Books & Coffee, 26 rue St James.

Four times last week, I packed up my laptop and took it to this café on rue St James. Three very gracious and attentive youngsters in the twenties work their butts off to offer coffee, tea, modest pastries, and a limited lunch menu for reasonable prices. I ordered tea most days, but I saw other customers order coffee in all forms, from an espresso to the bulbous glass beakers that look like they’re do equally well for cooking crack.

The wood floors and metal shelving, the leather sofa and seats, and the tables of the interior gives the place a soothing library feel. A counter runs along a big side window and has books, children’s books, and toys to keep children occupied while their foot-weary parents recharge their batteries. I’ve had lunch there twice: a very good, custardy quiche and small salad the first time and a chicken-burger with bacon the second time. Unpretentious, tasty, and satisfying.

IMG_0084I’ve noticed that tea shops and cafés all over Bordeaux and in Biarritz carry two brands of ironware teapots made in Japan. The better quality brand, Oigen, does not seem to be widely available in the States. The design of these pots is beautifully simple. A cast iron Oigen teapot weighs around three pounds and is glazed on the interior. The ones I’ve seen here (and the one I bought at left) are priced around 98.50euros. On US sites, if you can find them, the pots run about $150. They eliminate the need for a tea cozy, because they retain the heat.

Iwachu teapots are less expensive, noticeably lighter, and the varieties of designs less appealing — to my eye, anyway. Far more examples of this brand show up on Amazon.

 

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

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.

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.

The French understand how to make cities liveable. After spending time in two provincial cities in France (eleven days in Bordeaux and three weeks in Montpellier), I have come up with a short list of features that I intend to press for in the California city I live in.

First, I would like an extensive electric tram system like those in many French cities. Silent, brand-new, comfortable, and convenient, the tramcars are heavily patronized by the French.

Second, a clean town encourages people to move around in it. Every French city I’ve visited — with the exception of Paris — has had spotless streets.

Third, easily accessible public areas that attract strollers — and I don’t mean baby buggies. I mean, people who like to stroll through a park, an attractive outdoor shopping mall, or a pedestrian commercial center.

Fourth, a city government that encourages small-businesses, especially in the food sector.

I’ve been buying food for the past week in small shops in Bordeaux city-center. After trial and error, I picked the ones whose goods and prices I liked best and stuck with them for the week. Here are the fruits of my labors:

Wine:  Bordeaux Magnum, 3, rue Gobineau (right off the central tram stop at Quinconces). The very knowledgeable salesmen here consistently recommended the less expensive bottle among a group. I enjoyed mostly everything that they recommended. The store looks like an upmarket place, and it is that. But it’s a democratic store, too.

Cheese: Jean d’Alos Frommager-Affineur, 4, rue Montesquieu, has the best and widest selection in the city center. I tasted goast blue cheese for the first time, thanks to this store. Memorable. Most of the people who work there are knowledgeable, but some more than others. The prices — forget about it. It’s expensive anywhere you buy it. But worth it.

Food: The cheese store above is located in the same small area of the city center where expensive clothing stores, restaurants, and cafes can be found. An ugly, glass circular structure stands at the hub of radiating narrow streets on several of which you’ll find specialty food stores where you can burn up all those euros you’re dying to part with. There are expensive specialty food stores on the street level of this glass structure as well. But if you take the escalator below ground you will find a supermarket and a kind of food court. The supermarket will furnish you with coffee, breakfast food, and a bewildering choice of fresh and non-fresh milk and yoghurt. At the food stalls outside the supermarket, I found a decent bread shop, a decent cheese counter (where I tasted goat brie for the first time and liked it), an Italian counter that never seemed to anyone working behind it, a prepared food counter (that sold delicious smoked bacon — ask for “poitrine fumée), a fish counter, and a fresh produce counter. When in France and Italy, DO NOT help yourself to fresh produce. Wait to be served.

I plan on updating this when I go out for my last walk about the city. I want to show the shop where I found the best bread.

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.

For the months of September and October, my goals cannot be described as other than modest. I intend to grill a bone-in leg of lamb slowly over coals. That will be next weekend’s posting. And then I fly off to London for one night and then to Bordeaux, France, for 11 days of working in the archives and hunting up affordable places to eat. Blogging from Bordeaux will be easy. Finding affordable places to eat in the land of the euro will present me with a challenge. But I’ve been there before and so have a head-start. Two or three nights in London on the way home will give me an opportunity to find new culinary jewels. When I return home at the end of September, right around the time the evenings grow cool, I know I will be in the mood to explore Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwestern France, a book that does not suit hot weather but is sure to please in the fall. During the same month, I plan to give Sophia Loren’s cookbooks a chance. Her two books look old-fashioned. But do they contain untried treasures? We’ll see. Finally, after whining just a little about Robert Masullo’s pizza dough — which, I hasten to add, was excellent on the second try — I’m going to work on pizza dough and toppings this fall.

So, there’s lot to look forward to. At least, there is from my point of view.