Friday, March 6, 2009

Europe: Bordeaux

NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:



More Barcelona

Zaragoza: Part 1

Zaragoza: Part 2 (Tapas!)

Zaragoza: Videos

San Sebastian (Pinxtos)

Pays Basque: Part 1

Pays Basque: Part 2





And thus, we were dropped off at the TGV (high speed rail station) by Jean-Michelle and Sylvie. As Sylvie, as always, most diligently ensured that we were ensconced safely, I made some last minute purchases of pastries and then hoped on. As I watched Jean-Michelle and Sylvie dwindle in the background, I felt a little sad: I could have stayed happily with them, exploring quaint French towns forever.

However, Bordeaux was not bad.


Bordeaux is an ideal wine city. It is on a navigable river, ensuring its wines can be shipped easily to all the ports of the world. However, the soil is what makes it really special. Its rocky soil drains water easily, so the grape vines are perpetually deprived of water; leading to a more concentrated grape, which makes the hearty reds which take their name from this region.


Bordeaux is a handsome town: we didn't ever take pulic transit here; it was too small. However if we had, the tram runs entire along the waterfront.

One of the things on my list was to visit some vineyards. The second day, I got my wish and we boarded the bus, where we went to explore two winemakers of the region.

The Chateau Kirwan, the first stop, had a beatiful French villa. Once we stepped off the bus, the owner gave us a short but comprehensive tour of the operations, from the grape fields, to the juice extraction, to the lines of oak barrels in which the wine ages.


At the end, we tasted some of his wines. I enjoyed learning the process of tasting. First, you smell. Then you swirl then smell, and then finally you sip. Informally, I noticed that while sipping you swirl the wine while looking contemplatively into its depths, as if trying to find some deeper mystery. However, I believe that was our guides Gallic nature, rather than official protocol.


I didn't take many pictures of the city. However, Kyle, Tyrone and I were really getting into the swing of meals. I could identify restaurants like no other, and led us to our first stop, which we visited right off the train.
Note: the above trip was in the middle of the trip: now I am once again starting from the beginning.


I located this restaurant on the way to our hostel. Tyrone and Kyle seemed uneasy as to its quality, but I triumphed. Later, Kyle mentioned that he had been uneasy due to the fact that it was next to a strip club. I am sure it says something about me that I noticed only the menu of the day: saute de porc a la creme aux herbes (pork saute with a herb cream sauce).


I was not wrong at all for dinner. The saute de porc was mouth wateringly tender, and in a fantastically rich and complementary cream sauce. Notably, it also had one of the most delectable baked potatoes I have ever had. It was an incredible meal for 8.50 euros.

We stopped by a grocery store on the way to the hostel to pick up some wine and cheese for later. While there, we noticed the multiple varieties of nutella: a whole shelf's worth.


When I asked Sylvie for food reccomendations in Bordeaux, she gave me two things. I must have a canele, a traditional Bordeaux speciality, and I had to try La Tupina. I tackled the first one while walking around one day, and saw a baker selling the small, domed snacks.


The outside has an almost burnt, very caramelly flavor and a crisp texture. It yields readily to your teeth however, and betrays a chewy and gooey interior. I quick visit to wikipedia gave me the whole history, but basically confirms: it is a custardy pastry, baked in a way so as to make the outside crispy and leave the interior gooey.

The other thing I had to do was visit La Tupina, one of the best bistros in France. I was ready to plunk down some serious Euro money for this.

We walked in to see a roaring wood fire in a hearth. Apparently, almost all of their food is cooked over this hearth. I saw a variety of grates and carbon-coated cast iron pans, within which sizzled beautiful ingredients.


I ordered the six course tasting menu.


The meal started off with a little sample platter of radishes, sauccison and fried pork cracklings. It was a good way to cleanse the palate and get ready for the meal.

We also invested in a bottle of good bordeaux. It made the meal quite a bit better.


Also, some sweet breads also hit the table, another Amuse bouche. I love sweetbreads, a trait not shared by my companions (in life as well), so I had these perfectly cook babies all to myself.


My meal started off with a block of foie gras, garnished with some salt and pepper around the side and a piece of toast.

My favorite thing about French cooking is the simplicity. They only supply what is needed for the dish. In this case, all I needed was some toast to cleanse my palate after each creamy, complex bite of foie.


The main course was a "seven hour leg of lamb" served with a bordelaise-garlic sauce. The sauce was a thick reduction of the jus from the lamb leg, thickened and heartily enriched with good red wine and garlic. The lamb was amazingly tender; the entire construct fell apart with the lightest application of pressure from my fork. Needless to say, no knife was required (however, the meat knives at La Tupina were impressive affairs- razor sharp and quite large).

The incrdibly rich, decadent sauce went well with the tender lamb. If the lamb had been any less flavorful, the sauce would have overpowered it; however, this was not the case.


Kyle and Tyrone ordered some cassoulet, at my insistence. It is a perennial favorite of mine, and Bordeaux had the weather for it: cold, windy and damp. Nothing better than a casserole of white beans, duck confit and sausage to take the chill off.


After my lamb came a small round of amazingly good goat cheese, served with a very garlicky toast and some delicious cherry jam. Not much to say here, except everything was superb.


The last course of the night was the standout. An amazing apple tart. The apples had been carefully sliced and layered in the pan, so as to create an immensely dense and flavorful tart.


It was served with some of the richest vanilla ice cream I have ever had. Tyrone and Kyle looked at it with envious gazes. It was covered in a caramel sauce which enhanced, but didn't overpower, the apples and their flavor. Everything about the tart was calculated to enhance the natural "goodness" of the apples, not to hide it in sweetness.

That is the thing I love most about French cooking. It can be simple, because they use a small amount of high quality ingredients, and then they try to enhance them. Sometimes these enhancements take a long time and are expensive: pastry dough, for example. However, its flaky complexity betrays that it is in fact quite simple, but time consuming.

This meal was a hallmark of French culinary simplicity. In each course, there was, what we would term in English or Art History, a "single effect": the entire course was there to reinforce one effect, and give you the strongest feeling of that. For example, in the tart, you were to understand what an apple is. Each course had a ingredient that was front and center: foie gras, lamb or goat cheese.

The next day, while wandering around, we stopped at a nice little bistro on the Rue St Catherine, the main pedestrian only shopping street in Bordeaux. We had a nice little meal. Nothing spectacular, but just the sort of meal that Frenchmen take for granted, and that I will remember UNTIL MY GRAVE.


The meal started off with a nice little goat cheese salad; garnished well with two crostini of cheese, and well dressed. It had a walnut vinegarette which went very well.


My main course was simply entrecote with pommes frites. The steak was superb; tender, flavorful, accompanied by a simple pan sauce.


As you can see, the French know how to cook their meat. It was just cooked enough to bring out the full flavor and get a good char on the outside, but never were the juices hampered by the cooking.

The pommes frites here were OK; great by american standards, but they did not live up to the Gallic ideal I applied to meals in France.



For our final meal, we ditehred in a little square surrounded by restaurants. In the end, I chose Chez Edouard, based on its amazing menu. It wasn't until the next day I learned it was the 2nd bes bistro in the city, after La Tupina- the restaurant from the night before.

I got the 22 euro tasting menu, and started off with the (decevingly) simply named "Warm Scallop Salad"

This salad, as you can see above and below, it was far more than just scallops. It was a hearty collection of chrimp, mussels, clams and caviar, with some big divers scallops thrown on there as well. I think there was at least 22E of seafood on this dish alone.

Everything in this salad was excellent. Nothing was overcooked, or potentially questionable. All the shellfish were beauties, both by sight and by taste, and the overall effect was one of decadence, tempered by the discrete nature of everything: you ate it one piece at a time, savoring the variety overall, and the simple flavor of each piece individually.


For my main course, I got the duck magret with a honey sauce. I was excited for this, as I love duck, but I was also worried: would it be good?


Moving from left to righ on the photo below: tomato filled with a brown sugar something, scalloped potatoes, a huge quantity of duck in one of the most delicate honey sauces I have ever had.


Above, the tomato and scalloped potatoes. The tomato was amazing; I would give up fingers to find out with what it was filled. The potatoes were also perfectly cooked and had texture while not being overly crunchy. However, both paled when compared with the duck.


As you can see, it was both a large quantity of duck, and perfectly cooked.


The outside had great sear, and the interior was perfectly rare. But really what knocked me out on this dish was the honey sauce. I was afraid it would overpower, but it did anything but. Both my companions were amazed at its subtle complexity; the sweetness had been tempered by the pan juice from the duck, and they combined to add another layer of depth to this dish.


The desert was very much in keeping with my ideas of a proper desert: dense, chocolate cake, covered in a heavy, heavy fudge sauce. The cake was dense and gooey, permeated with sauce.


This cake was the perfect end to a near unforgettable meal.

Chez Edouard, I think, was even better than La Tupina. At only 1/3rd the price, it delivered an experience that wasn't as complex, but in my mind more enjoyable. I think I enjoyed the main dish of duck more than the lamb the previous night.


On the way back, I was peckish and got a overpriced banana and nutella crepe. In retrospect, it was OK.


The next morning I had some quiche lorraine and coffee, as I prepared to leave Bordeaux for the long slog to Berlin, by way of paris.


I had a berry tart on the train in midmorning.


Alas, the trip to Berlin took forever, and were stopped in the wilderness for a few hours. However, we had sandwiches and money, which we converted into beer. It could have been a lot worse.

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