards and fruit orchards, green pastures and blonde cows, medieval villages and hilltop chateaux—is the definition of an idyllic life. To the then-budding chef, there was simply no reason to turn her barge around. It is from Camont, beautifully restored and swathed in Virginia creeper vines, that Hill runs her cooking school. It is also from the farmhouse, on a relaxed Wednesday morning, the five of us depart in her van for the market in Lavardac.

Kate Hill in her kitchen

There’s Larissa, a young chef from Detroit, who’s been studying butchery and charcuterie with Hill for a month. There’s Jim and Margot, a foodie couple from New York, here for a week to celebrate the completion of Jim’s literary anthology, 1000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then there’s me, a culinary amateur who just wants to eat foie gras and drink the great regional wine, which is close in spirit— but lower in price—to that of neighbouring Bordeaux.

Rabbit with ventrèche and fennel

Behind the wheel, Hill is not to be confused with a tour guide. She’s more like your “really good friend in France” who has learned all the best addresses, met all the most interesting local characters and is ready to share the cream of her knowledge. Hill keeps her culinary groups small, never more than eight, and the itinerary fluid. It moves based on where you’ve been (“Since we’re here, there’s a strawberry farm up the road”) and what you’ve been talking about (“If you want more history, we can swing past a preserved Gallo-Roman villa”). In this relaxed setting, it’s not long before my fellow travellers start to feel like old friends, too.

Petit pois à la française

In Lavardac’s open market square, Hill takes us to her favourite producers. To the cheesemonger in his refrigerated stall, where we buy chèvre and freshly churned butter. To a honey seller, where we’re drawn by his pain d’épices, a moist quick bread. To the pork producers, whose holistic approach means that, alongside their pigs, they raise all the grain that feeds them. We marvel at their meat on the bone, ready to be sliced into chops. Next, we stop at a produce stand, where white asparagus and purple-tipped young artichokes are just coming into season. Finally, we visit a poultry vendor selling plump fowl to pick up a hunk of foie gras and a whole uncooked rabbit, and a butcher’s stall for juicy cuts of beef. Call it farm to table, but this is how it’s always been done here.

Lunch in the garden at Camont

Back at Camont we enjoy the spoils of the market on Hill’s sunny back terrace, trestled in blooming wisteria. Hill pairs the chèvre with homemade Sicilian orange preserves and the foie gras with the pain d’épices. It’s just a snack before we prepare the white asparagus, braised rabbit and apple croustade for our evening meal. Hill turns out to be my favourite kind of chef. Everything she teaches is simply prepared, yet refined; unfussy, but made with quality ingredients. She learned French cookery in Gascon farm kitchens.

Apple croustade

Within the hour, the rabbit is in the oven, its flavours mingling with the pancetta, fresh fennel and herbs, and we have our hands in the pastry dough, which turns out to be a 10-minute affair (though you’d never know it when the flakey, golden-brown crust filled with Armagnac-soaked apples comes out of the oven). While we wait for the main course, Hill introduces us to the local way of enjoying steamed white asparagus. She takes a deep clay dish and wedges it on one side with a fork so it sits at an angle. Into this makeshift trough she pours vinaigrette, then uses her hands to dip and eat the spears—tips like this are one reason why you need someone like Hill to do Gascony right.

Another reason is her contacts, who cheerfully greet us as we visit the Bastide village of Fourcès for a tasting at a regional wine shop, or as we stop to sample Armagnac (a type of local Brandy), some of the best of which is produced on rustic farms—a hand-painted sign at the entrance to one asks visitors to klaxonner, or honk, upon arrival.

Château de Mazelières

Her closest partnership is with the nearby Château de Mazelières, a 17th-century French castle complete with stone walls, towering fireplaces, original wood beams and modern furnishings and conveniences where Hill’s guests stay. The chateau is magical, particularly at sunset when the golden light falls on its vineyards and into the kitchen where Hill holds some of her lessons.

Before we retire, our host, Philippe Bon arranges armchairs around the fireplace and we have an Armagnac nightcap, tasting Gascony in its depths—it’s the flavour of caramel, vanilla and sunshine, and enough to make me not want to turn my barge around.

[This story appears in the August 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]