Off the beaten track
Think of Bordeaux, and you think of vines, vines, and more vines. You might not know that sixty per cent of the oysters eaten in France start their life here, and you almost certainly won’t know that Europe’s largest cultivated caviar production is based here. But there are plenty of hidden corners in this region, where fields of sunflowers make it feel more like Provence, or where restaurants selling foie gras, confit de canard and chips cooked in goose fat make you realise you are very much in southwest France, and not the genteel mini-England that central Bordeaux can sometimes feel like.
Entre deux Mers, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Bourg and Blaye… these are large geographical areas, full of contrasting landscapes that, with a bit of imagination, can be explored by car, cycle, foot, canoe, even horseback. One constant is the river; the Garonne of course, but also the Dordogne. The rivers mark out the regions both in their names (Entre deux Mers means ‘between two seas’, referring here to the tidal rivers of Garonne and Dordogne) and in topography, with gentles valleys and steep côtes or slopes around which many of the vineyards are found.
Entre deux Mers and the Premières Côtes cover the large area to the south of the city, from the right bank of the Garonne, over to the Libournais and the Dordogne. River fish mark the cuisine, the most famous of which is Lamprey, a highly distinctive fanged eel that is usually cooked in vast quantities of red wine. It even has its own museum, the small Jardin de la Lamproie in Lavagnac, where in summer they run cookery classes, explaining how to turn this scary looking creature into something edible.
The alose, or shad, is another native fish, in season from April to September, best served simply, grilled in butter over sarments (vine cuttings). Buy them direct from the many fisherman in the village of Paillet, or head to the fishmongers in the smart town of Fargues Saint Hilaire that is renowned for its wide selection of local fish. Besides the fish mongers, Fargues also has a good butchers, several artisan bakeries, and an upscale fruitier.
For somewhere to stay, try Gites Bacchus at Chateau Cablanc. Set in the beautiful Garmague valley, the owners produce not only a great local wine, but have some kiwi trees, which will provide fruit for your breakfast in summer. Not far from here, Chateau Hotel de Naujan has been beautifully restored, has a very good restaurant (also open to the public) and offers master-classses where you can have a go at wine blending. And don’t forget the southern tip of Entre deux Mers, where one of the best visits is the pretty bastide town of Monségur. This hosts the 24 Hours of Swing jazz festival every July, but year-round has a lively Friday market, and Chocolaterie Des Lys; a salon de thé and chocolate shop that specialises in hand-made chocolates.
Bourg and Blaye are still ‘Right Bank’, but to the north of Bordeaux, heading up towards the Charente border. Blaye is the bigger of the two, with a 12th century citadel and a port where you can take a car ferry over to the Médoc, on the far side of the river. Blaye is famous for its asparagus, Reine blanche du Blayais, that appear at the start of Spring, from March until June; thick, creamy-white stems with delicate purple tips. Bourg is a very pretty town, smaller than Blaye but more picturesque, with a traditional lavoir wash house and a number of foodie stops. L’Espirt des Lieux sells artinisal ice creams in a mouth-watering array of flavours, while just round the corner is La Figue de Bourg, concentrating entirely on the local specialty; caramelised figs, often wrapped in an almond paste and chocolate that has been enlivened by some fig liqueur. Another local treat are chevrettes de l’estruaire, tiny white prawns from the Garonne estuary. Only available when in season between June and October, you’ll find plenty of them every Sunday at the Bourg market. Traditionally, you plunge them into boiling water with a little salt, pepper and a tiny bit of aniseed, then serve them with fennel or star anise.
Most unusual perhaps is the Caviar d’Aquitaine. There is in fact a history to caviar in the region. Fishermen used to catch large quantities of indigenous European sturgeon in and around the Gironde estuary, before over-farming led to the trade being banned in 1982. The modern industry, started by Welshman Alan Jones, is guilt-free, as endangered fish are no longer the source of the delicacy – instead a Siberian species of sturgeon are farmed for the purpose, yielding caviar with fruit and nut flavors similar to Ossetra. The main production facilities are at Saint Seurin sur L’isle, near to Saint Emilion, but others are dotted around Bourg and Blaye, and you can also buy direct from their offices in Saint-Sulpice et Cameyrans.
One of the wonderful things about eating in this region is just how closely the menu follows the seasons. You get melons and asapargus in spring, duck and game in winter, an abundance of strawberries and peaches in summer, and cep mushrooms in autumn, prized for their rich, meaty taste. Another autumnal favourite is wood pigeon (palombe salmis); the hunting season for these begins in October, just as the wine harvest is coming to a close. Most menus change daily, but many will start with a local soup known as tourin, a clear broth made with garlic, goose fat and thickened with egg yolks – and don’t forget this is also the region that brought us what the French call faire chabrot (the custom of pouring a little red wine into the left-overs of your soup) so don’t be afraid to pick up your bowl and drink up the last remnants.
L’Esprit des Lieux, Place de la Liberation, 33710 Bourg sur Gironde. (00 33 5 57 43 99 86).
La Figue de Bourg, Place de la Halle, 33710 Bourg sur Gironde.(00 33 5 57 68 45 78)
Le Jardin de la Lamproie, Lavagnac, 33350 – Sainte Terre
Le Poissonnerie, 32, avenue de l'Entre Deux Mers, 33370 Fargues St Hilaire. (00 33 5 56 21 97 72). www.poissonnerie-paret.com
Chocolaterie Des Lys, 1, Place Robert Darniche, 33580 Monsegur. (00 33 5 56 61 43 24).
Chateau Hotel Isabeau de Naujan, Domaine de Naujan, 33420 Saint Vincent de Pertignas (00 33 557 55 14 30), www.domaine-de-naujan.com
Gites Bacchus, Chateau Cablanc, 33350 Saint Pey de Castets (00 33 5 57 40 52 20), www.chateaucablanc.com
Caviar d’Aquitaine, Saint Sulpice et Cameyrac, (00 33 5 57 34 45 40), www.kaviar.com
L’Atmosphere, 99 Le Bourg, 33750 St Germain de Puch, (00 33 5 58 24 52 34). Wooden tables, a large terrace, and friendly staff who deliver your food to the strains of upbeat jazz; wide-ranging menu from pasta dishes to more ususal southwestern fare; from £20.
La Poudette, 1 Bernadigot, 33350 Pujols. (00 33 5 57 40 71 52), www.la-poudette.com. The ever-inventive Sophie Cabantous and Frederic Gombart use seasonal choices in the local market to inspire their menu; from £25.
Les Fontaines, 8 rue Verdun, 33190 La Reole. (00 33 5 56 61 15 25). Slightly dated interior, but excellent seasonal menu and superb quality food, often with a mix of Italian and French influences; from £15.