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The French connection

It was for me a moment of existential truth. My bicycling companion was a Frenchman — single, fit and youthful at 45. He worked a relaxed 35-hour week and had about seven weeks of holiday a year. We’d stopped beside the beautiful River Dordogne in the warm South of France.

The fertile countryside was sun-shot to a luminous green. Behind us the slopes of the vineyards were heavy with fruiting vines, their sweetness carried on the breeze. The Frenchman took a deep drag on the cigarette between his perfectly even teeth, his long, fair curls framing his head like a halo, and spoke long and angrily about recession and unfair taxation. The moment was a painting — a study in pervading light darkened by the shadows of human perception.

Armed with this wisdom, I drank even deeper the beauty and bounty of this part of Aquitaine in the South of France. We based ourselves in Bordeaux, the deep claret red heart of Aquitaine’s wine-growing region. Bordeaux is vintage France. Situated along a bend in the muddy River Garonne, it is filled with Gothic and Renaissance basilicas and palaces.

There are hours of voyeuristic pleasure to be had if you sit yourself down at a discreet little street-side café with a bottle of cheap Bordeaux (perhaps a delicious Château Malbat for well under 10 euros) and a jambon-beurre, which is a crunchy buttered baguette filled with salty ham (about 3.5 euros).

From this vantage point and hidden behind a pair of dark-glasses, you may indulge in unapologetic people-watching. And the Bordelais are worth watching for sure. It is also the best proven way of studying a culture.

The French spend a great deal of their time talking about wine: the architecture, the climate, the economy, their love lives — everything is tied in with the wines. So before you set out to explore the region it helps to educate yourself a bit about their elegant obsession. The École du Vin at the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux offers courses — simple entry-level ones for two hours, or a more intensive three- to four-day course, at the end of which you will be sniffing, swirling and considering sub-notes with the best of them.

Aquitaine is France’s most important wine-growing region with 97 appellations and 15 different territories; and the chateaux around Bordeaux are so celebrated, they are almost mythical. Château Latour, Château Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite-Rothschild — all this is hallowed ground.

A 45-minute drive away is Saint-Emilion, which is not only a famous wine appellation but is also a delightful medieval town with World Heritage status. Situated on a hilltop, it is a maze of limestone cloisters, underground catacombs, abbeys and cobbled streets. Low sun-warmed stone walls with wild poppies growing out of crevices, enclose small artisan vineyards. With a population of just 180 people, it nevertheless has 50 wine-shops which is one for every four people! Well, it’s really for the tourists who come on cycling tours, riding along dedicated ‘green routes’ or veloroutes safe for cyclists.

A spread of fresh oysters

Most of the holiday-makers are senior citizens who plainly are enjoying the ‘best years of their lives’ — doing justice to good wine and even better food in the mellow autumn sun. Youth, as we all agree, is totally wasted on the young.

We lunched light at a snugly packed street-side restaurant called Chai Pascal (chai means wine-cellar) on fresh cheese, a charcuterie platter, couscous with olives and a selection of the matchless French breads — fougasse, brioche, croissants, baguettes and even one called batard, which yes, does mean ‘bastard’.

The French obsession with pain (bread) is almost as singular as their preoccupation with wine. The enduring image of a Frenchman is of one who with an umbrella braves floods and rain to visit the local boulangerie for his freshly baked daily bread.

As for wine, if they’re not drinking the stuff, they’re bathing in it! The owner of Chai Pascal, Pascal Fauvel, educated us on the anti-ageing, anti- oxidant qualities of Resveratrol (an ingredient of red wine). Just outside Bordeaux is the Caudalie spa where, for a lot of money, you can soak in a barrel of red wine.

An enterprising Frenchwoman, Mathilde Thomas decided to put to use the grape skin and seed discarded after the pressing at her family vineyard. And so was born the idea of vinotherapie, and the multi-million dollar Caudalie chain of spas and skin-care brand.

Saint-Emilion is also the birthplace of the macaroon! An Order of Ursuline nuns were the keepers of the secret recipe, but during the Revolution they exchanged it as a price for their chastity and for a safe passage. Today, the warmest, crunchiest almond macaroons can be had at Madame Blanchet’s.

Another short drive from Bordeaux is the stylish seaside resort of Arcachon. This is where the rich and the bohemian come to touch up their tans, stroll the sea-front and browse boutiques. But we partook of what is surely an ordained rite of the decadent life. We ate a whole platter of live oysters chased down with a bottle of Château Sainte Marie, a delicate Bordeaux white.

The Arcachon Bay oysters are Europe’s most celebrated oysters. As we lounged on the wooden deck of the very avant-garde new restaurant La C()rniche, overlooking Europe’s largest sand dune, Dune de Pilat — we experienced umami. Umami is a Japanese word for the ‘fifth taste’, more complex than the basic ones of sweet, sour, salty, bitter. It’s the indescribable flavour that floods your palate when you crunch down on a live oyster. It sets off a chain of intracellular shivers, firing synapses, tickling receptors and releasing serotonin into something akin to a gastronomic orgasm. And yes, live oysters are thought to be aphrodisiacal. The South of France is a place where you learn something new and delicious every day.

The discontent you are left with after every visit to France, comes from knowing that you have barely scratched the surface. It is simply not possible to ever really ‘do’ France.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: It’s a three-hour train journey from Paris to Bordeaux.

Staying there: Base yourself in Bordeaux. Arm yourself with the Chateau & Hotels Collection compiled by Alain Ducasse(www. chateauxhotels.co.uk). Available in most Tourist Offices in France, it lists ‘living heritage’ residences, off the beaten track, that embody the spirit of France. It’s a great experience to stay in these elegant, moderately-priced residences.

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