Things to do in Bordeaux - cookery schools, vineyards and Michelin star food
PUBLISHED: 12:19 16 July 2014 | UPDATED: 12:07 16 May 2016
For a gastronomic mini-break, there can be few places better than the region of Bordeaux, with its cordon bleu cookery schools, vast vineyards and Michelin-starred fare - and, what is more, the city itself has been undergoing a facelift of late, as Caroline Harrap discovers...
It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about before; how to separate the yolk and the white of an egg. But then again, I’d never attended a French cookery school either. For the record, if you’re planning to do the same, you may wish to brush up on it beforehand – if, that is, you don’t want to be met with looks of total disbelief from the other budding Raymond Blancs when you get it wrong. Or worse still, have to admit you can’t quite remember how to do it; ahem.
I’m at the new state-of-the-art cookery school Côté Cours at Le Saint-James Hotel, up in the hills above Bordeaux, and frankly a little out of my comfort zone. It’s not that I haven’t cooked before – I have (honest...) – it’s just that I’ve never had any formal training even by English standards, let alone French, and today we’re attempting to cook up a three-course storm not unlike that served in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant next door. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I’m the only English person on the course. And did I mention that I’m also, er, vegetarian (a friend would later compare this to the culinary equivalent of asking for decaf coffee in a Parisian café).
Anyway, no matter. Despite the fact that I’m possibly one of the most challenging students ever to don an apron in the professional-standard Poggenpohl kitchen, our cookery instructor Celia could not be more helpful – patiently translating each instruction into English and frequently nipping over to her computer to ‘Google translate’ any words she’s not sure of. She’s also come up with a vegetarian alternative to each dish so that I can make pretty much the same recipes as the others but without the meat.
Even when I mess up the amount of flour on the super-sensitive scales (who knew that there was a time delay?), cut the peapods at the wrong angle (I swear I was doing them the same as everyone else) and screw up the spéculoos (well, maybe people might prefer it on the thicker side?), she’s still smiling. Well, sort of…
Somehow, though, we muddle through, and by the end of the morning, we are all sitting down together to enjoy the fruits of our culinary labours – which actually taste surprisingly good. Even my other half, Marc, a Frenchman himself who has joined us for the tasting, nods in approval. Still, I don’t think the staff at the restaurant next door have anything to worry about just yet.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, the cookery school (fabulous though it is – it’s me that’s the problem) is just one part of our gastronomic mini-break to the south-west of France.
Apart from pretending to learn cordon bleu cooking, we’re here in the region of Bordeaux, which is actually Marc’s hometown, to enjoy all manner of other things too – from wine tasting and vineyard trips to Michelin-starred meals – and we truly couldn’t have chosen a better base.
Situated in the sleepy hilltop village of Bouliac, just a 15-minute drive from Bordeaux, this stylish hotel, complete with rooftop jacuzzi suite, outdoor heated pool and even its own vineyard, was designed in 1989 by the celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel. What is more, with a spectacular view of the city skyline and the River Garonne below, each of the 18 bedrooms were laid out with the panoramic vista in mind – the beds positioned at exactly the right height to take it all in from your pillow.
Our own repose is definitely the sort of place you’d want to immediately share on your Instagram account. For one thing, there’s a bona-fide, vintage Harley Davison in the room – yup, that’s right. The stone floor and minimalist decor does give the feel ever-so-slightly of an underground car park, but there’s no doubt that it’s cool – seriously cool. And then there’s that view...
On our first night, following an informal wine tasting session with hotel sommelier Eva, and a tasty dinner in their cute, very French bistro, le Café de l’Espérance, we lie back on the bed just gazing at the scene, as the twinkling lights in the distance glisten over the river.
After our brief introduction to the region’s world-famous wines, we’re keen to learn more and the next day we rise bright and early to head to the historic vineyard region of Saint-Émilion, a short drive away.
Perched on a rocky promontory, this perfectly preserved medieval village has long been famous for its outstanding wines, and in 1999 became the first vineyard landscape to be awarded a UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Climbing up its steep, cobbled streets, where wine cellars, macaron shops and quaint little restaurants all vie for our attention, we finish up in the central square where we break for brunch at Le Bistrot du Clocher, tucking into their tasty crêpes.
Later, we pop into the tourist office, a veritable mine of information about the area, and end up borrowing the key to the bell tower of what is the largest monolithic church in Europe. It’s worth the climb up the 196 steps to the top, the highest point in Saint-Émilion, and our efforts are rewarded with spectacular views over the patchwork of higgledy piggledy, tiled rooftops that suddenly give way to vast vineyards.
Back on terra firma, we meet up with Cecile from the tourist office for a tour of subterranean Saint-Émilion – from a monk’s cave to the depths of the monolithic church to the ancient catacombs. Only accessible on organised tours, these underground wonders provide a fascinating glimpse into the village’s colourful history.
Of course, no visit to Saint-Émilion would be complete without a spot of wine tasting, which you can do in an official capacity at one of the many surrounding vineyards or unofficially with one of the local shopkeepers. We choose the latter, and leave armed with some fine vintages to take home with us.
That night, back at the hotel, we dine in their Michelin-starred restaurant, where they have truly pulled out all the stops to give us a vegetarian feast that we’ll never forget (made all the more memorable with my newly acquired knowledge of the huge amount of work that goes into each dish). Tucking into the five-course menu, from the most tender spears of asparagus to perfectly poached eggs and a cheeseboard fit for a king, accompanied by the finest local wines, we are in gourmet heaven.
On our last day, we take the opportunity to explore the cosmopolitan capital of this historic wine region, the bustling port of Bordeaux, which has been undergoing something of a facelift of late.
Back in 1996, the mayor Alain Juppé began a huge regeneration programme to renovate the riverfront, clean up the architecture and install a hi-tech tram system, which seems to have paid off. In 2007, half of the entire city was UNESCO-listed, making it the largest urban World Heritage site. No wonder Bordeaux was recently ranked in a survey as France’s second favourite city after Paris.
Alas, we have just one afternoon to spend in “La perle d’Aquitaine”, as it’s also known, but we are determined to make the most of every moment.
Wending our way through the honey-coloured stone streets, lined with super-stylish boutiques and appetising bistros, I marvel at the neo-classical façade of le Grand Théâtre, gaze in awe at the lofty spire of the Saint-Michel basilica, which is the tallest building in south-west France, and fall in love with the foam-clad horses of the Girondins fountain.
When we arrive at le Triangle d’Or (the Golden Triangle), the smartest shopping area of the city at the top of Rue Sainte-Catherine, with everything from Galeries Lafayette to agnès b and Paul & Joe, I can feel my pulse rising.
Sensing an impending threat to our sightseeing, Marc whisks us off on the tram to the Chartrons district, his old stomping ground, where we sip cappuccinos, enjoy the view of the market square and soak up the late afternoon sun.
In truth, this sprawling city is the sort of place you could quite happily spend a week – and that’s just on the shopping – never mind all the history, the countless museums and galleries and the eight Michelin-starred restaurants.
As for us, there is just enough time to pick up some of the region’s famous delicacy – the delectable, if expensive, canelé cakes, with their rich, custardy interior – before we return reluctantly to the car, vowing to come back again soon.
Food for thought
Later, as we’re checking out the hotel, I spot a young French couple who were also on the cookery course. I’m tempted to run and hide, still feeling a little crestfallen at my general hopelessness in the kitchen. Instead, though, I try to adopt a bit of British grit and brave it out with a smile. To my surprise, they wave back happily, even conspiratorially dare I say. Yeah, it might have been tough, but together we delivered what was practically a Michelin meal, so have that Michel Roux. Who knows, maybe I might yet give that cookery school another go.
10 things you must do in Bordeaux
1 Pick up a money-saving CityPass. Launched this spring, it combines public transport with access to tourist, cultural and leisure attractions. Choose from one-day (23 euros), two days (28 euros) or three days (33 euros). See bordeaux-tourisme.com.
2 Hop on a tram. Whilst exploring on foot is undoubtedly the best way to see the heart of the city, if legs get tired or you want to explore further then the handy tram system is cheap and easy, and really is the best way to get around.
3 Take a walk down Rue Sainte-Catherine, one of the oldest streets in Bordeaux, the main arterial route through the city and, at half a mile long, claimed to be the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe.
4 If you fancy treating yourself to something special, head to Triangle d’Or (or the Golden Triangle) where you’ll find a host of designer stores and enticing boutiques to rival those in Paris, but with a more relaxed vibe and often cheaper price tags.
5 Said by some to be the most beautiful city riverscape in Europe, the newly regenerated riverside is a must. Start at the imposing Place de La Bourse, one of the finest examples in the country of 18th century French architecture and the birthplace of modern Bordeaux.
6 Be sure to visit the buzzy district of St Pierre in the old part of the city, which dates back to medieval times, and where the lively, narrow streets are lined with a host of bars and restaurants.
7 Enjoy a drink at stylish café Le Regent – which overlooks both the beautiful main square, Place de la Comédie, and the monumental new face sculpture by Jaume Plensa, which it is hoped will become a permanent fixture if the funds can be raised.
8 For a traditional French meal, head to L’Entrecôte – it’s the place where all the locals go and the one restaurant that Marc’s parents, who live just a stone’s throw from the town, said was a must-visit (find out more on their website at entrecote.fr).
9 If you’re visiting the area this month, the Bordeaux Wine Festival takes place from June 26-29, with a 2km “wine road” between the river and the 18th century buildings, and everything from tastings and music to fireworks over the water.
10 Enjoy a spot of wine tasting in the beautiful medieval enclave of the UNESCO-listed Saint-Émilion or one of the other fabulous vineyards across the region.
• Surrey Life stayed as guests of Le Saint-James Hotel, 3 Place Camille Hostein, 33270 Bouliac, France. Prices start from 195 euros a night. Courses at the cookery school start from 65 euros. Tel: +33 (0) 557 970600. Web: saintjames-bouliac.com
• easyJet flies to Bordeaux daily from London Gatwick. Prices start from £27.74 per person (one-way, including taxes, based on two people on the same booking). Bookings can be made via easyJet.com
• Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux; tel: (+33) (0) 556 006600; web: Bordeaux-tourisme.com
• Office de Tourisme de Saint-Emilion; tel: (+33) (0) 557 552828; web: saint-emilion-tourisme.com