Bordeaux, Week 4: Sundays Are My Weakness

In my self-imposed exile in a city of complete strangers, I have only two situations in which I can count on speaking to any one at all, never mind in French. During the week, there are the archivists and librarians, my guinea pigs, who listen patiently as I attempt to explain just what the hell I’m trying to accomplish in Bordeaux. Because so few people here have heard about the subject of my work, Edmond Dédé, I get a lot of practice running through the highlights of his biography.

Over the weekend, I talk to the market people. On Saturday, at the Marché des Capucins, the level of French I speak now consists less often of, “how much was that again?” and more of “I could have sworn the Spanish cheese stall was on this side of the market. It’s over there? I’m completely lost.” Finding the stalls I prefer in the Capucins, especially on Saturday when whole families and their dogs jam the aisles, takes a little leg work.

Last Sunday morning, I walked a mile to the Chartrons district on the downriver side of town to an open-air market on the embankment. The best bread I’ve found in all of Bordeaux is here (can’t tell you the company’s name because they don’t post a sign. All I can tell you is that it’s the boulangerie stall furthest downriver on the river side). From a charcuterie stall, I bought a few slices of bone-in ham, cut off a big ham right there, and a small dried chorizo.

CrevettesIt’s the take-away food that I succumb to. Last week, even though it wasn’t even 11 am, I stopped for a cornet (paper cone) of griddle-seared crevettes sprinkled with an herb mixture. As the man slapped the shrimp around on the grill like a plasterer with a trowel, his wife asked me where I was from. “Oh, my niece lives in America!” I asked where. Pause. She couldn’t remember the name of the place. She turned to her husband, “What’s the name of that place where she lives?” “New York,” he said. It’s nice to be reminded that the Big Apple isn’t the center of everyone’s world. I wished them a bonne journée and walked off munching the shrimp.

DSC02350On my way home through the place des Quinquonces, a large ceremonial space with a monument to the Girondists, I witnessed a duel and its aftermath. Whatever.

This week at the Chartrons market, I skipped the crevettes and considered oysters with a small glass of wine — at 11 am. My first Sunday in Bordeaux I enacted a great 19th-century French idiom, tuer le ver. I killed the worm, which is to say, I hade a glass of something alcoholic for breakfast.

But this Sunday I decided to try something different: escargots. Not, mind you, the escargot that are the delightful excuse to deliver garlic, parsley, and olive oil into my system. Instead, I stopped at a stall where an idle, pleasant-looking man stood next to a big cauldron of escargot in a bacon-tomato-shallot-white wine sauce with a warm aftertaste of chile-pepper. He clearly belonged to the School of “Bacon Makes Everything Taste Better.” Not cheap, at 8.50 euros a small container. But very tasty. I learned his aunt lives in Carmel, California where [something unintelligible] lives. It took me 30 seconds to understand that he was saying “Clint Eastwood.” He loves California.

Escargot BxMy only other purchases today were a small roast chicken (7 euros), slices of grilled eggplant (5 euros), and a bottle of local hard cider (4 euros). I’m well stocked for a few days of intense writing. I have to finish a draft chapter for next Saturday, when I’ll be off to Biarritz for a little bit of vacation.

Bordeaux, Week 3: The Lettuce


DSC02336  Would I emigrate to France for the cheese? Would it be worth moving here for the wine, since wine sales in France are falling (see here) and I’d have more of it to myself? The pâté, like the duck-fat dabbed smudge on a baguette slice I’m eating right now? The bread? (No, not the bread. That’s been the single biggest disappointment since I arrived in this city. I’ve found only one great boulangerie and it’s booth at a Sunday market.) Those are all reasons to come here occasionally. I don’t think I’d outlive a ten-year diet of that playlist.

But I might move here for the lettuce. These French people, they know their way around a head of lettuce. I see in the markets luscious bouquets of red-tinged and lime green leaves. For one euro, a market man forced on me two floribunda heads of lettuce that would look terrific as a centerpiece and I couldn’t say no.

Now, every night I dress my salad with Molly Wizenberg’s Bordeaux-appropriate delicious vinaigrette, available here (I add shallots), and munch on the lettuce while I keep the football teams company (to call what I do in front of the TV with the World Cup playing anything else would be inaccurate to an extreme. France just lost.).

Tomorrow is Saturday. Oysters!

Bordeaux, Week 1: Limestone, Markets, and Tapas


For the past week, I have wandered around the city at large on my way to one library or another and have come to view Bordeaux very differently from the previous two times I was here. Bordeaux is a beige, bourgeois city. Uniformly pretty and perpetually mercantile. Most of the buildings are made of limestone, a favorite of eighteenth-century architects and builders — think Georgian England, the Cotswolds, and the city of Bath. Here, either the stone was either cheap or there must be plenty of it nearby because it’s everywhere you look. The city center, particularly in the areas that attract visitors, looks like the Place de la Bourse (above). Then, there’s the city inhabited by the bordelais, who apparently have come from elsewhere at some point. Bordeaux is, after all, a river port, and so immigration has long been a part of its history. My neighborhood, St Michel, contains French people of long descent, more recent immigrants from the francophone Middle East, African states, eastern Europe, and Spain and Portugal.

And they seemingly all turned up this morning at the flea market on the river, the produce market at the foot of the pilgrim church of St Michel, and at the Marché des Capucins — which is a completely different experience on the weekend than the sedate market I’ve shopped at during the week. Tapas bars, a stall serving food from the island of Réunion, Peruvian food, cheese stalls, charcuterie, butchers, Italian products, fresh produce, and fish and seafood are all in high gear on Saturdays.

I sat down at an oyster bar. A lively woman behind the counter whipped out a small wine glass, filled it, and put a napkin and small metal pail in front of me. I ordered a plate of 6 oysters and 6 shrimp. When she served them, I said with a touch of excitement in my voice that they were the first oysters I’ve had all year. “What? Did you take a vow?” The oysters and the wine sang to each other inside my mouth. As I peeled the shrimp and dropped the shells in the little pail, I watched a film crew walking backwards between the stalls as they filmed a small 50-ish man dressed in jeans, white t-shirt and vest,  wearing a beret and waving a baguette to emphasize whatever it was he was saying into the camera. He was, I’m sure, the only man in a square mile who was wearing a beret. A young woman next to me at the counter rolled her eyes. “Such a cliché.”