Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bordeaux II

28 August

After ten glorious hours of sleep, I woke up early on the 28th to get a good start on the day with a visit to a nearby market before my 10 AM wine tasting at the Ecole du Vin (literally, wine school), just across the street from the Office de Tourisme, both conveniently located a few blocks from our hotel off of the Place de la Comédie.

On the left, La Comédie - that is, the theater.  Oh, and on the right, the more recent addition, the tram.
There were colorful painted cows all over the city, clearly a part of an urban art project, like the crabs in Baltimore a few years ago.  I'm not sure cows in Bordeaux is quite as fitting as crabs in Baltimore (though I did see a lot of huge cuts of beef on the menus all over town), but I appreciated the artistry and the silly decoration amid the austere stone facades.  This one marked, fittingly, a Spanish restaurant:

MuuuugidoBeuuuglement?  Why are there extra consonants when cows speak romance languages?
Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos at the wine tasting.  But then, did you really want to see more pictures of glasses of wine I drank?  I took plenty of notes, though, in addition to getting a couple of stellar little information booklets, complete with slide print-outs and space for notes.

I had been to one formal tasting before, in Paris in 2008, which was an excellent introduction to how to hold a glass and smell a wine and then taste it making that really attractive sucking noise.  This time around, the tasting covered a lot more ground.  We started with an overview of the Bordeaux region, including an explanation of what makes this terroir such an ideal location for viticulture, and then a conversation about the differences in soils in the different sub-regions in Bordeaux, followed by a discussion of the grape varietals in use throughout the region and the blends of varietals used in different subregions, and then an initiation into how to read a label and understand the AOCs - that is, the 60 appelations that fit within 6 families, and a brief examination of some of the classifications within the appelations...  Suffice to say, we covered a lot of ground, and while I know I only scratched the surface, I think I have a slightly better understanding of how to choose a good Bordeaux wine.

And then, finally, onto the tasting itself!  I learned a good deal there, too - the instructor discussed what the color of the wine can indicate about its age, and broke down the difference between a first and second nose (don't swirl the glass for the first; that way, you can really notice the difference in aromas when you add the air by swirling the second), and encouraged us to "start with the finish" when discussing the flavors in a wine - that is, comment on the aftertaste first before going back to pick out what you taste while the wine is in your mouth.  Have I gotten into enough detail yet?  Thank goodness everything was in English!

We tasted four wines: one dry white (that the instructor described as "crispy," which was adorable), one Medoc red, one St. Emilion red, and one sweet white.  Not surprisingly, I liked the dry white best, but they were all nice - the St. Emilion in particular was delicious.  The instructor intentionally chose less expensive wines to show you didn't have to buy a 100€ bottle of Bordeaux to have a good wine, but I'd love to try some of the outrageously expensive ones soon, too, just to see what makes them so pricey.

After the tasting, I headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit... all that wine was a little soporific.  After a rest, we headed out to find some new luggage, and this time I chose a real luggage shop and we ended up spending more than double what I spent the last time around on a new bag (thanks Mom!), but this one did manage to last the two and a half weeks remaining before I was headed back to the US, so that was a nice added bonus.

After something as unpleasant as buying luggage, it must be time for a little something sweet - better make it the Bordeaux classic, a canelé:

You can find canelés, small pastries with a custardy interior wrapped in a dense caramelized coating in this typical couronne (crown) shape, all over France where they're typically referred to a spécialité Bordelaise, but that didn't prepare me for the wide variety of canelés I would find in Bordeaux.  I bought mine from a shop called Baillardran, which is a chain shop found all over Bordeaux that sells nothing but canelés - but before you can get one, you have to decide what size: bouchée ("bite-size," or small), lunch (medium), or traditionnel ("traditional," or, of course, large).  And then you have to decide on how much caramelization you want: light (sadly, I missed the French name for that one), croustillant ("crispy"), or craquant ("irresistible," but also related to the word for "to crunch").  I went for the middle of the road: lunch croustillant.  The edge was super stiff with sugar - definitely something to stick to your teeth, kind of like gaufres Liègeoises.  Beneath that dense exterior was an eggy, spongy, rum-soaked dough.  Not being that fond of sugar in my teeth or rum, I'd have to say this wasn't one of my favorites, but it did do the trick for my necessary sugar break.

We dropped off the new luggage at our hotel room, and then headed out to find the mirroir d'eau, which I had seen on the fabulous tourism channel on the hotel tv the night before.  This channel had relaxing music and played a 15 minute loop of information on things to do and see in the Bordeaux area.  (I didn't see a channel like this in any other cities, but they're missing out - I loved this channel.  Take note, French hotels...)  Not surprisingly, much of the information focused on wine country, but there was also a brief bit of information on the mirroir d'eau, a huge urban art project.  Literally, it translates as "water mirror."  It's a huge (think, say, 50m by 150m), shallow (maybe 2-3" deep at its deepest) puddle that fills and empties again on a 15 minute loop throughout the day.  When the water is still, it is a perfect reflection of the stately buildings on the Place de la Bourse just beyond it:

But then the mist starts coming up:

And then, the children take off their clothes and start running through the mist and water.

But it's not just the kids who get into the fun - so do their parents, as well as other adults.  Note the bride...

Well... sort of a bride.  Her hair was a mess... and her dress was the wrong size and kept falling down... not to mention being drawn upon... and she had friends with her taking lots of pictures... urban art project?  Who knows.

I got in just long enough to get my toes wet.

We stayed and watched through several cycles, seeing the kids playing and splashing and the occasional parent getting much wetter than they had bargained for.  It was very thoughtful of all of those parents to bring their kids to entertain us!

Eventually, we turned around and walked the 100m to the shore of the Garonne for a brief look over the river.

Eventually, we went back to our hotel to rest for an hour or so before dinner.  But that's another story.

Coming soon: boudin aux pommes - that is, blood sausage and apples.  Trust me on this one.  Or, rather, trust every sensible French cook.  Amazing.

A bientôt,

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bordeaux I

27 August

Often when I left a city, I was sorry I didn't have more time there because there was so much more I wanted to see and taste and experience.  Not so in Carcassonne - I was very much ready to get out of the heat and the empty streets and see a new place.  But Carcassonne wasn't done with me yet... remember how, way back two weeks earlier in Aix, my luggage had broken, and then a couple days later in Lyon, I had bought new luggage?  As I dragged my two-week-old bag towards the Carcassonne train station... the wheel broke.  The same way the previous wheel had broken.  $#@*!.  Okay, got it, lesson learned - never buy shitty luggage when in the middle of a trek across cobblestoned streets.  Don't say I never gave you any good advice.

When we finally made it to the train, we had a direct ticket to Bordeaux.  Part of the way, we shared the ride with some of France's finest.

Hey, maybe I can just borrow one of them to carry my luggage the rest of the way?
We got into Bordeaux around 2 pm.  Unlike most of the cities we stayed in where we were staying near the train station, in this case the station was in a less savory part of town, and we were staying in a hotel about 3 miles away, closed to the center of town.  We could have looked into bus and/or tram schedules - Bordeaux has a good complex of public transportation - but we opted for the easy option and took a cab.  At least, most of the way, we took a cab.  Bordeaux has some streets that are pedestrian-only, and our cab couldn't quite get through to the hotel, so we got out with assurances our hotel was "100 meters that way."  Which thankfully, it was.

Our hotel was on a small side street just off of Rue Sainte Catherine, a major pedestrian through-way that is full of clothing boutiques and chic shops, and crowded with hundreds of people milling about.  Maybe 25m from our hotel was a Paul, a chain boulangerie found across France that offers very decent breads and lunch foods (sandwiches, quiches...).  We stopped down there to pick up our déjeuner, a quiche lorraine and quiche saumon épinards:

Quiche lorraine, as you may recall, is a standard quiche with bacon.  Saumon épinard has salmon and spinach.  We had them heated, but they were tepid at best and, sadly, both pretty forgettable.

After lunch, we headed north to the tourist office so I could get information on wine tastings.  I signed up for a tasting the next morning, and then we set out to see a little of the city.  It was cool and overcast and gusty and a little wet - luckily, not so rainy that you needed an umbrella, since the wind made that a bad idea - such a refreshing change from the sun and heat of Carcassonne!  We walked to the Esplanade des Quinconces and saw the Monument aux Girondins, a column surrounded by an incredible bronze fountain.

Note spray coming out of horses' nostrils
Ride 'em putti?
From there, we walked down to the Gironde, the river that cuts through Bordeaux.

We walked along the river bank for a while, until we came to some well-kept gardens.

My mom was getting tired, so she headed back to the hotel for a while, and I went restaurant hunting.  That is to say, I spent maybe an hour looking at menus to find a likely spot for dinner.  Looking at menus in Bordeaux was a completely different experience from anywhere else I visited.  Usually, you could tell very quickly what the regional dishes were - they appeared on all the menus in town, but nowhere else in the country.  However, in Bordeaux, it was hard to find anything unique on the menus - just lots of beef (literally - many restaurants listed 500g steaks, or 1-kilo behemoths to be split between two people! [note 1 kilo = approx. 2.2 lbs]), duck, foie gras, and standard "French" classics that you find on every menu across the country...  The only two things that finally stood out to me were a tradition of cooking meat on a grill, and salade landaise - a green salad with warm duck breast and gizzards that is a specialty of the Landes département in Aquitaine just south of Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, when it got close to time for dinner, I wasn't feeling well - nothing specific, just a general malaise and exhaustion.  Suffice to say, I wasn't really in the mood to eat out.  So we picked up a couple of flûtes (long, thin breads similar to, but smaller than, a baguette) from Paul and visited a Monoprix to pick up some yogurt, applesauce, and a banana.  On our way to the Monoprix, we passed the Place Pey-Berland, and saw the Tour Pey-Berland:

Dinner in the hotel was a good decision - it was nice to have a night off and just relax and eat dinner in bed.  I was asleep before 10 pm.

Coming soon:

A bientôt,

Friday, January 7, 2011

Carcassonne II

26 August

We got up early on 26th so we could explore Carcassonne's Cité before the teeming masses of tourists showed up in the sweltering heat of afternoon.  I've talked for a while now about the fortified city on a hill that attracts so many tourists each year; here was our first glance at its ramparts and turrets:

La Cité was built in the 13th century on the remains of a Roman fortress on the Aude river.  At the time, Carcassonne was the site of a crusade against heresy, and the battles completely destroyed the town at the bottom of the hill.  In its place, the perfect perpendicular streets of la Bastide were planned by Saint Louis (aka King Louis IX), and remain today in contrast to the haphazard wending ways of so many streets in towns across France.  La Cité was restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, who added on inauthentic upside-down ice cream cone roofs to the turrets that seem to us today so fitting for a medieval castle.

On the way up the hill to the Cité, we passed murals telling the story of the walled city.

It took about a half an hour to get up to the Cité, but as always, the views over the city were pretty great once you got there:

We walked through the first gate, but instead of continuing in through the second gate, we turned to the left and walked a ways between the walls.

The warm wind whistled between the walls, spitting dust up from the ground into our faces.

If you didn't feel like walking, there were a few options.  Some seemed fitting for a medieval fortified city...

...others, less so.

Eventually, we did make our way into the city itself.  The myriad levels of fortification were evident throughout:

While we stayed in la Bastide, there are also options for accommodation in la Cité, like that age-old inn, ye olde Best Western:

We stopped briefly for a coffee before exploring a little.  The best, though, was stepping back out between the walls to look down over the countryside:

When I take pictures, I usually try to avoid photographing groups of strangers - particularly groups of tourists - unless they are doing something special.  Most of these pictures give the impression that the area was fairly deserted, with just a few people milling about.  In retrospect, I wish I had also gotten a few shots of the crowds of tourists or the tacky souvenir shops hawking plastic swords that make noise when you swing them and the endless little boys clambering for one of those obnoxious weapons - that would provide a more accurate picture of the real Carcassonne as it is today.  But hélas, you'll have to take my word for it.

By about 1 pm, we had seen enough and taken in enough sun, so we decided it was time for lunch.  I had, as always, spent a fair amount of time scouting out restaurants looking for a promising lunch venue.  I selected La Marquière, which offered a perfect local menu du jour for me and a vegetable terrine for my mom.

I ordered a glass of Sixième Sens 2009, a white AOC Minervois, to go with my entrée of gaspacho:

The wine light and dry, with a little minerality in the nose and a mellow acidity on the palate, like a tomato, with caramel notes - I liked it a lot.

Gaspacho is typically thought of as a Spanish soup, made of raw vegetables and served chilled, but it was also on many many menus in Southwestern France - not a surprise given the proximity to the Spanish border and the dry, hot summer weather.  This was unlike any gazpacho I've had in the US - rather than having chunks of vegetables, it was totally smooth.  It did, however, come with a small bowl of diced bell peppers and another of onion slivers, to add on your own.  A small bowl of croutons rounded out the garnishes.  The soup was so refreshing, with the tomato, cucumber, pepper, and onion flavors really shining.  Adding in the peppers and/or croutons brought a satisfying crunch to the bite.  Perfect food on a hot summer day.

For my plat, I had the cuisse de canard confite:

What's up with the sesame seeds, anyway?
Cuisse is thigh, canard is duck, and confite translates roughly as preserved.  A French restaurant in the US would probably call this duck confit.  Since ducks live in water, they have a thick layer of fat coating their muscles as insulation.  To make duck confit, which was a method by which the duck could be preserved and kept for a long time, this fat is rendered into liquid form, and then the meat is cooked at low heat for a long time in a bath of the liquid fat.  The result is a super rich duck meat that practically melts off the bones.  The duck was served over potatoes that had been fried in goose fat and sprinkled with a persillade - a sauce composed primarily of parsley and garlic.  The potatoes and duck were each good on their own, but together they were superb, with the freshness of the persillade and the crunch of the potato pairing perfectly with the rich, fatty meat.  A little too warm for the season, but delicious none the less.

For dessert, I had the nougat glacé:

Nougat, like the one I tasted in Aix, is a candy made of honey and egg whites, which are whipped into a super light and airy confection.  This nougat was glacé, or frozen, and served on a bed of red fruit coulis and under a sprinkling of pistachio.  It's a little difficult to describe: it was nougat flavored ice cream, only lighter and airier than ice cream, as if it were nougat itself that were transformed into ice cream.  The bright acidity of the coulis paired well with the sweet nougat.  An excellent dessert for a hot summer day.

After lunch, we walked around just a little more, but it was getting hot and the streets were getting pretty crowded, so before long we decided it was time to head back to the hotel.  We passed so many people headed up the hill to la Cité as we tramped back down - I was so glad we were headed in the opposite direction!

After we got back to the hotel around 4:00, I headed out to try to do laundry.  What a disaster.  I don't want to get into the details because I'll just get angry, but suffice to say, don't do laundry in Carcassonne.  The nearest functioning laundromat is across the river a kilometer away, and it was 38 degrees Celcius (read: about 97 Fahrenheit), and I was miserable dragging my laundry back and forth across town.  Suffice to say, I was sweaty and cranky by the time I got back to the hotel with only half of my clothes actually clean.

However, a shower and some dinner (leftover ham, baguette, leftover cheese, and produce from the local market including the most flavorful red pepper I have ever tasted) made everything a little better.  We spent some time thinking about where to spend our last few days before we go to Paris, and watched some game shows, and did some packing to get ready to go to Bordeaux the next day.

Coming soon: water, water everywhere!  What a difference in Bordeaux.

 A bientôt,