When you work for British Airways you gain an appreciation of the subtle differences in planes, seating and service. Tam works in the finance part of the company’s fleet, so was expecting everything to be in good working order – provided she hadn’t cut too many corporate costs. We still had wings, wheels with brakes and most importantly – a mid-flight snack.
Arriving in Bordeaux with Tam’s newly arrived Aunt and Uncle; Barb and Rob, and their newly engaged “parents”; Lexi and Tom. We managed to get to the area we fell short of last time we were in the south of France. On a tram to the centre of Bordeaux city we found a sleepy Saturday morning. One drunk, lying prone by the reflection of the buildings in the water, rolled onto his back, screamed a few French curse words and then held his empty bottle of red wine to his lips.
Passing through the markets to the rail station we were inundated with amazing French cuisine; cheeses, pate, cured meats, strawberries, bread, foie gras – so fragrantly French. And it came at a hefty price tag. Rob acquired a small jar of duck liver in yellow fat – a small farmers fortune to another.
The train to Libourne was book-ended by great sunny weather. What happened in between was torrential rain – barrels of it. It wasn’t likely we would last the rest of the trip unscathed either. For a weekend getaway at the start of summer, we had unfortunately and unknowingly picked the wettest time of the year – Paris had even flooded.
Our first nights accommodation was near the village of Puisseguin (eloquently pronounced by us as Pussy Grin). The Chateau Fleur de Roques looked just like it did on the bottle we purchased from the bar. It had good legs and tannins and all the other cliches we knew applied to bottles of fermented grapes. It matched certain parts of our platter, but we were due for much for of an education.
The chateau had us fooled that they had bicycles available for hire. After chance had it we managed to strike up a friendship (Rob was the most charming of us) with an arriving a pair of bicycle tour operators. They couldn’t supply us with bikes, but agreed to drop us off in Saint-Émilion. Here, we found every second shop selling expensive bottles of wine on steep cobbled and sandstone walled streets. Getting our bearings with the tourism office, we were provided with a written map with directions to make our way through a few closed vineyards before arriving at the Chateau Coutet. Without a booking we risked being turned away, but the staff catered for us by allowing us to relax in the garden with a few croaking frogs and geese before squeezing us into a later session.
We learned about the terroir; defined as the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced. It includes factors such as the soil, topography and climate. Having a good understanding of the local limestone hills and silt loam flats gets you only so far. You then have to pick a year with long dry conditions – apparently 2010 and 2011 were good. To top it all off, a good winemaker blends different grapes to make a decent drop – the test being able to do it a bad year. To some of us, this didn’t mean a lot – a few even preferred the supposed bad batches…cheap drunks.
That night, there was a thunderstorm of epic proportions. Taking shelter we watched the sunset under dark clouds. Not sure how it would affect this years 2016 vintage.
Tom and Mitch were lucky enough to get a ride back into Bordeaux from our favourite cycle tour operators – who were picking up their clients. Returning back to Saint-Émilion, we picked up the others, who had been passing time terroirising the locals on a beat-up, steel-frame bike.
The next several hours was a watershed toll motorway journey to Sarlat-la-Canéda. A destination we made it to on recommendation, but unfortunately were not able to enjoy with the downpour. An aerobics class and spin session was underway in the driving rain – glistening middle aged bodies in soaking lycra danced and writhed to Euro beats. Every second shop here sold foie gras – on request tourists could have it force fed with a gavage of other rich foods.
Onwards to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. This town was built in the valley of an old river that had gouged out the limestone. Up high on the valley walls, caves had been hollowed out and it was here that prehistoric remains and paintings were found. From these high hides, prehistoric hunters would scan out over the valley below. It was once rich with large prey – long since hunted to extinction or domesticated.
The local market was again full of local delicacies. The best being the truffle. We talked to an old man in broken French/English and with a few gestures discovered that he found these himself, with the help of his chien (dog) and porc (pig). The pig was best to find them, but being voracious eaters and also having fine tastes, would devour the fungus without hesitation. The price starts at about €175/kg for the summer black truffle and up to €3,000/kg for the white truffle.
Another road trip on the toll motorway took us back to the West. Temperate forest gave way to the towering Dune du Pilat, the largest pile of sand dumped in Europe. At 107m high it was an epic slog to the top. Lexi and Tom raced each other up the sheer sand face. Mitch and Tam found some plastic steps fixed to the side, which made for a much easier race…cheats. Once at the top, we wandered down to the waters edge, enjoyed a wine with our recently purchased bottle opener (still getting used to the fact the French won’t do twist caps) and watched the darker clouds roll in. Saying our goodbyes at the local mini-mart in the company of a few vagrants and their well kept, happy and much loved dogs, our holiday was slowly coming to an end.
Dinner in La Teste-de-Buch turned out to be a bit of a let down. What looked good was closed. What looked inedible, was still open. After a hard decision between Wok-and-Roll the victorious pizza joint, we contemplated eating our margherita on the silt covered harbour, bu thought better of it. Eating in the rental car with sliding rear doors we returned to the airport for the comforts of BA.
Bordeaux was an amazing pocket of France. In all holiday destinations, just like a good wine -it is not just the land that makes it a good vintage, it is the conditions. These we can’t change. We enjoyed it so much when it was wet; think how good it would be when dry.