View from Saint-Émilion church tower.

View from Saint-Emilion church tower

“Nine a.m. sharp.” Those were Kelly’s parting words on the eve of our departure from Bordeaux. Our next destination, Sarlat, was 200 kilometers away, and we had appointments en route, so we would hit the road early.

At 9:10 the next morning, two of the Jumpy’s seven passengers were missing.

A phone call was made, slumber disrupted, belongings were hastily collected. Several choice vulgarities, delivered in standard American English, undoubtedly resounded up and down the third floor of Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Sixteen minutes later, Zandra and James burst out of the building, luggage clattering, with damp hair and linen-marked features.

All but two of us enjoyed a nice chuckle — this was, after all, a vacation. By the time J&Z recovered their sense of humor, we were 20 kilometers east of Bordeaux headed to Saint-Émilion, and we all had learned a lesson: Don’t trifle with jet lag. Jet lag always wins.

Wine Tasting in Saint-Émilion, Evening Picnic in Sarlat

Fonplegade Wine Tasting

Wine tasting at Chateau Fonplegade.

The Setup: In Saint-Émilion we began with tours and tastings at two quite different chateaux: Chateau Fonplegade, American-owned and très élégant; and Chateau Pavie Macquin, also lovely but a bit more rustic. At both, the wine and the hospitality were first-class. Thanks to Kelly’s contacts and expertise, finding a mediocre bottle, or a less-than-breathtaking venue in which to sample it, or an ungracious host, all were proving difficult.

After the tours, we drove into the centuries-old village of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site with daunting world-heritage-class verticality. We parked at the base of the hill and labored up the winding cobblestone streets to the town summit for lunch at bustling L’Envers du Decor. Afterward, Dorothy, Zandra and I thought we’d do a little shopping, but ended up climbing (more climbing!) the steep spiral steps of the tower of Saint-Émilion’s famous monolithic church, from which we enjoyed a splendid panorama. Meanwhile, the guys descended to Terres Millesime, a wine shop at the bottom of the hill, for another tasting appointment. We joined them after our excursion and were early enough to have missed only a couple of selections. Lucky us.

Terres Milleseme

Enjoying Saint-Émilion’s hospitality.

Many tastings — les dégustations — are polite, sedate affairs. The one at Terres Millesime was performance art.

Our amiable host, Manu — reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci — seemed unable to sit. He repeatedly leapt out of his chair to deliver a generous pour, a fist-shaking advocacy of the home-country viticulture, a boisterous celebration of his Burgundian heritage. Mostly in French. At one point he broke into song. He offered toasts, shook hands, patted backs. He sipped a fragrant Bordeaux, gazed heavenward and kissed his fingertips. Kelly, as translator, cheerfully tried to keep pace.

By the time we finished the tasting, we were entertained, a little tired, and a little buzzed. The performance, if that’s what it was, succeeded. We chose wines and placed orders, which given the work involved in arranging shipping took the better part of an hour. When we were ready to leave, most of Saint-Émilion was dark, and we were still 150 kilometers from our beds.

Boulangerie

La boulangerie, France’s answer to fast food.

The Feast: Figuring we wouldn’t find much to eat in Sarlat at that hour, James, Zandra, Jeff and I hurried down the street to a little boulangerie and bought a baguette, a couple of quiches and a sackful of ham and cheese croissants. Then back to the van. Kelly tested the speed limit, James navigated, and we made Sarlat in good time.

We arrived at the B&B, Les Cordeliers, and were greeted by innkeepers Chris and Amanda, an affable British couple who set us up in our rooms and then joined us in James and Zandra’s room for a picnic. Chris contributed plates and napkins as well as ham, cheeses and crudite, and we drank the wine left over from Manu’s tasting — a simple, light meal that struck exactly the right chord on our first night in Sarlat.

Most Memorable: Our gracious hosts, all of them — Manu, Chris and Amanda — and those flaky, buttery ham and cheese croissants. When it comes to fast food, the French boulangerie wins hands down.

Lunch with Edouard and Carole Aynaud — Pechalifour

Retired truffle dog

Retired truffle dog, enjoying the good life.

The Setup: Our final full day in Sarlat took us to the hamlet of Pechalifour to meet Edouard Aynaud. “Le Truffe,” as he is known — lanky, bespectacled, with a beak like a raptor — vibrated enthusiasm for his work: pursuit and promotion of the elusive Tuber melanosporum, or black Périgord truffle. The Aynaud cottage, which looked from outside like it might have been put up by masterful medieval stonemasons, was cozy and modern inside, and included a classroom featuring a resident retired truffle hound, an easy-going golden Lab who needed no invitation to show you his belly. Before leading visitors out into the truffière to hunt, Edouard conducts an introduction to truffles — the species and their differences, aromas, flavors, the risks of fraud. Turns out the Tuber indicum, or Chinese truffle, is tasteless and bounces when you drop it.

After class, we headed into the orchard led by the current top dog, Farrah. A spirited border collie mix, Farrah shares Edouard’s passion for unearthing truffles, because doing so means she wins a tasty prize hidden in her master’s pocket.

Truffle

Périgord black truffle.

oeufs brouillés

The beginnings of oeufs brouillés.

After the hunt (Farrah found two truffles, but neither was ripe), we returned to the house and met Edouard’s wife, Carole. She directed us to the kitchen and demonstrated classic oeufs brouillés: Grated truffle and butter mingle at room temperature in a pan on the stove; crack two eggs per person into a bowl and pour the eggs into the pan; over a low fire, whisk furiously for 10 to 15 minutes (taking care not to perspire into the mixture) until you have a smooth texture, neither scrambled nor lumpy.

Truffle honey

Truffle honey and cheese curls.

The Feast: After the demonstration, we gathered around the dining-room table, where we were treated to the silky oeufs brouillés with their earthy hint of truffle, followed by succulent roast pork and fluffy truffle mashed potatoes. Next came a green salad and a cheese course. The cheese had been shaved with a cheese curler into delicate carnations, which drizzled with truffle honey were a bite of heaven. Last, we were served a small cup of ice cream with brandied plum and a dash of cognac. The meal alone made this outing worth every minute, not to mention we saw a truffe agriculteur in action.

Most Memorable: Edouard and Carole’s generous hospitality made this day one of the more exceptional of the trip. And while it was not the last time we encountered oeufs brouillés, it was the best.

Le Parc Franck Putelat – Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The walled city of Carcassonne.

The Setup: We ate many incredible meals in France, but Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne featured one of the top pedigrees. Putelat is a Bocuse D’Argent winner. His restaurant, a recipient of two Michelin stars, is a sleek, modern establishment at the foot of the beautiful walled old city. The muted earth tones and clean lines of the warmly lighted dining room contrasted perfectly with the adventurous dishes that emerged from the kitchen.

Bob, the senior omnivore of our party, ventured boldly through the menu, choosing the “Action Reaction,” a nine-course dégustation that showcased the chef’s latest inspirations. The rest of us opted for the six-course “Emotion,” our first real attempt at restraint on this vacation.

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup topped with a cheese crisp.

Empty Plate

Le Empty Plate.

The Feast: The meal started with beautiful foie-gras-laced bites, including savory foie gras macaroons. A rich, creamy pumpkin velouté followed, served in a gourd capped with a lacy cheese crisp. Whenever Bob received a dish that was not included in the shorter menu, his tablemates were served empty plates over which they salivated until the Smartest Guy in the Room finished, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Everyone’s plates were then whisked away.

IMG_1056

Pink duck breast and duck terrine.

The entrée for the table was duck breast, pink and perfectly tender. That was followed by a cheese cart laden with more than 40 varieties. From the cart the steward drew out hidden compartments to reveal additional aromatic selections, while diners at a neighboring table shielded their noses from the vapor drifting across the room.

It was in the course of this five-hour marathon that we were introduced to the concept of pre-dessert — that is, the warm-up dessert before the main desserts. (Yes, plural.) The pre-dessert was no smaller or less significant than the desserts that followed, just an addition to them. God, France is a beautiful place.

desserts

Pre-dessert (left), dessert (top right), post dessert (bottom right). Glorious.

Most Memorable: More than a delectable meal, Le Parc gave us the empty plate and the pre-dessert, two unforgettable but starkly conflicting concepts. I’ll also remember the nod of deference Le Parc’s silver-pinned sommelier proffered when he noticed the golden cluster on Kelly’s lapel. Not wanting or expecting any special treatment, Kelly was embarrassed — he had meant to remove his pin, which signifies his status. As far as we were concerned, it’s always good to have friends in high places.

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Dinner photoAll things in moderation.

Wise counsel, unless you find yourself traveling through France in November, when the chill whets the appetite for hearty food and rich wine, and temptation lurks around every corner. Food and drink abound. Moderation usually is absent from the menu.

So how to summarize two weeks of gluttony? On a side trip out of Sarlat, we visited La Combe aux Oies, a family-owned organic goose farm and small-batch foie gras producer. There we made the acquaintance of a gaggle of astonishingly handsome geese undergoing the stage of the foie gras process known as the “gavage,” the 15- to 18-day tube feeding that enlarges the animal’s liver in preparation for harvest. In those plump birds we recognized ourselves, except that the force-feeding we endured was tube-free and wholly self-induced. Afterward, “gavage” was our mealtime exclamation, and the foie goose, which gives its all for sustenance and pleasure, became the emblem of our journey.

Photo by James Walton

Keeping watch at La Combe aux Oies.

And an improbable journey it was: that rare convergence of adventurous, generous, often hilarious travel companions and an itinerary bursting with gorgeous landscapes, knowledgeable guides, historic sites, memorable characters and, of course, unforgettable meals.

A couple of caveats: The posts that follow represent the most memorable meals and moments of our trip, with a few exceptions. Because of an untimely cold, I missed three knockout dinners. And of the feasts I did attend, the astonishing amount of food seven people can order makes it nearly impossible to recount everything, though I try to describe as much as possible.

Voila le gavage.

La Brasserie Bordelaise – Bordeaux

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

 The Setup: The six of us arrived in Bordeaux on an overcast Friday afternoon, our luggage intact and our dispositions only slightly worse for the journey — we were a little tired and a lot thirsty. Kelly Mc Aulliffe, wine expert, translator, guide, chauffeur and fearless ringleader, retrieved us from the airport and ferried us into the the city to the Regent Grand Hotel. Our rooms were not available yet, so Kelly — a French-trained American sommelier who lives and works in France, a rarity — herded us out into the crowded cobblestone streets in search of a bottle and a bite to eat. Muddled as we were by jetlag, it was all he could do to keep us assembled, but after a short search he found a table for seven at Brasserie Bordelaise. We squeezed ourselves in alongside a table on which reclined an entire cured leg of pig from which the wait staff was shaving and serving thin slices, and l’hédonisme officially began.

The Feast: Not wanting to spoil dinner, we ordered a few “light” snacks, highlights of which were a delicately sweet, tangy steak tartare, and ribbons of the aforementioned jambon Bellota pata negra, salty and so tender they nearly dissolved in the mouth. It was at Brasserie Bordelaise that Monsieur Professeur Mc Auliffe’s wine instruction commenced in the form of a bright Sancerre, a Pouilly-Fuisse and then a Vouvray. We sipped, compared, contrasted, nibbled and chatted away two or three hours before the fog of weariness began to close in.

Most Memorable: The tartare was the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve been craving it ever since, but it’s the ham that haunts us still. It was a perfect way to ease into our trip.

La Tupina – Bordeaux

Jumpy

Le royal ride.

 The Setup: After a much-needed nap, we all piled into the Jumpy — the sporty Citroen nine-seater that would be our carriage for the next two weeks — and Kelly drove through the evening drizzle to La Tupina, a renowned bistro tucked down one of the side streets off the Garonne River esplanade. Inside, we were greeted by a bright display of autumn vegetables and the heady aroma of offal and other delectables sizzling in the hearth where much of the cooking is done. The establishment appeared to have once been a residence, giving it a rustic hominess. Our large round table in the corner of the dining room (nee living room?) accommodated us and the conversation nicely.

La Tupina

Coddled egg, foie gras.

The Feast: I started with coddled egg and foie gras served in a petite cocotte with a side of toast. Light and decadent all at once. For the table, Dorothy splurged on caviar, a festive opening to our first dinner in France. James and Zandra started with duck carpaccio. For entrees, Jeff and Bob had the house specialty: tripe with ceps (porcino mushrooms), a rich stew served tableside from a Dutch oven. I had a simple but perfectly pink duck breast topped with lardons, and a side of duck-fat fries.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

More wine, of course, with a focus on reds, and Kelly expounded on the art and science of wine tasting (and here we thought we were already experts). First consider the color and the depth of color; swirl the wine and stuff your nose inside the glass for a good whiff, trying to pull out the characteristics (floral? fruity? earthy? mineral? animal?). Taste the wine — is it fruity? Acidic? Minerally? Assess its texture and its length. Then go through the process again. And again. More wine, more food, more talk, and by the end we were bursting — a recurring theme.

Most Memorable: Well, first, the food. That coddled egg and foie gras, to be specific. But aside from the food, the best thing about La Tupina was our lovely and gracious server, a petite French twentysomething with a sweet disposition and a future in wine stewardship. She, as much as the meal, made this a memorable evening.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – Bordeaux

The Setup: The following morning, a gray, drizzly day of wine tasting began with a tour of a beautiful chateau, our first. Our host at Smith Haut Lafitte began by describing the surrounding vineyards from an upper deck of the complex, then led us down to the aging room, with its stacks and rows of oak barrels and the now-familiar aroma, a heady, damp mixture of wine and wood. Deeper into the chateau we went, to the fermentation room with its gargantuan oak vats, and on through another, larger barrel-aging chamber, before ascending to the ground floor. We toured the cooperage, the workshop where the wine barrels are made, where the oak is carefully chosen and cut into planks before being banded and fired. As wine ages in the barrels, the oak imparts its characteristics of toast and vanilla, flavors whose intensity depends on the length of time in the container, how long a barrel is fired and whether it’s new or being reused.

Barrels

Smith Haut Lafitte’s massive aging cave.

It was fascinating to learn about the many components of viticulture and winemaking — the soil, the weather conditions, the yeasts, new barrels vs. used barrels, the methods of pigeage — that is, pushing down into the juice the sturdy “cap” of grape skins and other solids that rise to the surface during fermentation (or, alternatively, pumping the juice over the cap). The solids impart tannins.

The morning culminated with a tasting. After a sample or two or three in the bright tasting room, the guide pressed a button. A James Bond-worthy trapdoor hummed as it opened in the floor to reveal a staircase descending to an underground cellar and tasting room, where we finished the tour.

Tasting room

Hidden tasting room.

Lamb Terrine

Lamb terrine and eggplant puree.

 The Feast: Lunch followed at the estate’s homey restaurant near a crackling fireplace: frothy pumpkin soup; tender lamb terrine accompanied by a reduced jus and pureed eggplant; roasted hake over mashed potatoes; flaky white sea bream filet over tender leeks and a butter wine sauce. Paradis.

 Most Memorable: Lunch was delicious, especially that lamb terrine, but it was the 007-style hidden tasting room that stole the afternoon.