This post is sponsored by Sawdays.
It goes without saying that Bordeaux is mostly famous for one thing, wine. And oh my is it a grand thing to be famous for. To research my latest book, My Little French Kitchen, I headed to the most notorious of the world’s wine regions, one associated with some of the most revered and expensive wines ever to be made.
My visit kicked off in the city itself. Set along the Gironde river, it is proud to have undergone a massive clean up since their former Mayor (who managed to clock a mammoth 50 years of ‘service’ while allegedly not achieving a great deal) died, leaving room for some forward thinking. Since, a shiny new tram glides effortlessly through the streets, all the grubby blackened facades have been cleaned up and the city is bustling with students, beautiful fresh food markets and a handful of very good restaurants. It’s an easy city to like. But a visit to Bordeaux is hardly complete without visiting the ‘allentours’, where much of the most exciting gastronomic happenings are taking place. After all the sight seeing I was happy to put my feet up in the homely and cosy 83 rue de Patay.
My second night was spent amongst the vines in a ‘tree house’; charming it was, rustic it was not. This was the cabin equivalent of glamping; gorgeous four poster bed, power shower, even a log burning stove. La Palombiere was part of the Château Lestange and the brainchild of Eric, who owns and lives in the Chateau within which the cabin lives.
I spent the afternoon and evening at the chunky wooden table in Eric’s mother’s copper pan populated kitchen. The log fire was raging, the hen was cooking in the pot (more on that in a minute) and the rosé, produced from the very vines my cabin was overlooking, was flowing. I had a rather quick run through from the resident cook on the classic dish of the bordelaise countryside, ‘La Poule au Pot’. What could be a fairly unremarkable dish, (boil an aged hen for 2-3 hours in stock with a selection of vegetables and make a white sauce), was a Henry IV light bulb moment, who made it his goal to get each and every French family eating a poule au pot a week as a sign of prosperity. It was also a damn good way of using up tough old hens by boiling the living daylights out of them. So after quite a lot of rosé while our hen cooked and some foie gras to soak up the alcohol, I was thinking I could get used to living in a Chateau, particularly with our hostess as the Matriarch.
The poule au pot arrived on the table surgically dissected and arranged on a tray no doubt dating back to Henry IV’s era. Mustard, a tray of artfully arranged carrots, potatoes and leeks followed, and we helped ourselves, all the while dousing it in white sauce and washing it down with magnums of Bordeaux. It was the perfect convivial feast among new found friends. Following the foie gras theme, we headed to the Ferme de Vertessec the following day, a farm just north of Bordeaux specialising in duck and goose.
The farm shop itself was the thing of regional french fantasies; another open fire, preserving jars filled with patés and confit gesiers, and a counter displaying the prettiest bundles of rotis, each with a fanciful garnish, a ribbon of orange zest, a piping of turnip purée, a sprig of this or that. Le château Pichon-Longueville, just outside Pauillac, was our next port of call for an 11 o’clock tasting of their their 2010, 2009, 2005 and 2004 vintages.
The vineyard was fairly state-of the art, not your peasant farmer’s runaway vines, but a high tech operation resulting in bottles retailing at the 200 euro price mark. While the vintages varied only moderately in their percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, each vintage was had such distinguishing attributes marked by the variations in climate of each year and their aging.
Le Lion d’Or is one address that never fails to crop up on the list of must visit restaurants in the region; chefs, winos and locals alike all rate it. It is fairly discreet, we even drove by it at first, but you trundle inside and it is busy with a seriously mixed bag clientele and oak cabinets along the walls proudly showcasing the finest wines of the area. I couldn’t leave the region without sampling ‘Lamproie a la bordelaise’ that was wet-chalked into the mirror as the special of the day. A pool of black gunk arrived with islands of lamprey (similar to eel), swimming in it. It was hard. I tried, but it beat me. Perhaps this is one regional specialty that was just a little too challenging for me. And I can safely say this won’t be something I intend to recreate at home.
After less than enticing proteins, it was onto exploring the region’s fresh produce, which is where Pierre Gratatour fit in. He is the doyen of vegetables for the area, a fact that was later confirmed by a chef friend in Bordeaux, who makes a weekly pilgrimage to his farm to collect his produce for his lauded restaurant. Pierre explained that the metier is on the verge of extinction as the area gets more and more industrialised and fewer of the young population want to get their hands dirty in the fields, meaning that plenty of old gnarly varietals are on the way out.
The evening was spent in the delightful company of Frédéric and Fabienne at Château de la Vieille Chapelle on the banks of the Dordogne. We were wined and dined in the former chapel dating back to the 12th century, before retiring to the delightful rooms set in front of the river. A couple with impeccable taste clearly, they had bought the vineyard as a new challenge having previously worked in finance in Shanghai. Life here was quite the quiet change, but with a regular influx of visitors and making some wonderful wines which were sampled over a 4 course feast, they are keeping pretty damn busy.
On day three it was time to hit the coast, an aspect to the region which is easy to forget in the richness of its countryside. But the coast is impressive. Cap Ferret is one of the Atlantic’s swankiest getaways, home for ‘le jet-set’ as the French love to call them. Out of season it is hard to picture this becoming a pretentious sea side village ranking with St Tropez as the priciest destination in France. It is quiet, full of discreet wooden cabins, countless huts devoted to oysters and a handful of nice looking guesthouses.
A few kilometres away, we visited one of the villages ostréicoles a ‘quartier’ in the Village de L’Herbe which was mostly shut, but it was impossible not to imagine how charming a stroll between the oyster purveyors and a drink on the decking of an oyster shack would be in the heat of summer.We later returned to shoot some of the seaside scenes from My Little French Kitchen.
Arcachon is postcard pretty with one very famous landmark (which I admit to not having heard of before I arrived in the area), the largest sand dune in Europe, the Dune du Pyla.
It’s quite the hike up the tallest sand dune in Europe, but luckily I had plenty of energy to take it on thanks to a glamorous little ice cream cake I had tasted that afternoon from a lovely patisserie in Arcachon called Marquet Alban.
The next day was devoted to Bordeaux, where we arranged to meet young chef Aurélien Crosato who runs a small restaurant, Solena in town. We met up to explore the market and chat about produce and eating in the city. The city is blessed with some excellent outdoor and indoor markets, one in particular stretches down the river in Les Chartrons, and despite the torrential rain, had a steady stream of Sunday shoppers. Cured duck breasts, prune and Armagnac filled croustillants (higgledy piggeldy filo pastry tarts) and a orange juice squeezing chap giving a soliloquy about the virtues of his oranges, were all part of the package.
Sunday lunch in Bordeaux is a tricky affair, most of the good bistrots are closed for lunch and it is probably the time to be eating en famille, but Aurélien pointed us in the direction of a gem of a Japanese restaurant, Sumi, which to our good fortune, is one of a handful of open eateries. We had an epic lunch perched up at the bar, the menu chalked into the board with the chefs grilling the yakitori right before us.
We ordered a little bit of everything. There was a whole aubergine peeled, steamed and steeped in a rich broth, a selection of offal on skewers with a rich teriyaki marinade, and warm oysters with an intense bouillon. It was thrilling and flavoursome, just what we wanted to warm us up on such a miserable January day.
Chartrons is allegedly the bobo part of town, as Aurélien informed us, and also the location of our very cosy digs for the night at Ecolodge des Chartrons. A beautifully restored 18th century building in the heart of Chartrons, owner Veronique has created an inviting and intimate chambre d’hotes with just 5 en suite rooms. Frankie and I spent the afternoon brainstorming in the snug armchairs in her communal sitting room, with the house cat draped over us for warmth drinking earl grey out of delightful ceramics made by a nearby artisan, Justine Lacoste. We then returned later that spring to shoot some scenes from My Little French Kitchen.
Dinner was, of course, at Soleno to sample Aurélien’s cooking. Offering a two or three course menu with two or three choices for each, it kind of went without saying that we ordered different things each to taste as much as possible. Starters were copious, a whole small squash filled with ham hock and a pool of pumpkin and chestnut soup topped with slivers of cured ham, as well as a light, perfectly cooked piece of sturgeon with a blackened crust (homage to the lamprey with a bordelaise sauce, but infinitely more refined). Sunday proved to be one of our tastiest days of the trip.
Sawdays kindly put me up at the following places in the Bordeaux region:
83 rue de Patay in Bordeaux (from 70 Euros per night)
Ecolodge des Chatrons in Bordeaux (from 101 Euros per night)
Château de la Vieille Chapelle in Lugon et L’Ile du Carney (from 75 Euros per night)
La Polombiere (from 135 Euros per night) at Chateau Lestange through Sawday’s Canopy & Stars
For a selection of other special places to stay, visit Sawdays.
Here is what I got up to in Biarritz and Espelette on my edible explorations of France.
GIVEAWAY: Seeking a touch of wanderlust this winter? Thanks to the team at Sawdays, I’ve got 10 copies of a lovely French B&B book to giveaway, (in conjunction with several blog posts that I’m publishing about my time travelling around France). The book is called ‘Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay French Bed & Breakfast’ (RRP: £15.99), and is full of magical spots to stay in France, from chateaux to chalets.
For your chance to win a copy, follow these steps. Bonne chance!
2. Tell me about a special place you’ve stayed on holiday (extra bonus points if you include a photo). From camping by the sea to snow-covered chalets – anything goes.
3. Bonus points if you mention this giveaway on your own blog 😉
Here’s the fine print: In order to be eligible for entry refer to the steps listed above. Ten winners will be generated on Monday November 25, 2013. Entries close Sunday November 24, 2013 5:00pm GMT. Any queries, send me an email