Les Sources de Caudalie
I went to les Sources de Caudalie over a decade ago with the intention of bringing a group of guests there. While it was, indeed, a lovely place, it wasn’t really near anything, so folks wouldn’t be able to go out explore on their own unless they had a car. However, it is smack-dab in the middle of Bordeaux wine country, on the Château Smith Haut Lafitte estate, which is an 143 second walk from the hotel and spa. So maybe I didn’t make the right decision after all. I mean – a winery, a spa, and three very good restaurants? — why go anywhere else?
For those that are feeling antsy (or thirsty), the hotel and spa is also a 25 minute drive to Podensac, where Lillet is made, and to Sauternes, both of which are my favorite French libations. So if my legs were long enough, I would double kick myself for not planning that trip. (Although if I could, indeed, kick my own backside with both legs, I’d imagine I’d have a pretty good future performing with one of those Chinese acrobatic teams rather than leading people through the French wine country.)
I recently had a much-needed break right before the hectic holiday period started, and spent a weekend, sans guests, at les Sources de Caudalie courtesy of a neighbor who works with the hotel and spa. She’d invited me before and I was always too busy. I had too much to do. I couldn’t get away for the weekend. Excuses, excuses… But heck, when you are too busy to go to a spa, well, it seems to me that that’s the time when you really need to go. So go, we did.
We arrived on a blustery Friday, typical of mid-November in France, when the weather is turning from cool autumn days, to winter nights, when darkness falls in the mid- to late afternoon. The TGV can whick you from Paris to Bordeaux in around three hours, so we had barely finished breakfast before hopping on a train, and arriving at the hotel – conveniently (which was sort of intentional, on my part) – midday, right at lunchtime.
The hotel and spa has a variety of restaurants; a casual wine bar called Rouge, La Table du Lavoir, which features rustic cuisine based on ingredients from the region, and Le Grand’Vigne, a Michelin-starred restaurant. Being in Bordeaux, all the food is meant to pair nicely with the wines, especially those from Château Smith Haut Lafitte, which we were happy to sample as part of accumulating the health benefits of the spa experience. Right?
Romain makes fun of me when I pull out a bag of homemade treats for the train; I was wise enough to bring food for the train, whose food isn’t enhancing France’s culinary reputation, but chefs like Nicolas Masse are. And unlike most spas, there are no “spa menus” of “light” choices. But there is a wine bar, called The French Paradox Bar, where you can drink all that red wine that the locals do, and stay “In the pink,” as they say. Or perhaps in France, with all the red wine, it should be “In the red“? (Although maybe not right now.)
The spa was opened in 1999 to exploit the polyphenols in the grape seeds, which have anti-oxidant qualities and are considered warriors in the fight against anti-aging. Happily, chocolate has them, too. (And potatoes, another dietary staple around here.)
There were a few échantillons, tiny samples, of the Caudalie products in our room, which I used for a few days. While it’s too soon to tell whether or not I am getting any younger, I did like walking around smelling like fermented grapes. And after an experience at another spa in Mexico, where we were forbidden chocolate for the week we were there, I had a little stash of chocolate that I’d brought along, which is part of my own, personal, anti-aging regime, just in case.
(At least the other spa had a sense of humor, though. One night was “Bingo Night” and they doled out, carefully, M&M’s to use as markers for our cards. The winner got to eat their M&M’s!)
Of course, you can’t have a spa without good food – especially in France. And the first thing I ate was a grilled wild mushroom terrine with a velvety-smooth sauce made from Lillet blanc. My friends were very happy with their foie gras mi-cuit (partially cooked) – although I figured that since I was going to spend the afternoon soaking in the waters from les sources, I’d forgo the foie gras in favor of fish as my main course.
The weather was mostly rainy for our weekend retreat, which was actually fine with me.
I welcomed the opportunity to stay indoors, catch up on some reading, and rest in the natural water from the source, which comes from 540 meters below the ground. It’s all pretty low-key and I was happy to just unwind for a few days – no paperwork, no email (they have Wi-Fi, but I chose to stay logged off), comfy beds (if it would have fit on the train, I think Romain would have tried to take ours home with him), and a nice garden, where Chef Masse picks some of his vegetables from.
After a few hours lounging in the healing waters, I snuck in a glass of Graves, a white wine from the region – a blend of Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon (Graves can refer to reds well), which gets its name from the terraced, gravelly terrain, where the grapes grow, which gives the wine a distinct mineral flavor, and headed toward the kitchen.
Chef Masse had invited me into the kitchen to watch the staff getting ready for dinner service. The club sandwich and French fries they were preparing for room service were tempting me to go back to my room, slip into thae bathrobe, and enjoy the hefty sandwich and les frites with a few glasses of vin blanc. Instead, I stuck around and watched the cooks preparing dinner for the diners in the restaurant, while my dining companion was kind enough to cool his heels at the bar à vin next to the lobby while the chef explained to me that he’s from the Basque region and was influenced by the ingredients he used there.
The ingredients include lots of seafood, Spanish hams, Pyrenees trout, foie gras, and sheeps’ milk cheeses, but he was also happy to have access to foodstuffs from Bordeaux, such as sturgeon caviar from the Gironde river, which has become more popular as Russian and Iranian caviar have been getting depleted, wild game hunted nearby, and superb cheeses ripened in the caves of Jean d’Alos, one of the most famous affineurs (cheese ripeners) in France.
Back in the dining room, we started with oysters piled with a cloud-like mousse of cucumbers.
Then there was a precise round of crab meat with Galician cockles and other shellfish scattered on top.
Next, a precarious looking slab of foie gras arrived (safely).
Then out came a little roulade of raw, milk-fed veal from the Aquitaine with caviar and a teeny, tiny quail egg yolk perched alongside
The wild turbot I’d ordered turned out to be a giant portion, which made me wonder if I’d be able to power through the rest of the meal (and which made me wish the spa had some fitness classes…), before a duo of sweetbreads and carrots arrived; two rich morsels with a parade of baby carrots (unpeeled), showing how French chefs are embracing vegetables, and putting them at the center of the plates.
I had a few tastes of the beef cheek served with a bundle of green beans and bâtons of crisp potatoes, all in a lovely, rich jus, which was good, but I was getting stuffed and didn’t want to miss out on the cheese cart, which we’d passed on the way in. There must have been forty cheeses on that rolling caddy, each one at the peak of ripeness. But I’d been eyeing the Langrès, which was so ripe that it had melted into a molten heap and was nearly beyond recognition. However the smell did kind of give it away, even from a few feet away.
Finally, out came whisper-thin meringues, which, when cracked open, spilled out a tumble of finely diced fresh pineapple floating passion fruit sauce, and was the perfect ending to the meal. (I made a mental note to ask the pastry chef how he got the fruit in there. But after a couple of bottles of wine, well…we all know what happens to good intentions…) Like magician’s tricks, I guess some things shall always remain a mystery.
To finish, the sommelier poured chilled glasses of Barsac, a dessert wine made nearby, similar to Sauternes, but less-syrupy, with more brazen, sharper flavors, a perfect accompaniment to go with the line-up of sweet, meal-ending mignardises.
Regular readers will know that I’m not one to make public appearances early in the morning. (And I’m not so good about private ones, either, if you ask Romain.) I am Monsieur Grouché. And while the visions of room service were dancing in my head when I woke up, we braved the rain to run from our room (many rooms are in separate buildings from the main part of the hotel) to the dining room, which had been transformed into a breakfast buffet.
While I didn’t indulge in any of the wine on offer, another guest did, and we stuck with coffee. There was a table of spa foods – finally! – but it was too late, as I’d already gone down the road of cannelés, which they had at the breakfast buffet, too.
(The previous evening, when I was in the kitchen, they were also baking off tourtières, a Gascon specialty of prunes wrapped with filo dough. The B.I.P., otherwise known as the Bureau National Interprofessional du Pruneau – yes, in France there is a professional prune board – has a tourtière recipe on their website, which uses puff pastry. But Paula Wolfert’s croustade, which is another word for tourtière, uses filo, too.)
Since we were at a winery, it seemed (kinda) a shame to spend all the time eating and relaxing in the warm water, so it was nice to get a look at Château Smith Haut Lafitte wine cellars.
The weather had cleared and the rain had made the vineyards shiny and colorful.
The vines were laid out before us, in beautiful post-fall colors, which surrounded the winery. It was awfully dark in the cellars, but we visited the cooperage, where they make and repair some of their own wine barrels. Then it was upstairs to the tasting room, for sampling more of the Château Smith Haut Lafitte wines, as well as a spectacular Château Bastor-Lamontagne Sauternes. Sauternes wines are made from grapes that are left on the vines left to rot, and become encrusted with a fungus, called “noble rot,” caused by the mists arising off the two local rivers.
The fungus helps concentrates the juices in the grapes and gives the wine its high sugar concentration. Because the grapes are so dry and shriveled, instead of getting a case of wine from each grapevine, the yield per grapevine is just one glass. In the finished wines, which are some of the most impressive wines in the world, you’ll find flavors of roasted apricots, pineapple, toasted brioche, spice, browned butter, and nuts, depending on the bottle. I love it more than anything else in the world and have a bottle stashed away somewhere in my apartment, which I will someday open. (If I ever remember where I hid it, that is.)
I am in good company because Thomas Jefferson was also, a fan, and had a collection of 250 bottles of Château d’Yquem Sauternes, which is considered to be one of the finest wines in the world, that he acquired in 1788. (A bottle from 1787 was recently auctioned off for $90,000, which was found later to be a counterfeit. Buyer beware! Another bottle, from 1811 – and presumably real – sold for $117,000.) Jefferson liked it so much that he also put in an order for the current president, George Washington, for thirty dozen bottles.
Closer to my reality was lunch at the Spanish-inspired wine bar, Rouge. And as much as I’d like to imagine myself as someone putting in an order for 360 bottles of Château d’Yquem, I am happy to sit around and eat a casual meal in a regular wine bar. Since we’re so close to Spain, and the chef is Basque, many things in the wine bar are sourced from Spain, such as Guindilla de Ibarra peppers, preserved in sharp vinegar.
I loved the tuna confit, made with tuna that was line-caught in Saint-Jean de Luz, preserved in olive oil.
And whenever I can, I can’t resist ordering a plate of Iberian Bellota ham (shown way up top), sliced über-thin, served with more of those spicy, slender green peppers. I didn’t taste my friend’s burrata with cœur de rumsteak (beefheart) tomato, because I was busy eyeing the items in the adjacent shop. And being a Californian, I can’t order anything with fresh tomatoes, except in the height of summer.
But being Bordeaux, there were lots of wines, of course. But also – being Bordeaux – there were cannelé molds aplenty. The egg yolk-rich pastries are an omnipresent specialty of the region, and are even sold at the train stations in Bordeaux, as well as in Paris – for those who can’t wait. It’s said that back when egg whites were used to clarify wine, there was a surplus of egg yolks, so the cannelé (sometimes spelled canelé) was invented, to use ’em up.
You can find recipes, as well as different spellings, here: canelés and canelés. But if I had a nickel for every person that told me they wanted to buy cannelé molds, I’d be putting in orders for Château d’Yquem on a weekly basis. I usually warn people they’re likely to use them once, then put them in the back at their pantry never to be seen again. Except a few years later when they uncover them, and decide to sell them at their garage sale.
Still, they are pretty and I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade – and lord knows, we had enough rain this weekend. But it gave us one last, final chance to spend time inside, visiting the pièce de résistance. Under what they call les portes du Paradis, “ports of paradise” that are embedded in the floor and open up to reveal a hidden cellar, is where they keep their most cherished wines. (You can actually arrange a visit, if you’re in the area.)
We walked down the creaky wooden stairs to the underground cave and found ourselves surrounded by two rows of spectacular bottles.
There, some of their oldest bottles of wine are lined up for viewing. It’s easy to see why they keep most of these bottles in darkness, as the labels are decomposing, and some are hundreds of years old.
We didn’t open any bottles – drat! – but that’s okay. I’d had enough wine for the weekend, and plenty of food. And we headed back upstairs, to hit the soothing waters of les Sources de Caudalie, one more time before heading home.
Note: We were guests of the hotel and winery for the weekend.