I spent Friday night at a small birthday party full of European exchange students, mostly from Germany and all studying in Bordeaux. The girls were posh, blending into their bourgeoisie setting nicely, with glitter around their eyes and red wine in their hands.
I asked one about the lifestyle adjustment. She took a long drag from her cigarette and smiled dreamily.
“I love the mentality here. The French take their time and enjoy life. They are passionate about eating and drinking and make meals a special occasion,” she said in what sounded to my foreign ears like perfect French. “I never before thought lunch could really take two hours, but here it’s easy.”
Ah, the French and their two-hour lunch breaks. Basically every international student I’ve met in Bordeaux — a glamorous university town of 500,000 — has commented on this eating ritual. What’s not to love about a luxurious dining experience in the middle of the day, accompanied by a glass of some cheap local nectar, which just happens to be some of the best wine in the world?
Bordeaux is a gastronome’s playground, with every narrow, winding street packed with specialty shops — wine, cheese, pastries, organics, cured meats, oils, fancy sauces, and even macarons, exclusively.
M Le Macaron is a fashion boutique of macarons, those positively perfect French cookies that don’t make any logical sense. How can such a small, brightly colored dollop of meringue have such an intense flavor and so much texture? And at M Le Macaron, the little gems are treated with the care they deserve — shining displays in engagement ring boxes and the works. The flavors, too, are real special. The sweets range from lavender peach to litchi ginger to nutella, while the salty varieties move from chocolate foie gras to salmon spinach.
Pastries in general are a force in Bordeaux. The patisseries are dangerously glamorous and chic, with the edibles themselves acting as works of art. Take the Mont Blanc, a tower of pureed chestnuts on top of whipped cream, meringue and flaky pastry.
And of course, there’s lunch.
I had the pleasure of being escorted to Les 4 Saisons d’Estelle, a popular neighborhood spot in the Chartrons district and an impressive one-woman show. The owner, presumably Estelle, does all the prep, all the cooking, all the serving, all the bussing, all the assembling, all the cleaning…
And the results are phenomenal. Two of us arrived at about 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and all 22 seats at the three community tables were full. We lingered, though, and lucked out. The small restaurant was cozy and inviting, yet chic, just like Bordeaux.
When it came to order, the menu started shrinking, rapidly. The chalkboard contained a single starter, four quiche options, two special plates and four desserts. I planned for the tartiflette — a rendition of potatoes au gratin with bacon and reblochon cheese — but the option was crossed off. Then I decided on a quiche with leeks and a fancy, local cheese. Estelle crossed it off. Then I said I’d just get what my host was getting — a quiche with salmon, spinach and ricotta. But no! There was only one left. Desserts were disappearing too!
We ended up with last two soups of the day, a creamy and surprisingly complex velouté of celery and carrots. Crusty bread, from the neighborhood bakery, was dished out for dipping. My quiche, with tangy goat cheese and chives, was possibly the best quiche I’ve ever had, tall and light with a perfect buttery crust.
The excellent eating didn’t end. There was an elegant crêpe dinner at a charming hole-in-the-wall, where I filled up on another fabulous velouté and ended with a simple buttered crêpe below a small scoop of speculoos ice cream. Of course, it was all washed down with a bottle of organic Bordeaux.
In between feasts, the city itself is built for strolling, boasting one of the largest pedestrian zones in the world and offering free bikes to those who prefer a little speed. The cobblestones and towering old mansions invite wanderers to lose themselves until they hit the Garonne river, or, at least until it’s time for dinner.