Bordeaux: I Stay to Write

I am here in the city of Bordeaux to finish my book on a fellow who lived here for thirty-six years in second half of the nineteenth century. I know no one here. This is my third visit, but this one will be my longest to date. The previous two times I spent one and then two weeks here. This time, the pleasant studio I have rented in the St Michel quarter will be my home and work space from today, June 16, until September 1. My landlady, Catherine, and her husband and son live above.  As far as I can tell, she speaks no English. We’ve been communicating well, to my surprise. One week ago in California, someone spoke to me in French and I stammered to the point of incomprehensibility. My ability to speak French to a non-native French speaker in California felt like flailing and gasping for air in the shallow end of a pool. Here, in France, thrown head-first into the deep end, I rise to the surface and swim.

On the morning of my first day, I found it easier to settle in than I expected. Perhaps it will disappoint you to know that I found the Carrefour (think Safeway), the Bio C’Bon (think Natural Food Co-op), a good bread store that I will restrict myself to visiting twice a week, a cheese shop, and a wine shop. The fridge now contains almond butter, almond milk, soy sauce, salad greens, all my day-time vegan staples at home. On weekends, the carnivore in me comes out of its lair sniffing the air for the scent of blood.

My flat stands two blocks from the Marché des Capucins, the big covered market where all the city’s chefs reputedly shop. I see nothing precious or picturesque about this quarter, which is just fine with me. My landlady characterizes it as “populaire,” “of the people,” so to the speak. Stores for African ingredients, Middle Eastern food shops that also carry Vietnamese fish sauce, Moroccan restaurants, as well as fast food joints line the main streets of this area. Closer to the historic district, I found the Librairie Mollat, a huge independent bookstore. The clerk in the wine store pointed me in the direction of the Apple Store. We take the good with the global, and savor the amply infused sense of place tasted in the bread with golden crumb I had at lunch, the butter laced with orange zest and reminiscent of the city’s favorite orange-flavored apéritif, Lillet, and the flash-fried, unshelled tiny shrimps — crevettes — I popped in my mouth.

Good start. Now to work.

 

Bordeaux: Hangar Café

Hanger Café, Quai des Chartrons, Bordeaux, France.

As a result of the 18 oysters, as many sea snails (bulots), 6 big prawns, and a few mussels I had for lunch on my last day in Bordeaux, I am awash in a sea of benessere — wrong language, right feeling. Did I really think I’d leave here without one extravagent gastronomic gesture? Exactly who did I think I was kidding?

I found a café in the sun along the river in the Chartrons district, a twenty-minute walk or easy tram-ride north of the city center. Once seated, I started to read the new novel I had bought, appropriately titled given what and how much I was about to consume, Une gourmandise, by Muriel Barbery (available only in French, but her new well-received novel, L’élégance de l’hérisson, has now been translated as The Elegance of the Hedgehog. But I digress.) I read quite a few pages before the food showed up at my table.

When the server placed the platter of oysters, prawns, and snails on the metal stand before me, I ate nearly everything on it, plus drank two glasses of a refreshing sauvignon blanc Bordeaux wine. The oysters soaked in the puddles of liquor in their shells. Once disrobed of their shells, the prawns were tender and even more delicious when dipped into accompanying fresh (I swear) mayonnaise. The snails caught me completely by surprise, because they had a subtle but distinct flavor that reminded me of Five-Spices, or maybe one constituent spice therein. I couldn’t put my finger on the name of it. I asked the server who looked like he was in charge what could the spice possibly be. He said the snails were prepared with no spices. I didn’t believe him, but was willing to let it go. They were chewy but not rubbery.

I took my time. Barbery’s novel lost the competition for my attention. That platter held a lot of shellfish. I was a pig. The cost of the platter and two glasses of wine was unreasonably high for one person. For two people, however, it would have been a bargain. I paid 34 euros for a very good shellfish lunch.

Bordeaux: Café Crème

Since I arrived in Bordeaux a week ago, I have eaten out twice at the same bistro. The cheapest way to visit France in these dollar doldrums is to rent a flat through one of the online services like vrbo.com or homelidays.com (horrible name, but I found my big gorgeous flat there). With a kitchen, it’s possible to cut your expenses in half and really acquaint yourself with the bounty of the region. Admittedly, as the last post will attest, cooking in France and in an unfamiliar kitchen doesn’t come easily. But I swear it is all worth it.

On the last day they were here, my friends, Ann and Jonathan, and I had lunch in a little bistro in a section of central Bordeaux that couldn’t have closer to the tourist spots. We looked at the menu and decided to give it a try. While we waited for our food, we noticed that we were surrounded by French people and that a line was starting to form. No longer a sucker for the old “we were the only anglos in the place”-type of flimsy recommendation, I reserved judgment.

The food was downright good. We shared a chaotic, delicious salad with goat cheese on toast, to begin with. Ann had a haunch of rabbit in a parsley sauce, accompanied by fettucine, that was very tasty. Jonathan and I each ordered the bavette (maybe skirt steak in English) with rocquefort sauce, roasted potatoes, and a exuberantly vivid purée of carrot. What we ate made us very happy. Ann noticed that the cook used soy sauce to deepen the flavors of her rabbit. Jonathan and I found the same touch in the small roasted fingerling potatoes that came with our steak.

I came back to give the place another try yesterday. My first attempt to secure a seat at 1 pm failed. I killed time and quite a few dollars at the excellent nearby bookstore, Mollat. When I returned half an hour later, I was seated immediately. The steak tartare I ordered came with an egg yolk in half an eggshell on top and a little salad. I could taste soy sauce instead of worcestershire sauce in the meat, but it didn’t matter. It was a very good lunch. That dish plus a small carafe of wine (big mistake: I felt like napping instead of returning to the archives) came to 15 euros. Yes, an expensive lunch. But so substantial that the light dinner I  would prepare for myself back at the flat seemed to compensate.

So, to find this bistro, go to the Place Gambetta, lay your eyes on the tall Porte Dijeaux, and just inside the porte, on the river-side, you’ll see a little lunch place. I’m pretty sure they don’t serve dinner, as the photo above, taken at 5:30 pm, suggests. It’s well worth a visit.