Eat: Bordeaux

Published in National Geographic Traveller 21 May 2014

The cellars in this region of southwest French aren’t just full of the world’s most-coveted wines — at surprisingly reasonable prices — they also brim with unpasteurised cheeses, while other gastronomic specialities include oysters, custard cakes and, for the brave, the Bordelaise classic: stewed lamprey

Photos by Stephen Pratt

Photos by Stephen Pratt

The stone cellars date back to 1456 and as I descend the stairs, I not only feel myself going back through centuries, I also notice the air is getting pungently riper. This is Jean d’Alos, a cheese shop in the centre of Bordeaux, that as well as selling a heart-stopping selection of dairy delights, ages them too in the depths of these cellars. Down here I meet owner and affineur Clarence Grosdidier, who leads me through the rooms of this former monastery and shows me a world where blooms of pink, purple, grey and white mould grow on cheeses lining endless shelves.

“We age them from a few days to a few months to a few years,” he explains with unconfined pride. “The quality is coming from the producers first, then we take them and nurse them as kindly as we can, to produce the most glorious cheeses. Affinage is definitely important but the most important thing is the producer.”

Grosdidier ages around 200 different cheeses — most made with unpasteurised milk. He takes me to the goat cellar, which is at 5-6C and has 15% humidity. He demonstrates the turning of the cheese, how he brushes off some of the mould on vast wheels, or washes others with wine. Here are cheeses that suck your saliva dry, firecracker in your mouth or fur your tongue with blue veins. Perhaps somewhat conservatively, my favourite is the two-year-old Comté, speckled with tiny, crunchy white crystals known as tyrosene.

From Jean d’Alos I walk to the nearby École du Vin, a perfect first stop for anyone new to Bordeaux or indeed the wine of the region. I sit in an airy, disconcertingly chic classroom, and study maps of the terroir of Bordeaux and its appellations — there are names I recognise: Graves, Pauillac and prestigious Médoc. The region is home to some of the world’s most expensive wines — Listrac, Margaux, Lafite. But I’ve come to learn about the more affordable side of Bordeaux wines. My bouncy, British-born wine educator, Wendy Narby, tells me the vast majority of Bordeauxs are “extremely affordable”. Half of the wine here is “entry level”, with Cru Bourgeois representing “very good value for money”. I learn that appellation really means ‘place’, my notion that château refers to a building is ignorant nonsense (here the name represents the wine estate) and that the wines are 89% red, of which 64% are Merlot. “It’s all about the reds,” says Wendy.

Stepping outside into the Port de la Lune, the historical nickname for this riverside city (it sits alongside the Garonne), I wander to the Place de la Bourse, with its beautiful central fountain and Miroir d’eau — a reflective pool whose water jets draw in delighted kids and adults alike.
Bordeaux’s buildings have, in recent years, been spruced up to best reveal their splendid blond stone as well as reveal ugly, gurning faces — known as mascarons — sitting on top of columns, or above windows. I wander the streets and fate seems to lead me to the bakery where Pétrin Moissagais makes dark, crusty, Gascon bread in a wood-burning oven dating to the reign of Louis XV. At nearby Pâtisserie Antoine I’m dumbfounded by the cakes — displayed in cases like jewellery. Here I try local delicacy canelés — tiny cakes with a custard centre, and prefer them to any of the others I nibble in the city.

“You can’t visit Bordeaux without going to La Tupina,” a friend admonished when I admitted I’d been warned off the city’s most famous restaurant by friends using the word ‘Disneyfication’. And as I crossed the threshold, I could see why she thought this bistro was ‘incontournables’ (unmissable). Wood and charcoal crackles on the vast range that greets you as you walk in the door, chickens turn on a spit and potatoes lie underneath soaking up the juices. Tupina, meaning ‘kettle’ in Basque, celebrates the terroir of southwest France. Highlights include the much-lionised macaronade of fresh pasta, cepes and foie gras and their famous fries cooked in duck fat, as well as duck confit and roast rack of lamb.

On Sunday, I head for the market on the quay, selling fresh fish and vegetables and other local gourmet delicacies. I buy bags of fleur de selcaramels and sit down at a camping table to shuck my way through a basin-load of oysters freshly hoiked from the bay at nearby Arcachon.

Later, I find La Brasserie Bordelaise crammed with locals. It’s here I take a bravery pill and agree to an encounter with lamprey à la bordelaise. A quick Google induces a shudder at the sight of this boneless, prehistoric vertebrate, which has survived without much genetic mutation for more than 530 million years. It’s a scary-looking beast but when it’s cooked down slowly in Bordeaux wine, leeks, and a little chocolate, it becomes something not terrifying but gorgeous.

Perhaps my favourite meal is at Le Petit Commerce, where I pick apart a vast platter of simply-done seafood and sit at a table on the pavement of a pedestrianised street and watch the city go about its business. Careful to hold my glass by the stem, not the glass — Wendy taught me well — I sip my Bordeaux rosé in the sun and toast the Bordelais; they know how to live.

Five bordeaux food finds

1. Pâtisserie Antoine: Sleek futuristic space selling pastry and cakes made with exquisite delicacy, exhibited like precious art.

2. L’Intendant: A stunning wine shop with a spiral staircase snaking up four floors; the prices mount as you ascend. 2 Allées de Tourny, 33000 Bordeaux.

3. Jean d’Alos: One of France’s best cheese shops, where you can taste a vast selection or book a tour of the ancient cellars.

4. Au Pétrin Moissagais: Pétrin bakes dark, crusty, life-affirming Gascon bread in a wood-burning oven that dates back to the reign of Louis XV.

5. Cadiot-Badie: Bordeaux’s premium chocolate maker is worth a visit, if not to buy then to simply admire a lady’s shoe made from chocolate?

Four places for a taste of bordeaux

La Tupina
The city’s most famous restaurant is old school in style and heart, serving traditional dishes that make the most of the South West’s terroir. Chickens turn on spits and potatoes lie underneath, soaking up the juices.
■ How much: A lunchtime set menu is marvellous value at just €18 (£15) for two courses, including the famous duck fat chips. Three courses in the evening from €59 (£49) per person, without drinks.

Bar à Vin
Located downstairs from École du Vin, this airy bar offers stunningly good Bordeaux wines for incredibly good prices. Take a virtual journey through the appellations of Bordeaux, with glasses of sparkling, dry and sweet whites, rosés and reds. Order some small plates of cheese and charcuterie (to balance the wine) and try Bordeaux Supérieur and Saint Émilion.
■ How much: Glasses begin at €2 (£1.65) and climb to no more than €8 (£6.60) for a Pomerol or a Margaux. Food platters begin at €6 (£5).

La Brasserie Bordelaise
This restaurant, as its name suggests, is full of Bordelais eating the very best bistro fare — the queue for a table often stretches outside into the street. Much of the menu is sourced locally, with oysters from David Hervé in Marennes Oléron, caviar from Aquitaine, farm-made charcuterie and sausages, as well as the famous lamprey à la Bordelaise, cooked in Saint-Émilion. Bottles line the walls and the pages of the wine list are seemingly endless — owner Nicolas Lascomes presents 200 different bottles of Bordeaux, most of them well priced.
■ How much: Three courses from €27 (£22.50) per person, without drinks.

Le Petit Commerce
Teeny tables line either side of a pedestrianised street, piled with seafood platters spilling over with oysters (from the beds of nearby Arcachon), prawns, langoustine, winkles, whelks and grey shrimp for just €20 (£16.70). The cooked fish selection includes cod, monkfish, bass and sole. A well-stocked wine cellar encompasses easy-on-the-wallet house wines to lush big Bordeaux blowouts. Sit on the pavement and watch Bordelaise life go by or sit at a table and, with little room to stretch you elbows, you may find yourself sharing your fish with your neighbour and new friend.
■ How much: Three courses from €30 (£25) per person, without drinks. T: 00 33 5 56 79 76 58.