“Would you care to sample the Queen’s tits?” Not a particularly attractive proposition for someone accustomed to living in England. But when it refers to a concoction of the finest French chocolate infused with Grand Marnier liqueur, it becomes an irresistible proposal.
Féerie Gourmande, renowned chocolate-makers in the French Pyrénéan town of Pau, have taken to naming their delectable confectionery after historical members of the French royal family. These include Tetons de la Reine Margot or ‘Queen Margot’s tits’ and Coucougnettes du Vert Galant, ‘balls of the Gallant Green’ – a moniker for Henry IV, famous for being France’s most beloved king and for his love of women (a purported 57 mistresses and 24 children).”
The sexual innuendo is merely a lighthearted way of attaching a posthumous royal seal of approval to these sweets, one of countless culinary delights on offer in this, the Pyrénéan region of France.
The Pyrénées mountain range runs along the southern border of France, forming a natural divide with Spain. On the French side the region comprises several départements (similar to English counties) and, together with its neighbouring region of Gascony, is home to many gourmet charms. As with any visit to France, it’s impossible not to become besotted with all things edible. Their well-publicised love affair with food is deeply ingrained and not to immerse oneself is to forego an integral component of French life. The best thing to do is dive into the deep end.
One of the best known products of the region is foie gras, which is essentially duck or goose liver. The reason for its extraordinary taste, and how farmers go about ensuring it, is contentious. The Egyptians were apparently the first to notice that geese naturally gorged themselves on figs shortly before embarking on their lengthy migration south. When they killed and ate some of these geese they noticed that their livers had not only become engorged but exceptionally flavoursome too. Through a process of experimentation it was found that this phenomenon could be reproduced by overfeeding geese and ducks on maize for a period of some 10 to 15 days just before they were slaughtered. This technique is often referred to as ‘force-feeding’ although the French are quick to point out that it is something the birds would naturally do themselves.
Controversial as the process may be, the taste is irrefutable and foie gras is a delicacy commonly served with toast or bread as a starter dish across the country, particularly during festive periods.
Of the liquid variety, two of the region’s speciality products are armagnac and floc, both alcoholic derivatives of the omnipresent grape. Armagnac is a brandy distilled and then matured in wooden casks. Unlike its close relative cognac, which undergoes a double distillation, armagnac is distilled only once but for a longer period. It thus retains more of the subtle aromas and flavours imparted to it by the grapes. Floc, on the other hand, is the local fortified wine made from a mixture of grape juice and armagnac. Whereas floc is an aperitif often served to complement the starter course, armagnac is a postprandial drink savoured as the finishing touch to a meal. To bridge the two there is a surfeit of local wines to match every dish and suit every palate. Mine certainly did not go unquenched at meal times and the varied accompaniment of Gascony’s refreshments is an experience I can highly recommend.
Back in Féerie Gourmande, birthplace of the King’s balls and the Queen’s tits, Jean-Jacques Cazala is hard at work chipping away at his creation, the biggest chocolate sculpture in the world. Standing about four metres high and weighing more than five tonnes, his handiwork consists of an elephant surrounded by other animals including monkeys and serpents entwined around Aztec-looking carvings, all designed to evoke the exotic heritage of chocolate. Jean-Jacques hopes to complete his masterpiece in a matter of weeks, after which it will go on display. It’s a fitting tribute to the passion the French have for food.
I spent but four short days in this scenic area, experiencing rural life and sampling sumptuous cuisine. On leaving I felt I had come slightly closer to understanding why the locals have what we call joie de vivre.
Things to do in Pau
Pau also has numerous non-culinary attractions. One of these is Pau golf course, the oldest in Europe outside Britain. Established in 1856, it has a distinguished history and close links to Victorian England. Much of this past is immortalised in photographs hanging on the clubhouse walls. A short distance away is the Haras de Gelos, a national stud established in 1808 by Napoleon I to breed horses for use by the French cavalry. During the Napoleonic wars, thousands of horses were kept here. Today, the stable is home to more than 100 stallions bred largely for racing purposes.
For the more culturally inclined, there’s the Chateau de Pau, a 14th century fortification that was the birthplace of King Henry IV in 1553. Today it houses one of the largest and most beautiful collections of tapestries outside Paris. It also has a comprehensive collection of period furniture and interesting artefacts including an enormous tortoise shell that served as a cradle during the first days of the future king’s life. Provided the weather is clear, the castle windows provide panoramic views across the snowcapped peaks of the Pyrénées.