Insider's guide to the best hidden gems in rural Gironde
Every August we escape our urban London life and retreat to our old French farm house in the Gironde, in the south west of France.
After the hectic schedules of work and family life in the city, this slower pace is a welcome relief. We immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of the French countryside, surrounded by rolling hills of vineyards, eating and drinking simple, local produce.
We have been coming here for years so it is very much a home from home. For this reason, I wanted to share with you some of the best places to eat, drink and shop that this beautiful Bordeaux wine region has to offer. We have always avoided the tourist traps and instead searched out the authentic French experiences.
Our day starts slowly and breakfast is always enjoyed under the shady leaves of a big fig tree. The first person up, cycles to one of the local boulangeries, either Le Fournil De Velines in St Magne de Castillion - for traditional bread baked in an ancient wood-fired oven. Alternatively, we head to Maison Troël in Castillon-la-Bataille - the locals’ favourite.
We enjoy warm bread with delicious local confiture and miel. The children pick the best offerings from our small orchard bringing them directly from tree to table.
We take great pleasure in sourcing the best food that we can find from local producers. Vegetables are bought daily from Au Jardin de la Rivière in Lamothe-Montravel - an amazing farm a few miles from our home.
We buy delicious native oysters and crevettes caught daily from Arcachon, and the most incredible fromage from the market stalls of Castillon-la-Bataille, Branne & St Foy la Grande. With ingredients this fresh, the simplest of meals can be a thing of great joy.
We generally steer clear of the busy restaurants of central St Èmillion in July and August. We favour instead restaurants off the beaten track.
Our favourites are La Poudette in Pujols for simple local dishes in the beautiful setting of their home and garden (expect a visit to your table from the house cat and their handsome cockerel).
Caffè Cuisine in Branne is fabulous for simple but elegant French food enjoyed on their shady terrace.
Terrasse Rouge at La Dominque in St Èmillion for the Grand Vins experience with impressive views over the vineyards of Cheval Blanc and La Dominque (and as you would expect an impressive Carte des Vins!) is not to be missed.
Chez Hortense, Lège-Cap-Ferret, is an excellent, rustic seafood restaurant with panoramic views of Bassin du Archechon, and moules frites to die for, and worth every second of bad traffic at peak season to get there!
Aperitif time just at home is one of my favourite times of the day. A glass of a local wine or a cold beer enjoyed with some simple snacks, such as melon et jambon is a thing of great joy! These moments are either enjoyed by the pool or sitting by the Dordogne at the end of the garden.
If we venture out for a drink, the bar at Cabara is also a favourite - an old local’s haunt, untouched since the 1970’s with dusty old pinball machines and table football. There you can enjoy unrivalled views of the river, a cold beer in hand, accompanied by a bowl of salted peanuts with good friends… perfection!
With such amazing red wine in abundance in the area, it is difficult to go wrong. Côte-de-Castillon wines, Chateau d’Aiguille and Clos Puy Arnaud are personal favourites that we love, they both have second growth wines are still great quality but at more affordable prices - Seigneurs d’Aiguilhe and Clos Puy Arnaud Cuvee Pervenche.
Comptoir de Genès in Saint-Genès-de-Castillon is a great concept - a restaurant and wine shop that offers diners (and shop customers) cellar prices on a good selection of Côte-de-Castillon wine, meaning you can try a few different wines while you are dining and buy your favourite bottles to take home.
Another great family night out is one of the popular Marche Nocturnes, usually held on village greens, offering excellent French street food stands – steak-frites, moules, giant paella, crepes, fromage, etc. with fabulous wine and live music ranging from jazz to cheesy 80’s cover songs! Our children are always the first to hit the dance floor (regardless of the music genre), the French love a bit of line dancing, so we usually find ourselves attempting (very badly) to join in!
An activity that I generally like to do away from the family is brocante hunting. I love the solitary search for beautiful items and I like to take my time sifting through piles of old junk to find a forgotten old treasure.
There is a huge array of dusty old barns full to the brim of French antiques in the area. Treasure troves of crystal glassware, oil paintings, vintage linen, brass candlesticks… and much more! I love mixing these beautiful old pieces into my home - an old portrait or distressed mirror over a fireplace, or stunning old crystal glasses and table linen to add a lovely aged imperfection to a table setting.
Les Broc’a Puces de la Charrette Bleue, Velines and Da Lama Perfecto, Saint-Pey-d’Armens are two of my favourite treasure troves.
As our French summer draws to an end, we carefully start collecting all of the wonderful French delicacies that we know that we will miss when back in London. Lovely wine & cheese, the children’s favourite - Jus de Poire along with my dusty of brocante finds. We always return reluctantly, but well rested, ready to take on the fast-paced demands of London again!
Until next time dear France…