A lot of people are still surprised to learn that Cyrano wasn’t just a fictional character. And a lot of the Bergeracois wouldn’t believe it if you told them that their hometown hero wasn’t from Bergerac at all, and probably never even visited. The model for Edmond Rostand’s stirring tale was Hector Savinien de Cyrano, born outside Paris in 1619. Cyrano was fully the man for his picaresque times—poet, playwright and soldier, a perfect combination, especially if one happened to be gay.
On the literary side, Cyrano was successful and popular, writing among many other works a satire called l’Histoire comique des États et des Empires de la Lune that is considered one of the precursors of science fiction. He was good with the sword too, a renowned duellist who served his king in a number of battles. When Cyrano was young, he joined a company of Gascons, the boys with all the flash and style in those days. Among his family’s estates was a little village near Paris called ‘Bergerac’, and so to be a good southwesterner too, he started calling himself Cyrano de Bergerac. (There may have been another reason. Bergerac in those days was still a hard-headed Protestant town, and Cyrano was a brave freethinker who had more than a few brushes with the censor)
As for the schnozzola, the few surviving likenesses suggest it was big, but not quite that big.
We never thought of ourselves as the kind of people who would be keeping a tub of goose fat in the back of our fridge, but down here everyone does it. It goes into making a proper tourin (garlic soup) and many other things, but mostly it’s for the spuds—pommes de terre sarladaises, the perfect accompaniment for your maigret or confit, and perhaps the most exalted employment of the humble potato ever devised.
Some of the other Périgourdin specialities require real skill, but anyone can make Sarlat potatoes with a little practice (and almost everyone who spends time down here takes home some goose fat and tries). So we’ll tell you how to do it. Get some nice, firm floury spuds, and slice them however you fancy. (If you’re handy with a knife, try slicing them thin but only 95% of the way through, so you can fan your potato like a deck of cards, and let them fall apart as they cook; that’s how the grandmas in the best ferme auberges do it).
The fat (duck, goose, it doesn’t matter) is available in any supermarket; a tin of confits will have more than enough in it. Heat it in a heavy skillet. Here’s a secret. The result will depend on how much you use; a thin layer of fat will make them a little burnt and a little white (most peoples’ favourite); 15mm (never more) gives you golden brown potatoes that are more evenly cooked.
If they stick, you’ve got inferior spuds, but keep scraping them off the bottom and hope for the best. Salt and black pepper early and often. Don’t run off; you’ll be stuck near the stove turning them occasionally for about twenty minutes; turn down the heat for a while if they’re browning too fast. Chop some garlic fine (1 to 1 ½ cloves per person) and when the potatoes are about done, clear a space and throw the garlic in. Let it brown a tiny bit and then mix it around. Tilt the pan as you remove the potatoes so they drain a little, and then toss some chopped fresh parsley on top. And there you are.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls