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.”



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.


The What Was It All About Cross-Country Road Trip, Day 32: Home

DSC01318The thought that I could be home by noon woke me up at 5:00 am in Tehachapi, California. After three restful days with relatives in Flagstaff, I hit the road on Saturday morning. Six o’clock on this Sunday morning, I stopped in at Starbucks. It was open. Opening time during the rest of the week is 4 am. I’m in trucker territory — although, come to think of it, I always pulled out of the trucker motels where I stayed earlier than any truck.

The drive from there to Tehachapi took longer than I thought. I’ve never driven across high plains and seen three distinct, simultaneous weather systems. Dark slate clouds and lightning to the left, sheets of rain in the distance to the right, blue skies ahead of me. By 10 am, I realized that the closer I got to home, the more tired I felt, even though I haven’t felt tired at any point during the trip.

One stop at my local grocery for supplies and then home. It took me half an hour to unload the car. It’ll take me several days to put everything back in order. I flopped on the couch and fell into a deep sleep for an hour. I’m home.

As I’ve already said to a couple of friends, I feel extraordinary lucky — maybe even cheated — that the worst I can say about any part of my trip is “been there, done that.” I’ve seen so many sites that I’ve always wanted to see and talked to so many strangers, visited much loved friends and family, that I’m afraid of the let-down in the days ahead.

Furthermore, I have also been highly conscious of how peculiarly American my trip has been. Perhaps it’s only the America of baby-boomers, to whom Route 66 means something and the price of gas is not intimidating. Every country has variegated cultures within its borders. Other countries, like Russia and China, have ethnic complexities of their own equal to ours. Unlike them (as far as I know), we have a romance with car travel. The vastness of this country means that it requires effort to sample a swathe of them. Our sense of distance is as relative as Einstein’s time/space continuum. Five hundred miles? No big deal.

Oddly enough, now that I’m home, the strongest urge I have at the moment is to get another dog. In other words, this trip helped me work through a restlessness that emerged after my last dog died two years ago. Now I’m ready to put down roots again.

Thanks to all of you who have read these posts. I’m ready for bed.