Sensual feast

Sensual feast

Wine wonder

Paradise: French landscape; French love for food and drink is legendary. Photos by Amit PasrichaBefore you visit almost any part of France, you need to be tutored. Not just in the language. You need to learn how to set aside the  pragmatic and literal, and enter a world of subtleties — where nuance is ALL. Of taste, smell and texture. In food and drink, and life itself. You will have to think with your senses in order to partake of and understand France. If cultures could be said to grow around that which they hold in highest regard — for instance, India esteems the spirit; America, the ego; England, the mind — then that which is essentially French, derives from the senses.

Aquitaine, the region along France’s Atlantic Coast, offers the traveller a pilgrimage through every marker of the sensual. At the heart of Aquitaine is Bordeaux, its capital — a word synonymous with the rich, voluptuous red wine that the English call claret. There are some 8,000 wine-producing chateaux around Bordeaux, some of them small vineyards of just 5-10 acres, while others are large industrial holdings.

There is a new movement around Bordeaux, of women winemakers in a hitherto male-dominated world, where women have traditionally been seen more as an accompaniment to wine in the same manner as, well, cheese. The women vintners believe that they bring to their wines their distinct female sensibilities; and so in this country of medieval occult fraternities, the vigneronnes have their own Sisterhoods where they meet and share their wine-making wisdom.

The art of wine tasting

The wines in France are named after the place they come from rather than the grape. Which is why when you visit the wine-growing areas around Bordeaux, like Medoc and St Emilion, their names at once conjure up a flavour, a tint, and all the stylish lifestyle associations that go with the drinking of those fine wines. The Bordelais spend an inordinate amount of time talking about wine: the architecture and history of a place, the economy, the very quality of air is tied in with the wines.

It makes sense then to enter into their genteel insanity by educating yourself a bit. The Ecole du Vin at the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux offers courses — simple entry-level ones for 2 hours, or a more intensive 3-4 day course, at the end of which you will be sniffing, swirling and musing elegantly with the best of them. And though it will be a while before you understand their complex system of wine grading — school-kids in France virtually learn their AOC’s (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) along with their ABC’s. It is a mark of an acutely evolved civilisation, that public schools teach children programmes in “taste acquisition”, with chefs conducting classes to “awaken the palates”.

Much of the conversation here revolves around the word ‘terroir’ — literally meaning soil of the region. But the French are not a literal people, so ‘terroir’ is perhaps best translated as “a sense of place”. It is the intrinsic quality of a place — the air, the sunlight, the temperatures, the  distance from the sea, the smell on the breeze. And the wines of Bordeaux, more than any other French wine, are considered the masterworks of an artist called terroir.

Yet, however glorious the wines are purported to be, the real point of things is to be not so much a wine critic as a wine lover. So to sniff, swirl, ‘chew’, breathe, spit, consider the aftertaste — seems a bit of an exercise in navel gazing. To be pleasured by wine, it must be drunk as an accompaniment to food. And terroir influences not just the wine but the textures and flavours of vegetables, oysters, and even chickens! Food for the French is like love, or literature — with layer upon layer of subtleties, nuances, delicious complexities. Food and the partaking thereof is a codified culture presided over with due ritual, much flourish and a lot of time… Which brings us to the famous French Paradox of how a people so preoccupied with food and drink should be so slender. Part of the secret are the agricultural policies that promote organic farming and oppose GM (genetically modified) foods. Traditionally, the French understand and value produce that is local, fresh and unprocessed.

Real France

The land — fruitful, fertile and able to deliver the highest-quality products to the table, has been an important part of modern France’s mental makeup, and has played a significant role over decades of French economic policy as other EU neighbours focused on industry. La France profonde, an almost untranslatable term, conjures up the idea that the “real” France is rural France, found in the landscape.

Bordeaux city is a lively place filled with cafés, pubs, nightclubs and shopping. Its 18th century neo-classical buildings, spacious public squares, river-front esplanades along the muddy Garonne River, cobbled streets, and shadowy narrow alleys overhung by wrought-iron  balconies, quarter a young, multi-cultural population on account of the several universities here. When you walk the streets, all around you is the  quintessential France of the movies — a beautiful, sulky woman slouching in a balcony, cigarette hanging from the corner of lipstick-smudged mouth; an intense-looking man in a black sweater hurrying towards a rendezvous; baguettes and coffee for breakfast; diminutive dogs carried in shoulder bags, aromas of freshly-baked pain (bread, another French obsession) wafting out of the patisseries, very high-heels clicking on pavements.

At our hotel, the rather overpoweringly opulent Regent Grand, I met a French athlete from Alsace. He said he visited Bordeaux every September for the Marathon du Medoc, which at 42 km is billed the longest marathon in the world. Nothing unusual about that, except that this being Bordeaux, the course runs through scores of vineyards, and that during this 6.5-hour-run, the athletes can stop for some 23 wine-tastings that include fresh oysters and foie gras! Then if you have stayed sober enough to finish the race, you are handed — surprise — a bottle of Bordeaux!

If they’re not drinking the stuff, they’re bathing in it. Just outside Bordeaux is the Caudalie spa where for a lot of money, you can soak in a barrel of red wine. Not to mature, but to get younger. Long before the world had discovered the anti-aging, anti-oxidant qualities of Resveratrol (an ingredient of red wine), an enterprising French woman, 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. The word Caudalie refers to the length of time taste lingers on the palate…

If you could bottle the delights of touch, bouquet, beauty and taste — what would you name it?