One for the Ages

A steep climb

We drove enough one-lane winding roads today to last us for a long while. We made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour after a quick stop at the Wednesday market in Sarlat. We decided that we didn’t want to battle the crowds at Sarlat’s Saturday market. Anyway, Rocamadour is perched on or adhered to the side of a hill by force of will. The street is wide enough for an oxcart. There are a couple of hundred steps straight up to the church at the top from the street/town below.

At the top, the chapel contains the Black Madonna, whose face and hands have turned black over the centuries because of the smoke from candles.

 

 

The views from the top of Rocamadour are perfectly lovely, but we didn’t price any real estate. The hike to the grocery would be killer.

 

 

There was a goat farm we passed on the way, so we went back to visit the goats and have a little picnic lunch. We thanked the goats for all the lovely cheese we have been enjoying.

The fine folks at the goat farm lent us a basket to set up our picnic lunch. Rural life at its best.

 

 

 

 

The cave at Lascaux has been on our to-do list since we started planning this trip. You can no longer go into the actual caves because humans were causing damage by breathing and such. Within the past year, a new museum opened with a perfect replica of four or five of the caverns. The museums in France use cutting-edge technology to keep you engaged and to personalize the experience for you. The interactive exhibits at the end of the cave tour involved creating your own art exhibit using Lascaux-inspired art, digitally using the prehistoric tools to recreate one of the drawings, and when you approached a display it put everything into the language that worked for you. Between the time the last Cro-magnon was in the caves and they were “discovered” in 1940, over 20,000 years passed. AMAZING!

We had a lovey seafood dinner sitting outside in St. Cyprian this evening as the evening fell and town tucked itself in for the night. That seems like a good idea for us now also.

Food, Glorious Food

Back in March of 2016 on a still-snowy Sunday, we sat at the dining room table and decided that taking a day-long cooking class in the Dordogne region of France was a great idea. We booked the stay and the class and now we can say it was a great idea.

Our class was made up of two adult sisters from Australia and their two teenage daughters, a couple from Essex, and two women from Yorkshire. Our instructor was a delightful mix of Graham Kerr (the Galloping Gourmet) and Jamie Oliver. He was knowledgeable, funny, talented, friendly, and organized.

Duck, duck, and goose

We started by spending about two hours at the market in Le Bugue. For those of you who read the Martin Walker Bruno series, Le Bugue is the fictional St. Denis. By the way, the next Bruno book involves a cooking school that is based on Le Chevrefeuille. Anyway. We went to several of Chef Ian’s favorite vendors and got in-depth information on the products of the region. While I learned more about foie gras and duck than we’ll ever be able to use, it was all fascinating. The chef decided on the menu for the class based which vendors showed up at the market today. It was fun to watch his mind working it all out.

 

Le Bugue is a tiny town — population 2,762. But the market today was enormous (on a weekday morning!) by American standards — far larger than the Evanston market on Saturdays, for example. French villages and towns seem to be struggling with some of the issues we’re confronted with in America, as supermarkets/hypermarches open outside of towns — along with McDonald’s and KFCs — and siphon business away from traditional shops and restaurants. But the weekly markets still seem to be going strong, thankfully.

The setting for the cooking part of the class was a beautiful outdoor kitchen in the courtyard here at Le Chevrefeuille. What an inspiring spot for cooking. I really hope we can get the pictures to load because the dishes were beautiful. We began with an eight-day-old goat cheese in puff pastry with fresh greens, raspberries and a walnut oil, honey, and herb vinaigrette. Very special and destined to become a McPherson standard.

The main course was crispy duck confit with cabbage, butternut squash roasted in duck fat, roasted shallots, and a sauce made of mushrooms, onions, chicken stock, chestnuts, vermouth, cream, dried mushroom powder, and magic. It was amazingly good.

Dessert was a molten chocolate cake with banana ice cream, and strawberry mint coulis. We ate one course, then got up and cooked the next. This was very wise, as it helped to prevent a food coma from setting in.

 

It was a great day and we were grateful to be staying here so that after class we could just go upstairs and nap. This evening in lieu of dinner, we took a very long walk. We think we walked off at least .03% of the calories we ate today.

 

A Medieval Day

We won’t go into what we thought this day would hold, but instead focus on what adventures did happen.

After a breakfast that included three types of homemade jam on fresh croissants, we made our way to the town of Domme.

Now it’s time for a brief history and geography lesson. We learned yesterday that cro-magnon people liked this area, So did the Romans and so did anyone and everyone else.

The Dordogne River flows through this area and then out to sea. There are hillsides and cliffs along the river. Having a high vantage point allows one to see who’s coming. That’s why there are lots of castles here. Anyway, Domme was one of those fortified hilltop castle towns — they’re called bastides in this region of France. Some bastides are on a hill with a cliff on one side, so they only needed fortifications on three sides, Domme thought so anyway. In 1588 a dude named Geoffroy de Vivans took a couple of his brave warriors and scaled the cliffs one night. They then made lots of noise and caused such confusion that they were able to traipse over, open the drawbridge over the moat and let in their waiting army. That wasn’t even the most fascinating story from Domme.

In 1307 the French Pope Clement V decided that he’d had enough of the Knights Templar. The Templar Knights had vast wealth and protected travelers, especially travelers going to the Holy Land. They were the world’s first bankers in a way. On Friday the 13th of October in 1307, Clement decreed that the Templar Knights must be arrested. (The origin of bad luck of Friday the 13th is said to have started with this.) Anyway, seventy of the Templar Knights were imprisoned in the gate house in Domme. None made it out alive. While imprisoned in the gatehouse, they carved graffiti — figures and religious symbols — in the walls. They wouldn’t let us take photos, but the experience of seeing the ancient walls was powerful. Certainly this will be a highlight of the trip.

From Domme we drove to Sarlat. We wanted to visit there without the crowds that will be there when we come back for the famous Saturday market. We picked up a few picnic supplies with we walked around the lovely old town. We had a lovely picnic lunch by the river near La Roque Gageac.

We went down the road a piece to Beynac. We found a great parking place by the river. Where was the castle? Of course, it was at the top of the cliff overlooking the river.

We started walking. We walked and walked. We didn’t see many tourists walking behind us, in front of us, or coming from the other direction. We did continue to see signs directing us to the castle. We kept walking. There is a point when you need to admit that something isn’t quite right, but you’re in it too far to back out. We finally reached the castle with its large parking lot right next to it. We asked the nice ticket person if there was perhaps a faster way to get back to the river. He was rather astonished that we had taken the road rather than the much shorter foot path from the river. After touring the castle, we went back down the hill the way he suggested. On the bright side, we got lots of steps added to the FitBit today.

The castle at Beynac dominates its stretch of the Dordogne River.  In the Middle Ages, it was French, then English, then French, and so on, as this section of France was the front lines of the Hundred Years War between France and England. It’s now in private hands and is going through a very complete, but slow, restoration.

Please park your sword at the end of the table.

We saw the castle’s keep and were awed by the view from the topmost terrace. There was even a room in which Richard I (the Lionheart) stayed during his time fighting in the region. Like most castles, it was cold and damp and dim, and it was hard to imagine life there having been terribly pleasant. But the views were splendid!

We don’t know that we’ll get close to the one thousand and one mark for the number of castles we’ll see, but to-knight we’ll certainly dream about the medieval day we had today.

Country Life

Here are a couple of closing thoughts about Bordeaux.

  • The river is a tidal river. Part of the day the river flows to the ocean and part of the day the river flows away from the ocean. Heading toward the sea, the water is a very muddy brown. It is clear and blue coming from the sea. The current is so swift that people can surf on the river!
  • The City Pass, with which you have unlimited access to city transit, is worth buying. We became experts with the tram and bus system.

  • The people of Bordeaux are very proud of the rebirth and cleaning up of their town. (They also don’t don’t have much positive to say about the rest of France, especially the neighboring departments.)
  • A city with THREE hallmark desserts is a winner in our books. We were finally able to try the “le puits d’amour” after several attempts to find the shop open. OMG! The canales and dunes blanc were wonderful, but the le puits d’amour were gifts from the gods. Imagine, and I know you will, a tart shell about two inches across filled with delicate meringue and sugar on the top that had been torched just briefly to give it a crunch.

We went back to the airport and picked up our rental car for the remainder of the trip. It was comforting to hear Stephen Fry’s voice on our GPS again. Those of you with maps, head east from

Bordeaux, past Libourne. Turn south at Perigueux, make a stop at Les Eyzies. Now if you find Pechboutier, we’re really impressed. It is between Les Eyzies and St. Cyprien. We are staying at Le Chevrefeuille. This was the first reservation me made 18 months ago. They have a cooking school here and we’re in the middle of many sites to visit.

We stopped in Les Eyzies to visit the prehistory museum and get prepared for the week. Some parts were just too mind-boggling to grasp.

A skeleton of a child from 30K years ago
France, home of the rhinos? Not recently, but thousands of years ago.
Those Neanderthals were mighty talented.
Does he look familiar? We’re related.

We checked in with our hosts and then took a little ride around the area to get ourselves orientated for the week. The roads are winding and narrow, and the locals drive like they are on the autobahn in Germany. We saw a sign that said, the Dordogne — home of a thousand and one castles. So far, we’ve seen six. We have work to do!

The view from our back door
Our landscape at our new home

 

Say Cheese! (and cheese and cheese)

As with most other days of our travels, today involved the consumption of immoderate amounts of food of the highest quality. But we did get in over ten miles of walking as we ambled about Bordeaux.

Just after the sun cleared the horizon, we were off to the market near St. Michel church — in search of one of the delicious melons that we had for breakfast on Friday. That done, we had melon, toasted baguette, goat cheese, yogurt, and coffee to fuel ourselves for the first activity of the day — a “wake up your taste buds” food walk! Hey, we needed sustenance!

We met our hosts at the appointed time. Our group consisted of ten guests, and there were two hosts — one for the francophones and one for the anglophones. The other English speakers were from Sweden and England. Today’s tour started at a bakery run by two young guys. They are one of only three bakeries in all of Bordeaux to use only products that they create themselves (we were surprised that only three did so, but I guess times have changed). They served us different types of breads and croissants, then took us on a short tour of their kitchens.

Next stop was a specialty shop with great local products. Salted caramel that was truly amazing. Apricot jam that tasted like apricots — not sickly sweet. A confit of onions. All great products from the region immediately surrounding Bordeaux.

Then it was back to our favorite “dunes blanches” baker – those are the little round chou pastry balls covered with chunky crystals of sugar, filled with the finest whipped cream, and dusted with powdered sugar. They’re famous, and for a good reason.

To our surprise and delight, the two group leaders pulled us aside and asked if we could get together with them after the tour to sit and talk. It was like getting asked to hang out with the cool kids! So we invited them over to taste a treat that Cindy created back in Chicago and brought along with us as a host gift. It was a real treat to chill with the Bordelais.

We spent part of the afternoon seeing a few sites on our own — we walked across the Pont de Pierre (pierre means “stone” in French) to the other side of the river. We ambled about (the weather was quite fine again today) and then decided to take the water taxi up the river. After that we walked to the “Miroir d’Eau” — the world’s largest reflecting pool. All of Bordeaux seemed to be there, with children splashing through the mist sprayed at the site. We made a mental note to come back in the evening.

Just soaking in the sun and the energy of the spot
Check out those artsy benches!

We then had to rest up for dinner, which tonight was at Baud et Millet, a restaurant specializing in (wait for it) — cheese! We each chose the upper cheese extravaganza special, which consisted of walking from our table down a stairway into their basement, then entering a cool, damp room in which 106 different French cheeses are displayed. We tried over half of the 106. The cheese cave was a treat for all the senses. They even piped in the sounds of cows, herding dogs, and dairy farmers. It was a hoot. One is able to help oneself to a plate and pile it up with ALL OF THE CHEESE THAT ONE MIGHT WANT TO EAT. And you can visit the cheese cave as many times as you wish. And it wasn’t that expensive.

Needless to say, this was one of the culinary highlights of Jim’s life. There were some cheeses that amazed, and others that were merely good. Jim kept a scorecard of sorts, and the winners were:

  1. The gold medal goes to Le TrappeÉchourgnac, a cow’s milk cheese that is bathed in walnut liqueur (it’s a washed rind cheese). It tasted like the marriage of milk and walnuts.
  2. Coming in second by a cheese crumb was Beausejour, local to Bordeaux, but that’s all the info we can find. Google didn’t help.
  3. In third place was Brillat-Savarin with peppercorns (au poivre). I think we’ll be able to find it in the U.S.

We then walked back to the Miroir d’Eau, where a large screen was showing a Bollywood movie. Kids (and adults) were still splashing in the reflecting pool.

Pont Pierre at night
With the misters on
With the misters off

 

We’re leaving Bordeaux tomorrow, and it will tug on our heartstrings for a long time, for sure. It is beautiful and elegant, but not stuffy. The energy in Bordeaux is off the charts. What an amazing city.

 

A Day of Wine and Poses

We had a great night’s sleep in our “hole in the wall” and woke up to the realization the we are really in France. Life is good. It’s morning in France, so a market is a fine start to the day. We headed to the Capucins Market to see what might catch our eyes. There were many stalls vying for our attention. We bought some dried sausage with cheese and a melon that has a special name that is lost to us right now.

A little sausage would be nice!

We then headed to Le Boulangerie in St. Michel parish that we had marked on a map a few months ago. It did not disappoint. We came back to our hole to assemble a breakfast that would make you weep. Spinach quiche with a puff pastry crust, the melon that was related to a cantaloupe but MUCH better, fresh goat cheese, a fresh baguette, sausage, and a pastry with raisins. This breakfast will be hard to top.

 

We needed to be fortified for the rest of the day. We took the tram, like the native Bordelais that we now are, and headed up the river to the new Cite du Vin. It opened just over a year ago.

We started with a tour of the architecture of the building which is made to feature the materials in wine production — aluminum, oak, and glass. The inspiration for the design was wine swirling in a glass. Everything is “round and seamless” which can also describe a good wine.

The museum itself is cutting edge for interactivity and variety of ways of conveying information. There were interactive sniffing stations, holographic history skits, interactive interviews with experts, and on and on.

Some libraries have books, a wine library has wine.
The scent of leather

A tasting bar at the top of the museum with views of the city

We could have stayed for many more hours, but it was getting past lunchtime.

We had a lovely lunch break at the Bar au Vin with some goat cheeses and a little wine. There were four types of bread included to keep us counting our blessings.

Wine, cheese, bread. No problems.

We stopped by Beillevaire cheese shop again. We figured we would never find that walnut liquor washed cheese again, so we went back to buy a round to bring home. They kindly vacuum-sealed it and we’ll keep it chilled until we get home.

Feeling the need to walk off the sins of the day, we headed to the park to view the famous fountain with the web-footed horses and the beautiful public garden.

Part horse, part frog, part fish.
he has broken the chains of bondage.
The French rooster crows.

A public (free) garden with a welcoming basket of flowers

We stopped in at St. Andre cathedral for a little peek at the elaborately painted columns on our way back to the “hole” for a little break before our evening’s adventure.

 

You might think that we’d seen all that a city could offer as far as tasting, but nope. We went with Nola from Miam. They specialize in showing visitors some of the many passionate food venders in Bordeaux. We started at Art et Vins to learn about wine with a man who was born and raised in the business. What a charmer. We then visited L’Heritage de Robert and met a cheesemaker. We were in heaven.

Following cheese, we went to Foie Gras Monblanc and just went wild with foie gras and various duck offerings. As a final treat, we went to Gabriel and tasted his seasonal dessert of twists on apples and hibiscus.

Oh my. We even got a tour of the restaurant’s kitchen! We even got to pose for a picture with the chefs. What a wonderful way to top off a gastro-perfect day.

 

 

Our “Hole in the Wall” in Bordeaux

We had lovely flights to Amsterdam and then on to Bordeaux (no strikes in France — which we had feared) and we managed the bus and tram system in Bordeaux like pros. We even found our rental apartment on the first try. Our apartment for the three-day stay is at 18 Rue Reniere. Rue Reniere is a very narrow cobbled street just a block or so away from the Pont Pierre bridge. We rang the buzzer and the owner came to welcome us. She led us down two flights of dark and narrow stone spiral stairs. Then she opened the door to a magical warren. The apartment was built into the inner wall of Bordeaux that was constructed in 1249. The windows, set in four-foot-thick walls, look out on what used to be the moat. It has barrel ceilings and just took our breath away.

The view as you open the front door

Not every place one stays has a view of a moat.

Note from Jim: Bordeaux has an incredibly pedestrian-friendly “centre ville.” When a city decides to close many of its  downtown streets to traffic, it can create an amazing buzz as people and bikes take over the streets. There is a bustle and vibe here that most cities can’t match, and a lot of it has to do with the lack of four-wheeled traffic and the predominance of foot traffic and two-wheeled traffic. It also helps to have a university with tens of thousands of students.

We didn’t get to stand breathless for long because Cindy’s sister gave us a Christmas gift of a gastronomic walking tour to welcome us to town. Hela, the owner of Bordeaux Walking Tours, was our guide and our caloric partner. Could Hela have been warmer, more thoughtful, more helpful, or more fun? Not possible! We started at Beillevaire Fromagerie, one of three Bordeaux fromageries we’ve been following on Facebook for the past two years. If you can go to only one fromagerie in Bordeaux, you aren’t the McPhersons, but anyway, this would be the one to visit. We tasted and talked and tasted again. They had a cheese washed in the local walnut liqueur that was just a revelation.

The first cheese photo of the trip! Might there be more to come? Silly question.

 

We then went to two places to do comparison tastings of caneles. The ones from La Toque Cuivree got our vote, but we have decided that more research will be needed.

We went to a shop that makes very unique chocolates. One type had cinnamon on the outside and a grape hidden inside. They were made to look like little cobblestones. We also got to try the famous dunes blanches. A dunes blanches is a powdered-sugar-topped chouquette stuffed with fresh whipped cream. There might need to be some follow-up quality control checks on those tasty treats.

Our final stop was at a wine bar, La Conserverie,run by women who stock excellent wines that are largely produced by women. We sat out in the back courtyard looking up at the cloudless sky, tasting dried meats and tasting local wine. The moment was not lost on us.

After saying farewell to Hela, we walked around and made come cheese purchases and scoped out the sites and possible restaurants we had researched. We payed homage to our beloved Normandy with galettes and cider for dinner before returning to our lovely “hole-in-the-wall” to finally get some sleep after the long trip and great opening taste of Bordeaux.

Galette with ham, cheese, and herbed cream

We’re here. We’re really here.

 

Anticipation

<Feel free to hear Carly Simon singing in the background as you read.>

“We can never know about the days to come.

But we think about them anyway.”

We leave later today for our next adventure in France. We made the first reservations for this trip more than 18 months ago. When we started contacting people to make reservations, we began with, “Please don’t laugh but . . .” The responses we got back were only rarely, “This is great, but could you contact us a year from now? Our reservation system doesn’t project out that far.” More often they said something like, “We get it. We love to travel too, and planning is more than half the fun. We’ll mark you down for those dates.” Those dates are finally here.

One hundred days ago, I gave Jim an “Anticipation Jar” festooned with the colors of the French flag. In the jar were one hundred pieces of paper. On each was written something that I was looking forward to about this trip. For each of the past one hundred days, he has reached into the jar and pulled out a random note. We would chat briefly about that particular anticipation note and then get on with our day. Today’s final note said, “I’m looking forward to saying, “We’re here. We’re really here!” It won’t be long now.

“These are the good old days! These are the good old days!”

Thanks, Carly Simon!

P.S. For those of you who like to follow us on maps, we’ll be focusing on the southwest corner of France with a tiny dip into Spain. You can “anticipate” our next message from Bordeaux tomorrow.