Bordeaux: The Spirit of La Tupina and Jean-Pierre Xiradakis
Take, for instance, our meal at La Tupina in Bordeaux.
La Tupina is a place I dreamed about. Michael and I had first gone there in 1995 with Pierre Herme and his wife and now, 12 years later, I can still feel the pop of excitement I had when we walked through the door. Then, as now, what greets you is a long rustic table sagging beneath the weight of pottery bowls heaped high with vegetables and wooden boards laden with thin slices of saucissons (dried sausages) so irresistible that no one walks by without pinching a piece. And, behind the table is the centuries-old cooking hearth, taller than most men and big enough to cook most beasts.
It’s fitted with spits and pulleys, grates and grills and it’s here that meats are seared and poultry is roasted, and here that the fat that drips from the slowly turning ducks lands on the thick-cut potatoes and gives them a flavor you remember for a lifetime.
Jean-Pierre Xiradakis is the master of the house and, the first time we were there, it was Jean-Pierre who was working the spits and handing out small squares of pate or a piece of piping hot chicken liver to guests to as they came up to the hearth to revel in the aromas.
I returned to La Tupina about four years ago and it was just as I remembered it, and then, on this last trip, Michael and I came back with our friends Jana and Luc, who live in Bordeaux, and it was still just as wonderful. It’s always risky to try to relive a treasured moment and always a thrill when the goodness you recall is sustained.
There were the ducks and the potatoes and the hefty cuts of beef, the lamb from nearby Pauillac and the chickens with skin as burnished as a great-grandmother’s hope chest. The atmosphere was as festive, the crowd as jovial (people still snatched bits off the table) and the food, what Jean-Pierre calls simple, honest food from France’s southwest, as lusty and satisfying.
It was cool, drizzly and well past midnight when we left La Tupina. As we walked out of the restaurant, there was Jean-Pierre sitting under the awning at a table with two friends. The light from the restaurant, coupled with the mist from the rain, and the fact that they were the only people you saw as you peered down the street, made the scene look as if it had been set for a film, one that would show la belle vie in France.
We walked over to say goodnight and joined the men briefly as they savored the last of their cigars and Armagnac. We were there for just a minute, but I left with a feeling that the trio was, indeed, enjoying a moment rare for many of us, but seemingly a regular part of their lives. That the men were friends who truly cared about one another seemed evident; that they knew they were lucky to have this special time together seemed even clearer.
And I wasn’t the only one to be struck by the scene and the feelings it evoked. Now, even weeks later, Michael still mentions that moment – it’s become a touchstone for what it look likes to be caught in the act of relishing life.
As we were leaving, Jean-Pierre asked us if we’d want to join him for coffee and his morning walk around the city.
At 8:30 the next morning when Jean-Pierre pulled up to the cafe on his candy-apple red scooter, you’d have thought the mayor had arrived. Everyone waved and the waitress had his coffee and croissant at the table the instant he sat down.
Since walking was the purpose of our rendezvous, not coffee, we set off quickly, heading for the medieval part of Bordeaux. Just steps from the beautiful, newly renovated riverfront, the modern shopping streets and the imposing limestone government buildings, is the old city, which feels more like a village. The scale changes, the buildings’ facades change and, when you come to the old church, you can imagine yourself in another time completely.
I remember a lot of what Jean-Pierre told us about the city as we walked, but what I remember best, and most fondly, is something having nothing to do with bricks and mortar and so much to do with spirit.
Every few blocks, either Jean-Pierre would stop to chat with a friend or a friend would stop him. At some point I said to him, “It doesn’t look like there’s anyone you don’t know. Is this the route you take every day?” “Oh no,” he said, smiling broadly, “what would be the interest in that? I take a different walk every day, so that each day I can meet different people, have different conversations and learn different things. C’est ca l’art de vivre.”
Yes, that’s the art of living – the joy of it, too.