France: At the top of the food chain

By Peter Calder

Cheese at a Sunday market in Bordeaux. Photo / Peter Calder
Cheese at a Sunday market in Bordeaux. Photo / Peter Calder

On my last night in the city of Bordeaux, I had the sole unpleasant experience of a three-week trip to France: a waiter whose high-handedness was so extreme it verged on caricature.

"Could I get another glass of that?" I said, pointing to my glass as he relaid the table next to me. We were alone on the terrace, he and I; he could not have been in any doubt who I was talking to. But without a word or so much as a glance (did I detect the trace of a sigh?), he turned and went inside, emerging a few minutes later with the wine and placing it, mutely, before me.

It degenerated into a bit of a competition as the evening wore on: I asked for things in my most careful French, always prefacing my requests with phrases like, "I am most enormously sorry to disturb you..." and he always complied - slowly, silently and sullenly, and without eye contact.

I had the last word by ostentatiously depositing a 20 cent tip on the table in front of him as I left, after telling his (bilingual, Surrey-born) boss that the man needed to consider a new career.

French waiters - caricatures aside - are mostly courteous and efficient, particularly in Bordeaux (which is the name of the city and the region). This is a part of the country whose very name smells of wine - as you drive through the countryside, road signs everywhere are cluttered with fabled names like Pauillac and St Emilion - but where they take food very seriously indeed. Sauce bordelaise, made with beef marrow, red wine and shallots, which pools around the meats in the classic beef dishes of the region, is probably the most famous sauce of its kind in French regional cuisine. It may have escaped my last-night friend, but waiters stand at the end of a long line leading from producer to plate.

A Sunday morning market set up on the banks of the Garonne, the river that runs through the city, underlined the point: the rabbits still had their fur, the birds their feathers and the fromageries put me in mind of Charles de Gaulle's complaint about the impossibility of governing a country that has 246 kinds of cheese (that number is now more than 1000).

In pedestrian-only Rue St Remi that evening, as I look for a promising place for dinner, the air is intoxicating with the smell of good cooking.

The Brasserie Bordelaise has been recommended and does not disappoint. The place is heaving but the staff are friendly and obliging, unlike my mate up the road, and the 24 set menu - a sort of jellied cod terrine and simple half roast chicken - is sublime.

The next day I am in Bergerac, the market town at the heart of the Dordogne.

I am interested to learn that Cyrano de Bergerac, the dramatist and duellist who was fictionalised as the long-nosed pining lover of Roxanne, never so much as set foot in the town, but rather hijacked its name to create his own faux nobility. That hasn't stopped the good people of Bergerac from erecting not one, but two statues to the bloke.

Of more interest to me is the very much alive Stephane Cuzin, whose restaurant La Table du Marche is, as its name suggests, straight across the street from the bustling town market. Cuzin, who worked at very famous, very posh and very expensive La Maison Blanche in Paris, goes for a much more approachable recipe here. He's the very model of the portly, cheerful, aproned chef-patron, welcoming customers as he presides in his small open kitchen.

He's equally welcoming to an inquisitive journalist who tries to keep out of the way while playing a (very small) part in the preparation of vanilla-flavoured carrots.

These will accompany my lunch of duck breast and the half-bottle of a nice Pecharmant, the merlot-predominant wine from the hills just northeast of town. Cuzin specialises in taking visitors through the entire cooking process, from shopping for ingredients and making stocks to preparing and serving their own meal.

That night, a few dozen kilometres to the west, I am staying near the tiny village of Saussignac. The only restaurant in town rejoices in the grand name Le Lion d'Or (The Golden Lion), but it's a modest, low-ceilinged room. And the food is perfect: a fragrant mushroom soup and a juicy rack of lamb. As I finish the last mouthful, I remember a waiter called Max, who served me at Bouchon, the French place in Kingsland, many years ago.

"I come from the Dordogne," he said proudly, by way of reassuring me I was in safe hands, "It is the centre of the French gastronomy." Having been there and checked it out, I can't argue with that.

Peter Calder explored Bordeaux and the Dordogne in a car supplied by Renault Eurodrive. Rates for medium- or long-term hire can be significantly better than rental car rates, but arrangements must be made before you arrive in Europe. Contact renaulteurodrive.co.nz or phone 0800 807 778.

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