Bordeaux is not just about world-famous wines: the region’s gastronomy is underrated compared to other French wine-producing areas like Burgundy and Alsace. The local food scene benefits from the city’s proximity to the sea and to the large Gironde river estuary, not to mention the wooded areas of the nearby Landes, the least populated departement in France. Owing to its location, Bordeaux offers a bounty of surf (fresh and salt water) and turf.
The area also has some of the country’s best vegetables—artichokes, the artichaut de Macau (the grand cru area is located not far from Margaux, between Macau, Parempuyre and Ludon), and asparagus, the asperge Blayais, which is at home in the moist sandy soils of Blaye, northwest of Bordeaux. Even better than the green asparagus is the white asparagus, available only for a short span in the early part of the year.
Bordeaux is, along with Brittany, one of the two most famous sources in France for high-quality oysters. These critters have been documented in Bordeaux’s seashores since the second century B.C. French dining enthusiasts clamor for oysters from the bassin d’Arcachon, north of Bordeaux (a large slice of France’s 130,000-ton oyster harvest is produced there each year). Unfortunately, the true native oyster (called gravette) was wiped out by disease and was replaced over the centuries: with a Portuguese strain (Crassostrea angulata) that was also killed off by disease between 1970 and 1972, and then with a variant from Canada, the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), locally (if improperly) called japonaise. Although the majority of oysters available locally are of this hardier species, there are still European oysters to be had (Ostrea edulis). The latter oysters are flat and long, with a delicate iodiney quality and a less fleshy texture than oysters such as Brittany’s Bélon. Those oysters receiving special care in the aquaculture farms are labeled fines.
Bordeaux’s typical fish include white sea bass varieties (such as bar and maigre), but the region’s most characteristic fish dish is lamproie à la bordelaise (a long-cooked stew with red wine, onions, leeks, cloves and even chocolate), made with the lamprey eel, which given the serpentine look of the fish may not appeal to all. Caviar has always been big in Bordeaux, since the Gironde river is one of the few European rivers where sturgeons swam freely (Italy’s Po and Tiber rivers are two others). Now mainly farm-raised, caviar d’Aquitaine is famous today—it’s used by most three-star Michelin restaurants in France—but until the 18th century it was used to feed pigs and chickens! Finally, don’t miss out on chipirones, small calamari rarely more than eight inches long, with a lovely sweet and soft texture. They often come grilled or cooked in spicy tomato broth.
So where’s the beef, you ask. Bordeaux boasts its own high-quality beef, from the Bazas cattle, an ancient crossing between the Iberian and Aquitaine species. This species was once used only for tilling the land—until it was discovered how good the meat was (it has a unique, delicate hazelnut flavor). Now it’s shown off on the table rather than in the field. By law, these cows have to be free ranging for seven months of the year for four years. Just as tempting is Bordeaux lamb: the famed agneau de Pauillac (lamb) refers not to a local species (those are Acaune, Blanche du Massif Central and the Tarasconaise) but to the strict manner in which the lambs are raised: 75 days reared on nothing but mother’s milk, and then a special mix of cereals. Each animal only yields between 24 and 33 pounds of meat.
Last but not least, try some grenier médocain, a local cold cut made from the pig’s stomach, filled with ham and cooked in a garlicky broth. It can be eaten hot or cold, but layering it between two hot slices of bread is heaven. Of course, foie gras is everywhere in Bordeaux: here it’s common to start lunch and dinner with an aperitif of sweet wine (such as Sauternes, Barsac or Cadillac) and foie gras on toast or pain brioche. A very civilized proposition, one that we should get used to in the U.S. and everywhere else too.
(I’ll tell you about some of the area’s top dining spots in an upcoming article on Winophilia.)