It’s not even ten o’clock., but already people are everywhere and parking is hard to find. So, you might ask, where am I only two short weeks before Christmas, armed with cash and a couple of large shopping bags? Somewhere fancy? I’m afraid not. Instead of Louboutins, or other lovely and impractical footwear, wellies are definitely the fashion choice of the day. It’s grey. It’s rainy. There is muck underfoot and judging from the squawks and the honking coming from the other side of the square, some sort of manure will be involved. And there you have it: I am heading to the famous “Marché au gras” in the little Gersois town of Samatan, 50 kilometres west of Toulouse. It’s market day in the town centre and stalls for everything from honey to cheese over non-stick frying pas and hunting gansies fill the streets around the main square. We, however, bypass the daily foods and head for les Halles – the produce market warehouses – to shop for France’s traditional seasonal treat. The Gers is famous for three things: foie gras, Armagnac and being the home of D’Artagnan, the fourth Musketeer. I’m not here for sword fighting, though. I am here for the duck.
The first building we go into is filled with animal smells and people looking into poultry cages containing quails or chickens. People are prodding rabbits, rubbing the bumpy bit at the top of the ducks’ beaks and carrying hens upside-down by their feet like ladies’ handbags. I get into a conversation with a young man selling hens. I learn that the pretty grey ones are called “ashen” and lay particularly large eggs, but that they are finicky about their food and stop laying when the weather gets cold. The white and the black hens draw when it comes to performance, but if you want a champion in the egg race, you should get a red hen: “Une vraie mitraillette!”, he says – they shoot out eggs like a machine gun. Good to know!
We move on to the next hall where there is no more squawking – there are ducks, but they have given their lives to French gastonomy. The prize parts – liver and heart – have been removed from all but one duck I can see. There seem to be different techniques: some are sliced open lengthwise, while others have an upside-down Y-incision that looks like they are playing the part of the victim on a CSI Christmas special. The carcasses are lined up on long, narrow steel tables for people to look at, judge and – if found satisfactory – purchase. The tables have a convenient gap to hang the long neck through and out of the way. Nothing is wasted: people here stuff the neck with foie gras or add it to the meat in the pâté, the fat is used for frying potatoes and the bones are boiled down for soup. Even the grizzle isn’t wasted, as it is cut into small pieces and fried. That’s right – fried goose fat strips. They’re called “gratons” here and are a favourite apéritif snack. Oh, don’t look so shocked! I bet you eat the crackling on your pork roast and love it.
Prices are fixed by looking at the buyer and guessing what he is likely to be willing to pay. “Three forty”, a man says to me gruffly from below his beret, picking up a duck by its neck and making a little Ta-daa gesture with his other hand. He’s got twenty magnificent birds to sell. “Three seventy”, we hear him say to another man, showing off the same duck. I must have the right face for bargaining. My husband and I choose two ducks, each about 6kg in weight and haul them away in our shopping bags with some difficulty. I envy the old lady across the aisle who is busy shoving three ducks straight into her wheeled shopping trolley without even the precaution of plastic or butcher paper. The car suddenly seems miles away.
I am, to be honest, just a little intimidated by the whole birds in our bags. I’m a good cook, but do I even have knives sharp enough to cut through bones that size? Will I do a satisfactory job or will I mess up those beautiful magrets? Salvation comes in the form of a simple plastic sign that reads “Salle de Découpe”: the cutting room. In there, four butchers chain-chop their way through rows and rows of carcasses offered up by their buyers. I see that some of us are more organised than others. A man is standing near the door with a gigantic copper pot in a shopping trolley. He piles the duck pieces straight into it as they are handed across the table, ready to simmer them for 20 hours until they are tender and confit.
We’re still waiting when the whistle sounds. The whistle! We abandon our ducks in the cutting room and dash for the foie gras sales. An area has been cordoned off in the carcass hall and producers have lined up their precious duck livers like diamond sellers in Antwerp. The whistle is the sign that the foie gras sale is open. And… they’re off! Potential buyers push through the narrow opening in the barrier and run towards the sellers. Seeing ladies of a certain age in elegant winter coats jockeying for position around farmers with rugged faces and calloused hands is just a little bit comical. I should mention that the median age is quite high and while there are a few parents with young children, a good third of the people are wearing either berets or fedoras, and some men have rather impressive moustaches. It’s not surprising, really. For one, foie gras is a rather expensive treat, for another, it is generally an acquired taste. One of my sons loves it and that’s fine, another asks for “pâté” which makes me hesitate to share the precious stuff with him until his taste buds are able to make the distinction.
There certainly is some controversy about just how happy ducks can be about developing a completely disproportionate liver for the sake of humans. I will leave the cruel/not cruel debate for another time, though. In all honesty, if I had to kill everything I eat myself, I would quickly be reduced to vegetables and fish and I am thankful that there are professionals who do some of the dirty work for me. I am equally pleased that some people grow stuff I don’t know how to grow or import things that only grow in other climates. Woman cannot live on spuds alone (I know how to grow those!).
In a few short minutes, all but a few of the duck and goose livers have been sold. We return to the cutting room to pick up our prepared duck carcasses. The butchers only charge 1€ per duck for work that would have taken me ages. On our way back to the car we pick up some butternut squash, shallots, white beans and freshly preserved gherkins in a jar. Motivated by the epic proportions of our birds, my husband volunteers to cook them. I gladly take a backseat, for a change. As it stands, every room in our house smells of “Eau de Canard” for two days before every last bit of duck has been fried, simmered or boiled down and preserved for future consumption. So… do I regret not having spent the day strolling through the thronged shopping streets of Toulouse instead of mucking it with farmers in Samatan? Not a chance! And in France nothing says “Joyeux Noël” like foie gras…