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Savoring elegant yet relaxed Bordeaux

Sunday, September 20, 2009 - The Boston Globe - Travel

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By Joe Ray, Globe Correspondent |  September 20, 2009

LE PORGE, France - The stereotype for the countryside around Bordeaux as a stuffy spot with cufflinks and expensive wines goes down the drain in a whirl.

Wiped out and wanting to set up camp in the light after a day of driving, I pull off the highway an hour west of the city and find a tiny campground on a canal running through the French farm country town of Lagruère.

The restaurant that doubles as the campground office is empty, but the door is open.

“Anybody home?’’ I holler.

“Just a minute!’’ comes a faraway response.

A minute passes. Maybe two.



Out waddles the smiling André Maille, 48, a bus driver in Montpellier who, along with the rest of his extended family, comes back to his native region every year. He’s got a happy-go-lucky, joking personality that draws people to him in a heartbeat, including me when he mentions he’s been spit-roasting lamb for that night’s town festival.

“All day,’’ he says. “Over oak.’’

We walk up to the function room of the tiny Town Hall and here, in a town of 50, are 100 people, elbow to elbow, eating lamb and ratatouille while a band plays Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.’’

“My sister made the ratatouille,’’ says Maille before whistling to a brother-in-law at the grill to bring a plate for the late arrival.

I wonder aloud how many relatives he has in the room.

He looks left, right, and over his shoulder while counting on his fingers.

“Fifteen,’’ he says. “I think. We live all over the place in France, but come back here and get together like this every year.’’

Sure enough, just about everybody working the event is related to him by blood or marriage and, though they make a bit of pocket change from the fête, there’s more than that. “It’s about family,’’ Maille says, looking at the people gathered around the room. “There’s nothing here, but it’s so convivial that everyone gets together.’’

I’ll hear several variations on that refrain on this road trip, and learn that throughout the year the region is one of unexpected extremes - relaxed and sophisticated, wild and wonderfully civilized - a mix that demands the grandeur of a composed photo and the spontaneity of a point-and-shoot.

“People come here year after year,’’ says Bordeaux native Damien Reynaud, 31, a lifeguard at the Gressier beach, near the town of Le Porge in the Médoc region, where I’ll stay for most of my trip. “It’s calm. There are five little restaurants on the other side of the dune and no buildings on the beach except ours. It’s calm.’’

Except when it’s not.

Reynaud’s perch overlooks a swath of the Atlantic that is a magnet for surfers, and near the shore, waves break and foam. He cites a recent summer day when he and his team plucked 15 wayward swimmers from the frothy zone in front of his station.

I meet my traveling companions in Arcachon and head to the Dune du Pyla, which, at over 300 feet, is a mountain of sand separating forest and sea.

On a summer day, there are classic tourist trap warning signs everywhere: swarms of them wade through greasy food stands and knickknack shops that sell seashell necklaces and TokioHotel towels.

We climb the dune on a giant plastic staircase crowded with gawkers, but when we reach the crest and fan out, its immensity swallows us. Everyone suddenly has all the space they need.

Spread out far below are Arcachon Bay with its famous oyster beds and the sea beyond. Behind us, the length of the dune runs down into the trunks of the trees on the forest edge. High above the treetops, we joke that it feels like we’re peering down on the forest moon of Endor, yet there’s a peacefulness that comes from being in a high place that blends the new and the familiar.

So far, it’s been surprisingly easy to forget the elephant in the room: our proximity to some of the best wineries in the world.

We drive north on the D2, the two-lane departmental highway through the Médoc that hosts many of wine’s crown jewels like the Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, and Margaux appellations, a stunning ensemble that merits an entire trip of its own. At Château Verdus in Saint-Seurin de Cadourne, we meet Alain Dailledouze, who has the build and personality of a boxer too gentle to deliver a knockout punch.

“I could have done other things in life, but this place was abandoned and had lost its aura,’’ Dailledouze says, gesturing at his beautiful fields and aging château, “but my father got the vineyard going again in 1965 and I took over in 1990.’’ Yet his connection is much deeper. “We have a wedding contract connecting our family to this land dating to 1471 and it goes even further back than that.’’

Dailledouze, 59, is a walking history book who dug his roots deep into the land and is now doing most of the vineyard’s work by himself and counting on family for untold hours of help.

“When you’re family, there are things you have to do, ways you have to navigate from top to bottom,’’ he says. “It gives you a certain character.’’

He’s got vines to trim, yet here he is, way after closing time, telling visitors about his wine and the region’s history. Why does he stay in it?

“I love it,’’ he says, smiling and almost embarrassed. “With a good bottle, you can remake the world.’’

This distilling philosophy continues with chef Jean-Marie Amat at his eponymous restaurant in the Château du Prince Noir in the Bordeaux suburb of Lormont. The château sits at one end of the graceful Aquitaine Bridge that stretches out and away from the grounds, vanishing in the mist above the Garonne.

Amat emerges from the kitchen, a quiet, humble, even fragile gentleman who seems to function on an interior emotional level. Yet he is, as the French say, good in his skin, dressed not in chef’s whites like the rest of his kitchen staff, but jeans, sneakers, a black T-shirt, and blue apron.

“When I started out in the ’70s, the Bordeaux restaurant scene was scorched earth. I’d rather live in rhythm with the seasons; they are like a metronome for a chef,’’ Amat says, evoking the arc of his culinary style. “Besides, I don’t feel like doing the same things over and over. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to make a classic lièvre à la royale [hare royale style], but truthfully, it bores me a little.’’

I watch as the kitchen gains momentum, the dining room fills, and orders crowd the rack on the back wall. Through it, Amat is quiet, reposed, and at home.

Watching him plate the dishes is like watching an artist paint, and his dish conception is an internal creation - simplicity that can come only from larger understanding.

The only one who makes much noise in the kitchen is head waiter Jean-Guylain Dupuy who, peering through the horizon of his rimless glasses, announces each order to no one in particular, tosses the order slip onto the shelf above the heat lamps with a flourish, pivots on his heel, and exits.

Amat’s dishes are as distilled as he is. Alone at my table, I try grilled pigeon with spices, which initially registers on a sort of primal level with singular descriptors like dense, deep, and bloody.

I continue to explore the dish, finding contrasting sweet and savory flavors with cumin, cinnamon, powdered sugar, and soy sauce. At first whiff, I think of my father’s French toast, but that’s too literal, and when I couple a bite with a salad of fennel fronds and mint, which Amat grows just outside the window, the whole thing explodes. Unconsciously, my feet bounce up and down.

At the end, there’s a fennel dessert: lightly candied cubes of the vegetable, with citrus sorbet and bits of crumble dough surrounded by a caramel tower. It’s a play on textures and preconceptions, a quiet tour de force.

Dining alone at a restaurant this good can be a tragedy, but here in Bordeaux I’m having the time of my life consuming a master class.

If You Go

Where to stay
Camping La Grigne
This is car camping and there are plenty of neighbors - but the attitude is calm, family-friendly, inexpensive, and you can walk to the beach in a few minutes. Two people with a tent and space for a car, $16-$27, depending on your dates between April 1-Sept. 30.

Seeko’o Hotel
54 quai de Bacalan, Bordeaux
An iceberg (the hotel’s name in Inuit) in Bordeaux; this new luxury hotel’s facade is covered in white Corian. Prices start at about $270 per night.

Where to eat
Restaurant Jean-Marie Amat
Château du Prince Noir
26 bis, rue Raymond Lis
Prix fixe lunch $43, dinner $72; a la carte about $144 without wine.

Restaurant Le Savoie
1, place Tremoille, Margaux
Pleasant lunch stop, with glass roof in one room, lacquer ceiling in another. Specials include an appetizer-main dish prix fixe for $26 and a glass of a rotating stock of high-end wines for $10.

Café Lavinal
Place Desquet-Bages, Pauillac
Located in a restored hamlet, this cafe offers bistro fare with main dishes at about $22.

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