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A Taste Of Perfection In A Corner Of France

March 01, 1987|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Sometimes I wish I'd never read a page of the late Roy Andries de Groot's homage to Auberge of the Flowering Hearth or any of M.F.K. Fisher's nostalgic tales of French country meals. Finding the perfect French auberge these days is harder than finding a world-class baguette in Paris. I'm not talking about the three-star Auberges de luxe where all you need is a Michelin to point the way. I mean the kind of place where locals go to find authentic regional cooking.

I found such a place in southwest France in the mysterious Armagnac region. From Provence, La Belle Gasconne in Poudenas looked like an easy drive (it wasn't, but never mind). Five minutes from the autoroute you're on a small winding road surrounded by fields of shocking gold sunflowers turning with the sun, rolling hills dotted with black-and-white cows, sober stone farmhouses. We passed a barn where an entire field of garlic hung to dry from the rafters.

It was nearly fall and twilight edged into full-stop dark as we drove into the tiny village of Poudenas with its guardian chateau. A stone bridge spans the demure river. To one side is the auberge, a low stone house with flowering vines climbing its walls. Inside, the two small dining rooms with beamed ceiling and white-washed walls are simply decorated with country furniture, flower-sprigged tablecloths and bouquets of wildflowers.

The young sommelier, a double for Buddy Holly, brought an aperitif of wild cherry liqueur and local white wine while we had a look at the menu. This is duck and foie gras country, so as a first course we ordered the terrine of foie gras . Presented with a basket of thick grilled bread, it's served by dipping two silver spoons in hot water and scooping two egg-shaped ovals directly from the terrine.

Marbled rose and gold, this is fabulous stuff, so good that chef Marie-Claude Gracia won a Gault Millau concours , over the likes of Alain Senderens and Alain Chapel, for best terrine of foie gras . Not bad for a mother of five from a remote corner of France. Her secret? She chooses her duck livers very care

fully (they come from a foie gras farm just a few miles away), and she cooks the enormous blond lobes very slowly. Even in southwest France where it is produced, foie gras is a luxury and portions are often less than generous. Not so here. I truly could not resist when the waiter came around to ask if we would like seconds. Who wouldn't?

Next came one of her specialties, a sumptuous civet de canard (duck stewed in red wine and stock), surrounded by a black pool of sauce thickened with blood. Accompanying it, caramelized onions and a homey serve-yourself dish of zucchini cooked with cream. Her poularde de champs , a poached free-range chicken, is served in a graceful sauce of cream and tarragon set with fat, tender asparagus. If my grandmother had been French and a brilliant cook, this is what she would have made for Sunday supper. In fall there's more game, and in summer, all sorts of fish.

We passed up the Bordeaux on the small wine list in favor of a local wine, an inky Cotes de Buzet--Cuvee Napoleon-from the left bank of the Garonne. But all during this leisurely, utterly reassuring meal, I had my eye on the glittering armagnac cart as Monsieur Gracia moved from table to table pouring out a Bas Armagnac here, a Tenareze there.

Madame Gracia likes her desserts simple and homey. That means comforting isles flottantes or a delicate custard flavored with vanilla and a single verveine leaf. There is a gateau au chocolat in the mud-pie genre, and a chunky sorbet of Charentes melon. Just when you're wishing you had one more bite of that sorbet, she sends the cart around to offer you a second chance.

Coffee on the terrace? The waiter reappeared with a lantern and led us across the narrow road to a table set up on the grassy riverbank. Then he returned with a cafe filtre pot. There we sat listening to the sound of the river, sniffing the scent of forest and prunes while we drank a rare old 1964 Laberdolive armagnac. Old men gossiped on the bench by the bridge while a puppy investigated the abandoned mill the Gracias plan to restore next year. We could see the lighted windows of the kitchen, too, and young cooks in their whites hurrying in from the pantry.

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