Bordeaux, Week 7: C’est Bio!

DSC02521I didn’t come here to eat — well, my original intention to work on a project in France may have been driven just a tad by the pâté, oysters, cheese, and wine. Now I’ve reached the stage of life when a sense of obligation to follow Michael Pollan’s advice, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” nicely jibes with my eating inclinations. I like cooking and eating vegetables, meat weighs in my stomach too heavily, and ever since I cut far back on dairy, my annoying post-nasal drip has dried up. But I’ll eat anything that’s put in front of me and enjoy it. On my own, rabbit food just sits in me more comfortably.

Before I arrived, I had ambivalent feelings about spending almost three months here in Foie Gras Central. Eating out is expensive, for one thing. And Mark Bittman’s recent column about the decline in restaurant cooking in France rings true to me, although I’ve recently had outstanding meals in Paris. Here in Bordeaux, not so much. And as one commentator in a previous post said (I paraphrase), even when it’s good, the range of food isn’t very broad.

Le RechargeTo my great surprise, Bordeaux has really good natural food stores and some quite good, relatively inexpensive southeast Asian restaurants. Apparently, organic food stores can be found in all French cities. I wasn’t much impressed by the Naturalia chain in Paris. Here, I have a very satisfying range of choices. At C’Bon, C’est Bio on the cours Victor Hugo, I found almond milk, good vegetables, decent wine, good mustard, smoked salmon, and lots of other things I regularly graze on. My sister sent me a link to an English-language newsletter about France with an article about Le Recharge, a very cool little store here that sells unpackaged food and cleaning products. Customers have to bring their own containers and bags. They specialize in cured meats and cheeses as well as butter from the Basque region, too. Across the street from Le Recharge is a decent Thai restaurant, but I prefer going around the corner to the place Fernand Lafargue, where Santosha, offers very tasty rice dishes and noodles soups with rich, distinctly not-vegetarian broth. Right next door is Yes Mum, Bordeaux’s only fish-and-chips shop.

Vegetarians would have a pretty easy time eating in Bordeaux. Vegans would struggle. The Internet claims there is a vegan restaurant, Viva Las Vegans, but I haven’t noticed it on my daily walk down that street (The Bordelais seem to get a kick out of puns in English: on the same street as the mythical vegan restaurant is a wine bar called Wine More Time).

 

Week 6: Biarritz

Our little band of beach warriors arrived by train in Biarritz, less than two hours from the Spanish frontier, in the middle of a thunder storm. The seven-year-old wanted to head to the beach regardless. The next morning, the skies still looked dodgy. We set out for the beach, only to find that swimming was forbidden that morning. That left us to the mercies of the town’s merchants. The town center has that slightly seedy, run-down appearance beach resorts tend to have. The houses in the surrounding residential neighborhoods looked like French adaptations of Swiss cottages. Outside the small covered food market were stalls of vendors selling antique linens, straw market baskets, rugs, and foutas (I’m coming home with four). We saw no Gucci, no Chanel, no Michael Kors, which was just fine with us. In fact, we had a hard time imagining Edwardian swells, including Edward VII himself, swanning around the place. The most interesting shops sold linen or spices, like piment d’espelette, the crushed chili pepper with a gentle that Thomas Keller made a point of promoting in his cookbooks. In the U.S., it costs fortune. Here, it’s pretty cheap.

Traditional macarons.
Traditional macarons.

Our best find, however, was the shop that sells traditional macarons, Maison Adam, which I learned about earlier this month in Florence Fabricant’s NYT column here. The shop wasn’t hard to find: right in the center square. We couldn’t decide whether the chewy macarons — no ganache, no flavorings, just pure almonds baked dark brown in the center — were better than the box they came in. We bought a box of macarons (12 euros) AND two of us bought the tin boxes the macarons used to come in (5 euros).

The weather on the final day was spectacularly serene and marine.

La Grande Plage, Biarritz.
La Grande Plage, Biarritz.

 

Bordeaux, Week 5: What’s Up with the Coffee?

Rue Saint James.
Nothing to do with coffee, but on rue Saint James is a very good café, Books & Coffee, which serves excellent tea.

One of the nifty little travel gadgets I brought with me on this trip is an Aeropress coffee maker, available here and, little did I know, apparently everywhere in Europe. It makes as close as you can get to a good espresso without a caffettiera, you know those little aluminum jobbies that once were cheap. In London, Paris, and Bordeaux, you can ask for your coffee beans to be ground for an aeropress and the guy behind the counter won’t look defensive as though you might be cooler than he is.

On my usual week-long London layover, the friends I stay with directed my attention to this column in the Sunday Observer  by Jay Rayner, the famously cantankerous, common-sensical, “I’m-not-buying-it,” restaurant critic and food writer. He was perplexed by a steady deterioration of the quality of espressos and capuccinos in his city. Why have they turned suddenly acidic? Where are those slightly burnt carmel tones so typical of dark-roasted beans? Answer? The grooviest of coffee houses across London have eschewed dark roasts. Roasting the bean to a deep, glistening mahogany is now considered passé. It does damage to the natural flavor of the bean.

Oh, brother! I snorted, when I read it. Thank god there will be none of that crap in France! But on mature consideration, thinking it better to hedge my bet, I went to my favorite coffee shop anywhere in the world and ordered 2 lbs of the the voluptuous, earthy Blue Sumatra bean. I said, “Please grind it for an aeropress.”  The young man behind the counter said, “Certainly.”

A little over five weeks later, I am distraught that I didn’t buy 2 kilos of Blue Sumatra. Or more. How is it that I hadn’t noticed that the French are weenies when it comes to coffee? Have I always brought coffee ground at the Algerian Coffee Store? Have I always bought Italian espresso coffee in the French supermarket Carrefour? Have I simply ordered café au lait in cafés and been distracted by the croissant?

In anticipation of running out of my precious dark roasted beans, I started hunting a week ago for a dark coffee bean in Bordeaux. Not French roast, mind you. Those I find too bitter. Just give me an Indonesian bean that’s been on the grill a good long while. I found a very genial coffee bar that sold beans on the Place Pey Berland. The young man and woman who run the place explained to me that dark roasts are bad for the coffee bean. They sold me half a pound of a Brazilian “natural” bean. A day later, after one experimental cup of that purchase, I went to a very cool café near me on rue Saint James (like the infirmary!). There I began to learn that my search would be futile. Every bean in the bins in this town was light brown. Where, I pleaded with the guy, can I find dark roasted beans? He didn’t know. But he steered me in the direction of another shop several streets away on rue des Ayres. There I found my answer.

“Americans have a different palate (sensibilité), a different taste (goût) than the French do. We prefer the subtle flavors of lightly roasted beans,” said the exquisitely mannered and polite coffee maker, with a huge smile on his face. I sniffed. If we had been in Brooklyn, the shrug would have been the same, but the English words out of his mouth would have been, “What can I tell you? We’re just more refined.”

“What about the Italians? I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad coffee there,” I retorted. “Ah, the Italians, pppffft!” Then, he explained that the French have never roasted their beans darker than what I see in bins now. At this point, my French started running out of gas. I wanted to go on to say, oh yeah? Then why did the last two coffee shop people I spoke to tell me they thought San Francisco was a great coffee city, where Peet’s and small artisan cafés reign supreme?

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. So, I called my friends in London, who are arriving tomorrow, and asked them bring me a kilo of Blue Sumatra from my favorite coffee shop in the world.