Tuesday, May 15th – Day 11, Pugnac, Blaye
And so, up and about to find the sun shining, so I took a short-ish run into and through Pugnac (it’s not very big), establishing that it has a very attractive main street, is surrounded by vines, and there’s a small brasserie just beyond the mairie. Also, the place appears to be served by hundreds of school buses, many of them empty!
I was back before the rest of the house was stirring, so had the opportunity to shower and the sit in the sunshine while I waited for signs of life from around me.
Breakfast out of the way, we decided that we would head off to Blaye, taking R with us. W and E had work to get through, and once they’d done that, they wanted to simply vegetate by the pool, especially if the weather forecast turned out to be true. We’d figure out a dinner plan later in the day. And so, having unpacked the car and reconstructed the interior, we first drove into Bordeaux to figure out where the park and ride car park at our end of the A tramline, because we knew we’d be wanting to use it the following day.
After circling round Carbon Blanc and finding a different park and ride to the one we wanted, but that would do perfectly well, we headed off up the road to the town of Blaye. It’s a town with quite some history, including a claim, possibly apocryphal, that the hero Roland was buried in its basilica. As an enthusiast for Carolingian history, I’d like to think it’s true.
We parked up at the Citadelle and started nosing around. It’s vast, mightily impressive, and the river stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. There seem to have been fortifications on the site for some considerable time, the Vauban defences being simply the latest iteration.
As with so many places we visited, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it thoroughly deserves to be. You’d have expected it to be heaving with tourists, but it was actually pretty quiet, apart from a coach tour, and they were having lunch when we arrived, and were then scooped up and shepherded back to their bus, thus meaning we had very little contact with them.
It’s one of three forts that were built to defend Bordeaux, the other two being Fort Paté – yes, really – and Fort Médoc. It has an interesting history, and is rather lovely, with its views along the river, the swifts nesting just below the ramparts that swoop and shriek around the river bank, snatching up insects, the wildflowers on the embankments. It even has the ruins of the triangular medieval castle still standing in the grounds.
After we’d roamed along to the riverside, and admired the vast vistas from the walls, we decided all that history and scenery was making us hungry and thirsty, as it is wont to do.
The small square near the ramparts, the Place d’Armes, contains two restaurants, and we made for the Hotel-Restaurant la Citadelle on the grounds that it had the views. Oh boy, did it have the views. The service was a bit over-stretched though that was because the coach party had just sat down to their pre-ordered lunch, and that pretty much absorbed all of the attention available for a while.
It gave us time to think though, and to enjoy the tapenade that they had brought us along with our aperitifs. As we knew we’d be out in the evening, we again went for a main course each, with R on the stone bass again.
There was an asparagus dish for Lynne, though it’s fair to say she found it rather woody. The crab that accompanied it was goo though, especially the croquette.
I ordered the lamprey, on the grounds that it’s apparently a local speciality, and I’d never had it before. I expected it to be somewhat eel-like in texture and taste, but it was much milder, and quite a bit looser-fleshed. The mashed potato with it was a good vessel for soaking up the sauce Bordelaise, which was very good. I do not, however, think I’ll be succumbing to a surfeit of lampreys any time soon! It was perfectly OK, but nothing more.
What was very good was the bottle of wine we drank, a Chateau Montfollet cuvee Pegase, an AOC Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux, and that rare thing, a Bordeaux wine made entirely out of Malbec grapes. It’s clearly a labour of love for the wine maker, and my god it’s a strong wine, at 14.5%. I’d be more than happy to lay hands on some of this, but the chateau was hard to locate online, so we didn’t manage to find anything about them until it was too late.
To mop up the wine afterwards, we shared a single portion of cheese between the three of us.
By then it was time to move on if we wanted to see anything else of the town, and we almost certainly did. We started with the cloisters round the back of the church, where there was a slightly eccentric art exhibition by Catherine Libmann in full swing.
From there we headed across to the tiny Tourist Information office, which is in the old barracks.
The citadel museum was open, though the lady in charge had to unlock everything for us. We seemed to be the only visitors, so we were allowed to wander round at will in return for our €4 entry fee. For a very small museum, it pretty much covered the full history of the citadel, and the surrounding area, starting with the Romans and working on from there.
Of particular interest to me was the officers’ house, which had been turned into a bakery and during WWII was run by the Germans.
Anyway, after that we moved the car down to the modern town, where I was pleased to find a nice cool tree to park under. A wander around the side streets was interesting, especially when we realised there is art everywhere, some of it quite strange.
A lot of the streets are similar to those in Bordeaux.
There are also some fabulous views of the citadel.
It was getting late, so we found a wine shop, and although the proprietor didn’t seem very interested in selling to us, we rounded up a couple more cases of wine, and then loaded up the car and headed for the house.
Once back at the ranch we found the others had spent the day by the pool. I foolishly got into my swimming kit and got into the pool, to the amusement of all concerned as the cold water hit me. Actually it was very refreshing, so I swam a dozen lengths, then floated for a while, before heading indoors to get showered.
After that I sorted out our plans for the morning, and then we had a conference about what we should do with the evening. We decided we’d head towards Pugnac in search of dinner, as W and E had had a very nice and very cheap lunch in a small bistro there earlier. If nothing else was open, they were quite happy to go back there for dinner. The walk in was very pleasant.
And I was right about the attractive buildings.
When we got there, la Plancha Gourmande was busy, but they were happy to seat us, and supply kirs so we could relax and think about what we wanted to eat.
Some super little cheesy tartlets appeared on the table as we considered our options. They were a mix of various fillings, including salmon, and broccoli and they were very moreish. It was very hard to stop eating them once you started.
Lynne ordered foie gras, and I ordered the melon soup with bacon, which we shared. They were good, solid examples of the sort of mid-range cooking we just don’t get in the UK, and thoroughly enjoyable (and yes, everything is better with bacon).
OK, the melon wasn’t spectacularly pretty, but it was tasty.
For mains, there was the now almost inevitable stone bass, this time with asparagus, and polenta.
I had the piece of beef, cooked rare, with seared asparagus, and more of the polenta, which seemed to have been pan-fried. There was a small amount of nicely dressed salad leaves, and that was it. Simplicity itself.
Lynne went for the burger, something neither of us would ever dream of doing in the UK, for fear of what sort of appalling hockey puck of poor quality meat that might end up on your plate. This was good. The accompaniments were the same for all the mains, probably on the grounds that the place was being staffed by two people, with the chef Vincent in the kitchen, and a solitary waitress out the front. They were doing a great job, especially as they’d been open just over one week.
Keeping it simple meant there were not many choices, and we probably didn’t need a dessert, but the idea of a popcorn creme brulee was too hard to resist.
And yes, it really did taste of popcorn! Afterwards, I asked him how he’d done it. The answer was a very simple one; he’d used Monin popcorn syrup. Not impressed? You should be. After all, we didn’t think of it, and he did. And the bill after a meal for five people, with wine and aperitifs? Just shy of €200. That’s what I call a bargain.
We walked back to the house, stuffed with food and happy.