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VOL. 126 | NO. 202 | Monday, October 17, 2011

France Perfect Spot to Broaden Palate

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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We all know that travel is broadening, and there’s no reason why that expansion of knowledge and experience shouldn’t apply to what we eat and drink. We don’t have to necessarily go as far as chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, who gleefully scarfs down inner and outer organs of creatures many of us in the safety of our own homes would regard as bizarre, if not life-threatening, but we should try to extend the boundaries of our personal envelopes as we can.

Tiny river shrimp – pulled from the Garonne river in France – are steamed with star anise and served in bowls as hors d’oeuvres. Experiencing local cuisine while traveling is an excellent way to expand your palate.

(Photo: Fredric Koeppel)

I was in France two weeks ago, specifically that part of Bordeaux called Entre-Deux-Mers, which is between two rivers, the Garonne and the Dordogne. Entre-Deux-Mers forms a long triangle, and where it tapers to a point, those rivers join the wide estuary called the Gironde, which flows in a northwesterly direction to the Atlantic.

My purpose there was to visit a dozen or so estates or chateaus that produce wines that as far as American consumers are concerned fly under the radar. One problem is that the most famous of the Bordeaux region’s great chateaus, the ones that produce the fabled, long-lived wines that receive all the hype, are way out of reach for anyone other than Wall Street honchos and Hong Kong magnates. On the other hand, at the lower levels of production, there’s a glut of wine and nowhere for it to go. The properties I visited, all family owned and going back five, six and even seven generations – and many still housed in chateaus built in the 17th and 18th centuries – are looking for new markets, which exist on opposite sides of the globe: China and the U.S.

Wine, however, is not the purpose of this column, and what I really want to write about are some of the interesting and unique food and dishes that I ate, washed down, of course, with the wines made on the properties. For example, at Chateau Sainte Barbe, where I tasted wines made from the chateau’s vineyards as well as the wines of Chateau la Levrette, the small group I was traveling with was offered bowls of the tiniest shrimp I have ever seen, taken right from the Garonne river – which flowed just outside the gates of the chateau – and steamed with star anise. It was emphasized that these were not baby shrimp but full-grown, even in their miniature state. They are served whole, in a tangle of wispy feelers, and the diner removes the heads (with their teeny-weeny black button eyes) but eats all the rest. They are crunchy, slightly nutty and sweet and gone in an instant; they were delicious with the bracing sauvignon blancs and dry rosés we were drinking.

The Bordelaise devour large quantities of beef; in fact, we probably had beef with every lunch and dinner – as well as platters of superb charcuterie – and while there’s nothing exotic about beef, the quality of the meat was excellent. The breed is Blonde d’Aquitaine, bred on the Gironde hills and plains since the sixth century, and if the saying is true that local food goes best with local wine then the red wines of Bordeaux and Blonde d’Aquitaine beef exist in serene synergy.

Exotic as all get-out, on the other hand, was the lamproie de Bordelaise that we ate at a vast outdoor lunch at Chateau Coulonge, run by father and son Nicolas and Daniel Roux (pronounced “roox” in the Bordeaux manner); the property has been in their family since 1804. Nicolas’ wife prepared the meal, cooking for the first time in the kitchen of her father-in-law, who died in 2009.

In “The Oxford Companion to Food,” Alan Davidson describes the lamprey eel thus: “It is adapted to living as a parasite on larger fish, to the undersides of which it attaches itself by means of a suctorial toothed pad, through which it can suck the blood of its victim. This unattractive lifestyle is matched by an unappetizing appearance: slimy, jawless, a single nostril on top, and seven little gill openings on each side.”

Sounds yummy, but human beings have found many methods of preparing food even less salubrious seeming.

Lampreys come up the Gironde estuary in the spring. Their preparation is complicated, as Madame Roux explained through a translator, even after a long process of deboning, draining the blood and so on. The principal procedure, though, involves putting the cut-up and sautéed lampreys into glass jars filled with red wine of the most recent vintage – that’s an important point, though I don’t know if it’s culinary or cultural – and preserving them to serve the next year. They are baked in ramekins with leeks and a thick sauce and served, traditionally, with a slice of white bread. Madame Roux retrieved from the kitchen a jar of grey lamprey whiling away the hours and days in its bath of red wine; I should have taken a picture but it wasn’t very photogenic.

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