Tag Archive for: France

There is a thesis to be written on the key role railway hotels have played in the development of French cuisine. Sometimes at the exalted level of the 3-star La Maison Troisgros in Roanne. Legendary ‘nouvelle cuisine’ dishes such as ‘salmon in sorrel sauce’ were created by the brothers Jean and Pierre Troigros in the family hotel opposite the sleepy town station.
In 2017, under Pierre’s son Michel, it moved to a more luxurious site. Another culinary birthplace, though, will still be in situ to greet you three hours to the north in the Sologne. Get off the SNCF at even sleepier Lamotte-Beuvron and cross to the Hotel Tatin, home of the caramelised apple pastry that turned the dessert world upside down. You can also file the now ubiquitous Tarte Tatin under ‘dishes created by happy accident’.

The legend goes that the tart was fortuitously invented at the turn of the 20th century by chef Stéphanie Tatin (b 1838), who ran the hotel with her sister Caroline (b 1847). It was the opening Sunday of the hunting season and a traditional apple pie was expected by the hungry chasseurs. In the kitchen a flustered Stéphanie left the apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long. In a bid to rescue the scrape (sic) she was in she opted to simply chuck the pastry base on top and stick it in the oven. 

Voilà, the succulent, caramelised apples soaked into the pastry, the lunch party loved it and it has never been off the menu since… here and in countless places around the world.

A major boost for it originally was its adoption by Maxim’s on the Rue Royale – one of the great Parisian celeb restaurants of the Belle Époque and beyond. Recently restored to its previous glory, it charges 18 euros for its tarte tatin (compared with 10 at the humbler Hotel Tatin). On a frugal pre-Christmas visit to the French capital I never got to eat it there, but I did BAKE MY OWN at another Parisian institution, the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, a 15 minute walk away.

The Galeries were in full Dream Before Christmas mode, from an awesome twinkling tree soaring into the department store’s dome and animated window displays from fashion designer Charles de Vilmorin showcasing his “epic story of the little girl and the magic paintbrush who travel to an imaginary land.”

I went one step further, and checked into the Ferrandi’s Kitchen cookery school on the third floor of the Lafayette Maison and Gourmet Store. At the end of my own rainbow a pot of goldenly caramelised apples, no less. There to guide me into not burning the fruit or rolling out the wrong texture of pastry was chef/tutor Lucie Lafontaine.

We were an eight-strong group, so, if necessary I could hide among teamwork. Still, I had made tatins before at home, using apples, plums, quinces and pears, and, less successfully rhubarb and gooseberry, which turned to mush. Pineapple, though, was a success. An apple that holds its shape during caramelisation, such as a Cox, is best. Lucie introduced to us a rival French one that was equally perfect. I‘ve seen instances in restaurants of savoury tarte tatins, but that seems just wrong. As does using puff pastry. 

At the end of our two and a half hour stint all our efforts tasted like the real thing. We had well earned our signed certificate, chef’s toque and goodie bag and got to keep our posh monogrammed apron. 130 euros is the cost of such a course, where savoury dishes are also on the changing roster on offer. Book here.

So, if you can’t make it to Paris or Lamotte-Beuvron, what’s the secret to a true tarte tatin?

Best leave it to the indefatigable Felicity Cloake in her ‘How to cook perfect…” series in The Guardian. Even her researches barely scratch the upside down surface with so many chefs tweaking their own versions.

This is her distillation, which I have employed since returning from Paris and it gets it spot on: “Toffee apples for grown-ups, the tarte tatin is all about the flavour of the fruit – crisp pastry, firm, juicy apples and that sweet, buttery caramel topping, holding the whole lot together. We may have the best apples, but the French really know what to do with them.”


7 medium apples: 4 Cox, 3 Granny Smith
200g white sugar
50g butter
175g ready-made shortcrust pastry 

225g plain flour
2 tbsp caster sugar
120g cold butter
1 medium egg, beaten


Peel, halve and core the apples, then put in the fridge, uncovered, for 24 hours. Put the sugar into a 20cm heavy-based ovenproof frying pan along with 50ml water and leave to soak for a couple of minutes, then cook over a medium heat until golden and fudgy. Take off the heat and stir in the butter, and a pinch of salt, until well combined, then carefully arrange the apples in the pan, round-side down, bearing in mind the caramel will be very hot, and put back on the heat – you may need to cut some of the apples into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps. Cook for 5 minutes, then take off the heat and allow to cool completely.

If making the pastry, sift the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar and a pinch of salt. Grate in the butter, then rub together until it is coarse crumbs. Mix the egg with 2 tsp cold water and sprinkle over the mixture. Mix together into a soft but not sticky dough, adding more water (if required) very gradually. Shape into a ball, and then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes before rolling out.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the pastry (you’ll probably have some left over if you’ve made your own) to 5mm thick, and cut out a circle slightly larger than your pan. Put back into the fridge to rest.

Put the pastry on top of the pan and tuck in the edges around the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven. Allow to cool for five  minutes, then place a plate, slightly larger than the pan, on top and then, very carefully, using oven gloves, invert the tart on to the plate. Best served warm, with crème fraîche. Serves 6.

• To discover what else I got up to in Paris visit this link.

Anthony Bourdain called AJ Liebling’s Between Meals (1962) “the benchmark for great food writing”, so there’s palpable excitement among gastronomes that 60 years on it’s about to be republished. This Francophile expat contributor to the New Yorker is an obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, quirkiest of odes to La Vie Parisienne mid-20th century (though that movie is set in the fictional provincial town of Ennui-sur-Blasé).

Liebling was more gourmand than gourmet and his unreconstructed attitude to women matched his gross appetites at table, which in turn led to obesity, gout and death at just 59 in 1963. Yet the guy could undoubtedly write. Like his almost exact contemporary also renowned for evocative prose rather than recipes, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She  survived him by a further 30 years, dying as a feted grande dame in California’s Napa/Sonoma wine country.

As with Alice Waters or our own Elizabeth David, hers is a formidable foodie name to drop. Meryl Streep was never destined to play her. Snooty MFK in an apron for telly demos à la Julia Child? Quelle horreur! All we have is the writing and a certain cult following, of which I’m happy to be a fully paid-up member. If Liebling got Bourdain’s vote, I’m happy to endorse WH Auden’s verdict on her: “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose”.

The great poet died in 1973 (a year after I had dinner with him in Oxford – we disagreed over the merits of the avocado), so that view of his may have dated. Indeed there is a certain antipathy in some quarters towards her legacy and the genre of food-centric life memoirs she initiated. Nadir? Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

Yet MFK doesn’t really deserve this diatribe from one Josh Ozersky in Medium magazine, culminating in “Her legacy suffocates us, immobilises us, covers us as tightly as puff pastry in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced. M.F.K. Fisher must die.”

Harsh. Contrast it with the unlikeliest of MFK homages in Birmingham last weekend, which sparked this, my own reminder of her greatness as a writer. No, I didn’t attend the supper club ‘Lunch with MFK Fisher’ hosted by Matt O’Callaghan, whose Italophile blog isthe rather excellent MangiaMangia, but I’d like to have shared that menu of tea, bread and honey, sherry, tomato, chicken and wine broth, cheese tarts (with white wine), roast pigeon with herbs and bread (with red), iced fruit, gaufrettes and Tokay, coffee and Armagnac.

This ‘fusion of food and art’ apparently replicated a meal she served for friends and family in her rural Swiss home, Le Pâquis above Vevey, just before the outbreak of World War Two. This was just one stop-off in a peripatetic life that also took in Italy, various parts of France and later, her native America (she was born in Michigan). 

Food was integral but she always aimed to chart her life in its entirety, summed up beautifully in the opening to her most popular book, The Gastronomical Me, “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” 

She was a great beauty. Photographer Man Ray worshipped her bone structure. Her determinedly independent life had its fair share of glamour, but also trauma, especially when her terminally ill second husband, Dilwyn Parrish shot himself. Life after the war as a single mother can’t have been easy but those years yielded two of my favourite books of hers on Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. I visited both cities last year and her ghost was there, particularly in Aix along the Rue Cardinale, her base in the Mazarin Quarter.

The area on which she is most evocative is Burgundy. In 1929 she moved there with her first husband, A,l to Dijon, where both studied at the university. Heady days as the newlyweds celebrated its rich food pickings: “We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of ecrevisses a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.”

A touch florid, even Lieblingesque, maybe but, especially as her marriage faltered, she grew into her razor-sharp narrations. My favourite of these, set in the Burgundian Avallon region, is I Was Really Very Hungry

It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937; I discovered it in a delicious ‘greatest hits’ compilation, As They Were (1982). The centrepiece is a kind of a joust between a serving girl besotted with the cuisine her chef is producing backstage and the solo diner (MFK is always brilliant on the ‘woman who dines alone’).

It starts: “Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.

“It was the off season at the old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France’s most famous restaurants, and my mad waitress was the only servant. In spite of that she was neatly uniformed, and showed no surprise at my unannounced arrival and my hot dusty walking clothes…”

3,000 words later, after being pressed with glasses of marc and settling the large bill, the relentlessly sensuous ‘tasting menu’ is over, our heroine ready to leave…

“Suddenly the girl began to laugh, in a soft shy breathless way, and came close to me.

‘Permit me!’ she said, and I thought she was going to kiss me. But instead she pinned a tiny bunch of snowdrops and dark bruised cyclamens against my stiff jacket, very quickly and deftly, and then ran from the room with her head down.

“I waited for a minute. No sounds came from anywhere in the old mill, but the endless rushing of the full stream seemed to strengthen, like the timed blare of an orchestra under a falling curtain. She’s a funny one, I thought. I touched the cool blossoms on my coat and went out, like a ghost from ruins, across the courtyard toward the dim road to Avallon.”

You’re hooked? You must be. Follow this link to read the full 3,500 words.

The best introduction to Fisher at her peak is The Art of Eating, a compendium of four books, her debut, Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. Her most recipe-led volume, How To Eat A Wolf, was published at the height of Second World War food shortages and its wryness still resonates. One chapter is called How to Be Cheerful Through Starving, another How To Boil Water, and she helpfully tips us off on creating a life-saving ‘sludge’ for 50 cents, yet the message, echoing the rest of her 25-strong oeuvre, is ‘food is pleasure’. When we “nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment it is a way to “assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains”.

That message was there at the start of her writing career in Serve It Forth: “If you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.”

Main image is courtesy of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a sustainable nature charity based at Stimson’s Beach, who are custodians of MFK Fisher’s Californian legacy.

What links the sprightliest greenery in my vernal garden with a dish created in 1962 at a railroad halt at the head of the navigable Loire? L’oseille is what the French call sorrel and in the unassuming industrial town of Roanne two chefs created culinary magic by marrying this acidic, zesty herb to a salmon escalope.

I first read about it in 1978 in remarkable book called Great Chefs of France, essentially a handsomely illustrated roll call of all the figures who created ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’. Roanne-based Les Freres Troigros, Jean and Pierre, sounded the most fun. Asked to create a dish for Paul Bocuse’s Legion d’Honneur lunch for Giscard d’Estaing, they came up with Escalope de saumon  a l’oseille and the rest is history. I have been slavishly following the recipe for this delicate, almost Zen-like dish since 1980 when the brothers published their own cookbook, Nouvelle Cuisine, part of a series translated into English that included Cuisine Minceur by Michel Guerard, the only one of that groundbreaking kitchen generation still alive.

By 1968 the brothers had gained a third Michelin star for the restaurant, which it has held ever since, while morphing from the station’s Hotel Moderne, prospering from the Route Nationale 7 running past, via a more sophisticated makeover in 1976, to its current incarnation after a switch to a rural site in 2007. Jean died of a heart attack in 1983, Pierre in 2020 at the age of 92, the Troigros legacy long since consolidated in the hands of Pierre’s son Michel (and now a new generation). Influences on the menu in recent times have been Japanese, a logical extension of the pared down intensity of the original Nouvelle Cuisine movement.

Alas, I’ve never eaten in the restaurant proper. On a press trip to explore the wines of the Roannaise region a Troigros lunch was organised for us. A lovely prix fixe three courses yes, but it was in a spin-off down the street, the Cafe Epicerie Le Central. It cost just 23 euros, quarter of the price of a main at the big place, where the other day I struggled to find salmon with sorrel on the website menu.

My own sorrel crop has mostly been perennial. When one year it failed we were rescued by a cutting from the unlikeliest of sources, the Michelin-starred Mr Underhills in Ludlow. 

Chris Bradley was virtually a one-man band at the stove (hence a no choice five course menu) with his wife Judy front of house. Quite a team, both now retired, the building down by Dinham Weir sold on as a private house. 

The no choice dinner we had in the garden was utterly memorable with salmon and sorrel as a starter. Which led to our lament about our own lost herb. Not only did Judy come up with a replacement from her own garden, she even volunteered Chris to drive us back to our hotel in the absence of Ludlow taxis. Now that was Michelin star service. Here’s my take on the original Troisgros recipe…

Salmon in a creamy sorrel sauce – a dish that has stood the test of time


1kg fresh middle cut of salmon, skinned; 80g fresh sorrel leaves; 2 shallots;  500ml fish fumet; 4tbsp dry white wine; 2tbsp Noilly Prat; 400ml double cream; 40g butter; juice of ½ lemon; salt and freshly ground pepper; small amount of arachide or other light oil.


Divide the salmon into four fillets and put them between two sheets of lightly oiled wax paper and flatten the fish evenly, using a mallet. Remove the stems from the sorrel by stripping the central veins from each leaf.

To prepare the fish sauce put the fish fumet, white wine, Noilly Prat and shallots into a saucepan and cook over high heat until a near glaze is reached. Add the cream and reduce until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add the sorrel for around 20 seconds while stirring. Then incorporate the butter off the heat.  Before serving add a few drops of lemon juice

To cook the fillets, sprinkle salt and pepper on the least presentable side. Heat up the oil (or use a non-stick pan), then add the salmon with the seasoned side down for 25 seconds. then turn to the second side for another 25 seconds. The salmon should be undercooked since it will continue to cook after plating. Add the sorrel sauce, enlivened with a squeeze of lemon, to each warmed plate then add the salmon. Voilà!

Just a tiny shoal of fried whitebait tossed with house-grown Sichuan pepper, crisped garlic and coriander – snack prelude to another fascinating Moorcock at Norland lunch. In three months it will be no more, taking with it not only one of the UK’s great food experiences but also a rarely equalled adventurous drinks offering.

On this occasion it is the latter that has lured us to the squally hilltop above Sowerby Bridge. I’ve spent the weekend engrossed in Aaron Ayscough’s The World of Natural Wine (Artisan, £31.99), thus impressionable me can’t resist the prospect of tasting a clutch of minimal intervention reds and whites from France’s Jura and Savoie regions. They don’t disappoint.

Surprisingly Les Dolomies, profiled at length in Wink Lorch’s definitive Jura Wine (Wine Travel Media, £25pb), doesn’t get a mention in the comprehensive, France-centric new book from Not Drinking Poison blogger Ayscough. But then my beloved Jura is a maverick stronghold of natural wine and 15 pages only scratches the surface.

Savoie and neighbouring Bugey are more under the radar, but Domaine Partagé does get a glowing mention as one of five individual profiles. The author, a US expat, is based in Beaujolais, the crucible of the natural wine movement thanks to certain key figures over the past four decades. He traces that timeline in depth, exhaustively explaining what make this   alternative ethos superior to mainstream ‘manipulative’ winemaking. It certainly opened my eyes to the myriad dodgy practices employed in commercial production.

What you get is over 400 pages of (copiously illustrated) polemic. Ayscough pulls no punches in naming and shaming one-time natural crusaders, who have deviated from the true path. Sulfites anyone? The rest of Europe gets only a cursory over-view at the end, but that doesn’t detract from the most comprehensive exploration of a millennial phenomenon. Still the proof is in the pudding… or rather the glass. So back to the Moorcock, where any trepidation about haziness, excess brett and funk, vinegary volatile acidity, nail polish remover stinks or the dreaded ‘mouse breath are dispelled as quickly as the whitebait are despatched.

The four wines (above) we taste are exemplary. Yet each is no comfort blanket. Purity of fruit dominates with a certain attractive wildness. There’s acidity aplenty in the two whites that copes with the whitebait spice and later both the house nduja with roast Jerusalem artichokes and a smoked mackerel tartare. Both the Premice from Les Dolomies and Domaine Partagé’s Cricri were available by the glass at £8 all weekend.

The first uses the characteristic Jura grape, Savagnin, which here is hand harvested, whole bunch pressed and fermented in large tanks, taking advantage of wild yeasts. Terroir in abundance – Les Dolomies is named after the local salty, magnesium-rich limestone rock. Apricot, gooseberries and a white pepper tingle on the tongue.

The Cricri is quite a contrast, almondy, preserved lemony with a decidedly creamy aftertaste that I love. Tech stuff: direct press of whole cluster Jacquere grapes fermented and aged in fibreglass eggs. 

Both reds, at £12.50, are equally contrasting. Le Dolomie’s Bordel C’est Bon is from the Trousseau grape and translates loosely as ‘God that’s good!’. Grapes, de-stalked by hand, are fermented in stainless steel before being given 10 months’ élevage in old Burgundy barrels. For Jura it’s quite a substantial red, definitely damson and smoke on the nose, and  a plummy roundness to the palate.

Bibi from Domaine Partagé was served chilled, appropriate for a lighter carbonic macreation blend of Gamay and Savoie speciality Mondeuse that reeks of cherries and violets. Thanks to Moorcock co-founder and sommelier Aimee Tufford for the tip-off about lingering liquorice notes.

Partagé’s World of Natural Wine profile adds a human dimension. Vigneron Gilles Berlioz is “a fanatic for vineyard work with immense sideburns and a permanent suntan.” In 2016 he and his wife Christine (who work their land with a horse) “took the curious step of changing the name of their estate to Domaine Partagé (‘The Shared Estate’) to honour the co-operative input of all their employees and interns.”

Apologies then if I’ve given the impression of a rather earnest gospel to the converted. There are lots of diversions along the way from Ayscough. It’s wonderful to discover another Jura producer, Philippe Bornard, is “actually more famous outside the wine scene thanks to his 2012 appearance on L’Amour est dans le Pré (love is in the Field), long-running French dating show featuring farmers.” Just one of many eccentricities that go with the territory. 

Some of the author’s analogies are equally quirky. Take Loire producer Patrick Desplats, whose “output since he and Patrick Dervieux parted ways is like that of Andre 3000 since leaving Outkast; slim, indulgent and wildly inconsistent.” Elsewhere one vigneron’s early releases are compared with Cat Power’s – “shrill” – but the later output is as compelling as hers!

Where to buy natural wine in the north…

For the Confidentials website series I have written extensively about the best places to source minimum intervention bottles in the North and explained what constitutes unregulated ‘natural wine’. Follow these links: Manchester Part 1, Manchester Part 2 and Yorkshire. The latter piece profiled the wonderful Kwas in Huddersfield. Alas, it has since folded.

With David Hockney I’ve got previous. Alas, I wasn’t poolside in L.A. for The Bigger Splash. And it was Ossie Clark not me with the white cat on his knee in Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy. That was the Sixties when the bottle-blond, bespectacled Bradfordian forged his artistic legend. I enter the story only a decade ago outside Bridlington, getting lost in a quest to find a certain Woldgate.

That was the 10-mile straight, single track unmetalled (probably Roman) road linking the slightly shabby East Riding resort with its rolling hinterland, the Yorkshire Wolds. If it weren’t for Hockney swapping his Californian exile in search of a different landscape and quality of light, Woldgate would have remained an afternoon drive cherished by locals, its woods left to foxes, woodpeckers and tinkers. We finally got directions to this “woodland tunnel” from a local pub, The Old Star, where we’d spotted a picture of the artist and pals on the wall. Before the smoking ban excluded his compulsive pastime he was apparently a regular there.

We admired the immense, understated beauty of the landscape that the artist, then well into his seventies, captured in paint and iPad image for his show, The Bigger Picture. Not everyone was a fan. An old acquaintance of mine, Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard ,wrote: ”My predominant response to David Hockney’s exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy is ‘Why?’. Why is there so much of it? Why is so much of it so big, so towering, so vast, so overblown and corpulent? Why is it so repetitive? Why is everything so unreally bright, so garish, discordant, raw and Romany? Why is the brushwork so careless, crude and coarse?”

Make your own mind up. All those Wolds images are in situ at Salt’s Mill, Saltaire. But they are no longer the prime Hockney reason to visit this former textile mill, now an art gallery, upmarket household boutique and restaurant complex at the heart of the model village created by 19th century philanthropic industrialist Sir Titus Salt. Hockney super-fan Jonathan Silver bought the building, once the largest factory in the world, in the Seventies and created a showcase for his art.

The vast Salt’s Mill roof space can accommodate the sheer scale of Hockney’s celebration of his adopted Normandy

Silver died of cancer in 1997, but his ghost would surely relish the current big draw in the vast open top floor space – David Hockney: A Year In Normandie. At 90.75 metres long this is David Hockney’s biggest ever picture: a vibrant, joyful frieze recording the changing seasons in and around the artist’s garden in Normandy, where he sat out Covid lockdown. 

The house Hockney immediately fell in love with lies just outside the picture-perfect village of Beuvron-en-Auge, ten miles south of Cabourg and 40 east of Bayeux with its 70 metre long embroidered Tapestry that sets the benchmark for pictorial ambition.

Beuvron is a picturesque tangle of historic timbered and half-timbered buildings at the epicentre of the region’s main apple growing area, the fruit used for cider and Calvados. This rustic backdrop is reflected in the frieze – from the overflowing blossom of spring to the gaunt, bare orchards in winter. All recreated via pinning together in one continuous length most of the 220 paintings Hockney created on his iPad and printed onto paper. The enormous attic space with its own aged beams feels like gallery come barn, which is just perfect.

This is the first time this work has been seen in the UK; previously it was on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Hockney, now 85, traces its genesis back to when he first laid eyes upon a 30 metre long Chinese scroll painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1983, which he recalls as “one of the most exciting days” of his life.

Spoiler alert, not everyone’s excited about Normandie. The critical opprobrium is led by Observer art critic Laura Cummings: “A graze of parallel lines stands for a leaf or cloud; dots of different density are used for seeds, flowers or rising suns; grass comes ribbed, knitted or in sharp little toothpicks. Ready-made motifs proliferate. Blossoms are arrays of danish pastry whorls, both ugly and unpersuasive. Even the innately beautiful structure of a tree is undermined by the stick-figure lines, which lack all eloquence or fluidity. The register is as false and fudged as an electronic signature.”

I think that verdict is harsh. OK, the content is readily transferable into notebook, calendar of souvenir mug for. Yet, the colourful, pastoral positivity is a pick-me-up after all we have endured and are enduring. As Voltaire advises: “Il faut cultiver son jardin”. Vicariously, in this case, through the vision of Monsieur Hockney of Beuvron and Bridlington.

Do make your own mind up about this genuine magnum opus. Normandie is on at Salt’s Mill & 1853 Gallery until Sunday, September 18, 2022. Entry is free and there’s lots else to occupy you in this World Heritage Status enclave.

How times change (and not that plus ça change casuistry). The Bordeaux of my distant memory was a grey city, on the muddy Garonne, hoarding its vinous treasures with a kind of miserly hauteur. Its 18th century architectural glories were as grime-ridden as the ancient bottles slumbering in its fusty trade cellars. 

Returning is quite a culture shock. After three decades of enlightened civic planning the centre has been transformed. Dazzling sun helps highlight its limestone treasures and riverside gardens. Bordeaux is baking. Tomorrow we’ll fly home before the temperature soars beyond 40 degrees. The steaming temptation is to dip one’s toes in the quayside Miroir d’eau in front of the Place de la Bourse. At 3,450 square metres the world’s largest reflecting pool.

Instead we head for shelter… and, naturally, wine. Inside L’Intendant the air conditioning is a comfort. Its true purpose? To protect 15,000 bottles of the fine wines associated with the city. They are spectacularly displayed around the walls of a 12 metre high, spiralling stairway. All for sale – this is a shop.

Half way up I get into conversation with a German connoisseur. “From Manchester, you say – ah, Hawksmoor, the great claret blunder, the world still talks about it.” He’s referring, of course, to that fateful day in May 2019 when diners at the Deansgate steakhouse were mistakenly served a £4,500 bottle of Chateau Le Pin Pomerol 2001 instead of the £260 Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2001 they had ordered. 

The incident went viral, provoking mutterings of “how can any wine be worth that much?”. Market forces, supply and demand. Minuscule Le Pin produces just 200 cases a year and is a trophy red. There are a few of those dotted around L’Intendant, where vintages date back to 1945 (a legendary year), alongside relatively affordable wines.

From the vantage point of an English wine lover, with all the world to choose from, the old mystique of Bordeaux has worn off somewhat. Partly due to its reds in particular becoming a global commodity. The word claret is as démodé as cordon bleu cuisine.


Which brings us to La Cité du Vin, the focus of our return to a reinvigorated, scrubbed up city. The swift flowing, tidal Garonne river may be as muddy as back then, but the esplanade along its banks has been transformed and, 2km north reached by the sleekest of tram services, the old docks now play home to the the €81 million ‘Guggenheim of Wine”.

That label’s too glib, but it has stuck. Comparisons with Frank Gehry’s game-changing museum on the banks of the Nervión river in Bilbao are inevitable. But La Cité, just three years old, feels more a valuable addition than a turning point for a city’s touristic appeal.

Devoted to educating the public in the glories of wine and viticulture, it certainly catches the eye on the outside – an asymmetrical swish of gold and aluminium, topped by a leaning tower. Inside, it casts aside the old museum certainties of curated objects in favour of an immersive, interactive experience, involving all the senses. So expect to do a lot of sniffing out of little funnels to unleash various aromas. What am I getting here? Gooseberry, honey, farmyard? Book a tasting workshop to get the whole synaesthetic connection.

We chose to ramble around and felt slightly adrift against filmic backdrops. Of course, there’s a slight theme park appeal; that’s part of its populist, demystifying mission. A chance to be unafraid of terroir and minerality. All those daunting buzz words.

There’s also a lot of attention paid to the rest of the globe. This is breaking the mould in a France that for too long dismissed wines that weren’t French; indeed in Bordeaux Burgundy wouldn’t get much of a shout. 

Further evidence of this sea change was to be found in the Cité’s top floor Belvedere tasting room – attractive for its 360 degree panorama and also for the complimentary glass of wine for each ticket holder. The array of bottles on the counter covered the globe. We sipped an Australian Shiraz as we gazed back through the heat haze to the city proper far beyond the futuristic Chaban-Delmas Bridge. Below us the Bassins à Flot – derelict tidal basins” – are undergoing gentrification. 

The advance guard has been the resurgent Les Halles de Bacalan market across the road from the Cité’. It’s a smart food hall, hosting 24 traders. Fronting it is a separate brasserie. La Familia, named after a treasured 1920s neighbourhood cinema and celebrating the food and drink of South West France. The regional platters were the mot impressive food offering.

From here the promenade back to the city centre is via the Quai des Chartrons, whose warehouses were central to the wine and slave trade which created the city’s wealth. Evidence of which is more than 5,000 restored houses from the 18th century and 350 listed historic monuments. Such glories make it a delight to wander around the UNESCO World Heritage Status Chartrons district and the charming Jardin Public. 

Most folk amble along the Rue de Notre Dame in search of antiques; we perversely discovered Rn7 Caviste at No.102, devoted exclusively to the wines of the Northern Rhone, where brave incomer Frederic Bennetot introduced us to the most impressive wines we tasted on our city break. Crozes Hermitage, St Joseph Cornas, Côte-Rôtie –  a treasure trove homage to the Syrah grape in premises that proclaim their former incarnation as an upholsterer’s.

The city, as you’d expect, boasts some terrific wine bars. Close to L’Intendant is Le Bar a Vin, a Bordeaux institution in lofty ornate premises. Government-subsidised, it offers bargain, by the glass offers of some seriously good wines. Around the Place St Pierre is a fertile area for an evening’s carousing. Check out near neighbours on the Rue des Bahutiers, Italian-owned The Wine Bar with more than 300 wines from around the world and excellent snacks to accompany them, and the hipper Vins Urbains. By the glass is expensive, so definitely go for a bottle to share (400 to choose from) and don’t miss the delights of their with even more bottles and a white truffle croque monsieur.

Some palate-cleansing hoppiness? Venture further down winding Bahutiers to its junction with with the Rue Alsace at Lorraine and you’ll encounter the Bordeaux branch of the French craft beer chain, Les BerThoM. It has a fine Belgian selection, but do try the fine local Merignac beer.

At the other end of the food and drink scale Bordeaux has it share of Michelin restaurants, non more high profile the Gordon Ramsay’s two-starred Le Pressoir d’Argent inside the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel. Its name comes from the dining room’s centrepiece, a solid silver lobster press, on of only five in the world. Splash out well over €100 and they’ll serve you a native lobster fresh from the press, steamed with lemon leaf, corn, girolles, courgettes, coral and lemongrass bisque. Maybe the shadow of Brexit is straitening you purse strings? Stick to the €185 Origins Menu, featuring old Bordeaux’s signature fish dish, freshwater lamprey in a red wine sauce. We thought better of it.

Of course, you can dine superbly in small bistros, if you pick well, and then, it being France, make a beeline for a market. Les Halles de Capucins in the homely St Michael’s quarter, south of St Pierre, was in second gear the Tuesday we visited but could still maintain luxuriant fresh herb stall, the like of which I’ve never seen before (actually I recognised it from one of those Rick Stein’s Long Weekends programmes). 

Mid-morning was a perfect time to indulge in a half dozen Arcachon oysters and a tumbler of Entre deux Mers white at Chez Jean-Mi, bistrot a huitres. A piece of old Bordeaux. Vive les traditions Bordelaises.

It’s not all about wine – Three must-visits in Bordeaux

The Cathedrale Saint-André 

There’s nothing like a church tower panorama to help you get a feel for a city. We tried two. The gargoyle-thronged Gothic belfry, the Tour Pey Berland, was built in the 15th century alongside the Cathedral (a spire came later). 231 steps will take you to the viewpoint; be prepared to queue, visitor numbers are restricted. 

St Michel’s bell tower

Its contemporary rival, the 114 metre high bell tower of the Basilica of Saint-Michel is also freestanding and spired. Known as La Fleche (‘the arrow), it’s quite a climb but you are rewarded with a view down onto a vibrant local street market. The tower’s crypt used to house a collection of mummies unearthed from a local burial ground in the 18th century. Our macabre  expectations were dashed – they were reburied 40 years ago.

Get a masterpiece fix at the Musée des Beaux-Arts

One of France’s finest art galleries, built in 1881, has reopened after several years of renovation and offers an eye-opening primer in European fine art. The collection is housed in two glorious, separate wings – the south devoted to art from the 16th to the 18th century, and the north the 19th and 20th centuries. Artists who feature include Brueghel, Corot, Delacroix, Van Dyck, Kokoschka, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Rubens, Véronèse and Bordeaux’s own Odilon Redon.

For a full rundown on the city’s attractions visit Bordeaux Tourism.

Food heroes – there are many claimants. Few are a patch on a monocled Major credited with saving traditional British cheese. From the Fifties onwards war hero Patrick Lowry Cole Holwell Rance promoted the real thing through his polemical writing and regular stock of 150 cheeses at his village shop in Streatley, Berkshire.

Current champions of raw milk farmhouse cheeses the Courtyard Dairy near Settle are quick to acknowledge their debt to the great man, who died two decades ago.

Yet Rance’s partisan spirit was never insular. The majority of the unpasteurised wheels and rounds stacked to the rafters at Wells Stores were French and arguably his greatest contribution to cheese chronicling was The French Cheese Book (1989). I have this treasured 550 page magnum opus in front of me now as I seek out his thoughts on the adjacent Mont d’Or, one of the great French autumnal treats, much more readily available here than in his day.

Like the first cuckoo of spring, I await the first oozing Mont d’Or image of the autumn from out little town’s resident cheesemonger. Jay mailed me a selection this year as the cheeses, all the Brexit bureaucratic boxes ticked, trickled in from the Jura after the mid-September start of the six month season.

It’s early days yet and the billowing crust is yet to attain the peach-pink hue of perfection, but stick a spoon in and the interior ooze offers a buttery, almost clotted cream flavour, with a beguiling sappiness no other cheese quite matches.

This year’s first hand experience comes second best to that of September 2019 when we just happened to be in the Jura mountains – also home to Comté – when the first Mont d’Ors hit the restaurants in the shadow of the ‘Golden Mountain’ that gives its name to the cheese. 

At an unpretentious village auberge, as tradition demands, a whole Mont d’Or was baked in its spruce bark ‘belt’ and served with potatoes, gherkins and a bottle of the tart local white, Savagnin. A posher establishment might have partnered the cheese with an aristocratic Vin de Jaune. Check out Fiona Beckett’s Matching Food and Wine blog last month for further tips.

Back to the bark wrapping. Major Rance’s take in his chapter on Franche-Comté is magisterially atmospheric: “In my mind I have often put myself in the place of a snowbound comtois farmer, collecting logs from the neat stack under the snow-heavy eaves. I have pictured his being suddenly struck by the warm beauty of the cut spruce and its resinous bark, which can glow like mahogany and smell like heaven. 

“A cheese could look like this, he might well have felt. So, on a base cut above the log, with a ring of épicéa bark around it to contain its enthusiasm, a new soft cheese was born. Bathing in brine helps seal bark and cheese together, and the resinous flavour and aroma spread into the cheese as it ripens.” 

Quite. That’s the full experience I’m getting now, not neglecting the sensory delights of gnawing the bark too. I scoop the unctuous cheese out onto a sourdough slice, the first of several. My preference, I’ve chosen not to bake this mini Mont d’Or. 

Vacherin is its more familiar name. The nefarious Swiss across the border nabbed the legal right to use the Vacherin-Mont d’Or moniker for their inferior, semi-pasteurised version, leaving the French with ‘Mont d’Or’ or ‘Vacherin du Haut-Doubs’ (the local département).

It’s no truism when you say you can taste the mountains in the cheese: as autumn nears the cow herds come back to the stables after summering on the high sub-Alpine pastures. The key to its allure is the richness of the milk, exclusively from Montbéliarde cattle. It is made when the yield from the cows is less and more intense, so more suitable for production of soft cheese, rather than the harder Comté cheese. After 21 days’ ageing Mont d’Or is packed in spruce boxes ranging from 480g to 3.2kg.

Closer to home Montbéliardes are also the milk source for Baron Bigod, Suffolk’s feisty answer to Brie.

Our own encounter with these brown and white beasts came during that Jura foodie road trip. The evening of our fondue-style Mont d’Or meal we had arrived at our folksy gite, La Ferme de Fleurette, in the village of Les-Hopitaux-Vieux. After a long drive we were keen to freshen up, No chance. We were immediately off in the hire car to a milking parlour high up among the forests. Our farmer host Mickaël steered us through the mud to introduce his beloved herd, raw milk from which is used to make Comté. 

Raw, yes. Pasteurisation would destroy much of the character. Rich from unsprayed grazing teeming with wild flowers and herbs, Mickaël’s milk will go to a ‘fruitier’ to be turned into traditional cheese. There are roughly 150 of these small village dairies, supplied by 2,700 farms across this beautiful, unspoilt region in the east of France. Below are the Fromagerie du Mont D’Or at Metabief and the Fruitiere des Lakes at at Labergement-Sainte-Marie in the Haut Jura.

Comté is built for ageing, for up to 24 months before it is released; Mont d’Or is for early consumption. Keep it  wrapped in greaseproof paper inside a polythene bag, and store in the fridge – it should keep for around a week. Don’t wrap in clingfilm, as it will make it sweat.

It has never lasted that long at our house. The final word goes to Major Rance: “If you are not in stuffy company: lick the bark after each mouthful of cheese, and do not waste what is left; put it on the fire to die in a scent of glory…”

Calder Cheesehouse, 56 Patmos, Burnley Road, Todmorden OL14 5EY. For Mont d’Or and all your cheese and deli needs.

So you think you know what Provencal rosé is all about? At the pale end of pale pink, ripe fruit with (you hope) some fresh acidity and a dry aftertaste? There will be a wide price range but a reassuring homogeneity, especially when chilled to within an inch of its roseate existence. 

Every summer now there seems to be a mad scramble to think pink, especially Provence. Hence an obligatory tasting of 300 in the current issue of Decanter magazine. Verdict of their rosé expert, Elizabeth Gabay MW: “Quality was consistently high, with some squeaky clean wines at all price points. The downside was an almost unending monotony of style.”

In the resultant Top 30 recommendations the rosé at No.5 (with 93 points) stands out as a ruddy maverick interloper among the pale brigade.

She describes Château Gasqui, Silice, Côtes de Provence Rosé 2019 as: “Pale red copper. Perfumed, almost grapey, red fruit aromas. On the palate a beautiful explosion of ripe red fruit, creamy apple compote, a touch of orange peel, marmalade, crushed citrus and some pretty leafy acidity. Quirkily different, intensely fruity and fresh. A gorgeous wine from a biodynamic producer, who is not afraid of ripe fruit and who makes wines which age with ease.”

What did also surprise was the UK supplier, https://www.owtleeds.comOWT of Leeds. Weren’t they the outfit that set up in the city’s Kirkgate Market with a menu generated from what was freshest on the stalls daily? ‘Owt!’ being the answer to what was available. It was a natural extension of co-owner James’s time as a volunteer chef at Real Junk Food Project flagship Armley Junk-tion. 

How does all this link to Southern France’s fields of lavender, sunflowers and vines? Bear with me for a paragraph. Well, OWT has now decamped from the Kirkgate to a cafe unit in the nearby Corn Exchange, Grade 1 listed, domed Victorian gem. The casual but precise food offering remains much the same – from breakfast to late afternoon but with a more expansive Thursday evening menu that wasn’t possible under market hours. 

Esther and James are, step by simple step, rising stars of the Leeds food scene

Oh and on the left as you go in among some chic OWT merchandise you’ll find a trio of exclusive Provencal wines from the family vineyard of James’s partner, Esther. Her surname, Miglio, is a clue to an Italian bloodline way back, but she is the very French daughter of Francois, winemaker for 30 years at Château Gasqui.

She’s proud of the Gasqui wines and so she should be. After hopping on a train to Leeds I can confirm what a complex belter the ‘Silice’ rosé is, like the Roche d’ Enfer! red, dominated by the Grenache grape. Yet just as striking was Esther’s favourite, the Roche d’ Enfer! white from 2013. The ageing has obviously benefited the Semillon that forms part of the cepage with  Rolle and Clairette. What struck was a hint of jasmine on the nose, a waxy mouthfeel and spice notes among the honeyed peachy fruit.

Château Gasqui’s vineyards are set in and support an idyllic natural landscape in the South of France

All three wines are available by the glass at £5, £25 the bottle (which is also the takeaway price). Not cheap but worth it for the purity of fruit extracted by Francois, driving force behind Gasqui being one of only two biodynamic producers in the region. Pictures of the vineyards radiate healthy, blossomig terroir. The brand-heavy fleshpots of Saint-Tropez and the Med Coast may be only 40km to the east but this is a world away, a sustainable enterprise, the antithesis of vinous bling. 

OWT’s food is a perfect complement to the wines. I lunched mid-afternoon off a small menu offering a choice of summer tartelette, aioli with prawns, ‘pepper patchwork’ or panzanella. I went for(and didn’t regret) the £10 steak plate that consisted of a 7oz Yorkshire rump steak, properly rare as requested, plus a herb salad and salsa verde. Fries had run out for the day (it was 3.30pm), so I ordered a side of OWT pickles at £3.50. Carrot, cucumber, ginger and red onion, all fresh and tangy as Esther recounted how after a history course at Marseille University she decided to check out Manchester and fell in love with it gigs and bars. There she met James and he persuaded her a future together lay in his native Yorkshire. God’s Own Country got the best of the deal, you feel, when you taste the wines she has brought with her.

OWT, Unit C12A&B Leeds Corn Exchange, Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7BR. 0113. 247 0706.

A swift guide to biodynamic winemaking and how it benefits Gasqui

Biodynamics is often referred to as ‘super-charged organic’. Its roots are in the theories  of the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Rather than simply reducing chemical inputs, biodynamic production is a proactive attempt to bring life to the soil with the use of natural composts and organic preparations. 

It’s more than just an agricultural system, rather an altered world view that then impacts on the practice of agriculture. Winemakers drawn to this philosophy tend to be creative, spiritual types, deeply connected to their land and always experimenting to see what works best. Which seems to sum up Francois Miglio’s approach.

Gasqui holds Demeter biodynamic certification after the Château’s owner was persuaded to go down this radical route, which forbids chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Instead insect life and spiders are encouraged to control pests; manure encourages organic growth. After hand-harvesting the grapes the wine is produced in a gravity-fed cellar without winemaking additives. Ambient yeasts are used, with no or scant sulfites and no fining.

More controversially all significant vineyard activities –  soil preparation, planting, pruning, harvesting – are done in accordance with the influence on earth by the moon, stars and planets. Finally, the aspect that can spark scepticism – the use of nine preparations 500-508 (a bit like homeopathy), using  plants such as nettles, dandelion and chamomile, to be applied in powdered form or as sprays. Most divisive is Preparation 500’, where cow horns are filled with cow manure and buried in October to stay in the ground throughout the dormant season. The horn is later unearthed, diluted with water and sprayed onto the soil.

In a magazine interview Francois said of the Steiner strictures: “It is important to understand that 50 percent is symbolic and 50 percent is real… it all helps focus.” 

All of which reminds me of a memorable trip to Ted Lemon’s Littorai winery in Sonoma, California. In Ted’s absence his young deputy confessed to not being a total convert to biodynamics (the perfection of the Pinot Noir was proof enough for us). And yet, as he put it, “It sure does make you pay attention.” 

We loved the copper hue of Château Gasqui but if rosé has to be pale pink for you?

Much has been made of a celebrity influx of Provencal rosé providers, led by Brad and Angelina, whose Château Miraval is made by the Famille Perrin, Chateauneuf du Pape royalty at Chateau Beaucastel. Majestic have it at £19.99  bottle, £14.99 in a mixed six case.

My Provencal pink alternative from a celebrity duo would be Domaine de Triennes, a joint venture by Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. It’s a serious well structured wine without sacrificing all the  joyous fruit (£13.95 from Vin Cognito. A simpler favourite would be Coeur De Cardeline Rosé, better value at £8 than its Co-op stablemate, Brangelina’s ‘Studio de Miraval’ (£12).