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Archive for Wine

Restaurants in the Heart of Bordeaux, France

in Food, France, Restaurant     

September is a beautiful month in Bordeaux, and the day after we landed we went out in search of a good meal.  M de Monbadon’s menu was printed rather than handwritten and the offerings seemed uninteresting.  C’yusha, whose chef recently came from the great Table de Calvet, was closed for lunch the day we visited.

Le Loup, 66 rue Loup, was a familiar and reasonably priced alternative.  Run by the same brother-sister pair for 18 years,  the restaurant has operated in the building since 1932.  The 17 euro menu offered a salad of goat cheese lightly fried in bread crumbs with vinaigrette with verve, followed by a tender couple of pork medallions in mushroom sauce with potatoes fried in duck fat.  Dessert was simple:  fruit cocktail with lemon sorbet.  The scallops in a sauce of honey, grapefruit  and tangelos were dreamy, mopped up by rye bread we had bought at Paul bakery.  We ordered a half bottle of Chateau Falfas 2005, Cotes de Bourg.   It was tannic and needed another  5 years, since the 2005 year was very sunny and the wines strong.  We conversed with the couple next to us in their 80’s and narrowly escaped without buying either of the two properties they were selling:  a 900 square feet apartment in Old Bordeaux, and a huge country estate between Bergerac and Perigueux! 

Friday, with great pleasure, we met our friends Patricia and Daniel Bain at the new fancy Regent Hotel Brasserie for lunch.  Since we saw them 2 years ago in Martel, the beautiful stone town where Daniel had been restoring stone houses,  they had decamped to Bordeaux, where their 13 year old son Oscar is in a new school.  They now have a new project and are renting a townhouse in the center of Bordeaux, complete with beautiful wood terrace and walls painted a combination of robin’s egg blue, bright yellow and red (not their taste in colors!).  It was wonderful to see them in such good spirits, looking well.

To celebrate Catalina’s birthday, we all ordered the 22 euro 2-course menu, a heap of tiny fried smelt,  with a glass of tartar sauce for dipping.  Some in our group did not appreciate the fish’s tiny eyes looking up at them!  The main course was either a white cod with snails in parsley butter sauce, or tender chicken rolled around perfectly cooked foie gras, wrapped in a green leaf that might have been lettuce.  Several people noted that the 2001 Graves red we ordered had slightly off flavors, but we nonetheless managed to down it all.

P&D invited us to their home, and fed us delicious chocolates and macaroons.  Hopefully it won’t be long before we see them in the gite.

Claudia, Steve, Catalina

Bordeaux’s Far-Flung Satellite Restaurants

Bordeaux’s Far-Flung Satellite Restaurants
Sallying forth in the 5 passenger Opel Zafira that we had picked up at the Bordeaux St. Jean train station, we headed for the Saturday market in Bazas south of Bordeaux.  We were ecstatic to see the sausage wizard, Patrick from Aveyron, and he was equally happy to see us after a 2 year absence.  We picked up lean pork herb sausage, duck sausages, chorizo, smoked ham, smoked duck breasts and a dense wheat and seed bread.  We bought a riot of fresh fruits and vegetables, and then went to our favorite restaurant for lunch.

Les Remparts, 49 place de la Cathedrale, Bazas.  This restaurant was just sold to new owners from far away.  Who knows what cuisine they will offer…  But for today, we savored a rich lamb tajine with apricots and pistachios on couscous.  Cat, John and Trudy chose the 3 course menus for 25 euros.  The first courses, Bazas beef terrine with a small salad, or sweet melon with Bayonne ham, were delicious.  The wine was a 2008 Coquillas Pessac Leognan.  It had an intense aroma of violets and blackberries with a taste to match.  Main courses were tender white cod on braised vegetables, Madras curry chicken (mild) with pineapple and steamed white rice.  Dessert:  flat apple tart with ice cream, an assortment of sorbets (pear, cassis, mandarin orange) accompanied by dense, bitter warm chocolate sauce and a side dish of Chantilly cream.  A terra cotta dish held crème brulee, excellent.  We rated the meal an A.  We also ordered a half bottle of white Graves, Chateau Brondelle, 2010.
Clos Mirande, Montagne St. Emilion (05 57 74 50 16).  We reserved for Sunday lunch in their casual bistro.  The restaurant was opened a year and a half ago.  As an entree (the entering, or first course), Steve ordered a green salad, and we also ordered terrines of rabbit with a parsley garlic sauce and salad.  Main courses were:  perfectly cooked sole with lemon butter, fricassee of guinea fowl game bird, braised with black grapes, mushrooms and honey, or tender layers of pork stacked then wrapped in bacon, sitting on a slice of eggplant.  It was accompanied by zucchini, carrots and turnips.  We asked the lady for a recommendation as to a local wine, and it was a good one:  2006 Chateau Vieux Rocher Montagne de St Emilion.  We also ordered a glass of white to go with the fish.  This was the best meal we have had in France so far on this trip!

Claudia, Steve, Catalina, John, Trudy

Port of San Pedro, Los Angeles, CA – Restaurants Around the Cruise Ship Terminal

There are five noteworthy food places near the cruise ship terminal and one not so noteworthy. In order of quality, with the last one being so-so, I give you my take on the places we wined, dined or grabbed snacks at while in the Port of San Pedro.

This is a photo of the exterior of the Whale and Ale Pub in Port San Pedro, CA.

Look for this wonderful pub when in port.

1.) Whale and Ale – British Pub and Restaurant
Atmosphere: Casual, typical pub decor, dark wood paneling and beautiful bar
Noise: no problem during the day (no reference for nighttime)
Stars for it’s category: 5
Price: $$ 1/2
Upon walking in I noticed the silence of the people enjoying a late lunch. I mention the silence because where I come from, if no one is talking the food is so incredible, they can’t stop eating long enough to talk let alone breathe. Since there wasn’t a cruise ship in town, nor one expected for two more days, I assumed that the folks enjoying lunch were locals. A quick chat with Gail, a friendly bartender revealed that the majority of their business is from locals and not cruisers.

This is a photo of the carving of a whale over the bar in the Whale and Ale pub in Port San Pedro, CA.

Now, this is one smug whale!

This is a photo of Anand Kolatkar at the Whale and Ale Pub in Port San Pedro, CA enjoying a cold pint of Guiness.


This is a photo of a plate of pub chips (french fries) with a side of curry mayonaise.

Pub Chips with Curry Mayonaise

Since it was mid-day for us and we had already eaten lunch and were just passing time until happy hour, we ordered a basket of chips and a couple pints. It was perfect! The entire menu looked thoughtful, extensive and wonderful so we vowed to return to sample some of the gourmet items on the menu.

This is a photo of the menu at the Whale and Ale pub in Port San Pedro, CA.

Have something with the pig's ear!

PS: Next to the pub is a darling little shop if you are into elegant, vintage or upscale home decor with a penchant for English (Stratfordshire) bone china tea cups and tea pots. Here you will find the miniature silver spoons for your sugar bowls and unique table items from candlesticks to napkin rings. Let your inner hostess emerge at the Garden Shop!

This is a photo of the gift shop next door to the Whale and Ale pub in Port San Pedro, CA.

Garden Shop - Port of San Pedro, CA

This is a photo of Mishi's Cafe store front window in Port San Pedro, CA.

Mishi's Cafe Store Front

2.) Mishi’s Strudel Bakery and Cafe – Homemade Hungarian Food
Atmosphere: Casual, artsy, bright interior
Noise: no problem
Stars for it’s category: 4.5
Price: $$

Aside from the classic European facade painted on the windows with wrought iron cafe tables out front that alerted me that I was in for something delightful, I was greeted with one of the warmest, most cheerful smiles by a cafe server when I walked in the door. Cerlie (meaning “Happy” in Malaysian) helped us select our breakfast menu items and worked efficiently to have everything to the table in as little time as possible. This is an important mention because strudel takes time to make and bake. There is a process to strudel that takes time and the food is fresh, hot and delicious as a natural consequence! We observed that people who don’t have time to wait for their order, may not want to order strudel. Since we were first inside at opening, we got served immediately.

This is a photo of bacons and eggs and a croissant at Mishi's Strudel Cafe.

Breakfast at Mishi's Strudel Cafe

This particular Friday morning followed  “First Thursday of the Month” where this art district neighborhood is open until midnight as they showcase works of art, singers, musicians, poets and more and this cafe was shorthanded by three women workers due to the demands of the previous night. It also affected the remaining supply of strudel choices since they sold out a number of flavors the night before. However, I can’t imagine this place having a bad strudel.

This is a photo of Mishi's Strudel Cafe store front window on the left.

All it needs to say is "Yummmm!"

Their coffee is organic and imported from Guatemala. I had one of the most incredible Americano coffee drinks ever. Smooth, round, not a trace of bitterness, great scent and a long finish; this was perfection in a cup.

This is a photo of beef strudel from Mishi's Strudel Cafe in Port San Pedro, CA.

Mishi's Beef Strudel

Feeling hungry and somewhat adventurous, I opted for the beef strudel which is something I never have had before. WOW! It was seasoned with just the right amount of onion and Hungarian paprika. There were other spices in it, but I couldn’t readily identify them except to say that it was very similar to a ground beef taco filling. Now, I’ll admit, that sounds almost offensive to say that the Hungarian strudel tasted like Mexican food, but it was very similar…and I couldn’t eat enough of it it was that good!

My daughter, almost three, loved the little pickles they serve on the side. (For me, it would be sacrilegious to mix coffee and pickles first thing in the morning). And, as you can see from the chair she is sitting in, the decor is shabby chic living room-coffeehouse.

This is a photo of Arabella in Michi's Strudel Cafe sitting in an upholstered armchair.

Goldilocks thinks this chair is just right!

This is a photo of flourless almond strudel.

Flourless Almond Strudel

This is a photo of a small sample of cookies we bought at Mishi's Strudel Cafe for the ride home.

A small box of TOTALLY AWESOME cookies 'to go' with their TOTALLY AWESOME coffee for our ride home.

This is a photo of the shipping channel from the deck of Ports O' Call restaurant in Port of San Pedro, CA.

January Sunset on the Port San Pedro Shipping Channel

3.) Ports O’ Call – Happy Hour at the bar
Atmosphere: Casual, Wharf side
Noise: no problem inside or out
Stars for it’s category: 2
Price: $$

The first thing I loved about this place was the wide open deck overlooking the shipping channel with its multiple heaters overhead and brick fireplaces. It faces south somewhat which means the sun isn’t in your eyes at sunset and the sun bathes the red cranes and ships in warm light creating a soft and somewhat inviting panorama of what would otherwise be a cold, hard, mechanical, industrial scene. Cargo, fire, tugboats and cruise ships all pass within yards of your front row seat on the channel and I happen to love the atmosphere here being a sailor of many, many years.

This is a photo of a man and his little daughter next to the fire pit on the deck of the Ports O' Call bar in Port of San Pedro, CA.

Fi-Er. Fiiiii Errr. Ooooo. Fire.

This is a photo of a plate of deep fried chicken tenders and two dipping sauces at Port O' Call bar in Port of San Pedro, CA.

Port O' Call - fabulous chicken appetizer with delicious, hot, spicy sauce and Ranch dressing.

There are free appetizers inside the bar area during Happy Hour. Tortilla chips and salsa, taco makings and cheese cubes. Nothing noteworthy, in fact, nothing special at all. Since it is free food, and didn’t taste all that great, I’d say it was cheap and nasty. Teasers, not pleasers. I don’t eat this kind of food so I avoid it.

We enjoyed the simple and inexpensive house merlot and cabernet sauvignon with 1/3 lb Angus burgers that were nicely priced at $5. And all our waitresses were attentive and efficient with their service.

The creme brulee gets an “F” for failure.
A small hankering for something sweet overcame me and I asked to see the dessert menu. There were the typical items you see in restaurants these days from a vial of fresh strawberries with cream, warmed chocolate lava cake, cheesecake and creme brulee. I ordered the latter. It was the most bizarre creme brulee I ever ate and I do not recommend it. The sugar on top was not crisp in fact I had to look closely to make sure it was even there at all. Using the light of a cellphone I began examining the creme brulee for what was wrong with it. A strange substrata of brown colored custard on the bottom and lighter cream on top could only be the result of improper technique and bad ingredients. The cold sweat on the ramikin and on the sugar topping told me this had been made in advance and was sitting in a fridge. It was disgusting.


4.) Ante’s – Traditional Dalmatian Coast Food (Croatia)

Atmosphere: semi-casual with deep traditional booths
Noise: no problem
Stars for it’s category: 3.5-5
Price: $$$

I had to do some research to determine a few things before I could write a review of this food. I had a hunch that this Croatian food from the Dalmatian Coast was not to be judged in haste. If you like bland, healthy food that is properly cooked, you’ll think it is five star cuisine; if you like lots of garlic, flavor and complex seasoning you’ll be heavily disappointed in this regional cooking. The food was incredibly fresh, no doubt, but it was very plain. Looking around at the clientele, you notice that everyone appears to be of retirement age. And, I think that this is comfort food for any stomach that can’t handle too much in the way of herbs and spices. One friend who would move to Croatia in a heartbeat said that when she was there she noted that the motto of the chefs seems to be “Catch it, kill it, grill it.” Need I say more?

The wine list was very good. The bar was very well stocked and our friends and us were of the opinion that this would be an EXCELLENT place to grab a traditional martini since the ambiance was so RETRO! You know the place, it’s where all the young  dotcommers went after work because they thought they were looking and acting so cool when they found their mom and dad’s dive bar and had their first cocktail.

Our meals were simple: slices of roast lamb (sans seasoning), baked potato, steamed vegetables. Salmon in garlic and olive oil, steamed vegetables, with rice and leeks. The rice with leeks was very bland, but with a pat of butter, salt and pepper we were beginning to get somewhere. My chicken and veal risotto I chose so that I could have a gluten free meal to share with my little daughter. This massive bowl of risotto would have fed the entire table! Yet, it was very plain and I felt obliged to salt and pepper it and add some butter. No one could say the meal was anything but good, home-style cooking yet, it was nothing to write home about. It had good, strong, quality ingredients and nothing that would give youdigestive problems later if you had a sensitive gut.

A small side note: I noticed all the to-go bags were recycled Whole Foods grocery bags. Upon asking our hilarious waitress, Kate who was able to overlook any of her shortcomings with a boisterous laugh, she told me that the chef sends a runner to the local Whole Foods in Longbeach to buy many ingredients for the restaurant. A+, chef!

5.) Off the Vine – Wine and cheese store up the street from the cruise terminal on 6th street
Stars for it’s category: 4.5
Price: $$

Looking for a good bottle of wine? and some cheese to go with it? Here you will find a wonderful array of delicious cheeses and friendly owners to coach and guide you in just the right selection. No one is more cut out for this business than this couple. We enjoyed two sheep milk cheeses from Spain,the  most notable one being the Manchego.It was by far one of the best Manchego’s I had ever had, so this gets them an A+ on their score card. They have over 200 wines that they sell for under $25 and have some nice services for cruisers. They are located around the corner from the Warner theater.

This is a photo of the storefront of Sacred Grounds Coffee Cafe - Port San Pedro, CA.

Look for the theater marquee and all the skateboarders outside.

6.) Sacred Grounds – Coffee Cafe

Atmosphere: Very casual, living room
Noise: no problem inside or out
Stars for it’s category: 1
Price: $$

Umm, in all honesty, I’d have to tell you that the coffee at Mishi’s was a thousand times better than this coffeehouse so avoid it completely. That being said, the groovy dude from Jamaica was friendly to each and everyone he greeted and made an amazing mocha for Anand. He takes his barista duties quite seriously and I would say that every step was a pleasure to watch from packing the espresso to measuring the cocoa and the final topping of whipped cream.

Again, you can get awesome coffee, pastry and free wi-fi at Mishi’s so unless you want a more grungy setting to hang out in, I’d skip Sacred Grounds and go straight to Mishi’s.

Famous Sicilian Recipes You’ve Never Heard of…

Polpette al sugo (meatballs in sauce)

Polpette al sugo

… or maybe you have (if you’re Sicilian).  Polpette al sugo is a recipe from our friend Erminia, the great classic Sicilian cook we know who lives in Messina.  You can say that the English translation is “meatballs in tomato sauce,” but that’s like saying that crêpes are pancakes.  This recipe takes the simplest ingredients — ground beef, dinner rolls, tomatoes, onions — and turns them into light, fluffy wonders that melt into a delicately flavored sauce, and then into your mouth. 

The biggest thing that’s different about this recipe from traditional meatballs is that let you let the dish sit for two hours after it’s done cooking.  Simple, yes?  And in general, the recipe is quite simple, except for a few details — you must press all the water out of the soaked dinner rolls before you add them to the meatball mix, and you must handle the meatballs with great care when browning them and adding them to the sauce, or they will fall apart.

More about Messina and its food soon, although there is a sad caveat — since Messina is on, of course, the Strait of Messina, these lucky Sicilians have some of the best seafood in the world, they say because the waters run so deep.  So much of their cooking is based on their fabulous fish, such as the pesce spada (swordfish), and most places in America don’t have access to that quality of fish.  In other words, you’ve gotta go there and try it for yourself.

Note:  as is typical for Italian recipes, only some quantities are specified, so have fun and add ingredients such as the cheeses and parsley to your own taste.

Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs in Sauce)

6 servings

Olive oil as needed
1 sliced onion
a little red wine
Two 30 oz cans tomato sauce
6 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 lb lean ground beef
8 oz. soft dinner rolls
2 cloves minced garlic
3/4 cup or more chopped Italian parsley
Grated pecorino romano and parmesan cheese
3 eggs

Cover the dinner rolls in water in a large bowl and leave to soak.

In a large pot, saute onion in 1/4 cup olive oil until soft, then add the tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, and wine.  Simmer lightly covered for 15 minutes over low heat.

Squeeze out all the water from the dinner rolls.  Place the ground beef in a large bowl and mix with parsley, garlic, the grated cheeses, and pepper and salt to taste.  Add the bread rolls and eggs and knead well.  Using wet hands, make oval meatballs (3 inches long).  Heat 1/2 inch of olive oil on medium high heat in a large saute pan.  Dip the meatballs in flour and saute the meatballs in olive oil until golden, turning very carefully to keep them intact. When finished, drain the meatballs and set aside.

Add the meatballs very gently to the tomato sauce, and simmer lightly covered for 20 to 30 minutes.  Check one meatball to see if they’re cooked through.  When finished, turn off the heat and leave the pot on the burner, lightly covered, for 2 hours.  Warm when ready to eat.

La Table Calvet – Fine Bordeaux Restaurant

Bordeaux has been a construction nightmare for some 10 years, with the creation of a streetcar “tramway” service.  The tram is nearly complete, and the city peaceful and beautiful now.  However, a pleasant side effect has been the restoration and improvement of the wharves.   For hundreds of years, barrels of Bordeaux were rolled down to tall-masted ships on their way to England and points beyond.  The entire waterfront on the left bank (west side) of the Garonne river now houses bike paths, grass, playgrounds, organic markets and storage warehouses turned into cafes and restaurants.  Last year we explored the Chartrons area, with its antique shops.  Today, we went further north to the Cours du Medoc tram stop, and were impressed.

But our real objective for today was the fine restaurant associated with the giant wine merchant Calvet.  They were founded here in 1818, and the building constructed around 1880 at 81, cours du Medoc.  We reserved at La Table Calvet for noon, and they were unlocking the doors as we arrived.  The room has dark hardwood floors, golden stone walls, exposed and glowing in this elegant, spacious 19th century townhouse.  The ceiling is composed of wavy white panels drilled with holes, and this quiets the room.  The back wall is all burgundy and black, very modern and beautiful.  The service was very experienced and nuanced.  We relied on the expertise of the sommelier in choosing the 2001 Calvet Combles de Canon-Fronsac red.  It was full of fruit, but with a distinct backbone.  We diluted its effects with a bottle of Badoit mineral water.

As we gazed out over the white tablecloths, we noticed the sommelier decanting a fine bottle of Leoville las Cases costing hundreds of dollars.  The central table was used to stage all the bottles of water and wine being poured for the entire room.  The table was unusual, in that, down the central pillar bounded 4 hounds carved in wood.  The businessmen ordering the Leoville had drunk the entire bottle before their first course had even arrived.  They called for another.  Thus is business lubricated in the city of Bordeaux.

The breads were made by the restaurant, and we tried cider bread, and a dense poppyseed loaf, neither of which even came close to “Frank’s bread”, with its abundance of whole grains, lentils and seeds.

Steve went for the tender Aquitaine tenderloin of beef, which was served with a delicious fried marrow, girolles mushrooms, tiny green beans, onions, purple cauliflower, orange cauliflower and a bizarre tender green vegetable sounding like celestus.

I choose the 28 euro menu.  It started with a parfait glass with a savory avocado mousse on top of shrimp served to both of us.  My first course was a flat pastry topped by green, yellow, and different types of sweet red tomatoes.   Arugula salad perched at the side of the square plate, and dabs of anchovy dip, tapenade olive dip and basil pesto completed the first course.  The main course was especially decorative.  5 medallions of chicken rolled in perfectly cooked quinoa, with 2 other colors of quinoa on the side.  Various vegetables dotted the plate. 

Then, a wooden rack with six places for glass tubes arrived. Two of the places were filled with six inch long tubes that are reminiscent of laboratory glass test tubes, complete with corks and filled with a light, delicate “violet water”, for cleansing the palate.

The dessert was a pastry packet tied with string, filled with a dense, sweet plum compote, dusted with powdered sugar and walnuts.  Walnut ice cream on the side.  Even though we didn’t order the coffee course, the nice wait staff brought us 2 miniature canneles (molded cinnamon fluted cake, specialty of Bordeaux ), two tiny tarts with jam, and two wrapped dark chocolates.  Since Steve is on the grizzly bear diet consisting of meat, fish, vegetables and fruits, he did not partake.  No need for any food tonight!

We rated the restaurant an A, for food, décor and atmosphere (tranquil, with only 2 other tables full of business men and women, and excellent, friendly and knowledgeable service.  Also, to our delight, as of January of 2008, there is no more smoking in any restaurant interior.  Hooray!

Claudia and Steve

Home away from Home!

On the way south to Cestas Gazinet, gite owner Xavier debriefed us on all the gossip since we left last October. 

It always feels wonderful to walk into this house.  The new Bulgarian maid, Teodora, had done a good job cleaning.  Every year we notice new details.  Daniele has repainted the kitchen cabinets in a golden yellow.  We discovered a new kitchen tablecloth, new coffeemaker, microwave, and pots.  New lattice wooden enclosure out front for recycling bin/trashcan.   Desktop computer.  New shower-head, new shower enclosure in green bedroom. New bedspread upstairs in yellow bedroom.  New café chair burgundy covers.  New mini-sofa in hall. New yellow patio chairs.  And the biggest surprise:  a huge bush beside the garage had been pruned to be hollow inside, and a nice lounging deck built around a big fir tree trunk.  A secret hideaway for relaxing in the shade.

This place is no secret.  Many of you reading this have come and stayed here too.  So you can imagine what we are doing and seeing.  The first day, we set up the computer, and the satellite TV system.  Neighbors Jean-Paul and Rachel came over with the 42 bottles of wine they had stored for us over the winter.  We got the sheets and towels out of the attic, and brought the kitchen knives and pantry items downstairs.

Sunday, we went to Intermarche for groceries (we didn’t rent a car this year because the cost went up 33%).  We bought 6 oysters originating from the immense Arcachon bay, Steve grilled up some fresh duck breasts, accompanied by endive, watercress and carrot salads.  We looked out from under the patio umbrella at the tall old oaks, magnolia, pine and holly overlooking the garden lawns of Monsalut.  Six hours later we had the cheese course.

We cleaned, lubricated, and reconditioned the bicycles, as they are going to be one of our mainstays of transportation.  French literature courses skipped over the words for bolt (boulon), nut (rondelle) and chain guard (carter), but Xavier taught me as he gave us a 4mm bolt and nut set.  I am constantly learning more French.  But that first class at age 11 has given the whole French world to me.

We will also get lots of exercise walking to the bakery, butcher, vegetable stand, pharmacy, and deli in Gazinet.  We can hop on a train there to Arcachon , Spain, Nantes, or Toulouse .  We don’t foresee any problems because everything is so convenient here.

Saturday night there was a tremendous storm, with loud thunder right over my bed at the apex of the house.  Rain poured down and lightning illuminated the skylight.  It has cleared the air, and the temperatures plummeted.  In the annals of Bordeaux winemaking, such storms are noted.  Jean-Paul told us that in 2008, March was very mild, but there was a hard frost that killed most of the prematurely flowering buds on April 7.  The summer was rainy and not warm. Now the storm of August 30 will go into the books, especially if hail or wind reduced the yield further.  2008 will likely not be a good year for Bordeaux wine.

If it doesn’t rain today, we’ll visit Franck at the pharmacy and explore our old haunts on our bikes.  No doubt we’ll end up at “Les Sources”, the iron-rich spring in the forest.  Steve calls these fall months in Cestas the “spa treatment”.  For me, it just feels great to be alive here!

Claudia and Steve
September 1, 2008

100 Days After the Flowering Comes the Tasting

We learn something new each time we visit one of Bordeaux’s winemakers.  The rule of thumb here is, 100 days after the vines flower comes the harvesting.  The harvest of the local Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the earliest red varietal, Merlot, is already underway.
Tuesday, we visited Chateau LaFargue, a modest, yet award-winning property in Pessac-Leognan appellation south of Bordeaux.  We went to pick up a case of 2004 red which we had purchased last year as futures.  Not content to just “grab and go”, we stood at the tasting bar as the acutely sophisticated (and knowledgeable) blonde sales manager offered us tastings of whatever we desired.  And even threw in a wooden case with “tampon” (the end piece with the chateau’s insignia and name stamped on it)
We wanted to taste the 2000 and 2003, reputed as excellent years.  We were more impressed with their Cuvee Prestige blends, which spend 18 months in new barrels aging, and are harvested from the older vines.  The 2000 was Steve’s favorite, and Claudia preferred the 2003.  That year was so hot and dry that everyone had to apply for an exemption to exceed the maximum 13% alcohol level.  We know.  We were here 6 months of that year (including having a pacemaker installed!).  Since the tap roots of these vines delve down 100 feet for water, in spite of drought they still produced excellent wine.
The wine books chronicle what each month’s weather was like for a given year, and relates how it affects the wine.  For 2006, for example, they might write:  “there was a heat wave July 12-25, with a cool, rainy August.  On Sunday, September 10, there was a long and violent rain, with thunder rolling like massive bowling balls down the lanes of the sky.  Some parcels received damage, but the harvest had already been brought in at other properties”.  After hearing the final earth-shatteringly loud thunder bomb, we were sure the entire wine harvest had been vaporized!  But the winemakers said it had not hit the ground.
The 2004 is said to be a moderately good year, but the 2005 is the year that everyone is getting excited about.  Lucky, because French wine sales had dropped precipitously for several years.  Now, exports are up 18.6% through May (IHT 8/8/06), based mainly on avid international demand for the 2005.
The supermarkets all run “Foire aux Vins” promotions and print color catalogs in September.  J-P and Rachel again invited us to the after-hours gourmet wine tasting event at Intermarche this year.  Hundreds of faithful customers were anxiously milling about the wooden wine crates from all over France.  There was the clink of bottles being loaded into carts and the buzz of conversation.  People lined up 10 deep around the food as if they hadn’t eaten a crumb in days.  I saw one thin older man shoveling fresh Arcachon oysters into his mouth as fast as he could.  Soon the trays of cheese cubes, fatty sausages, fine ham, and olives were gone.  The trays of foie gras on baguette lasted only seconds with this crowd.
We re-connected with the well-muscled and fashionably-dressed Stefanne (fluent English speaker who visits Napa properties).  Pouring generous glasses of the sweet white 1999 Sauternes called Roumieu, he offered to take us to Brane-Cantenac and other properties later in October when our guests arrive.  We also talked with the sommelier pouring “foreign” wines, some Chilean, Portuguese and Argentinean.  There were no American wines on offer.  The French are super sensitive to their recent failures competing with the rest of the international players, so they don’t let in much non-French wine.  Only if the importer’s name is Rothschild or Lurton does it get in.
One might think that all French wines are expensive.  This is true in fine wine stores in America.  But here, where wine is food, prices are fine.  Gold-medal winning Grenache/syrah from the villages of the Cotes-du-Rhone costs 2 to 6 euros.  An Alsace Riesling or Gewurztraminer might run 3-6 euros.  The Loire Valley cabernet franc- based reds run 4-6.  The generic Bordeaux are 3-5, with the reds from the right bank running 6, and the southern Graves cost 8.  Only Burgundies and the prestigious Grand Crus run you big money.  Chateau d’Yquem, the top Sauternes, was 157 euros a bottle .  So here, even with the euro exchange rate being so high (1.27 dollars buys one euro), you can still drink high quality wines at affordable prices.
Of course, we are only consuming red wine for health purposes, not because of the convivial, fun atmosphere around here.
Claudia and Steve

Harvesting Sauternes

Today the harvest began in Sauternes, south of Bordeaux.  And Saturday is market day in Bazas, the cathedral town at the southern limits of the Graves appellation.  The town exercises an irresistible pull on us.  The maximum magnetic force is exerted by the lean and delicious sausages of Patrick from Aveyron.  We also buy fresh herb plants of the Spanish vendor.  And little rye and raisin rolls from Biganos…that’s all the excuse we need to get up early and drive 40 minutes away to shop.
We had phoned Chateau Guillemins last week, to ask if we could stop by to pick up some red wine.  The 85 year old mother remembered us from last year’s wine festival, and even knew that we are in Cestas!  Sharp as a tack!  She arranged for Isabelle and her brother Jean-Francois to be there this morning.    Harvest will begin Monday with Merlot, then Malbec, then Cabernet.  They are unusual in withholding their wines from market until they have already aged 4 years.  We will bring our friend Catalina to meet them during the Open Doors in the Graves festival Oct 21-22.
Since Sauternes is just a stone’s throw from Langon, we visited our friend and former gite owner, Evelyne Allien of Chateau Dudon.  She phoned us last night to tell us, the sugar in the grapes is just right, it’s time to pick.  So the harvest began in earnest this morning.  We were invited for lunch.  Last year, with Steve’s daughter Suz and husband Dan, she frantically fed us in 15 minutes before we raced to the airport.  This time, Evelyne put out a magnificent spread and we took our time.  Out came fluffy egg and ham squares, giant pink shrimp dipped in curry sauce or mayonnaise, crusty bread, a roasted chicken, salad, cheeses, a chocolate tart and coffee.  We feasted with her husband Michel, followed by her daughter Francoise.  Francoise graduated from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris in Law, and she is now the second youngest sitting judge in France.  The 3 sons all flunked their medical exams, and will re-take them in September.
Michel’s trip to California last September has borne fruit, with 240 bottles of their beautiful Sauternes (Barsac) on its way to San Francisco.  To restore the inside of the castle, they only need another 500,000 euros on top of the 300,000 euros already spent on the roof…let’s see, how many bottles of the golden nectar is that…
Evelyne escorted us into the aging cellar where an exhibit of copper wire art and sculpture was on view.  She has also completed several new oil paintings, during a trip to Brittany.  We asked her to put aside 4 of them and we are contemplating acquiring one or more of them.  On top of one she has already given us!  It’s a view of the Chateau de Sully in Burgundy perched on a hillside.  We will be back to choose them after the 3 weeks of harvest conclude.  For now, we bought a bottle of 2001 Sauternes, to commemorate the year we stayed with her.
The Sauternes “noble rot” that pulls the moisture out of the white grapes, concentrating the sugars,  begins as dew from the nearby Cirons stream.  Today, there was no sign of the classic white fog over the cold stream.  It’s been a hot summer, moderated by rain in August.   It promises to be a very good year.
There are more winetasting events coming up next week.  Tuesday, we’ll go pick up a case of Chateau LaFargue red Graves wine that we purchased futures of last year.  That same evening, we’ll go with neighbors Jean-Paul and Rachel to the quirky “Winetasting at the Supermarket” evening.  There, 10 producers lavish foie gras, oysters, sheep cheeses, sausages, and breads on avid customers feverishly milling around 10 feet tall stacks of wooden wine crates, armed with color catalog containing descriptions and prices.
Wine emergency appears imminent:  reinforcements are needed to help drink it!
Claudia and Steve

First Lunches in Bordeaux

In the 10 years we’ve been coming to the Bordeaux region, we have sought out many of the good restaurants.  However, new ones are always cropping up, and there are some we have missed.
Including one in our own little village of Cestas-Gazinet. 
Clos Tassigny.  N250.  Old golden stone house with crinkled peach tablecloths, candles, stone floors, and a relaxed atmosphere.  We had just arrived from the airport hotel.  Due to jet lag, we limited the wine to a half bottle of 1998 Chateau Malleprat Pessac Leognan.  The first course included chicken pate studded with foie gras and chopped raisins, as well as a puff pastry with foie gras.  The main courses were pave of beef, cooked perfectly, and a delicate salmon steak with a light cream sauce.  Both dishes included excellently seasoned potatoes au gratin and finely chopped eggplant and squash cooked with Provencal spices and garlic.  No dessert was necessary, but a small cheese plate of goat cheese, Brie de Meaux  and a mild St. Nectaire complemented the meal.  We would rate the meal a B+.  We spoke with the older couple sitting next to us, and picked their brains for other good restaurants.  For some reason, all the new targets are near the seacoast and the Arcachon basin:
a.  La Gueriniere, Gujan Mestras.
b.  Le Patio, Arcachon
c.  La Cote du Sud, Pyla sur Mer
d.  Restaurant Gerard Tissier, Pyla sur Mer
In the city of Bordeaux on Tuesday, around the corner from the House of Japan, we found a quiet haven:
Restaurant du Loup.  66 Rue du Loup.  It’s been a restaurant since 1932, and has art deco furnishings, columns, old dark wood, pink double tablecloths, and a very warm welcome by Martine, the owner.  We considered the inexpensive 11 and 16 euro lunch menus, but finally chose the 23 euro 4-course menus.  The first courses included cubes of tomatoes and cucumbers strewn with dill, and little toasts with tapenade.  My first course was several triangles of shrimps deep fried with a spicy dipping sauce.  The wine:  a 2004 Chateau Coquillas Pessac Leognan.  We both ordered the delicious pork tenderloin with potatoes, all of which just melted in the mouth.  The third course consisted of a single slice of Brie de Meaux at room temperature.  Desserts were light because of the intense heat.  There was a apricot sorbet with fresh fruit, and Steve had a brick of almond ice cream with fresh strawberries.  The chef was big on decorating the edges of all the plates with ribbons of red and yellow sauces.  We rated the meal an A and would return.
Lastly, on Wednesday, after a long bicycle ride on some rather bumpy bike paths through the spicy resinous pine forest, we settled down at a pizzeria in the beach town of Porges.  It was so hot that we just ordered salads.   Three of us liked the salad with smoked duck breast, foie gras melted on toast (greasy), with peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and corn.  I had the Nordic salad of little pink shrimps, smoked salmon,corn, tomatoes and creme fraiche.  It was served up by a 25 year old law and business grad who has shucked it all to go constantly traveling – to India, to Bangkok, Indonesia and South America. 
To work off the salad and the bottle of wine, we climbed the white dune and plunged into the 75 degree Atlantic, strolling along its pristine, deep golden sands.  The temperatures outside reached 90 degrees and as we returned to the gite, a long line of cars was still en route to the beach for relief.
During the past week, it has become perfectly clear to us that French food is still delicious, and that nothing can compare!
Claudia and Steve

Harvest Dawn – Napa Valley Bike Ride

in California     

Last weekend I did a dawn bike ride through much of Napa’s wine country.  My route took me through parts of Oak Knoll, Stag’s Leap, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St Helena, Howell Mountain and Chiles Valley.    The heat had been on for a day and I fully expected to see the pickers and the hoppers operating at full.  Imagine my surprise to see NO activity on the last Saturday in September.  Harvest was late but all reports said it had started.  In an average year, harvesting from dusk to dawn is often considered preferable.  Not this day.  Once again the week had been cool and the sugars had not developed for harvest.

That day and several to follow saw temperatures in the high 90’s and breaking over 100.  I had a concern that there would be a repeat of the crop damage from August’s heat wave but have since learned it did not happen.  This weekend, while hot, did not have as radical temperature fluctuations which would have increased the problems. 

So what about the fruit?  Universally, the berries and clusters are smaller and most forecasts are anticipating a below average harvest weight.  Typically, a longer hang time benefits the resulting wines’ color and complexity.  This year we clearly don’t have fruit ripening too quickly but with this tricky year and at this early stage, it is too early to judge the results.  Like the growers and winemakers, you and I will have to wait and take this saga one day at a time.