· By Oonagh Simms
A weekend in Bordeaux
In what can now only be now known as ‘the most romantic gesture of all time’ my boyfriend whisked me off to Bordeaux last weekend. On actual Valentine’s Day. And yes, you’re right to ask, I did remember to get him a card (you can read about my habitual uselessness at this time of year here) But let's just say, It’s a good job I’m alright company. February feels endlessly hopeful at the moment, it must be the weather- the air is lighter, crocuses are peeking out of the ground and the sharp urgency of the sunlight is making me want to clean the scuffs off my trainers and wear lipstick. Life feels less foggy, the sun shone and the weekend felt as though it was stretching out for us.
A short Ryanair hop and there we were in the south west of France- that warm waft of excitement as the plane doors opened. And within 2 hours from landing we were sat in a tiny traditional bistro with 2 glasses of red wine teetering on the edge of a zinc table, as a jazz singer lulled us into devouring a plate of burrata with truffle. Because here the pressure is off. Unlike Paris there is no ‘having’ to go to galleries or monuments or ‘sights’ - nope. Here, you can have a weekend of breezing between eateries, wineries and dawdling.
So I’ve put together my recommendations for where to get drunk, eat delicious food and spend your pre Brexit Euros.
Bordeaux is a beautiful city, with weathered limestone, cobbled streets and tin street signs that tease you into vast ‘concords’ with immaculate verges. We had booked a small apartment right in the center. Airbnb is ridiculously reasonable here compared to Paris- and stylish too. Seriously, €52 euro a night level reasonable and exposed beams, original art level stylish. With a beautiful balcony over looking Rue Sainte Catherine- the longest shopping street in Europe – it was perfect for popping into those louche French clothes chains- your Maje’s and your Sandro’s. But let’s face it you come to Bordeaux for one reason- to drink wine. Actually, two reasons, to drink wine and quote Sideways. So we woke the next morning and off we went to totter around St Emillion snickering ‘if anyone orders Merlot then I’m leaving’. We caught the train to St Emillion a short 40 min journey for panoramic vistas and vast vineyards. Packing a lunch of Orangina and baguettes stuffed with Jambon, Cornichons and slathered with salty butter.
The organised tours, although informative, seemed quite regimented- a lot of minibuses and guides with microphone headsets. We took in the stunning views, and popped in to les caves for a wine tasting. The wine shops in Saint Emillion (of which there are approximately 6 on every street) range from the vintage wooden fronted and dusty shelved to the sleek glass fronts and chrome finishes. We spent a joyful hour in La Grand Cave choosing wine to bring home, all overseen by the most lovely of proprietors who patiently chatted through vintage and terroirs - accompanied by a LOT of samples and was even generous enough to talk us through the mega bottles- you know, the £20K ones.
Our plan was to light lunch on the train and stay in St Emillion for dinner. We fancied the look of menus but the prices were BIG spendy and although the winding, crumbling streets were enchanting both of us were keen to get back to the younger, buzzier Bordeaux. We hopped back on the train- nipped into an incredible épicerie and bought a baguette, confit onion, fois gras and opened one of our St Emilion wines ( supplemented with a couple of our CBD mallows) whilst enjoying the Friday night swell of excitement from our balcony.
We rang and booked Le Chien de Pavlov for a late dinner. A modern, lively bistro which when we arrived at 9.30 was completely rammed. We pushed through to the bar at the back of the restaurant for a cocktail whilst nosying at everyone else’s dinners. It had been billed as one of the most reasonable of the high end’ restaurants in Bordeaux ‘they don’t mind if you just order a main course’ which, is kind of what I fancied doing given all the frois gras and baguette. This, of course, all fell to pieces as soon as they brought the menu and I wanted every single thing on it. The food was stunning using ingredients sourced daily and delivered with flair- my sea bass was served with 4 different textures of carrot and the dessert of Mousee Tonka was a work of art - as was the selection of cheeses served with candied hazelnuts and a yuzu gel)
Where else to eat
There were so many stunning spots here that it’s hard to choose with only a weekend. I loved the look of Garopapilles with it’s stripped back interior and minimal wine shop up front but it is notoriously difficult to get a reservation.
I also can’t imagine anything more French than eating at La Brasserie Bordelaise - its wooden shelves lined with wine, high ceilings, big windows and low lighting. They’re both on my return list.
About the wine
I don’t know why I assumed wine would be cheap in Bordeaux…In my head you would tip up to the vineyard with an empty Evian bottle and have to have it filled with plonk for a couple of euro. Nope. And, although wine bars can be reasonable, in most decent restaurants you’re looking at an entry point of €35 which very quickly ramps up to €140. Ouch. Wine bars are everywhere in Bordeaux and many have over 800 bottles on their list. Our favourite was Le Bo Bar, a cosy nook of a bar and ideal if you love organic, biodynamic and artisan natural wines.
The most authentic parts of Bordeaux are Les Capucins food market and Saint Michel flea market. On Saturday morning the market was the stuff I live for- overflowing vegetables, cheeses unwrapped like gifts, a woodland of fresh herbs.
Of course I wanted to buy everything- for some imagined spring dinner served on trestle tables in a sunny courtyard. But we made do with having an early lunch at the La Poissonnerie with it’s paper tablecloths and a queue already out the door by 11am- it was such a treat with a dozen oysters, shucked and doused in lemon and served with hunks of fresh bread and ice cold wine followed by fresh gamba served with garlicky aioli.
Today was our day to really explore the city, window shop, drink small coffees outside cafes and people watch. I also managed to pick up a vintage workers shirt from the deliciously dingy Freep’Show, 80 Rue du Loup. My favourite second hand and vintage clothes shops have all been France and this was such a find.
That evening we ate Neapolitan style pizza at Masaniello. No, it’s not what you came to Bordeaux for but nothing beats a Saturday night pizza and these came with blackened, chewy crusts, a rich tomato sauce and we accompanied them with a couple of Aperol Spritz. It was tasty, bustling and fun. We then went on the hunt for Bordeaux’s after dark scene. Mama Shelter is less of a hotel and more of a Shoreditch House en francais. A place to be seen that also has bedrooms. The Bordeaux outpost is a stunner- and if you can put up with the persistent glances at what you’re wearing without withering then it’s well worth a visit, The bar makes beautiful drinks and to take a break from the wine we ordered the ‘Drunk in Love’ Hendricks cocktails and sat on the rooftop terrace.
Looking for more nocturnal shenanigans for our last night we went to a bar CanCan Hidden in Rue du Cerf Volant, you can only enter through a secret door, which from the outside looks like a phone booth. Inside it’s all dripping candles, live music, low slung sofas and extremely strong drinks. Whispering, giggling and staggering our way through till the early hours.
What to buy
Bordeaux has the most enticing selection of cannelés. These little cakes with their pillowy soft centres and caramel crunchy outside are made in individual copper moulds. They are uniquely ‘cork’ like in shape so it’s no surprise that they were invented in Bordeaux. I bought a box of A “Cream’lé”, a mix of “cream” and “canelé” from the San Nicolas patisserie. They are a crunchy and caramelised Bordeaux Canelé, garnished with a milk chocolate ganache, lime, a salted butter caramel and a whipped cream of mascarpone with vanilla from Madagascar.
As we woke on Sunday morning, feeling the affects of the fourth cocktail and lamenting not having booked an extra day we quickly realised that we’re not in London anymore. And nope, nothing is open on a Sunday morning. Having lived in Paris for 4years this can be both blissful and a source of unbridling frustration. Our bus to the airport was at 11.30am- which was spent in a torturous hinterland from waking as I longed for a Croque Monsieur with stringy glops of gruyere, blisters of mustardy béchamel and a glass bottle of Coca Cola to ease those red wine memories. So one glass of water and whatever coffee we found in the cupboard of the Airbnb and we rolled our cases noisily down the cobbled street to the bus stop. Resting my head against the window and closing my eyes from the midday sun with a suitcase full of red wine and a heart full of love. I think Valentine’s Day is very quickly becoming my favourite time of the year.