Visiting Lascaux II in France’s Dordogne region, I learned that Cro Magnon inhabitants painted bulls and horses on their cave walls, but their go-to meat was actually reindeer.
That was 17,000 years ago, long before domestication of the geese and ducks that are so important to cooking in this part of southwest France.
The Périgord (roughly corresponding to the area crossed by the Dordogne River) is dotted with farms that produce foie gras from their own ducks and geese. At Manoir d’Hautegente, a charming hotel in the village of Coly, Chef Frederic Pilon layered foie gras and grapefruit slices, accenting those elements with streaked caramel sauce and a mound of grapefruit sorbet. I’ve always thought of foie gras as rich but bland, and that dish changed my mind. It was a voluptuous mouthful, for sure, but the meat tasted of the animal in a definite way.
Foie gras is controversial in the U.S. (as witnessed by the ban that just went into effect in California), but to people in the Périgord, the notion of a $1000 fine for eating their cherished regional food is just puzzling. Opponents say that force feeding the geese during the last weeks of their approximately four-month life is cruel. Farmers counter that, because of a goose’s anatomy, the procedure (called gavage) is not painful and, moreover, a stressed-out goose wouldn’t produce the quality of liver required.
Curious, we stopped at a farm called Ferme de Turnac, where an owner explained the operation and invited us to tour on our own. We spent a pleasant hour watching flocks of grey and white geese (ranging from chicks to full grown) peck at grass and insects in open fields and under walnut trees. I saw a hose and feeding apparatus in an empty barn (the geese were all out strutting around) and they didn’t look terrifying. Neither do the seconds-long videos of gavage I’ve watched. I have to conclude that the geese at Ferme de Turnac lead a far more pampered life than the typical American chicken.
Périgord cooks make wonderful use of every part of a duck or goose, not just the liver. Unless you order a single plat (dish), the meal will likely begin with soup, arriving at the table in a tureen. Our favorite was tourain blanchi à l’ail, garlic soup made with duck or goose broth and laced with egg white shreds and thin noodles. Duck or goose confit preserved in its own fat was offered on many menus. I ate canette (a female duck) roasted with luscious prunes, while my husband enjoyed a charcuterie plate with an assortment of sausages and pâté.
It’s summer and what we came to know as salade périgourdine turned out to be very appealing. Basically, greens serve as a backdrop for charcuterie. The salad I found most memorable consisted of greens tossed with local walnuts and walnut oil, plus a couple of slices of duck prosciutto and a liberal quantity of gésiers d’oie. I knew the latter was goose meat in some fashion, but only later did I learn that these utterly tender, delicious morsels were preserved goose gizzards!
Thinking about these salads back home, I decided to attempt a version. No preserved duck gizzards on hand, but I had squirreled away a couple of duck sausages and walnut packets in my suitcase. My husband (not a big worrier about clothing risks) graciously agreed to pack the walnut oil in his.
I also borrowed several elements from a grande salade we ate in the cathedral city of Bourges–not the ham or lardons, but tiny French lentils and hard-cooked eggs.
Now that my duck sausages are gone, I plan to Italianize this salad by using cacciatorini or other dried Italian sausages the next time I make it. And if I feel like subbing Italian cheese for French and my favorite extra virgin for walnut oil, I will.
Makes 4 servings
4 ounces duck sausage or dried Italian sausage
1 large head Boston, Bibb or leaf lettuce, torn in bite-sized pieces (about 10 cups)
2/3 cup cooked, well-drained French lentils*
1/4 cup walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 ounces Comté, Italian pecorino or Fontina Valle d’Aosta, cut in matchsticks**
1/4 cup walnut halves
Oil-cured black olives or other Mediterranean olives (optional)
1 medium tomato, cut in 8 thin wedges
2 hard-cooked eggs, cut in 8 thin wedges
1. Lightly incise the sausage casing by running a knifepoint down its length. Soak the sausage for a minute or two in warm water and pull off the casing (a paper towel helps gain traction). Cut in slices or half moons (depending on the diameter of the sausage).
2. Combine the lettuce and lentils in a large bowl. Toss with the walnut oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the vinegar and toss again. Taste and correct the seasoning.
3. Transfer the salad to 4 dinner plates. Scatter the sausage, cheese, walnuts and olives (if using) on top. Arrange the tomato and egg wedges around the perimeter of the plates.
4. Serve the salad with a warm baguette and a bottle of dry white Bordeaux or Provençal rosé.
* These small greenish-black lentils have a nutty flavor and hold their shape well after cooking. To prepare: Combine 1/2 cup lentils with 2 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Cool and drain well before using. (You will not need all the lentils for this salad.)
** Crumbled French goat cheese, Roquefort or Gorgonzola would also be delicious.