Off the quai in Bordeaux, between St. Michel and Ste. Croix where George is still slaying a dragon, there exists a street called rue Porte de la Monnaie. At the top of it is an arch and down it a restaurant that is now my favorite in France. Its name is La Tupina which means the cauldron and how fitting as the place is filled with many of them. Several Sundays ago I stood under gray skies on the edge of the Garonne taking in the Pont de Pierre and picking wildflowers along the banks to compliment my outfit. Sure, it was lovely pretending to be Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and hearing Fred Astaire on a loop in my head, but mostly I was killing time with my husband before a much anticipated lunch. We didn’t know what to expect. The reviews we read had been so mixed. In Fiona Beckett’s 2012 review, she said she detected a slight sense of ennui in Chef Jean-Pierre Xiradakis. She also described “the kitschness of the place” by saying “If Disney were to recreate south-west French food, it would look like La Tupina.” Then again, former restaurant critic for The Times, Jonathan Meades, loves the place and has named it his favorite restaurant. When the clock at the local church struck one, my husband and I looked at each other. Neither of us asked for whom the bell tolled. We just took each other’s hands and then a chance on lunch at La Tupina. After crossing the street and passing under the arch, we saw an old man walking a white cat on a leash. If black cats are bad luck then this sighting had to be good. The old man smiled at us and tipped his hat just as my husband opened the restaurant door. From the moment I entered, I saw everything La Tupina had to offer. Literally. As the heart of the restaurant is laid bare for all to see. A giant chimney for smoking, an enormous hearth for roasting, a generous countertop laden with meat and baskets of produce that would be used up by closing time. Many restaurants open up their kitchens to give an element of theatre to their diners, but I always feel it’s a bit contrived. Not at La Tupina. Nothing about it evokes the high pressure of a celebrity chef’s kitchen or a televised cooking competition. On the contrary, the mise en scène there was warm and welcoming. Like walking into the kitchen of a French friend’s grandmother. It was charming and not at all like anything I’ve ever experienced at Disneyland. Once seated, we ordered glasses of champagne. They arrived with the silkiest most savory rillettes. Next we had white asparagus with vinaigrette. For the main course, my husband had duck breast that had been cooked in the chimney. I opted for the Noir de Bigorre, which was a plate-sized chop from a black thoroughbred pig whose history in the region can be traced back to Roman times. This tender fatty pig was served perfectly pink with a single roasted garlic clove on top, salad and mashed potatoes on the side. It was so delicious I stopped caring about the couple next to us who were making fun of us in French for having ordered a half-bottle of wine instead of a whole. NB: Just because I’m American and my husband is a plummy Englishman does not mean my schoolgirl French isn’t good enough to know when you’re mocking me. But like I said, lunch was so good their rudeness didn’t detract. At least not much.
For pudding I had walnut ice cream. It was served with walnut liqueur that tasted of the best amontillado sherry. My husband indulged in a plate of local ewes’ and goats’ milk cheeses. They were served with strawberry jam. After the consumption of which, he couldn’t refuse our waitress’ offer of armagnac. “Higher alcohol content is better for aiding digestion,” she said. The food at La Tupina could never be called haute cuisine nor nouvelle. It’s better than that. It’s classic and nothing about its legacy is as ephemeral as foam. Dishes of the region are its specialty. They are tried and true and as old and delicious as the pigs of Roman times. Lunch at La Tupina is history on a plate.
Jonathan Meades has noted the “ewes’ milk curd with berry jam” among his favorite dishes at La Tupina. Having tasted it myself, I see why. It’s the perfect marriage of sweet and savory. The book he’s presently working on, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, includes Chef Jean-Pierre Xiradakis’ recipe for Poulet à l’oignon. I hope it will also include a few more. Like that jam recipe. Until then, here is my recipe for cherry jam. It’s wonderful on toast and also with sheep’s cheese from Southwest France. Serve it on a Scottish oat cake with a slice of Ossau Iraty and there you have the flavors of the Auld Alliance. A snack worthy of Mary, Queen of Scots and a marriage far happier than her own. I hope you enjoy it.
2 kg cherries (I used 1kg from spain and 1kg from Kent. I like to mix mine for different flavor notes.)
the juice and zest of 2 lemons
1.3 kg sugar
a candy thermometer or a cold plate in the fridge (I use both)
Method: Wash and dry your cherries. Then pit them and cut them in half. Macerate them slightly with a bit of the sugar. I use a few tablespoons. Next, transfer them to a large maslin pan. Add your thermometer to the pan. Cook the cherries over low heat until they are tender. When they are, stir in the sugar and lemon. Keep the heat on low and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Once it is, bring the fruit mixture to a rolling boil. Be sure to stir it so the fruit doesn’t stick and also be careful about bringing the heat up too high. You don’t want to burn your fruit. When the mixture thickens and goes glossy or when it is about 102ºC, test the setting point. Pull your cold plate out of the fridge and put a small teaspoon of jam on it. Wait a minute before pushing it with your finger. If it wrinkles like jam, then it’s set. If it doesn’t, give your mixture a few more minutes of cooking time. Do not let your mixture pass 104ºC. This is the setting point of jam. If you pass this temperature, you’ll end up with glue. Nobody wants to eat glue. When your jam is ready, take it off the heat and allow it to cool for about 10 minutes. Finally, pour the jam into sterilized jars and store.