In this weekend’s travel, we venture to the French coast for a double bill on Bordeaux, where old wines meet contemporary art all bathed in a warm onshore Atlantic breeze. In this first feature, Lucy Shaw embraces the city’s new calling, fine food…
While the city of Bordeaux has long been considered the cradle of fine wine, its dining scene has dwelt in the doldrums until recently. But change is afoot and the port city is experiencing something of a culinary renaissance. In the last year, an explosion of big name chefs have descended on Bordeaux, keen to add sister sites to their Paris flagships. First in was Joël Robuchon, Michelin’s most decorated chef with a constellation of stars to his name.
In collaboration with wine magnate Bernard Magrez, last December Robuchon opened La Grande Maison, a restaurant with rooms in a chandelier-filled 18th century building down a scruffy side street in the centre of the city. This September, foul-mouthed Scot Gordon Ramsay gave Robuchon competition, taking over the stoves at Le Pressoir d’Argent within the Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux where, much to my delight, he’ll be serving English sparkling wines from Gusbourne, Coates & Seely, Ridgeview and Camel Valley to the French. Rumour has it that Alain Ducasse is also keen on a slice of Bordeaux action and has been scoping out sites in the city for a possible restaurant venture.
But long before Ramsay, Robuchon et al decided Bordeaux was hip, one venue, within kissing distance of the vines in Bordeaux’s most prized appellation, Pauillac, has been championing haute cuisine for decades. Founded by the Cazes family in 1989, boutique hotel Château Cordeillan-Bages boasts a two Michelin star restaurant headed up by culinary alchemist Jean-Luc Rocha. Charmingly traditional with its gravel driveway, honey-coloured stone, wrought iron balconies and 17th century turrets, it’s something of a shock to discover such an unapologetically modern interior when you step inside the hotel.
The Cazes’ are keen contemporary art collectors and have lined the walls with works by the likes of Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies and Belgian abstract expressionist Pierre Alechinsky. Opening the door to my suite, I was greeted by a terrifying Surrealist-style vision executed mainly in mustard tones that complemented the colour of the headboard on my spectacularly cosy bed. My room was so minimal, it felt like spending the night at the White Cube gallery, albeit with a spacious sunken bath and well-stocked mini-bar thrown in for good measure. Taking inspiration from his travels around Asia, India and beyond, Rocha works with seasonal produce from Southwest France, transforming ingredients into edible artworks. “I like to surprise diners by breaking down tastes and flavours. I garnish each dish with a touch of fantasy. The Médoc is a constant source of creativity for me,” he muses.
Having worked in Champagne in the ‘90s and with Patrick Henriroux at the two Michelin-starred La Pyramide near Lyon, widely considered to be the best restaurant in France under Fernand Point’s ownership where the legendary Paul Bocuse was his apprentice and wingman, Rocha has been at the helm of the restaurant at Cordeillan-Bages since 2002. Working with oysters from Arachon, foie gras from Landes, blue lobster from the Atlantic and lamb from Pauillac, each of Rocha’s dishes tells a story.
Before service I’m treated to a cooking tutorial with the maestro himself. Playful from the get go, it’s a genuine delight to witness what goes on behind the scenes at a two star site. The atmosphere in the kitchen is both calm and frenetic. Chefs buzz about like bees prepping for their long night ahead. Rocha talks me through two dishes that illustrate his pursuit of balance. First up is a creation with seared foie gras at its heart. Rich and fatty by nature, to balance it out he not only plays with sweet and sour flavours, but texture and temperature, serving the sesame seed-flecked foie gras on a swoosh of fig purée alongside tiny, tangy pickled mushrooms and a scoop of candy floss pink date sorbet.
Next he creates a king crab ravioli dish, only there’s no pasta in sight. He begins by painting a giant white plate with a circle of pale green basil purée, which he dots with hunks of meaty crab. Then, with a surgeon’s precision, he balances wafer-thin slivers of daikon, Aquitaine caviar and a cracking crab shell mayo atop the crab. A true artist, Rocha sketches all his dishes in a notepad before they come to life on the plate. Those keen for a front row seat to the action can book a space at the chef’s table.
Having already devoured two of his signature dishes, I took my place in the restaurant’s pared down dining room fizzing with excitement about what was to follow. The feast began with a chilled glass of Château Lynch-Bages Blanc 2014, known as a “phantom” wine as so little is made. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadet, it sung with tropical notes of pineapple and grapefruit and proved a perfect palate cleanser. A sure sign that you’re in for a fine dining experience is the offering of three different butters: seaweed, pepper and smoked salt, which tasted like licking a bonfire (in a good way).
A legion of delightful dishes followed that further galvanised Rocha’s ethos of taking diners on a multi-sensory journey through land and sea. Among the highlights was a creamy concoction involving pollock, parsnip and fiery horseradish; silky slivers of monkfish carpaccio marinated in lemon; and a madcap dish involving an egg served amid a fluffy blanket of Comté mousse dotted with strips of salty chorizo and crunchy croutons. It was one of the most brilliantly bonkers dishes I’ve ever tried and will live long in the memory.
With over 1,500 wines to choose from, I was grateful for guidance from our sommelier. As you’d expect, the majority of the bottles on offer hail from Bordeaux, but there are nods to the world’s other fine wine regions, from Burgundy and Champagne to Piedmont, Tuscany and California. The wine highlight of the night came in the form of Château Lynch-Bages 2000, which, with its perfumed, autumnal notes of liquorice, leather, tobacco, black currant, pepper and prunes, was a wine just coming into its prime.
In addition to Cordeillan-Bages, the Cazes family owns and runs Château Lynch-Bages, known as a “flying fifth” growth as its wines are ranked towards the lower end of Bordeaux’s famous 1855 classification of grand cru classé wines, but it consistently performs at a much higher level, closer to that of a second growth. Having run the château since the ‘30s, the Cazes family has invested heavily in expansion and has grown the vineyard land to 100 hectares planted mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, making it one of the largest estates in Bordeaux. Diehard wine lovers can blend their own barrel of Bordeaux at Viniv, a custom built winery attached to Lynch-Bages where consumers can create bespoke blends with friends and bottle the wine under their chosen name with original artwork on the labels.
The Cazes family is so passionate about Pauillac, they’ve snapped up most of the picturesque village of Bages, complete with cobbled streets, tricolour 2CVs, a bistro, bakery and shop selling everything from fine wines to pink whisks. The best way to see Bages is to whiz around it on a vintage bicycle complete with a basket at the front for your obligatory baguette and saucisson. If contemporary art isn’t your thing, head instead to Château Ormes de Pez in Saint-Estèphe for the traditional country house experience. Also owned by the Cazes family, interiors are adorably quaint – more Laura Ashley than Louise Bourgeois. There’s even the option of horse and carriage rides around some of the most prestigious châteaux in the region if you’re keen to wind back the clock.
During my trip I paid a visit to local gem Laurence Teil, who recently set up a shop selling artisan produce in an old butchers in the middle of the Médoc. The hooks still hang from the ceiling, but in place of ox carcasses are pots of salted caramel sold with mother of pearl spoons that are so divine, it’s impossible not to scoff the lot in one sitting. Made in Brittany, these little pots of heaven are sold via her website Marlot-Gourmet.com alongside pork rillettes made from chestnut-fed pigs, local goat’s cheese and Breton shortbread. Plating me up a five-course lunch including a soup made from tomatoes grown in her garden and queen scallops with tuna and lime, it strikes me how well Teil’s locavore shop would work in London.
On the final morning of my stay I got to witness the last Cabernet Sauvignon grapes of the 2015 harvest being picked. It’s a sunny autumn day and, despite the hard graft, spirits are high among the hardy pickers. After a run of three less than spectacular vintages, it seems that the stars have aligned for the Bordelais this year, who are on track for something special. I’ll have to wait a few years before I can uncork the fruits of their labour, but when I do, I’ll think back to that bright morning among the vines that brought the wine to life.
For more information about Château Cordeillan-Bages, visit www.jmcazes.com.
From the old to the new, from the culinary to the slightly crazy, tomorrow Jess Baldwin discovers a slice of Bordeaux’s vibrant contemporary art scene…