Insider's Gascony

In France, an American barge captain and cook teaches guests how to navigate life as the locals do.

When I travel through the southwest of France--which is not nearly often enough--I try to stop for a night or two in the tiny hamlet of Camont on the banks of the Canal Latéral à la Garonne, the water road that runs past Toulouse to Bordeaux through the heart of Gascony. Camont, a pleasant but otherwise undistinguished cluster of farm buildings, is a worthy detour simply because it is home port for The Julia Hoyt, a restored Dutch barge, and her captain, Kate Hill, an American who has made the boat, the canal and Camont her home for the last dozen or so years. And she shares it all with guests who take part in her culinary tours.

Picture this: a spare but comfortable farmhouse, its walls a patch-work of burnished river stone and mortared brick, built and rebuilt over several centuries, with a pigeon tower attached. A two-story kitchen lies at one end, with a fireplace that runs the breadth of the room and a refectory worktable almost as long. Outside the kitchen is a garden with a riotous mix of roses and nasturtiums, herbs and greens, that reaches down to the canal. Then there's the canal itself, 60 feet wide, its turbid waters moving languorously northwest to Bordeaux's Atlantic coast, 75 miles away. The century-old cargo boat, tied up at the end of the garden, is a splendid sight with Kate at the helm and DuPont, her black, long-legged Labrador mix, sitting at attention beside the wheel.

Just to lie in bed in the farmhouse at night listening to the frogs and the lapping water should be reason enough for a stop. But Kate also knows that to understand a region's culture and way of life, you have to know the cuisine in ways that go far beyond merely learning recipes.

"You can't separate daily life from daily food," Kate says over a glass of chilled Floc de Gascogne, a locally produced combination of Armagnac and grape juice. Sitting at a table on the sun-dappled flagstones of the kitchen terrace peeling garlic cloves for tourain d'ail, a rich pureed garlic soup, she muses about what brought her to this place and why she stays: "Both the life and the food here are simple and easy. But a recipe on its own doesn't communicate that, so I try to tell stories about food, to show how it's part of our accumulated history together. After 12 years here, I feel I've only scratched the surface--but at least I know now how much deeper I still need to go." She takes obvious pleasure in imparting her knowledge to clients who spend a few days or a week at the farm, tasting, cooking and learning.

Questions are inevitable, of course, and each brings on a burst of laughter. "Where did I learn so much about food? On Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona, at the Skyline Truckstop Diner & Motel," Kate says. "My parents ran the diner after my father retired from the Navy. I was sent out to bring in the customers: 'Sir, my mom's cherry pie just came out of the oven. Wouldn't you like to try it, sir?'

"How did I become a barge captain? In Honolulu, where I was born, my father was the captain of the admiral's barge. There's not a direct connection, but still...

"How did I get here? A long, slow route: from Holland, where I purchased the barge in 1986, it took five months along canals and rivers to reach Toulouse, where the Canal à la Garonne meets the Canal du Midi--where, you might say, the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. It was very labor-intensive," she adds wryly. "But you could also say I was looking for a cuisine with a real identity."

And she found it in Gascony, a French culinary heartland where foie gras and duck confit are still made by farm women and sold at the farmhouse door, where Armagnac is distilled by small producers and aged in casks made from local black oak until it is honey-colored and almost honey-flavored, too--"the liquid embodiment of all things Gascon," Kate says.

In Kate's culinary tours, a typical day might begin with a bicycle ride to a nearby farm for Madame Sabadini's omelets and home-cured sausages and hams. A lunch excursion for foie gras might include a visit to an antiques market in a nearby town and end with a stop at the dairy across the Garonne river where Madame Bordin makes wonderful fresh, as well as slightly aged, chèvres from the 36 milking goats her husband tends. Then it's back to Camont for a lesson in how to use chèvre in the kitchen, perhaps in a savory tart, the creamy cheese garnished with pine nuts.

A Saturday market trip could incorporate an impromptu tasting at the home of an artisanal Armagnac producer whose wife cooks lunch while guests sit at the kitchen table. Or the day might be given over to a trip to Lectoure, where friends of Kate's have revived the ancient production of woad, a plant once used to make blue dye. Not only are the woad-dyed linens and laces at Bleu de Lectoure exquisite, but the stop provides an opportunity to learn about the original source of the region's wealth.

A tour always includes lessons from Vétou Pompèle, Kate's chief culinary assistant. The last time I was at Camont, in May, Vétou sent her son and his girlfriend out after dinner to gather armfuls of fragrant acacia blossoms. Then she made dessert fritters, beating up a batter for dipping the delicate, cream-colored flowers, frying them in hot oil and sprinkling them with a pinch of sugar. It was the epitome of what Kate had been talking about, a recipe so simple you can hardly call it a recipe, so tied to this place and the time of year that you can't imagine it anywhere else, so delicious that your hand keeps reaching for just one more, just one more.

For information on culinary vacations with Kate Hill, call 800-852-2625.

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