Caroline Harrap takes a gastronomic mini-break in Bordeaux
PUBLISHED: 14:31 09 September 2014 | UPDATED: 14:32 09 September 2014
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 disbelief from the other budding Raymond Blancs when you 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 I’m also a 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. Not only has she come up with a vegetarian alternative for each dish but she patiently translates each instruction into English too.
Somehow, 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.
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 hilltop village of Bouliac, just a 15-minute drive from Bordeaux, this stylish hotel, complete with rooftop jacuzzi suite, outdoor heated pool and its own vineyard, was designed in 1989 by the French architect Jean Nouvel. What’s 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.
After an informal evening of wine tasting with hotel sommelier Eva, and a tasty dinner in their very French bistro, le Café de l’Espérance, we’re keen to learn more and the next day we head to the historic vineyards of Saint-Émilion.
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 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 local tourist office and end up borrowing the key to the bell tower of the largest monolithic church in Europe. It’s worth the climb up the 196 steps, as you are met with spectacular views over the patchwork of tiled rooftops that give way to vast vineyards.
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 surrounding vineyards or unofficially with one of the local shopkeepers. We choose the latter, and leave armed with some fine vintages.
That night, back at the hotel, we dine in the Michelin-starred restaurant, where they have pulled out all the stops to give us a vegetarian feast that we’ll never forget. From the 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, the bustling port of Bordeaux, which has been undergoing something of a facelift of late.
Back in 1996, the mayor Alain Juppé began a programme to renovate the riverfront, clean up the architecture and install a 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.
Wending our way through the stone streets, lined with stylish boutiques and bistros, I marvel at the neo-classical façade of le Grand Théâtre, gaze in awe at the lofty spire of the Saint-Michel basilica, and fall in love with the foam-clad horses of the Girondins fountain.
In truth, this sprawling city is the sort of place you could happily spend a week. As for us, there is just enough time to pick up some of the region’s famous delicacy – the canelé cakes – before we return reluctantly to the car, vowing to come back again.
Prices at Le Saint-James Hotel, 3 Place Camille Hostein, 33270 Bouliac, France start from 195 euros a night. Courses at the cookery school start from 65 euros. Tel: +33 (0) 557 970600. Web: saintjames-bouliac.com
Flybe flies to Bordeaux daily from Southampton. Prices start from £45.99 per person (one-way, including taxes). Bookings can be made via flybe.com. Or alternatively, 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