Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Langon & Sauternes

Escaping the city for the weekend, we hopped on a bus and spent a few days relaxing in Langon. The bus follows the Garonne on the north side of the river. It takes longer than the train south of the river, but stops in all the little villages along the way. Built on the hillsides rising up from the river, and more often than not with fortifications dating from as far back as the 13th century, they are islands in the sea of vineyards that make up the Entre-deux-Mers region between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. The soil here owes its quality to the changing course of the Garonne over the centuries, creating an ideal environment for a range of grape varieties. At this time of year the vines are a vibrant green and the unripe fruit is just visible underneath the leaves.

Langon is on the south side of the river, which is considerably smaller here than at Bordeaux but given the length of the rail bridge, is prone to serious flooding. A marker on the river bank indicates the flood levels of the last century – up to 13m – which explains the damp smell and number of dilapidated houses close to the river (not the most attractive real estate!). Once a trading hub when the Garonne was the main freight route, especially for wine, Langon is now a quiet town of around 10,000 people. There are few tourists despite being at the doorstep of the Sauternes wine region, famous for its sticky wines.

Noble Rot is the Jekyll and Hyde of wine – how something as ugly as a bunch of shrivelled, brown grapes infected with the fungus botrytis can be transformed into a beautiful, golden drop that smells like there are hundred flowers in your glass is a miracle. Having tasted the bottom of the range, then a mid-range Sauternes, I’m inclined to believe the guide at the Maison de Sauternes when she said that the difference between mid- and top-range (not available for tasting, think Château d’Yquem) is ten times that – it must be heavenly. Botrytis thrives in this region due to the chilly waters of the Ciron, a tributary of the Garonne, meeting the relatively warm ground temperatures at harvest time. This in turn creates morning mists and damp conditions perfect for growing fungus. It gradually reduces the juice in the grapes so that the volume of wine produced is a fraction of other vineyards, but has a highly concentrated flavour.

Happily any fungus was long gone from our delightful B&B in Langon. Probably built last century, the house has been tastefully and luxuriously renovated based on the previous renovations in 1945. The architect’s plans still exist and apart from modernising electricity, water, bathrooms and kitchens, it keeps its 1940s character. In town, but set in a one hectare walled garden complete with pool, spa, and banana lounges, it was a wonderful change from our Bordeaux apartment. However it was our hosts, Elizabeth and Patrick, who really made the weekend wonderful – we were picked up from the station, and driven to the nearby Château de Roquetaillade (11th century but refurbished in the 19th century) among other excursions. They were great with the kids – Patrick had a seemingly endless supply of wooden toys and old games (my favourite was the frog on the box where you have to throw a disc into its mouth) and was enjoying having an excuse to play just as much as Gabe. By Sunday afternoon Patrick and Gabe were busy doing important things and having serious discussions in French about how things work.

Breakfast was included – thick hot chocolate, rich coffee, fresh pastries, homemade jams, and fresh, unpasteurised milk. Langon has the first milk vending machine in the region. It is a little shed in the centre of town where you can buy either a bottle or cup of milk at any time of day or night. Each morning just before 8am the local dairy farmer brings a fresh tank of milk to replace the previous day’s. Fresh milk really is a different thing from the homogenised/pasteurised supermarket product. I think we spent a good hour each morning sitting on the terrace or sunroom enjoying such a sumptuous breakfast – a great way to start the day.

Elizabeth served a traditional Basque meal on Saturday night. We were joined by the other guests, a newlywed Parisian couple, which turned out in our favour. The aperitif was served in the garden – prawns wrapped in bacon and cheese, cod balls in Basque sauce, and olives, with a rosé and dry white wine. Moving inside for the meal it was revealed (much to Elizabeth’s horror) that neither of the Parisians ate seafood, so Kent and I were obliged to have an extra serving of oysters and pipis. Oysters are sold closed in France and Patrick had kept them in the fridge for a week so they could de-stress after being harvested! Kent had a lesson on opening them correctly – it’s amazing how oysters can break down the language barrier. With entree we drank a very tasty New Zealand style sauvignon blanc made by a Belgian winemaker in Bordeaux. I guess this is one of the advantages of globalisation. Squid in ink sauce followed, which was quite unusual but delicious. Next came the cheese course which included a camembert that Elizabeth had been carefully aging for the newlyweds, however they didn’t like cheese anymore than seafood, so we profited once again. The two red wines from Entre-deux-mers (north of the river) and one from Graves (south) complemented the food beautifully and showed just how diverse wine can be even when it comes from one small area. The Graves was the closest to an Aussie-style red that we have come across so far. The crème catalan (similar to a crème brulée) finished a beautiful meal in good company and very pleasant surrounds.

We caught the bus back to Bordeaux on Sunday afternoon having had a very relaxed weekend and feeling like we’d been staying with good friends. This is definitely on my “must revisit” list and I’d highly recommend both the region and B&B. For a glimpse of the B&B go to http://chambredhoteslangon.blogspot.com/

Saturday, July 11, 2009

2 July 2009 - Bordeaux University

Note to self: 38 hours travelling is a very long time (but it is worth it!)

Our apartment on campus.

There’s nothing quite like arriving in a new city accompanied by the glares of the locals. Your two year old screaming at top volume for a two hour flight is almost guaranteed to do this, but with the jetlag that goes with travelling halfway around the globe (and I wasn’t joking about the 38 hours) everything is a bit surreal. Things only get worse when you read a sign saying there are special swine flu forms to fill out if you’re from Australia and then you can’t work out how to release the luggage trolley even though you’ve got the right change. In the midst of all this, a friendly face holding a sign with your name on it when you’d been trying to calculate the cost of a taxi fare does wonders for the mood.

First impressions of Bordeaux (Talence, the university area south of the city) were not particularly impressive. While there is some interesting architecture, most of this area is reminiscent of post-war Eastern European construction – lots of grey, concrete buildings that look like they were built en masse in a hurry, as if someone had decided that Bordeaux needed a

Science faculty, so one was built in two weeks. On first glance many buildings look abandoned, but on closer inspection, I realise that hiding behind the run-down exterior and acres of graffiti they are still very much in use. (The brown buildings to the right are actually different science buildings - there are three identical in a row! The graffiti-covered medical centre took me by surprise - here's hoping the quality of care is better than the quality of the exterior.)

The campus itself is very open – lots of space, but none of it particularly pleasing to the eye nor well-used. I find this quite curious as all of the other

French cities (and indeed European) that I have visited don’t seem to waste a single square centimetre of space.

In stark contrast to this underlying feeling of decay, the ultramodern tram

cuts through the campus with a remarkably efficient service. In central

Bordeaux the trams run on ground power – like a third rail that is only live when the tram is on it – to avoid filling the streetscape with overhead power lines. The trams run from 5am until 1am and don’t bother having a timetable as they are so frequent – every few minutes for most of the day. We’re lucky enough to have a tram stop just outside the front door (to zip us out of concrete and graffiti land and into the beautiful city centre). (The ENSEIRB building is quite interesting with it's antenna on the roof in the shape of a boat and a pod-like entrace, but it has already been infected with the graffiti skin disease. I hope it stands the test of time better than the Science Faculty.)

Despite the grey of the campus, and the fact that there isn’t a bakery around the corner (is this really France?), I rate the lifestyle quite highly due to the food. I’m always amazed at the quality and price of so much of the food in France, especially the cheese (aah, sigh of relief from my taste buds, unpasteurised), bakery and deli produce such as terrines. For this very reason (and rule no. 7 in our apartment: it is forbidden to cook in the apartment, despite having a kitchen with saucepans and stovetop!) we have decided not to cook, but live on salad, delicious cheeses, hams, terrines, oysters .... sorry, I digress, but we did enjoy our slice of terrine forestière last week (made from goodness knows what meat with a sprinkling of herbs and wild mushrooms).

The cheese is also magnificent. One of Kent’s all-time favourites Le Rustique is currently lurking in the fridge. A strong, non-pasteurised, camembert-style cheese that barks each time the fridge is opened. It’s neighbour is a goat’s cheese log that is being consumed at an astonishing speed. To accompany all this stinky cheese, the fine croque (crunch) of a freshly baked French baguette is one of life’s simple pleasures, and at less than 1€ there’s no excuse for eating stale bread. We’re also enjoying the croissants, pains au chocolat and various other delicious treats that threaten to enlarge our waistlines to gargantuan proportions.

Saturday’s adventure is to the Marché des Capucins, Bordeaux’s main food market, which promises to fill our shopping bag with all kinds of delights.

(Please excuse the page layout - I'm still learning to blog! Amie)

Gabe & Lucie happily sharing their double bed!