Bordeaux, Week 8: Be the Wine

DSC02523When walking toward the city center, I pass a little wine shop down the street from me on rue Leyteire that also claims to be a wine club, although I’ve never been by or gone in when anyone else is there except the owner or an employee. That probably has more to do with the hours I keep than with the business they handle. At first, I was disappointed that the young woman who works there during the week speaks English, but she is so nice and helpful that I try and make that the store where I get my wine. The wines they carry are not exclusively from Bordeaux and I’ve liked every one of them. Their prices are affordable. In fact, on the recommendation of the woman, I bought a delicious white wine that has semillon blended in it for 5.90e. Not bad. It’s a cave that’s all heart and dedication to wine. I hope they get more business, because they’re a wonderful part of the neighborhood. Very convenient for the Marché des Capucins, too. Not sure I want to “be the wine” I want to see in the world, in the Gandhian sense, but I’m willing to drink it.

Apparently, they have only a Facebook page here.

85 rue Leyteire

Bordeaux, of course

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.

 

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.”