Is it fair to compare an offspring’s prowess with their parents’? Amidst visits to artisan producers of maple syrup coloured, orange and prune scented, addictively supple Armagnac in the spirit’s 700th year, I tipsily ventured to the respective restaurants of father and son, Éric and Pepito Sampietro, deep in France’s Gers.
In the entertainingly titled Condom on the River Baïse, close to a statue of D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis and an obligatory museum of the préservatif, stands Éric’s ‘La Table des Cordeliers’. Beyond banana plants clutching the villa’s facade, a series of well proportioned spaces unravel, from a gallery of nondescript ceramics by local artist, Felix Anaut to the lofty chapel in which I sat. Alas, the glare of fluorescent bulbs made me squint, while a distant radio ricocheted in a dining room which possessed a far greater capacity than it did diners.
In contrast, in sleepy Manciet beside an ancient outdoor laundry facing a garden of plane trees, Pepito’s ‘La Bonne Auberge’ had gentler lighting, comfier chairs and a sweeter smell. Also beyond banana plants, the busy dining room was worked by Pepito’s wife, Pepita, who pin-balled between tables, dispensing customers her heart and soul in addition to dishes.
Served by an impressively moustachioed maître d’, Éric’s amuse bouche of foamed celery and ham proved cool and fatty, while Pepito’s petit potage of celeriac with submerged slithers of foie gras was densely flavoursome and nurturing.
From somewhere in the Atlantic, Éric’s starter of Blanche Armagnac flamed fattened scallops – that piscine whore of Michelin’s ideological shopping list – felt a little foreign against the earthy beans of the region, the haricots tarbais and a slipper sized lobe of foie gras. Sadly, the textures clashed, the tactile equivalent of wearing colours, persimmon and sangria. This was matched with a rich but nervy ’08, Côte d’Heux (Gros Manseng) from wine and Armagnac producer, Domaine de Chiroulet.
Meanwhile, pâtissier Pepito crafted a generously laden, musky tarte aux cèpes with gutsy, sweetly salty roasted garlic. I patted my tummy contentedly – this was exactly appropriate for a cool wintry day. Berry fresh, discreetly tannic, Cuvée Harmonie ’09 (Merlot, Tannat, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) came from Château de Pellehaut (also distillers of Armaganc). I would later that day visit their photogenic herd of blonde d’Aquitaine cattle who provide ‘black gold’ for the vineyards.
To follow, Éric continued to show a preference for brown in his cooking. Roast partridge was concealed by an even larger portion of reclining foie gras, trailed, monotonously by part roasted potatoes, baby onions and bitter chocolate sauce.
Pepito’s noble pig’s trotter croustade came with delicately cooked, sweet fois gras morsels and toasted apple. It was reassuringly pepped by occasional detonations of pepper woven within and a ‘secret’ sauce pivoting on parsley.
Michelin starred, Raymond Blanc trained Éric offered potted caramel for pudding, topped, almost apologetically with a dry chocolate cornflake bar and challenging, medicinal tasting buckwheat ice cream. Instead of a pre dessert, an après afterthought was more satisfying – a spicy sweet in see-through wrapper and chewy mini canelé.
Back to La Bonne Auberge, the third pastry course interlaced Armagnac soaked apples within its satisfyingly brittle frame. Pepita artfully liberally rained vanilla infused Armagnac over the top. A harmonious blob of boozy Armagnac and prune ice cream and dainty lemon cream shot accompanied.
According to Pepita, father and son aren’t on optimum terms. When I asked, perhaps provocatively, what they should give eachother for Christmas, she said that Pepito would give Éric a pan, while Éric would give his father ‘rien’.
In tandem with Pepita’s authored front of house service, which could become arrestingly intense (at one point, recalling Éric’s divorce two years ago, she shed a tear), and Pepito’s cooking, I greatly preferred La Bonne Auberge. But was there any commonality, culinary or otherwise, binding the generations? From our brief introductions, both Éric and Pepito seem shy, sensitive characters, both adore foie gras – unsurprising given the region, and both claim to only very rarely use Armagnac in their cooking while demonstrating the opposite. Otherwise they are as similar looking but separate as salt and sugar…