Thursday, April 26, 2012

Finishing Up In Paris

    After leaving Bordeaux on Monday morning we took the TGV to Paris to finish up our trip there and head home on Wednesday.  Although we did a lot of walking in Paris, it was cloudy and rainy most of the time, so we took very few photos.  And while we did take a walk along the Seine, we crossed the nearby Canal Saint Martin far more times than we crossed the Seine.


     On Thursday we decided to go to one of the outdoor markets, even though we couldn’t buy anything for meals.  However, it was worth it just to see all the interesting French food vendors one more time, including one that had a whole pig’s head on display.  And we did buy a bunch of beautiful looking goat cheeses from one vendor, some of which we planned to have as part of our lunch along with the bottle of Bordeaux given to us by the proprietor of the Hotel des Voyageurs in Bordeaux, and some of which we planned to bring home.

       We didn’t do a whole lot in Paris besides walk and eat, partly because when we got to one of the museums we had planned to visit (the Musee d’Orsay), there was a massive line that would put anything at Disneyland to shame.  So we skipped that and later went to the Carnavalet Museum, a great museum of Parisian history.  We also missed out on going to our longtime favorite Paris wine bar, Jacques Melac Bistro a Vin, because after taking a long walk to get there, we discovered that it was closed for a couple of weeks. C’est la vie!
      We did eat well in Paris, which is not always a foregone conclusion.  Besides the great cheeses and bread we had bought for lunch, we had two very good dinners.  The first night we ate at Pain, Vins, Fromages, a restaurant that specializes in all things cheese: cheese platters, plus cheese dishes like fondue and raclette.  The second night we went to the Auberge Pyrenees-Cevennes, which features rustic French regional cuisine.  I had a terrific lentil salad and one of the best cassoulets I’ve ever eaten, and Ann had a foie gras salad followed by a perfectly cooked steak with peppercorn sauce.  And the tarte tartin for dessert was outstanding, surpassed in my opinion only by Madame Lantin’s croustade that we had in the Gers.

    The next morning we awoke early for the long trek home.  And it was a long day: we walked to the Gare de Nord, took a train to Charles de Gaulle Airport, flew to Dublin, followed by a Dublin-Boston flight, then a bus from Boston to Portland.  And now we’re home, having brought back a lot of photos, some goat cheeses and wines, a few Provencal tablecloths, and other assorted things to remember the trip by.
Platter of Goat Cheeses Chez Nous

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


      Before leaving our chambre d'hote in Ste.-Croix-du-Mont on Sunday, we stopped at the cave/tasting room of the proprietor and tasted his 2010 Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, which had won a gold medal at the recent Concours General Agricole in Paris. The wine was outstanding, and we bought a bottle to bring home. The proprietor explained that Sainte-Croix-du-Mont is a very small appellation, and is far less well-known than nearby Sauternes and Loupiac, even among French wine drinkers.

        We then headed for Bordeaux, where we returned our car and then took the tram to our hotel, the Hotel des Voyageurs. The hotel was just over one of the bridges, the Pont des Pierres, that cross the Garonne River. It was easy to get to the center of town by walking across the bridge, and there was also a tram stop just down the street from the hotel. Bordeaux has a very good, fairly new tram system, and is also very pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

      We spent the afternoon walking all over Bordeaux and admiring its beautiful buildings, massive old gates to the city, and narrow streets.

      We also stopped at a cafe and had a glass of Loupiac and a glass of a Grand Cru Sauternes (Chateau Lamothe). In the evening, after returning to the hotel for a short break, we headed out to find a place for dinner. Along the way we spotted a wine bar which had some outdoor tables, and since the skies had cleared, we stopped for a glass of Bordeaux Rouge. We eventually wound up walking by a small restaurant we had noticed earlier, Le Petit Commerce, and I had read great reviews of it on the Internet while checking for information about Bordeaux that afternoon. It was almost exclusively a fish restaurant, and all the choices were written on chalkboards, depending on what was available. It turned out to be an outstanding choice, with simply grilled, incredibly fresh fish. I had grilled sardines, followed by grilled dorade, and Ann had grilled squid followed by langoustines. It gave us a geat opportunity to try several white Bordeaux, which I rarely drink, and afterward we had a couple of glasses of Loupiac to finish the meal. When I mentioned to the hotel owner the next day that we had eaten at Le Petit Commerce, he said that it was a favorite spot for him and his wife when they go out to dinner. He also brought out a gift for us as we were leaving: a bottle of Bordeaux Rouge, 2007 Les Chevaliers de la Carbonnie, which he said was a favorite everyday wine of his.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Leaving the Gers and on to Bordeaux

    On Friday, our last full day in the Gers, we spent a lot of time driving to small villages, some of which we had planned to make it to before the week was out, and others which we decided to visit on the spur of the moment. The weather cooperated occasionally, but it did rain a lot, so sometimes we just drove through a town without stopping, and other times we stopped but really couldn't take any pictures. I also made one more stop at the bar/cafe in Mezin to use the Internet, and I guess I was now recognized as a regular, as the owner said my Floc was on the house.  Among the highlights of the day were the chateau in the tiny village of Mansencome and the 12th century bastide town of Valence sur Baise.
Chateau de Mansencome

Valence sur Baise

       We also returned to the beautiful bastide town of Vianne that I had written about in my prior post because we wanted to check out a faience pottery shop in the town. We wound up buying a couple of beautiful small dishes with distinctive colorful designs; the proprietor told us he made everything in the little workshop in back and hand painted all the pieces. Afterwards, on our way back to our gite, we stopped in the nearby tiny village of Villeneuve de Mezin, which had a lovely church with a few surrounding buildings, a door leading out through the old walls, and a dog guarding his baguette, which he proceeded to devour.

         Saturday morning we left our gite to head to the Bordeaux region. I had just booked a chambre d'hote (bed and breakfast) over the Internet not far from Bordeaux for Saturday night (part of the reason for my frequent trips to the bar in Mezin), and then Sunday we were returning the car in Bordeaux and staying there overnight.

      The first stop on the way to the Bordeaux region was the town of Duras, which had a chateau in the center.

      We then drove to St. Emilion, which several people on the trip had said we shouldn't miss. I had been there briefly in 1979, but it was pouring and I saw very little (for awhile it looked like history was going to repeat itself, but the skies cleared for most of our visit). Since then the town has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site (in 1999), and it was magnificent, if a bit touristy. St. Emilion was founded over 1,000 years ago, and the buildings are amazingly well preserved. We spent an hour or so wandering around the town, which was filled with shops offering tastings of the famous St. Emilion wines as well as other Bordeaux wines. We skipped those, but did see most of the town.
Cloister in St. Emilion

Rooftops of St. Emilion
      After leaving St. Emilion we continued on to our chambre d'hote in the town of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, which was on the property of a Sainte-Croix-du-Mont wine producer, Chateau Lamarque. Sainte-Croix-du-Mont is one of the sweet white wine appellations along the banks of the Garonne River not far from Bordeaux, which includes Sauternes, Barsac, Cadillac, and Loupiac (over the next 2 days we would try almost all of them). All of those appellations are only for sweet white wines; any producers that make dry white or red wines have to use other Bordeaux appellations. Chateau Lamarque makes dry red wines besides its sweet Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, and those wines are simply AOC Bordeaux.

     After checking in to our chambre d'hote, we drove to the nearby village of Loupiac for a quick stroll, then drove to Cadillac, a much larger town that still has most of its old walls, and spent several hours there. We saw the chateau of Cadillac and had a glass of sweet Cadillac wine, but didn't see any Cadillac cars. We had dinner in the town, which included a glass of Cadillac wine as an aperitif.
Gate of Cadillac

Chateau de Cadillac
  Next: On to Bordeaux

Friday, April 20, 2012

Changeable weather in the Gers

    After leaving the Chateau de Cassaigne on Wednesday afternoon, we drove back to the gite with our prize croustade in tow. It had started to rain, so we decided to skip our usual early evening walk, and I headed to the bar/cafe in Mezins to use the Internet. After finishing my Floc and posting my most recent story, I drove back to the gite, where Ann was getting dinner together. We had bought foie gras at the ferme auberge where we had lunch on Sunday, and we started dinner with that, accompanied by a 2010 Pacherenc Vic Bilh from Domaine Dou Bernes, which was a great match. After a couple of other courses, we had the 3 different Roqueforts we had bought at Roquefort Papillon last week. We also opened the 2011 Equinox (a late harvest Viognier) from Domaine Mazel to try with the Roquefort, but despite what some people had said, we didn't think it was a great match. On the other hand, the wine by itself, like everything else from Jerome Mazel, was outstanding. Following the cheese course, we had the piece de resistance – Madame Lantin's croustade. The apples had been flavored with vanilla and Armagnac, and the crust was amazingly thin; it was one of the finest desserts I'd ever had. Madame Lantin certainly deserves a Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the croustade maker category!

      The rain had gotten heavier during the evening while we had dinner, so we stayed in our gite rather than venturing out for our usual late evening stroll around the town. The gite is in an ancient building that includes part of the old wall of the village running through it, and has very old wooden timbers and a large fireplace.

      On Thursday morning we went to Éauze, the center of the Bas Armagnac area (the Armagnac AOC is divided into Bas Armagnac, Haut Armagnac, and Armagnac Tenareze), which has their weekly market on Thursday. It was quite a large and busy market just outside the center of the town. We parked near the medieval center, which has a magnificent cathedral that had originally been constructed in the 15th century and was rebuilt after being destroyed in the Wars of Religion (they had a lot of those in France). There were a number of beautiful old half-timbered houses in the square around the cathedral, but because of the rain we really couldn't take any decent pictures. We did buy a few provisions at the market, including some greens from an organic farmer. His lettuces looked beautiful, so I took one, and I also saw what I thought was a pile of arugula, but when I asked him for some of the arugula, he said it was a mix of bitter greens in addition to arugula (at least that's what I think he said in French), and he gave me a taste of some of them. I bought a basketfull, and we had them as part of a salad later that day; they were so fresh and flavorful.

      After leaving Éauze we eventually went into Mezins again, and after I used the Internet while consuming the obligatory Floc, we had lunch at Le Relais de Gascogne on the edge of the village. For 12 Euros (about $16) each, we had the Menu du Jour, which consisted of a tureen of leek and potato soup, quiche, roast pork with a vegetable gratin, apple and walnut tart, and a carafe of rosé. Everything was very good, especially the pork, which was incredibly tender and juicy.

      In the afternoon the skies cleared on and off, and we drove to several towns in the nearby Lot et Garonne department to take strolls. The first stop was Barbaste, which had a massive old mill building with towers (le Moulin des Tours) on the Gélise River.


After leaving Barbaste we went to the village of Xaintrailles, which had fabulous views of the valley below and a chateau in the center.

Chateau de Xaintrailles

     I then saw a sign for a bastide town, Vianne, which turned out to be a jewel. There was an old square, and four gates at each entrance to the old walled part of the village.

Gates of Vianne

     Afterwards we drove back to Fources by way of Mezins so I could use the Internet (I think the bar owner had my Floc ready), and had dinner at the gite. We had the rest of the foie gras as an appetizer with Jerome Mazel's Viognier, duck confit from a local farm that we had bought in town, plus a salad and cheese, and more of Madame Lantin's croustade. And a bottle of 2007 Madiran from Domaine Dou Bernes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More from the Gers; Croustades, chateaus and Floc

    Tuesday in the Gers was a lazy day. First thing in the morning I walked to the little epicerie in Fourcès to pick up something for breakfast, but it hadn't opened yet, so I drove to Montreal du Gers and bought some croisssants and Jesuites (a puff pastry, not something religious). After breakfast we went to the weekly market in the nearby village of Castelnau d'Auzon, which had all of 3 vendors. But one of them was a cheese vendor who brought farm-made sheep cheeses from the nearby Pays Basque and Bearn regions, and we bought a couple of those. We then headed back to Fourcès, first stopping at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the tiny village of St. Maure de Peyriac, which had been recommended by the gite owners, to check their menu du jour, but we decided to pass on it that day. Instead, we had lunch at the Auberge de Fourcès next door to our gite. I had an interesting, and outstanding, appetizer that was a kind of soufflé made with brebis (sheep cheese), minced gizzards (better than it sounds) and foie gras. For the main course Ann had veal sweetbreads and I had duck confit, then for dessert we shared a Gascon specialty called croustade – a baked strudel-like dough filled with sliced apples – that came with prune and Armagnac ice cream. And Ann finished lunch off with a glass of a 1976 Armagnac from Domaine Magnaut, a producer in Fourcès.

     That afternoon we headed to the amusingly-named town of Condom, the regional center located on the Baise River, where I hoped to find a place to get Internet access. The woman at the tourist office said the Cafe des Sports just down the street had WiFi, so I checked it out and wound up nursing a Floc for 1 ½ hours while using the Internet. But I wasn't the only one there using their WiFi, as there was a man installed at the next table with his laptop plugged into a wall outlet, a second keyboard, and headphones for using Skype for making calls. Meanwhile, Ann took a stroll around the town, which has a magnificent cathedral.

       Next morning's event was the Hunt for the Croustade, the apple dessert we had had the day before at the Auberge de Fourcès. That croustade was made by an artisanal producer in the nearby town of Gondrin, and we had found a brochure for their shop so we headed there. Unfortunately, the shop was closed, although we could see 2 croustades in the window. We then realized that they might be at the large Wednesday mornng market in nearby Condom to sell their croustades, so we decided to return in the afternoon. We also saw the sign for the croustade producer, Lantin, that had been recommended by the gite owners, but there was no shop, just a phone number to call, so Ann called Madame Lantin later on and made an appointment for the afternoon to pick up one of her croustades. We then stopped at the town of Mezins where I again nursed a Floc while using WiFi access at a bar/cafe (which is what I'm doing right now).

    In the afternoon we made a brief stop at Domaine Magnaut to try some wines, then went to pick up our croustade from Madame Lantin. Her baking room smelled incredible, as did our croustade. We had hoped to do a comparison croustade tasting, but alas the croustade shop in Gondrin was still closed. Instead, we continued on to Chateau de Cassaigne, the ancient residence of the bishops of Condom, and now an Armagnac producer. We took a tour of the chateau, tasted some of their Armagnac, and Ann bought a bottle of their 18-year-old Hors d'Age Armagnac.

La Croustade de Madame Lantin

Chateau de Cassaigne

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Leaving the Aveyron and Into the Gers

    The day after visiting Roquefort we started off by going back to Villefranche de Rouerge; their Thursday outdoor market is the largest in the Aveyron. It spread through the center of town and along the road just outside the medieval center, and the selection was almost overwhelming. We bought a lot of cheese, including a Roquefort from a somewhat smaller producer and 3 non-Roquefort blues from the region, several raw milk sheep cheeses from one vendor who also made sheep milk yogurt that we decided to try, and a few small rounds of aged cow milk cheese from a woman we had met a few days before (Ann had also ordered raw milk from her then to be picked up at the Villefranche market).

      We then headed back to our gite from Villfranche, with a stop at our favorite butcher shop in Rignac. We were scheduled to meet up with British friends of ours – Jim and Cathy Baxter – who have a house in the center of France (the town of Chantelle), and were gong to stay with us for a night before heading home to England after an Easter vacation at their French home. They arrived in plenty of time for lunch, and we devoured a lot of the cheese we had bought, plus some of our stockpile of wine. One wine that impressed everyone was the dry Viognier from Domaine Jerome Mazel in the Ardeche.

     The next morning the Baxters left fairly early for their long drive to an intermediate stop on the way home to England. We spent some time in the afternoon visiting some villages we hadn't seen before, including another bastide town, Villeneuve d'Aveyron, not far from Villefranche (I guess Villeneuve is only “new” when it's compared to Villefranche). We also returned to Villefranche to pick up some provisions for dinner and the next morning's breakfast.


     On Saturday morning we left Belcastel and the Aveyron for the drive to our next gite, in the Gers department, which is part of Gascony. Enroute we stopped at 2 more of the Plus Beaux Villages – Larresingle and Montreal de Gers. Both towns are on the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, and in Larressingle we saw a number of people who were clearly in the process of walking that pilgrimage route.

    After stopping in Larressingle and Montreal, we arrived at our gite in nearby Fourcès, another of the Plus Beaux Villages. Fourcès is partly surrounded by the Auzoue River, and has a round arcaded center with a beautiful clocktower at one entrance to the center and a chateau that's now a hotel.

      After checking into our gite, the gite owner invited us to stop at their farm later and have an aperitif. She and her husband have a farm nearby, and in addition to growing fruits and vegetables, they grow grapes for the large, highly regarded cooperative Producteurs Plaimont. They poured us red and white Floc de Gascogne (a fortified sweet wine made by the husband), then we had a tasting of red and white wines from Producteurs Plaimont, including a terrific late harvest white from the appellation Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh.

       Early Sunday morning we drove to the nearby town of Mezin, just over the departmental border in the Lot-et-Garonne, for their weekly market. After picking up some provisions we decided to try and find La Ferme de Boué, a ferme auberge not far from Fources. A ferme auberge is a farm that serves meals, generally from products they grow or make at the farm, and sometimes also have accommodations. We found La Ferme de Boué, which has several gites in addition to the farm and restaurant, and although they generally only serve meals by reservation (and are only open Saturday and Sunday in the off-season), they said they could fit us in for lunch. And what a lunch it was, extending over 3 hours! First an aperitif they make at the farm (wine, armagnac, peach juice and ginger), then a light garlic soup, followed by foie gras made 2 different ways (which paired fabulously well with a glass of a late harvest Cote de Gascogne white wine). Then came duck rillettes, followed by confit de canard (duck leg preserved in its fat) with sauteed potatoes and vegetables grown on the farm, then a salad, a sorbet, and coffee and a spalsh of armagnac. All of the duck products are produced on the farm, and all or most of the vegetables are grown there.

       The next day we decided to head towards the Madiran AOC wine region, which is about an hour or so from Fourcès. Madiran is a red wine made principally from the Tannat grape, which was totally obscure until a study showed the anti-ageing benefits of a chemical that, while present in all red wine grapes, was more highly concentrated in the Tannat grape. Immediately, American importers sought out heretorfore-unknown Madiran producers to satisfy the sudden demand for Madiran, although those who wanted Madiran for its health benefits didn't pay attention to the fact that if you drank the amount of Madiran necessary to get the anti-ageing benefits, your liver would be destroyed long before you could take advantage of that benefit.

       We first stopped in the sleepy village of Madiran, took a stroll around the town center, and stopped into the Maison du Vin to pick up some information about nearby wine producers. We then drove to the nearby town of Aydie and decided to visit Domaine Dou Bernès, which has been in the Cazenave family for 4 generations. We were greeted by a friendly puppy, and then Madame Cazenave opened the tasting room and gave us a tasting of all of the wines of the domaine. We tried 4 different Madirans, and also 2 of their sweet Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh wines (Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh is the white AOC of the region, and can be made dry or sweet). The wines were all superb, among the best we had had on the trip, and we bought a couple of Madirans and each of the sweet Pacherencs, plus Madame Cazenave gave us a bottle of another of their Madirans that was suitable for aging.


      In the afternoon we decided to go back to the Lot-et-Garonne department to visit the large town of Nérac, where the future King Henri IV lived before becoming king of France. Nérac is a beautiful old town with a medieval quarter, the River Baise running through the center, an imposing church towering over the the town, and the Chateau de Henri IV. We wandered through the center of Nérac and then through a park that runs along the Baise River.

Friday, April 13, 2012

First part of the week in the Aveyron

      On Easter Sunday, the day after we arrived in Belcastel, we first stopped at the nearby town of Rignac to shop at the bakery and butcher shop, then drove to the market in Marcillac-Vallon, a bustling little town in the center of the Marcillac wine region. We picked up some great Auvergne cheeses (the Auvergne is just to the north of the Aveyron), including a raw milk Saint Nectaire, from an affineur who had a stall at the market, and some other provisions, including an Aveyron specialty that was a fried pancake made with onions, garlic and basil. We then drove back to our gite to have lunch on the terrace using what we had bought that morning.

     We spent the rest of the day in Belcastel, taking several walks in the town and along the Aveyron River. Because of its incredible beauty, Belcastel attracts loads of tourists, most of which come for the day, although there are also 2 hotels, a campground, and a few gites. While there were a fair number of tourists wandering through the town on Easter Sunday, it was obvious that during the high season the village must be mobbed, as there were several parking lots at the edge of town, plus numerous parking places on the roads leading up from the center.

      Belcastel is in a valley, with the Aveyron River running through it, a medieval bridge crossing the river, and buildings lining the river and running up the hillside towards the chateau. The chateau, which dates from the 1100's, is an imposing structure that dominates the village below. It is owned by 2 Americans, who apparently live there and run a hotel and restaurant in the chateau. The view from below looking up to the chateau is amazing. Our gite faces away from the chateau, towards the river, and we have fantastic views of the bridge, the river, and the church on the other side of the bridge.

     The next day we started off by heading to Sauveterre de Rouergue, another of the Plus Beaux Villages. Sauveterre is a 13th century bastide town that reputedly has the best preserved central square of covered arcades in France.

       After we left Sauveterre we drove to Chateau du Bosc, originally built around 1100, which has been owned by the family of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec for several hundred years, and where the painter spent most of his summers as a child. Two women, Henri's descendants, live in the chateau, which is open to the public, and they gave us a tour of the chateau. One of the more fascinating things on the tour were several drawings that Toulouse-Lautrec did when he was a child (ages 7-11). His talent was obvious even at that age.

        The next day, after stopping at the small weekly market in Rignac where we picked up some cheese, and revisiting the bakery and butcher shop there, we decided to visit some Marcillac wine producers. Marcillac is the only AOC wine in the Aveyron, and is one of the smallest AOC's in France. The appellation does not include any white wines, only reds and rosés, and the wines are almost exclusively made from the Mansois grape, the local name for Fer Servadou, which is itself limited to a small part of southwest France. We first visited Domaine du Cros and tasted wines at their winery in the steep Marcillac hills, then stopped at the tasting room of Domaine Laurens in the lovely village of Clairvaux with its red stone buildings. We bought a few bottles at each winery then headed back to Belcastel.

       That afternoon we decided to take a drive to Villefranche de Rouergue, one of the larger towns in the region. Villefranche was founded as a bastide town in 1252, and in the heart of the medieval center is a large arcaded square with an imposing church that was built after the bastide was constructed. The buildings in the center are maginificently preserved, many of them containing shops on the ground floor with residences on the upper levels.

      The following day we started off by heading towards Brousse-Le Chateau, another of the Plus Beaux Villages, which is perched above the Tarn River. Brousse is dominated by its chateau, with houses clustered all around the chateau.

      After leaving Brousse we drove to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to see the famous Roquefort cheese caves. We visited 2 Roquefort producers and took tours of their caves. Roquefort was the first AOC-designated cheese in France, and it was fascinating learning about the production of the cheese. In the US I've seen Roquefort from two producers – Societé and Papillon – but didn't realize that there are only a total of 7 Roquefort producers, and that there are no small artisinal producers; they're all large operations. Papillon, for example, where we had an extensive tour, buys their milk from about 110 different farms, produces the cheese in a huge mechanized operation outside the Roquefort area, and then ages thousands of wheels of Roquefort in the caves in and around the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. The end result is packaged under just a few different labels: Papillon Taste-Fromage, Papillon Exception, and Papillon Bio (Organic). So basically the Roquefort producers are like giant cooperatives that buy milk from dozens of farms and make just a few types of cheese with a huge production, but they've managed to promote Roquefort as the King of Cheeses, with prices to match. Personally, I find most Roquefort too salty; I preferred the other local blue cheeses we got at the market the next morning.