Monday, 25 July 2011

A beautiful city for carnivores and gourmands

It's probably true to say that France is not a paradise for vegetarians. Okay, if you're around the coastal regions, you'll be alright if you fall into the pescetarian category and, if you're on the Mediterranean, there'll be olives and tomatoes to die for, but in many places, even if you ask for a mushroom omelette, then this being France, it could well arrive with a 'garnish' of lardons.

But if a carnivorousness is true of the country in general, then it is even more so in the south west. This is, after all, the home of the Perigord, where the very best foie gras hails from.

And the area as a whole is, more than any other, at the very heart of the French paradox.

A mere one and a half days in Bordeaux was entirely enough to reinforce this sense of a meat-eating culture. Steak and duck don't simply form clichéd menus for the tourists, but they're at the centre of the restaurants where the locals eat too.

Take Entrecôte. It's 40 years old and serves the same three-course menu that it has in all that time. There is no choice. What you get is a walnut salad, followed by steak and frites and then profiteroles, with wine.

There are no reservations and people queue to eat there - which goes some way to explaining how they manage to serve 900 covers a day.

We didn't join them - the queues always seemed too long when we were nearby and in need of food.

But that this is one if the foodie heartlands of the country was emphasised by our host's first questions when we arrived at the 18th century townhouse where we had booked to stay in one if the two guest rooms that help to pay for it's upkeep.

First question: 'what time would you like breakfast tomorrow?'

Second question: 'where were you thinking of eating while you're here?'

Our host recommended Entrecôte, because of it's reputation and because it's open on a Sunday, when one's dining opportunities are a little more limited.

However, after an amble around the city centre on Saturday evening - already feeling relaxed even after such a long journey - we found ourselves a brasserie called Grenadine, on a side street of the tourist trail and sat down at a small table outside for some much-needed dinner.

A house cocktail was followed by a 2009 La Croix Saint-Roc Lussac Saint-Emilion; a pleasingly smooth red, which in both our cases provided sound liquid accompaniment to magret de canard, The Other Half's stuffed with mushrooms and mine with pâté foie gras, with ice cream for dessert.

And that was Saturday, a long day that saw us dead to the world the moment our heads hit plump pillows in our antique bed. I wouldn't claim it was the sleep of the righteous, but it was certainly the sleep of the satisfied.

Sunday was punctuated by showers of varied lengths and intensity. But after a fortifying breakfast in a gallery with chandeliers, our host suggested we stroll down to the riverside and visit the weekly farmers' market, where he went to buy most of his fruit and veg.

With such an eminently sensible suggestion, there really was only one thing to do.

Bordeaux is a delightful city to stroll around; sandstone grandeur in everything from civic buildings to tall rows of town houses. You walk around a corner and find a new delight - but not just a solitary building, the whole of a small square that makes you feel you've stepped back in time a century plus.

France's third city, it has a long history as an important Atlantic port. In the 17th century, the river front was transformed to reflect that power and importance, a point that is still architecturally evident today, not least in the magnificent arc of the Bourse that takes centre stage.

But by way of contrasts, there are soaring gothic spires, with their miraculous stone work, and Sir Richard Rogers's radical court building, with its wooden funnel court rooms held in metal frames, which echo aspects of his Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff.

We found the market eventually, after originally wandering the wrong way along the river front. Not that it was a problem.

The market itself was, as markets on the Continent always are, a real pleasure, with fabulous fruit and vegetables, plus some wonderful cheeses and a surfeit of oysters, which are a local speciality.

After a stop for coffee, it was back toward the centre with the idea of lunch beginning to prey on our minds.

We stopped in a restaurant-crowded square at a modern brasserie called Chez Jean, which had a menu that pepped up the standard fare with a few creative ideas.

Feeling a need for something a little less meaty, I ordered a 'salade sexy', which was a large heap of leaves, with sheep's cheese, little roasted red peppers, some dried ham and a light balsamic ceasing, with shot glass-sized pots of a chilled vegetable soup (like a gazpacho without the garlic) and a black cherry jam on the side.

It was indeed 'sexy' - great combinations of flavour, using very good ingredients.

We had a demi of Chateau La Madronière haut medoc 2008. Very pleasant that was too, with a taste of raspberries and a decent length.

After more wandering, and a visit to a museum of decorative arts, which was housed in another town house built by the architect who had designed the one that we were staying in, we headed back to base. My feet were on the point of murdering me: the shabby weather forecast had led me to pack the only walked-in pair of boots that I currently own, and they were not designed for such perambulations.

A good soak was followed by the judicious application of plasters, before we headed back out for dinner.

Again after ample wandering, we found ourselves at a place called Brasserie L'Orleans, which catered for a mixed clientele of both locals and visitors.

It was a simple menu - utterly dominated by meat and, in particular, steak. I decided to try the veal liver ancien - in other words, with a garlic and parsley butter. On the side were a few mange touts and a tomato, with three quenelles of puréed potato. It's rare that you'd mention salt in such a situation, but there was a tub from the Camargue on the table and it was glorious with the potato, course and bursting with flavour.

As for the veal liver ... well, what can I say? An absolutely superb piece of meat, superbly cooked. Light as a feather and moist, with a magnificent flavour that was wonderfully complimented by the garlic and parsley butter.

We'd decided to try a white Bordeaux, and I eventually picked a 2009 grand cru classé de graves Chateau Carbonnieux from nearby Pessac-Léognan. Not dirt cheap, but it had real flavour (nettles and herbs, we eventually decided) and revealed that most whites we've had in the past have been fairly generic - well, certainly since an excellent Dr Loosen Riesling in Berlin two years ago.

It was a short stay in the city, but Bordeaux impressed us both. The writer Stendhal described it as "the most beautiful town in France", and who am I to quibble?

But setting aside even the beauty of the place, one thing is for certain: it's a meat eater's paradise on Earth.


  1. looking forward to the rest of your journey. I'm off to my house in Burgundy weds evening, can't wait and your blog has really whet my appetite.


  2. Cheers, David. Have a great trip.