Audrey Gillan discovers some of life’s finer offerings in Bordeaux
I descend the steps of stone into cellars dating back to 1456 and can’t help but notice that the air is getting pungently riper. Going downstairs at Jean d’Alos, a cheese shop in the center of Bordeaux, is like stepping back in time. This place not only sells a heart-stopping selection of dairy delights, but ages them with precise care in these cold, damp depths. It is here that I meet owner and affineur Clarence Grosdidier, who leads me through the rooms of this old monastery and shows me a world where blooms of pink, purple, gray and white mold grow on cheeses lining endless shelves. “We age them from a few days to a few months to a few years,” he explains with unconfined pride. “The quality is coming from the producers first, then we take them and nurse them as kindly as we can to produce the most glorious cheeses. Affinage is definitely important, but the most important thing is the producer.”
Grosdidier ages around 200 different cheeses, the majority made with raw, not pasteurized, milk. He takes me to the goat cellar – which is kept at a temperature of 5C-6C and has 15% humidity – and tells me that they rub off ‘carte fleur’ from the cheese every week. He demonstrates the turning of the cheese, how he brushes off some of the mold on vast wheels, or washes others with wine. Here are cheeses that suck your saliva dry, firecracker in your mouth or fur your tongue with blue veins. My favorite is the two-year-old Comté, with its bite of tiny white crystals known as tyrosene.
Bordeaux is, of course, more famous for its wine than its cheese. I head to Ecole du Vin and take a seat in an airy, somewhat chic classroom, lined with maps of the terroir of Bordeaux and its appellations. I see names I recognize – Graves, Pauillac and prestigious Médoc – but my wine educator Wendy Narby, wants to teach me about a side of the vineyard many don’t know about: affordable Bordeaux. She tells me half of the wine here is ‘entry level’ with Cru Bourgeois representing ‘very good value for money’. I learn that appellation really means place, my notion that château is a building is errant nonsense (here the name represents the wine estate) and that the wines of Bordeaux are 89% red, and of that 64% are Merlot. “It’s all about the reds,” says Wendy.
I head to L’Intendant, a stunning wine shop with a spiral staircase snaking up four floors and where the prices mount as you ascend. I buy six different bottles, and the lovely assistant slips them into silver bubblewrap envelopes. I stash them in my suitcase beside the packets of paper-wrapped cheese sealed in Tupperware – I always bring some on trips in case I want to bring delicate or smelly produce back. I can’t wait to host a little cheese-and-wine party on the balcony of my London flat. Yes, I am lucky to live in a place where I can buy good cheese and wine round the corner, but it isn’t quite the same, is it? And funnily enough, with the tastes of Bordeaux on offer, I know my guests will agree.