Tag Archives: #France

The best – and most expensive – lunch I ever ate: Le Parc at Les Crayeres, Reims

Imagine eating lunch in a museum dedicated to food. The walls and soft pastel furnishings have the regal feel of a palace. The food is presented as a series of exquisite courses, each a work of art; each outdoing one another. The atmosphere in the dining room is one of pure reverence, silence as each diner focuses on the plate ahead. It’s so quiet, in fact, that it feels wrong to speak above a whisper.

That was my experience at Le Parc restaurant at Les Crayeres, the finest hotel in Reims, France. My traveling partner in crime and I were anticipating our over the top lunch, but it did little to quiet the sticker shock of what turned out to be the most expensive meal – let alone lunch -that I’ve ever had. That actually says a lot, as I can be cheap or practical about most things in life; yet I’m perfectly willing to blow a lot of money on a good meal. The best meals I’ve had aren’t necessarily the most expensive, but ones that provide the best experience and return on the money you spend.

Individually, each dish at Le Parc was not a standout, but as an entire dining experience, it is certainly one of my best. Each dish was a piece of the entire experience. But what was shown on the menu as four actually amounted to more like 8 courses – 4 larger courses and 4 smaller ones, the latter of which were the the chef’s selections not listed on the menu.

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We arrived for our reservation on time, and a maitre d’ escorted us to have a cocktail first in the sunroom. We ordered a glass of rose champagne (this was Champagne country, after all – literally), which we sipped contentedly while nibbling on a series of small bites and selecting our prix fixe menu. While we chose the four course option, a six-course option and a la carte menu were available, but the four-course menu was a much better value than ordering individual courses.

Shortly, a hostess escorted us back to the dining room. Pale cream, white, and grey tones; heavy window drapes and delicate wainscoting awaited us, as we were seated at a very white table. We ordered a bottle of the “cheap” red wine (only 75 Euros) and shortly received our first amuse bouche. Unfortunately, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I want to say it involved a celeriac mousse in a spoon or something similar. Sidebar: I know it’s shocking that I can’t remember each dish; there were just so many! I was overwhelmed by this experience. Sidebar over.

Our first course came next.
I recall a bit of poached foie gras, quail eggs, and a small bit of vegetables. I remember thinking that poached (cooked/boiled in liquid) sounded unappetizing, but it was quite good. Next, we were served another interim course of soup and then the first of two main courses. The second main course was a succulent lamb served with root vegetables and Israeli couscous or pearl barley.

Ready for dessert course, I was in heaven when, unexpectedly, the waiter came around with the cheese trolley. Wait, I could have any of about eight cheeses – and as much as I possibly could eat? I am such a cheese fiend, and I couldn’t get enough – despite being already full – of my sampling of hard and soft cheeses, accompanied by baguette, a whole grain and nut bread, dried fruit, and nuts.

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Dessert was a beautifully symmetrical fig delight (photo above): fig mousse, fig gelee topped with a dollop of fig compote, all atop a fig creme and accented by three fragile cookie discs. It was so lovely that I had to violate my self-imposed food photo ban inside dining room and take the shot above.

Pleasantly satisfied, I was delighted when the meal concluded with the one thing any meal should include: dark chocolate. Four dark chocolates, including a chocolate lollipop, were served with our coffee on a tiny plate. My stomach was distended and painful after successfully leaving no chocolate behind, and I still turned to help a friend out by eating one …or two…of theirs.

The full experience of lunch at Le Parc is one French food adventure I won’t soon forget.

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Why Champagne is champagne, Part II: Demystifying from vine to label

In my last post, I dissected the cultural icon that is champagne. Not all sparkling wines are created equal. For many of us, champagne is a bit of an enigma, elitist even. The terminology may seem a bit foreign. Like an exclusive club created it like a secret handshake: a means to determine who really gets It. You don’t even know the term cuvée? Sorry, stick to your Korbel. That’s kind of the vibe we get about champagne.

But snobbery aside, champagne is a fascinating study in art and science.
Tightly regulated, champagne itself is more varied and nuanced than you might assume.

Until my short trip a few years ago to Reims and the Champagne-Ardennes region, I knew much less about champagne and sparkling wines than “still” wine. After a full day of tasting and helpful guided tours, I felt so less ignorant and even more interested in champagne – and, of course, learning how to pick a better sparkling wine.

So how is Champagne made? How do champagnes differ from one another? How can we decipher the terms on a label and pick a great champagne? Ok, the obvious answer is to taste several of them, but then, so what?

A quick primer:

Sparkling wine gets its “sparkle” (carbonation) from the second of two fermentations. The first is in wood or steel barrels; the second takes place after bottling. The photo below shows bottle fermentation in underground caves below the house of Taittinger in Reims.

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Sparkling wine, in theory, can be made from any one or combination of grapes. In Champagne, bubbly bearing the champagne designation can comes almost exclusively from only three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunièr – either one or a blend of the three. Interestingly for some of you, the latter two grapes are red (black)-skinned grapes, which may surprise you, but unless creating a rose wine, skins are removed prior to fermentation. Small amounts (usually less than 1%) of juice from other grapes can be blended with the primary three.

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A sparkling wine made exclusively from Chardonnay (or other white grapes if not from Champagne) is a Blanc de Blancs. If made from red grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Meunier), it is a Blanc de Noirs. A blend of more than one type of grapes is called a Cuvée.

At one tasting house, we sampled six different champagnes that included champagne made almost exclusively from each individual grapes, as well as blends. I realized that I preferred the Pinot Noir-heavy varieties – especially Pinot Noir rose.

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Rose wines are created through a few possible methods. Those include either macerating the juice with the skins for a period of time, or, more likely in the case of rose champagne, the skinless white wine is blended after first fermentation with a finished red wine prior to bottling and secondary fermentation.

The latter method is what an individual producer, whose Premier Cru vineyards we toured, used. His family’s rose champagne – which is not available outside of France (sigh) but not unreasonably priced – was amazing. When I opened the bottle I saved for myself back home six months later, it was far better than I remembered. It was better than anything I would afford to buy as an import in the States.

A word on this Cru business: The term Cru, which usually is listed prominently on the front of a label (if it applies) is like an evaluation system distnguishing the village (location) from which the grapes used originated. Wines either do not qualify for any Cru designation, or they have one of three “levels” – Cru, Premier Cru, or Grand Cru. These gradations are selective. The French government allows only a few villages to meet these designations, particularly true for Grand Cru.

As with other wines, winemakers often buy grapes from other farms – and other villages. If the grapes all come from a Cru-designated village, then the wine can be labeled as a Cru.

You’ll also hear the term “vintage” tossed around. Vintage does not mean it is an “old” or aged champagne. It refers to champagnes made exclusively from grapes grown in a single year. Most champagnes are a blend of grapes of different ages. If the crop and wines were particularly good one season, then vintage champagnes may be produced. This also means that the bottles you see pictured aging in the cave, above, are not the bottles used in the sale. The primary and secondary fermentations can be stopped or tweaked during the process to give just the right balance of sugars (primary) or effervescence (secondary). Winemakers can then mix fermented wines from different vintages to produce the final product, which is then bottled and sold for your enjoyment.

I could keep going, but I’m no expert, and all lessons become tiresome after a certain point.

To learn more about champagne, study up through the wonderful website and brochure provided by the French government. It has more information than you can absorb in one setting but is a good read in multiple languages. It also was the source of a lot of my fact checking for this post. Study up! Remember that the most important part of your champagne education is actually trying it!

Why Champagne is champagne, Part I

Champagne. Is any other beverage so widely equated with “the good life,” social status celebrations, and special events around the world?

“Champagne” has become so well-known in popular culture and yet so misunderstood. The term has become so synonymous with sparkling wine that it is easy to forget that it is really a brand, a stamp, like the Kleenex or Xerox of wines. Put this way, could you imagine if we tended to refer to all red wines as Napa, Bordeaux, Tuscano – no matter where in the world they came from? Are all dessert wines automatically lumped together as Ports or Sauternes?

In the diverse world of sparkling wines – generic bruts, the cuvée bruts, Sekts, Cavas, Proseccos, a good Australian or Californian Brut – why is Champagne the one we all know?

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Many – including myself – would argue that Champagne is the best. It saddens me when friends who don’t shy away from wine or beer avoid all sparkling wines like it screams automatic illness (as if is tequila!). If you’ve ever had a really, really good glass of Champagne from champagne, my guess is it would change your perspective.

I’m not making this claim snobbily (ok not fully). I am not anti-sparkling wine. I enjoy Prosecco. I like Cava as a base for mimosas. I do not like cheap sparkling wine. It does cause headaches.

So why is Champagne so special? In Champagne-Ardennes, France centuries-old techniques have been perfected and legislated to ensure no bad champagne ever leaves the barrel…well, with the Champagne label, at least.

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I’ve always enjoyed sparkling wine, but it took a visit to the lovely Reims, the largest city of the Champagne-Ardennes region, and northeast of Paris, to educate me to the particulars of champagne making to appreciate the smooth, balanced edges, soft bubbles, and subtle aromas of Champagne.

Eye-roll alert! I realize that I might lose most of you with that supremely pretentious description. Bear with me. I had some great teachers. And teachers, I mean several side-by-side flutes of champagne to tour and taste at a few of the champagne houses and vineyards. Yes, I also had a few helpful tour guides along the way.

So allow me to pass along their sage knowledge, from France through the Interwebs to you in the next post: Champagne, demystified. Join me on a crash course in champagne – how it is made and how to read those labels.

The best plat I ever ate: Parisian seared foie gras ravioletti

It is a rare moment in life when you experience something so spectacular you know you’re going to remember the rest of your life. Whether it’s people, a natural wonder, a concert, a work of art, or food, you typically know soon that the moment will remain with you for years – if not a lifetime. Memories are powerful. They aren’t perfect photographs, but the more important to us an event feels, the more we remember it. When they stand the test of time – when they are all but impossible to replicate, then we know we were on to something.

Several food memories stand out to me clearly. I’ve already talked about the best ice cream I’ve eaten. In honor of the new classic tradition of #tbt (Throwback Thursday for those of you who haven’t quite joined the ’10s. No judgment; I’m sure a 13 year-old would tell me how lame I am for still using the term), I’m sharing my best entree experience around this date a few years ago.

It was Paris. It was March. At the end of a ski trip, a friend and I decided to weekend in Paris. I’d only been to Paris once before at that point, and I’d really looked forward to taking the city by storm. So live it up we did. At the end of a long day packed with food and sightseeing adventures, I didn’t think I had much of an appetite for a late dinner, but I was willing to try. The setting? Scossa, a cafe-restaurant on Place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement.

You know how food tastes better when you’re hungry? In this case, I was the opposite of hungry before I started eating. After snacks, bread, great wine, and escargot, I was even less hungry.

Sidebar: My first experience with escargot was surprisingly good. I liken it to calamari – odd texture but no odd taste. It is somewhat chewy, but it takes on the flavors of its cooking liquid and seasonings – in grand French tradition, typically butter and garlic. My take on escargot is this – why eat something that has no flavor of its own, if it’s already odd or expensive? How is it much different than, say, tofu, in that regard? The answer is the experience.

So, we get to the main course (I can’t say entree without confusing the American – main dish – and French/Continental – appetizer – meanings) or plat in French. One of my friends and I both ordered a seared foie gras over ravioletti. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, and perhaps that was best. It overwhelmingly exceeded expectations. A significantly sized portion of foie gras was delicately seared to a crisp outer coating and firm, yet melt-in-your-mouth interior, with that rich, earthy and meaty flavor of foie gras. It was perched atop a dish of mini ravioli – ravioletti – filled with cheese and coated thickly with a perfect, cheese and parsley-accented cream sauce. Heart attack waiting to happen? Yes.

It was worth it. I definitely had several eyes-rolling-back-in-my-head moments while eating it. I left no bite untouched.

Already uncomfortably full, I still forced room for dessert – a warm, molten chocolate moelleux (before lava cake got old). I still managed to eat all of that too.

The meal was so wonderful that when I returned to Paris a few months later, I went back to the same restaurant to try and have a repeat experience. But that’s the curious thing about ‘best ever’ experiences. They’re all but impossible to replicate. Dishes can be made again, but are they ever truly as good? I find that when I make the perfect cookie, pasta sauce, or steak, it never seems to taste as good as when I nailed it – unexpectedly. Is it really ‘less good?’ That question also is all but impossible to answer, because perception is subjective and expectation gets in the way. If we experience something amazing – part of the ‘amazing’ is because it exceeded expectations. So when we try to experience it again the same way, we’ve set the bar much higher. Maybe the experience comes close to meeting the bar we built up in our memories, but because it didn’t exceed expectations, it doesn’t seem quite as good.

That said, the second experience with this dish was not the same as the first. It was very good, but the pasta wasn’t cooked quite the same; it seemed to not have been fully drained, so the sauce didn’t cling and flavor the ravioletti quite so well. Still, over time, it didn’t dampen the amazing memory of that first time. It didn’t make the dish any less exquisite. It remains – to this day – the best main dish I ever ate.

I’ll still keep seeking that next, elusive best dish I’ve ever eaten. Challenge accepted!

What was the best dish you ever ate?
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Profile: Bordeaux’s Glouton, Le Bistrot

If I were to conceive the quintessential French bistro, it would look very much like Bistrot Glouton in Bordeaux, France. On a recent trip to Bordeaux, I had the pleasure of a lovely Saturday lunch there. A small, simple, and modern interior houses small wooden tables that place one in close proximity to fellow patrons, most of them locals excepting summer months. Nobody seems to mind the potential encroachment on one’s conversations (it isn’t a loud place), as the food is just lovely, and I enjoyed watching everyone’s dishes pass by. The cuisine is modern French – simplicity of flavor, perfectly cooked and artfully presented. The menu is written on chalk board, as it changes frequently but under the watchful eye of regular customers, who protest when their favorite menu items disappear, hoping the chef might relent and reinstate them, as they did with a unique fricaseed egg appetizer.

We started with a black (blood) sausage/blood pudding amuse bouche. Boudin noir, or black pudding made black from blood – yes, really – is fairly pervasive in French and British cuisine. Now, I’ve always been afraid of any dish with ‘blood’ in the name, but when something is offered to me, it would be rude to refuse. So I finally tried my first blood pudding. Though I couldn’t quite move my mind away from the concept of what I was eating, the flavor was really exquisite, I’ll admit. With the texture of seared foie gras though less compact and a flavor that evoked pate, truffles, and a hint of sweetness and iron, it was complemented by onions that had been pickled and just barely caramelized.

Blood pudding.

Blood pudding.

For my starter, I chose a warm vegetable salad accented with chicken, dressed with vinaigrette that was typically French and heavy on the oil. It was light and savory. One of my friends agreed to the server’s recommendation of the oeufs fricasee with XXX mushrooms and a bit of parmesan cheese. A single egg rested in a broth of its own milkiness, cream, and a bit of cheese. My friend raved at its delicacy and enjoyed it so much that she couldn’t leave so much as a single drop of the broth.

Fricaseed eggs (oeufs)

Fricaseed eggs (oeufs)

For my main course, I chose another entree (starter) in lieu of a larger plat (entree) – a tuna tartare. Half-inch cubes of luscious ahi tuna, tossed with sesame, ginger, and a hint of lemon and wasabi were arranged in a generous portion and topped with a savory, wasabi-accented whipped cream. I can say that I’ve never had ahi tuna complimented by dairy before, but the whipped cream somehow worked. One of my friends chose a fish plat, partially deboned and presented as such (see photo) and served with fingerling potato halves, delightfully roasted with oil, lemon, and oregano. My other friend ordered a skirt or flank steak, cooked perfectly medium rare and served with a small romaine salad and the best flash-fried potato squares I’ve ever tried. Crispy like frites on the outside and soft on the inside, these potatoes were made out-off-this-world with green onions and lemon. That simple combination was so good that I couldn’t stop eating his potatoes.

Click these images to enlarge!

All three of us were quite full, but we couldn’t refuse Glouton’s dessert selection. We compromised and split crepes Suzette – Gran Marnier flambeed tableside and filled with a light custard. While it wasn’t my first choice, one bite told me that it was, in fact, the best choice, both due to the expert execution and presentation. That dish was emblematic of the quality and artistry of Bistrot Glouton.

Crepes Suzette, need I say more?

Crepes Suzette, need I say more?

And of course, what would lunch in France be without the perfect wine? Glouton’s rose was fantastic, semi-dry and balanced with a nice crispness. I later tried a vin blanc (white wine) that was complex and intense, also slightly dry but heavier without butteriness of a heavy oak malolactic fermentation. I really enjoyed its notes of apple, citrus, and flowers alongside the citrus and creme tartness of the crepes Suzette.

Of all our meals in Bordeaux, Glouton stood out most. Many more bistros could be called traditionally French, but this one is nowhere close to the tired, repetitive cafes that line the streets of France – or, for that matter, their cousins around the world. Its traditional, yet creative and deftly executed flavors and innovative plating were certainly worth a visit. Come during the work week and enjoy the three-course menu du jour for a very reasonable price, or a la carte as we did, with l’addition (the bill) totaling far less than one might pay for that level of cuisine in France.

Two days in Bordeaux

If you have been looking to plan – or just dreamed about – a trip that includes hops around Europe or France, make sure to add Bordeaux to your bucket list. Wine is only a starting point.  Whether or not you are an oenophile (wine lover), Bordeaux has a lot to offer visitors. A cosmopolitan French city, Bordeaux lacks the complexity and harried pace of Paris and can be much less intimidating for a foreigner. Its city center is easily walkable, and it is a bit more affordable relative to Paris.

My visit took place during the winter, and I have to say that I enjoyed being in the minority as a tourist. While I would recommend Bordeaux in the late spring time, visiting at a low point in the tourist season will give you much more of a local feel, like a welcomed guest.

Bordeaux and the surrounding towns and chateaux of Aquitaine are absolutely worth a long stay, but if you would like to sample Bordeaux with more of a local feel, I’ll offer a few must-trys to make your planning a bit easier.

General hints:

As in much of western Europe, be cognizant that shops and restaurants often are closed on Sundays. Additionally, any day of the week, make sure to follow proper lunch and dinner times; miss lunch, and between about 2:30 and 7 pm (1430-1900), you will be out of luck for meals and wine and may find mostly tea shops open. Some of the larger, more generic sidewalk cafes remain open during those times between lunch and dinner, but keep in mind that service is often limited. On Sundays, many restaurants do offer brunch, particularly brunch buffets – but make sure to arrive before 1400 (2 pm.), or you may be out of luck! As far as sights, wander around the city and marvel at its mostly 18th century architecture, though its heritage is much older. Bordeaux is an UNESCO world heritage site. The river Garonne is a great place for a scenic stroll and is beautifully lit and particularly romantic at night; it also is a great place for a jog or run, if you do not mind dodging pedestrians milling about.

Where to stay:
Bordeaux boasts many hotels. If you have a very limited budget, the Quality Hotel has clean, no-frills rooms for under US $100. It is centrally located just off Rue Saint Catherine, the main pedestrian shopping area. Don’t expect much, however. My recommendation is Le Boutique Hotel in on Rue Lafaurie Monbadon, just north of the Place de Bourse and Rue Saint Catherine (rooms are about $200 during low season, higher during the spring and summer). While I wouldn’t call it a luxury hotel (if you want true luxury – and to pay for it! – stay at Grand Hotel Bordeaux), it was chic, trendy, and a great place to stay. Its staff are extremely accommodating and most speak English very well. Wonderful service, modern rooms pay homage to classic pop culture, often with black-and-white portraits of Marilyn Monroe, for example. Each room is named after a wine-producing French chateau, and you’ll find oversized wine bottles of that chateau in your room (drained of wine, of course, so you’re protected from that temptation!). They do offer a breakfast buffet, for about 16 Euros in addition to the room rate; while it looked decent, I would skip it and eat elsewhere, unless it is a Sunday and you are pressed for time. The hotel is just off the beaten path, and its rooms surround an adorable, peaceful central courtyard that provides additional seating for the wine bar (which doubles as the breakfast room). Their wine tastings are worth the 35 Euro per person price.

Wines - and a few spirits abound aat the wine bar a Le Boutique Hotel

Wines – and a few spirits abound aat the wine bar a Le Boutique Hotel

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Where to drink:
Bordeaux wines, as well as those from other French appellations, are found nearly everywhere. Not once did I have a “bad” glass of wine, though some I prefer more than others. Whether you visit a dedicated wine bar, such as the one at Le Boutique Hotel, or simply enjoy wine at a cafe, brasserie, dinner at a bistro, or bar, you will have plenty of places to sip. If you prefer cocktails, Bordeaux has several bars to suit your preference. If you’d like a dive-y spot for beer with the locals, Cafe Brun is your place; be forewarned, my American friends and I experienced stereotypically brusque (one might say rude) French service there. Want slightly more upscale? Maria Randall is a hipster (I say hipster, you say bohemian) bar with more trendy (though very sweet) cocktails. I recommend the Alfonso cocktail made with sparkling wine and berry puree. As the night progresses, a DJ plays, and part of the bar can become a makeshift dance floor. My friends and I experienced some slow service at first, but as we made an effort to socialize with the locals, we were rewarded with quite a bit of cameraderie and fun! Want to be a bit more adult? The bar at the bottom of Gabriel is quiet and has a wonderful selection of cocktails that are not unreasonably priced for a bar of that caliber. My “top shelf” recommendation, however, is Le Bar inside the Grand Hotel Bordeaux near the Place de Bourse. Its ambiance is as grand, and its service princely – you will pay handsomely for that, however (17 to 23 Euros for most cocktails and wines by the glass). Still, I had a lovely experience there and felt the experience was worth the price. I recommend their signature Kir Royale champagne cocktails, made with Moet and pearls d’saveur (flavor pearls).  Another luxurious, by not quite so expensive, option is the bar at Gabriel.  Gabriel houses a bar, brasserie, and high-end restaurant all in one multi-level building.

Where to shop:
Rue Saint Catherine is a long pedestrian street in central Bordeaux, lined with shops and mainstream cafes. If you’re looking for French boutiques or high-end shopping, this is not your street; global names like Zara and Mango, and teeny-bopper Euro chain Pim-kie mingle with American brands, including McDonalds, the latter of which sells macarons, cannelle, and other French pastries in its McCafe. If you’ve never visited a one of the Galleries Lafayette scattered throughout Europe, browse the one located near the northern end of Rue Saint Catherine; it is a multi-level department store with pricy designer brands, not unlike Harrod’s in London. If you’re looking for high-end brands like Cartier and Mont Blanc, Cours Georges Clemenceau, another boulevard north of Rue Saint Catherine, contains many high-end shops. Walk further north along the Garonne past the Place des Quinconces and you’ll come to a series of riverside shops and cafes known as The Docks. Local boutiques are just as at home there as a Le Creuset store.

Where to eat:
By far, I find this aspect to be the most difficult decision in Bordeaux. With over 1700 restaurants in a city populated by less than 300,000 people (2 million in its metropolitan area), your choices are endless. Unlike in Paris, however, it is possible to find a terribly mediocre restaurant here as much as it is to find haute cuisine. My time in Bordeaux was insufficient to ferret out all the ‘good’ places, so I’ll make recommendations only based on my limited direct observation and those that came highly recommended by multiple websites and critics. Most places offer both a multi-course, prix fixe menu and a la carte. My favorite place was Bistrot Glouton, which you’ll see profiled in my next post. It was a small restaurant frequented by locals, with an inventive chef and menus that won’t break the bank. For a taste of the good life, but acccessibly so, Comptoir Cuisine, located in the Grand Hotel Bordeaux is not terribly expensive relative to its sister restaurant at the hotel. La Tupina was highly recommended as a flagship brasserie in Bordeaux; its owner operates several other bistro and cafe options on the same street, at various price points and with influences of Italy and Greece woven throughout. Finally, the Marche du Capucins, a large market of food vendors – from fresh produce to prepared foods – open daily until 1 pm (weekdays) or 2:30 pm (weekends) is an excellent location for regional French food adventures. Sample fresh produce, cheeses, crepes, and local dishes from a variety of vendors. It is worth the somewhat lengthy walk from the northern part of the city center.

This post is meant to inspire and guide you on your trip to Bordeaux. It is by no means a comprehensive list, as my time there was barely enough to glimpse Bordeaux. However short, I found Bordeaux to be a vibrant city, full of wonderful sights, flavors, and textures – and, of course – amazing wine (more on that in a later post). If you have visited Bordeaux yourself, please submit your own travel tips. Thank you for stopping by!

Redefining the salade chèvre chaud

I crave salads.  I adore cheese.  So for me, few salads – or entrees for that matter – can top the contrasting, yet complementary mix of flavors in a salade chevre chaud (hot goat cheese salad), ubiquitous in France and, actually, much of Europe.   The traditional French salad typically consists of large-leaf lettuce (like Bibb or butter lettuce, sometimes with radicchio or other greens) dressed with a light vinaigrette and topped with toasts of baguette or a country loaf  brushed with honey and topped  with medallions of broiled goat cheese. Just typing the description makes my mouth water! A true French – and definitely not vegetarian – version may have lardons (think chewier, chunkier bacon); sometimes it also will include apples, golden raisins, or other fruits and veggies. The cheese is the crumbly type found in a typical American salad; the stinkier, the better here.  I haven’t found a version in the U.S. that quite nails the balance of acidity and butteriness, crisp and chewy, sweet and pungently salty.

On a recent extended trip to northern Europe, I had avoided cheese for about a month when I finally gave into my salade chevre chaud cravings on a quick trip to Helsinki, Finland.  I don’t know how much the cheese deprivation was a factor, or simply the relief that we managed to find a nice restaurant open for lunch on a Sunday anywhere in the city (especially one that was filled with locals), but I absolutely loved this Scandinavian version of the classic.  This particular version featured a variety of leafy greens and nicely broiled and browned medallions of goat cheese with melting centers atop the baguette toasts. What made it unique was the introduction of pumpkin, beets, and pumpkin seeds. The sweetness of the roasted root veggies nicely complemented the pungent cheese.  Since I can’t turn down Scandinavian black bread, I ended up scraping some of the goat cheese off of the baguette toasts and eating it instead with a side of the sweet, dense black bread.  What is black bread, you ask?  Oh, I definitely will share more on that in a future post!

Pumpkin, beets, and pumpkin seeds add an interesting take on this salad.

Pumpkin, beets, and pumpkin seeds add an interesting take on this salad.

Weeks after this Scandinavian experience and while visiting Belgium, a brush with the greatness that is the classic French version inspired me to create my own version.  The result couldn’t top a few of the restaurant versions, but I was more than satisfied with my eclectic – and a bit more nutritious – version.

Call mine a slightly Californian take on the salade chevre chaud.  Arugula, my favorite green, and sprouts formed its base.  Arugula, also known as rucola and rocket, is my go-to green for several reasons:  its small size and lack of stems ensures it needs no chopping or tearing apart, its texture is free of the stryofoam-like quality of radicchio or romaine stalks, and its flavor is earthy and mild (it is often described as peppery, but I disagree).  To the base, I  added slices of avocado and prepackaged, tandoori-spiced cooked chicken (hey, it wasn’t my kitchen!). I thinly sliced a seeded, whole-wheat demi-baguette to create small rounds, topped them with divided medallions of a very soft, creamy goat cheese with rind, and broiled the toasts for 5-10 minutes. From two attempts, I learned the importance of going easy on the cheese, as the already oozy cheese at room temperature goes sci-fi under heat. Translation:  as it melts even more, it will ooze everywhere you don’t want it!  I whisked together a very light vinaigrette with what my friend had on hand: white wine vinegar, stone ground whole mustard, pinches of salt and sugar, and extra-virgin olive oil.  The standard ratio of oil to acid in most vinaigrettes is two parts oil to one part vinegar.  I prefer higher acidity and don’t like a lot of oil and fat, so mine was probably closer to the opposite ratio.  The finished product (photo in header) was devoured way too soon.

Make it your own

Salads are so easy to make and customize, why not try your hand at this one yourself?  I’ll offer a few tips to guide your own creative adventure:

  1. The right goat cheese makes all the difference.  Use a soft cheese with a rind and not the crumbly, semi-soft variety most of us are familiar with.  The latter is great for breading and frying, but it will not melt, and the flavor doesn’t quite work.  You’ll find this type of cheese closer to the gourmet cheese counter – look for rounds instead of ovals/logs of cheese and think double creme, like brie.  The best are so rich and pungent that your refrigerator will smell like something died inside – yes, that’s a good thing.  Just use and serve immediately.  The broiling will soften some of the edge of the flavor and odor.   Ask a store employee for help in locating one.  If you have access to a Whole Foods Market in the U.S. or U.K., you will have no problem doing so.  Pictured here is a prepackaged variety I found in a local Washington, D.C. My Organic Market (known as the MOM).

    This pre-packaged goat cheese is marketed just for melting.  It is a bit pricy, but a small amount goes a long way.

    This pre-packaged goat cheese is marketed just for melting. It is a bit pricy, but a small amount goes a long way.

  2. Create the toasts:  Thinly slice white or wheat baguette. I prefer whole-grain for added flavor and nutrition.  You need not toast the bread before adding the goat cheese; 5-10 minutes under the broiler as the cheese melts will crisp the outside edges of the bread, while leaving the interior soft. Also before adding the cheese, brush or drizzle honey over the bread to create an ‘authentic’ French flavor of sweet and salty.  You might also consider adding a touch of honey to a homemade vinaigrette.
  3. The salade chevre chaud is all about contrasting flavors.  So try out your own favorite salty and sweet additions to the salad:  dried fruit, bacon, salted nuts or seeds, or even sweet root vegetables.  Balancing between the two is key.

So give it a try yourself! Please share your own variations and photos here. Bon appetit!