By George they don’t make it easy to get into Bordeaux city.
After learning to drive on the other side of the road with implements on the other side to instinct and having to thank me several times for teaching him to drive a manual car there’s another challenge for the Hungry One to mount. The traffic on the way into Bordeaux city is some of the worst we’ve seen. Having dodged perilous pedestrians in Paris, Lyon and Toulouse, here it’s the shiny fandangled metro system combined with bridges and a cavalcade of cars desperate to get to places we’re not sure of that’s making it hard for us to keep our cool.
To compound matters it’s raining again. We’re chasing the rain across France, I’m sure of it. But even through the rain and the traffic, there’s no denying the charm of Bordeaux. It seems more human than Toulouse – which in retrospect seems ghoulish and grubby, and it’s quainter than Lyon. Here you’ve got the river which is lined by flower beds, and large open squares with statues watching over them to stumble upon.
Our hotel is in the middle of what seems to be the ‘nice end’ of town and once we’ve negotiated way streets and a parking garage undergoing renovation we pop upstairs to find that the three star Hotel de la Quatre Souers is facing the Place de la Commedie and a children’s carousel that merrily goes round.
One of the older hotels in Bordeaux, apparently the three storey Quatre Souers once housed Wagner for a few months while he was courting a local violinist.
Our front room may be a size better suited to those riding the carousel, but there’s a bath and its location is impeccable. While Bordeaux’s shiny new metro is safe, and silent, we have no need to ride it even once during our stay.
Our first night here sees us curiously join the queues next door for the lurid yellow temple of beef, L’entrecote ( see a tale of two steaks below) and afterwards I’m lulled to sleep by with the contented sighs that come from the truly stuffed.
It must be said that Sundays in Bordeaux are laughably quiet. Waking to the ghost town around us I’m glad we made a reservation for lunch to fill in some of the day.
The streets are empty and everything on the Rue de Catherine; France’s longest pedestrianised shopping street is closed. I’m sure there are some museums open, but like friends of Dorothy, I’m lacking the brain or heart to find my way. I could muster the energy to make the argument that the food of a region tells me just as much about the it as its artefacts but at the heart of the matter is simply this; I don’t feel like it. This is my honeymoon, not a school excursion. My brilliant art loving sister is sure to be disappointed by the amount of art I’ve injested.
With a map from the smart Office de Tourisme next to our hotel we begin meandering along the river, only to find ourselves flanked by manicured flowers and heritage buildings and a steady stream of sweating athletes. It appears we’ve stumbled upon the local marathon and the sheer amount of citizens huffing and puffing in various stages of undress through the rain surprises us.
Our walk to lunch also takes us past the local Sunday ‘antique’ markets near the Place de la Michael. In the shadow of the ornate church are splayed menageries of bric a brac on frayed blankets which are slowly getting wet in the rain. The only purchase we see being made is by an elderly man in a dress jacket and driving cap who then proudly walks off with a kitchen sink tucked under his arm.
Our lunch reservation is one I’ve been looking forward to.
Restaurant La Tupina has been written about and accorded a multitude of accolades by others, including ‘finest bistro in France’.
While it’s not in the nicest of neighborhoods, once you’ve stepped in from the rain and the cold you instantly forget the streets you’ve walked through to get there. It would be a challenge for any art–director to construct a more charming mis en scene. There’s a fire smoldering and above three chubby chickens are spinning on a rotisserie. Spread on a table below like bounty from a harvest is a range of produce. There are loaves of bread, trays of cured meats, bouquets of rose red radishes, bunches of rhubarb and heads of cauliflower. Hanging above the fire are kettles, slowly cooking lamb and casseroles of beans. A chef looks up from thickly slicing potatoes and smiles.
The smiles continue when we sit at our table. Everything is rustically honest and so charming it almost feels fake; a post modernist field day, a contrived construction of ‘authenticity’. I want to deconstruct it, but I can’t. It would just feel wrong.
La Tupina is the result of years of chef and mastermind Jean-Pierre Xiradakis’ commitment to celebrating and preserving the rustic cooking traditions of the south west France. The original recipes come from his mother and grandmother and at the base of his cooking is the relationships he’s built with local producers. On the scale of innovation, fluff, foam and bubble we tarry through in restaurants these days it’s so far to the right that it’s almost back to the centre.
At the start of our lunch the Hungry One is delighted with a local boutique beer simply called “Bob’s” which is pale and zippy. There’s a small plate of sliced sausage, cherry tomatoes and other crudités to nibble on while you consider the menu. If that wasn’t enough to keep you occupied a small plate of heavily seasoned fire tickled chicken skin is then surreptitiously set down, in the same sneaky, affectionate way you’d hand a piece of meat to an animal salivating by the table. I wonder how hey knew since I sat down I’d been pondering what the skin would taste?
In front of us there’s a menu with options that call; from local black pork to everything that’s under the chickens skin.
But there’s a set menu of four courses with three choices in each and it seems like the easiest path with the best return on investment.
Highlights include a lobe of local duck foie gras that’s been seared before being served with green and black grapes almost pickled in verjus- thus providing the requisite ‘cut through’ and distraction for a protein that rich and ethically dubious.
There were three fat little squatting St Jacques scallops in a cream sauce dotted with cep mushrooms. There was lamb that had been cooked for seven hours with garlic so it tore apart like tissue paper. To accompany the mains there was a small saucepan of white beans that have been slow cooked with tomato, white wine and carrot and it’s left on the table so you can help yourself. There was a plate of frites so good I’m convinced the only way potatoes should be cooked from now on is in duck fat, sprinkled with rock salt and pepper hand smushed in a mortar and pestle.
Charred fruit bread with a small round of washed rind goat cheese and a dollop of black cherry jam mock the pretentious fiddling in our cheese plates served at home. Why do I bother with neatly potted, branded pastes when a shmear of jam does just as well?
Dessert is the stuff of dreams and drooling. Finally I find the apple tart I’ve been looking for since Normandy. The apples still have a structure and a taste, the pastry still a slight crunch, the caramel sauce dribbled over the top is so good it can only be the product of an excess of butter, brown sugar and cream and the vanilla ice cream has more black flecks than a dirty dalmation. Real vanilla bean. That’s what it’s about.
The Hungry One is very quietly demolishing a warm chocolate cake in crème anglaise that’s so dense and rich it’s like they took three cakes, and squashed them into half of one.
It’s only when we stand to leave that we start to understand some of motivation and necessity of those who were running in the rain. If only I could move.
La Tupina’s rustic generosity comes not only with the personalities who serve and its surroundings but the portions. I’m so sleepy from the fire, the food and the wine that it takes a a full 16 hours before I can bring myself to eat again.
The next morning I set a challenge to sample a selection of some of the best of Bordeaux, before we have to leave this sleepy beauty of a city.
I have to say, the pastry specialty of Bordeaux; the canele is almost worth a visit in itself.
Shaped like a crown the good ones are crispy and caramelised on the outside and squishy like a cross between cooked custard and fluffy pancakes on the inside. They’re sweet like spiced condensed milk and when they’re at their best you can see individual specks of vanilla bean. With a cup coffee they’re the perfect mid morning or mid afternoon treat. Caneles are substantial enough to fill a small meal hole and comforting in a way an antipodean alternative like muffins will never be. The best comparison I can find is a great portugese custard tart, but without the buttery overload of pastry.
After deciding the best specimens are from Bailladran, which we sample at the Galerie de Grands-Hommes we agree we’ve put enough real food in our stomachs to sample some last and best specimens of Bordeaux.
Bar a Vin is conveniently opposite our hotel and just above where we’ve parked the car. It’s the perfect last port of call. Annexed to Bordeaux’s wine headquarters and school where they offer intensive two and three day tasting courses in the high season the bar offers ‘ a selection of Bordeaux wines, the services of a wine stewart and light food with a selection of cheese and cured meat platters’.
It’s an open airy space which is quiet when we arrive at midday but slowly people trickle in and take a perch. There’s some soul music softly playing and the cheese and cured meat platters come at the bargain price of around 5 euro. After chatting with the stewart who has incredibly good English for as little as three euro per glass you receive a generous pouring in matched Mikasa stemware of what the region is best known for.
It’s warm inside and there are many more wines to try. We don’t want to leave.
By the bar there’s a message in the guest book from a recent visitor.
It says “Very good wine. Love George Clooney”.
By George, you’re right. But as we’ve only just started to realize, there’s so much more to Bordeaux than what comes from a bottle.
I think we’ll be back.
Hotel de Quatre Souers
6 cours du 30 Juillet
6 Rue Port de la Monnaie,
05 5691 56 37
Bar a Vin
3 cours du 30 Juillet, Bordeaux
Galerie des Grands-Hommes