Médoc, From Grand Cru to Country Cooking


My 45-euro tour culminated in a tasting of the most recent vintage. Consumer psychology robs moments like these of the illusion of objectivity. How can anyone discount the fact that the average retail price of a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild is $700? I knew I would be swayed by that price, by the palatial surroundings, by the lovely white-blazered guide who waxed on about the wine’s “creamy tannins” and “slightly saline attack.” And swayed I was.

After Mouton, I visited the Thorissons, who had kindly invited me to lunch. Since arriving in Médoc, the family has left its rented farmhouse by the coast and bought a rambling old stone house in the deserted village of St.-Yzans, not too far from St.-Estèphe. The house, once an important provincial hotel, sits in the heart of the dusty town center.

When I arrived, Mrs. Thorisson, eight months pregnant, was dressed in a chic little black dress and tan leather apron. She was decapitating freshly butchered quails with the same nonchalance that one might bring to peeling carrots. Over Champagne, her husband gave me a history lesson on the house, explaining how it once belonged to the town’s mayor, whose mistress presided over the kitchen, while her cuckolded husband, the town’s baker, supplied bread for the restaurant. “It was a very French arrangement,” Mrs. Thorisson said.

Like the best French cooking, Mrs. Thorisson’s recipes manage to be rich and light at the same time. For lunch, she made a cheese soufflé and a tangy mille-feuille of quail and savoy cabbage layered between crisp discs of phyllo dough.

The couple’s latest book, “French Country Cooking,” is filled with meals like these, but it’s really about their attempt at recapturing the faded glory of St.-Yzans and this house. In 2015, the family hosted a pop-up restaurant here (the children were deputized as servers, Mr. Thorisson played sommelier). This year, they’re planning a farmers’ market and cooking workshops. Slowly, the family is putting down roots in a place that, like many towns in rural France, has an uncertain future.

Photo

The Central Market in Soulac-sur-Mer.

Credit
Susan Wright for The New York Times

For dinner, I asked Mrs. Thorisson to recommend someplace unstuffy, unsubtle and inexpensive. She suggested the Lion d’Or restaurant, a little auberge in the nearby town of Arcins with yellow wood shutters on the windows and an Art Nouveau-style glass awning.

I arrived early, which is always a mistake in France. The sober room — checkered floor, white tablecloths — was empty save for a table of three dweeby Swiss guys trying to eat pencil-thin foie gras canapés with a fork and knife. “It would give me pleasure if you used your fingers,” the proprietor said, saving them further embarrassment.

I ordered an aperitif to run out the clock, let the restaurant fill up a bit. Before long, the winemakers started to stream in. They carried their own bottles or took some out from the brushed-wood cases that lined the restaurant’s walls. Each estate has its own private locker here, from the fanciest premier cru chateau like Lafite to the affordable cru bourgeois vineyards that surround the restaurant. No one, including visiting tourists, pays a corkage fee.

I started with the grenier médocain, a gnarly looking local cut of charcuterie made of a pig’s stomach that is stuffed (with intestines, organ meat and ham), garlicked, spiced, boiled in broth and served cold. It’s the kind of thing you congratulate yourself for loving. Next came a blanquette de veau, the monochrome veal stew cherished by French schoolchildren — textbook buttery deliciousness. I never expected to find such a time capsule of simple, frugal French country cooking within shouting distance from some of the world’s most elite wine estates.

On my last day, I drove the winding roads through the Landes du Médoc — the largest maritime pine forest in Europe — until it emptied out onto the Atlantic coast. I followed a road up to the northern tip of the Médoc, Soulac-sur-Mer, a seaswept town encircled by belle epoque villas where I bought croissants at a local bakery and then staked out the central market in a state of wolfish desire, munching on accras de morue (fritters of salt cod) and lamenting all the beautiful things I could not eat because I do not travel with a kitchen.

At the market, I learned that oyster farming had recently been reintroduced to the Médoc, and that the best place to taste the local variety was in St.-Vivien du Médoc, at Le Kayak Café, a little shack perched beside a creek that’s fed by the Gironde. This might be the only establishment in France that bundles a serving of shellfish and a kayak rental into a 22-euro package. I opted for a dozen oysters and no kayak, and took a seat on the patio overlooking the beds where the oysters are raised.

The tide was low, the sailboats muddy in the stream. The oysters tasted sensuous, clean, a bit sweet. I washed them down with a little 2-euro glass of white pail wine. In doing so, I realized how far I had traveled from the corseted luxury of grand cru country, and how happy I was to have made the trip.

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