World on a Plate

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Category: France

Gastronomic Tour de France: Stage 5 | Épernay > Montargis

Regions: Start of Race in Champagne > Finish in Loire
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Here we are again! Barbara over at Winos & Foodies has wrapped up everything that's great about wine, food and cycling and France into one big Gastronomic Tour de France. Here's the full list of participants, their blogs and links to keep your own pace by.

Every year the course for the Tour de France changes some stages ever so slightly.  In 2005, Stage 6 began in Troyes.  Fast forward 5 years and today's stage begins in the commercial capital of the Champagne region, Épernay just 88 miles east-northeast of Paris.  Stage 5 is made for sprinters and for champagne drinkers.


Cork_small_2007  Built on a chalk foundation the town is the key commercial center for the production of champagne.   Most visitors will find themselves on the L'Avenue de  Champagne where many well-known champagne producers including Moet Chandon, Perrier-Jouet and Champagne Mercier can be found. Most tourist information you will come across will say that this avenue is the most valuable–more so than Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysees due to the many bottles of champagne stored in the chalk cellar caves below.
 (I’m happy to house sit!)

Specialties of this region include andouillette de Troyes, a savory tripe sausage  made from  pork chitterlings and tripe, seasoned with fresh onion, salt, pepper and stuffed by hand into natural casings it is highly sought out. Another regional specialty is potee champenoise–a pot-au-feu consisting of jambon des Ardennes (smoked ham), cabbage and sausage.  

And if you are looking for something new and different for your everyday salad dressings keep an eye out for Vinaigre de Reims or the more commonly named, champagne vinegar. It is an elegant way to mix things up as it is  milder than most vinegars, you can use it with just a bit of oil and a pinch of sugar to create a tasty vinaigrette.

The boys of the Tour will dash across the plains and end up in Montargis, the second largest town in the Loire region. Medieval in looks with several canals and bridges it is sought out for it’s charm, honey, saffron and pralines.  There is also a rubber factory where, as a young boy, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made shoes–but that is an entirely another story.  


TDF_image_B Most will want to locate the the shop from where these pralines were originally sold, Maison de la Praline, that visitors seeking to taste the original crunch confectionery made from almonds, and dissolved in sugar back during the rule of Louis XIII.  The story goes they were created at the chateau the French soldier, diplomat, and sugar baron, Marshal du Plessis-Praslin.   Pralines from New Orleans are made from the more readily-found pecan.  

There is a piece of folklore found on the Southern CandyMakers site that, if not entirely factual is slightly plausible:

A more playful account paints du Plessis-Praslin as a notorious ladies man, who asked his chef to come up with an irresistible treat he could present to the women he would court. He would put the sweet sugary nuts into little parcels marked with his name, so people began to call the sweets after him.”


The two recipes that follow make for a perfect Saturday lunch in the garden with a  friend. You may want to pair with a glass or two of bubbles.


Recipes

Salad au Lard (Potato, Bacon & Greens) (commonly found salad in Épernay)

Almond Praline (this is great broken up into bits and served over vanilla ice cream)


Because you may want to know more:


History of Pralines | Southern CandyMakers

Splurge on the original from the source! Praslines of Montargis "Amandas"


And you want to move along to Stage 6 with Amanda over at EyeCandy Carousel


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Stage 21 – Oui Oui Paris

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Reuters

Corbeil-Essonnes to Paris Champs-Élysées | Distance 144km/89.5mi

Bicycling Magazine describes today’s challenges as "Dropped champagne flutes, wigs tangling spokes, general hijinks." At least until they arrive at the city perimeter. The cyclists here today have accomplished the unthinkable. 

Tdf_pbr_1 Many of us, when we think of Paris, think of food, particularly pastry. Pastry history is long and filled with passionate debate on ownership. Records state that Antonin Careme elevated the art form.  Larousse Gastronomique, states that  "Choux pastry is said to have been invented in 1540 by Popelini, Catherine de’ Medici’s chef, but the pastrycook’s art only truly began to develop in the 17th century and greatest innovator at the beginning of the 19th century was indubitably [Antonin] Careme…There were about a hundred pastrycooks in Paris at the end of the 18th century. In 1986 the count for the whole of France was over 40,000 baker-pastrycooks and 12,5000 pastrycooks."

So what does this have to do with bicycling. Before the TdF, there was the Paris-Brest-Paris race.  Every four years, since 1891, riders have 90 hours to complete the unmarked course. Once a professional race the ride has evolved into an amateur one. But don’t let that fool you. The next race is 2007.

In the early days of the race a pastry chef along the route was looking to increase his sales during this time put his mind to reinventing his eclairs.  What resulted is now known as the Paris Brest.  It’s a choux pastry, shaped as a bicycle wheel it’s cut in half and filled with with praline crème pâtissière and topped with almonds.  While all of this sounds impressively complicated, for the most part you can stage everything ahead of time.  Years ago, Joyce Goldstein’s Square One served a Paris-Brest pastry filled with bananas and praline custard served up with chocolate sauce.

Recipe for Paris-Brest via Meilleur du Chef (with photos)

Stage 20 – Paris Bound

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(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Another great morning of racing. My heart was breaking for Michael Rasmussen who had the worst day due to two crashes and having to switch out bikes four times. Today’s final top 10 represents the strength of US cycling: (aside from Armstrong) CSC’s Bobby Julich, Phonak’s Floyd Landis, Discovery’s George Hincapie and not to be overlooked is GST’s Levi Leipheimer. I love the image above. Lance the family man. The girlfriend is yapping, the kids are excited and Dad is listening to his IPOD. See, he is normal! A remarkable day–I’m getting all choked up–and I’m not sure why! Time now to get out on the bike. Tomorrow we roll in to Paris!

St-Etienne to St-Etienne Distance: 55km/34mi

Rhonealpes

The Rhone-Alps region lies nestled beneath the impressive flanks of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak at 15,771 feet, and a protector to the region’s borders with Switzerland and Italy. Today’s time trial, which is a loop, is held in St-Etienne, which is more of an industrial town focused on electronics and industrial engineering. It is located about 45 miles from what could arguably called the gastronomic capital of France and third largest city, Lyon. Where you’d find more of a range of dining options.

After all it was here that the three-Michelin starred chef Pierre Gagnaire went bankrupt due to "questionable financial advice, a multimillion-franc debt incurred to upgrade and expand his modest St-Etienne restaurant into a showplace worthy of three stars (it already had two, awarded in 1986). The gastronomically desolate location certainly didn’t help.

Forez is a region where gastronomy holds a significant place: fishing, hunting, and breeding are the base of a fine and tasty cuisine. Poultry, crayfish and trout enter in the preparation of many dishes.

The quality of butcher’s meat in St-Etienne is exceptional. Forez cold cuts or salaison also include (ham, meat pie and sausage. Local food specialties, such as a barabans salad prepared with dandelions and diced bacon fat; La râpée, grated raw potatoes mixed with whole eggs, cream, salt, and pepper that are then fried in oil or butter and a potato stew flavored with thyme and bay leaves called barboton. It’s here where the matefaim (hunger stopper), a thick and fried pancake is offered.  Traditionally made of rye flour and lightly salted water today it is made with wheat flour, milk, egg and sugar–an oversized crepe!

Lyon, as you might imagine offers a wider choice. as it is home to several world renowned grands chefs including Paul Bocuse, Pierre Orsi, Jean-Paul Lacome. In additional well known professional cooking schools like the Institut Vatel and Paul Bocuse School of Culinary Arts are based here. Local specialties include Andouillette de Lyon (sausage made out of pork chitterlings and marinated with white wine), Quenelles (light dumpling made of fish), and Rosette de Lyon (dry sausage made from leg of pork). Lyon is also known for regional cheeses, such as Saint Marcellin, and locally made chocolates and candies, called Coussins de Lyon (marzipan sweets shaped and decorated like cushions).

Warm Salad of Ratte Potatoes with Richeranches Truffles (Jean-Paul Lacombe)

Stage 19 – Legume-y Legs

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REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Are we there yet?  Only 199km/123.5mi remain in the TdF.   The Seattle Times reports that Lance was talking to George (in photo above) and said, "Why don’t we just not stop? Let’s just keep riding, get it over with." Another good quote from Lance was something along the lines of "the faster I pedal the faster I retire."  He looks so great this year. Anyway tomorrow is one of my favorite events the Individual Time Trial.  This is a tough event at this point as riders are tired having clocked 2,000 miles. I hope some of you have enjoy this virtual food tour. It was a personal challenge; I think I did OK, right?! But mostly thanks for the ride boys!

Issoire to Le Puy-en-Velay / Distance 153.5km; 95mi

Tdf_lien If it’s Friday it’s the Loire Valley. there are numerous chateaux up and down the valley. The start of today’s stage begins in Puy-de-Dôme, which is named after the famous dormant volcano by the same name, makes for rich soil.  So much so that the excellence of produce has earned the area the sorbiquet of the "garden of France."  It is three hours from Paris and an hour from Lyon. 

The green or French lentil, or more exacting, lentille Verte du Puy (Le Puy Green Lentil) was the first dry vegetable to be awarded the highly coveted A.O.C. designation (Appellation d’origine Contrôlée). This well favored and most delicate of lentils has a peppery taste.  It is a good choice for salads as it holds its shape and firmness after cooking. This legume has been grown in the Haute Loire without fertilizers, since Roman Gaul times. Although originally grown in the rich volcanic soils of Puy, they are now also grown in North America and Italy.  Domestic lentils, from Washington and Idaho, are larger than their French cousins.

Another specialty is an after-dinner liqueur of the Auvergne region called Verveine du Velay. Tdf_19b Produced since 1859 with a family recipe for five generations, it contains Cognac, honey, 32 different plants, plus vervain which is grown only in this area.  According to ecocktail "The herbs stay in the alcohol for more than 20 days to pass on their natural aroma to the alcohol. Distillation takes place in cooper distilling stills. After 24 hours, a 90 % – alcohol is produced, the "Soul" of the liqueur. Yellow or green Verveine de Velay is mixed out of it with the help of sugar or honey. Both liqueurs ripen afterwards in barrels for at least ten months. The yellow liqueur is mild, sweet and contains 43 % of alcohol, the green one is strong and contains more alcohol (55 %)."

And of course there’s wine.  The area is the third largest wine region in France; second in sparkling wine.  There are four large viticultural regions, Muscadet, Anjou, Touraine and Sancerre. The main grapes are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Muscadet, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

Green Lentils with Warm Goat Cheese (Auberge des Sept Soeurs in Touchay, France)

Salade De Lentilles Vertes Aux Lardons (Green Lentil & Bacon Salad)

Stage 18 – Panadae for the Peloton

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Image: AP Photo/Alessandro Trovati

Here’s a lesson. Don’t rely on technology too much. Today’s post was completed, saved as a draft and when I returned this morning "poof" it was gone. Hours of research on this little known region wiped out.  I was angry to say the least.  And then on a whim I entered in a central word from this post-Cantal-into Google Desktop Search, et voila, there it was in the cache. This is an amazing computer accessory if you rely heavily on your computer.  And it’s free.  While your there download Picasa also.

I was incredibly late to work today by two and a half hours!  But we’re in the home stretch with three days to go until Paris mon ami! 

Albi to Mende – Distance: 189 km/118 mi

Along the route today is the Cantal or Auvergne region. While not a well-travelled gastronomic stop it is home to quintessial country cooking.  Dishes such as tripoux a minced mix of "frasie de veau", bacon, onion, garlic, salt, herbs and spices in a pouch of Veau. It is cooks five to seven hours. Another regional specialty is pounti  is similiar to a ham loaf often found studded with prunes.

Five of the 41 French A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) cheeses are produced here: Cantal; St.Nectaire; Bleu d’Auvergne; Fourme d’Ambert; and Salers. World famous and also one of the oldest known cheeses Cantal is named after the mountain range in the Massif Central. This pasteurized cow’s milk is used in two regional potato dishes. Truffade is a baked mixture of sliced potatoes and aligot, a potato purée made with the hard cheese along with garlic. It looks very simple and plain but it has a pleasing taste and texture and is loved by many.

Tdf_bilberries Bilberries or myrtilles, are a central ingredient for tarte aux Myrtilles.  These wild blueberries grow wild on the mountains in the Cantal

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I love soups and this one gives great comfort. Granted this is more of a winter recipe for most of us in the States.  Our friends down under will want to prepare it on a cold, rainy day soon! 

Panadae

excerpted from The Slow Meditterean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert

3 large (white and light green parts only), chopped

1 red onion, chopped

5 green garlic shoots or 8 to 10 garlic cloves, sliced

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt

1-pound loaf stale chewy bread with crust

1 1/2 pounds (about 10 cups) mixed leafy greens (sorrel, chard, parsley leaves, arugula, spinach, and watercress), deribbed and shredded

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Freshly ground pepper

Grated nutmeg

3 cups whole milk, heated to simmering

1/2 pound Cantal or Gruyère cheese

Instructions

Measure the leeks, onion, and garlic to be sure you have about 1 quart.

In a 7- or 8- quart pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Slowly stew the leeks, onion, and garlic for 10 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon salt and cook for 5 more minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250°F (120°C).

Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes. You should have about 2 quarts. Spread the cubes in one layer on an oiled baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes, or until just golden. Let cool and store until ready to use.

Add the greens to the pot, cover, and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Uncover and boil away excess liquid. Allow to cool. Add the lemon juice, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Correct the salt. (Up to this point the recipe can be prepared 1 day in advance. Cool, cover, and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before continuing.)

About 2 1/2 hours before serving, oil a deep 3-quart casserole, preferably earthenware. Place one-third of the bread cubes in the dish, top with half the greens, and repeat, ending with the bread cubes and patting lightly to make an even topping. Gradually pour the hot milk down the insides and over the top of the panade so everything is moist. If necessary, add 1/2 cup water. Cover with the grated cheese and a sheet of foil.

Bake in a preheated 250°F (120°C) oven for 1 3/4 hours. Raise the oven temperature to 400°F (200°C), uncover, and bake 20 more minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to relax for about 10 minutes before serving.

Stage 17 – A Gander of Champions

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Image: Reuters

Yeah!   Paolo Savodelli’s (Italy) stage win today gives The Discovery team a total of three stages wins so far in the 2005 TdF (the team time trial, the stage to Pla-d’Adet and today’s stage).  This is outstanding for a team. Savodelli also won the 2005 Giro d’Italia In bicycling there are three races that form the "triple crown"–TdF (July), Giro d’Italia (May) and the Vuelta a España (end of August)(hmm–maybe a future focus for WOP?!). No cyclist has ever won all three Grand Tour events in the same year. Imagine the physical challenge of that undertaking. Four cyclists have won all three during their career. Sorry, Lance isn’t one of those. And no there are no Americans with this honor–which is not to say we don’t have champion cyclists!  One more random race thought was this Levi Leipheimer’s diary comment (July 19 entry) on Geroge Hincapie. "George deserves a lot of credit. He didn’t seem to get any the other day from the press. He has spent more time in the wind during the last six tours than any other rider and he could easily finish in the top ten of the tour."  God, what a great sport this is. 

Tdf_tgoose_1 Today’s race finished back up in the Midi-Pyrénées region in Revel. Known as the French center for furniture making it is a not far from Toulouse.  The region’s capital is situated between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, about 456 miles from Paris, and is the fourth largest city in the country.

Central to many French dishes is goose.  The most commonly found domestic goose in this region, and now throughout Britan, Canada and America is the Toulouse Goose. A general purpose fowl it was originally bred in southern France, near the city of Toulouse, for pate de fois gras as early as the 1400’s.

There are three types of Toulouse geese–Production, Standard Dewlap, and Exhibition.  According to American Livestock Breeds Conservancy all three types are endangered, particularly the Standard Dewlap as it has the ability to put on large amounts of fat without exercise. Today farmers refer to this breed as noodling geese. "Noodling" is force-feeding geese a fat and grain mash. Small farmers massage “noodles” down geese throats by hand. Large producers auger geese full of mash and maximize fat production through intensive confinement. The product is fat-laden flesh and an oversized liver. Et, voila, fois gras.  But this discussion is not political.

It should be noted here that it was the Egyptians who discovered the foie gras around 2500 B.C. Hunters along the Nile noticed that the livers of the geese were bigger, paler and much tastier during the migration period as they were overfeeding themselves before their migration flights.

Goose meat is darker, with a fuller bodied, and more intensely flavor than turkey. It is fatter and more gamy than duck. Unfortunately for Americans geese are often cooked like duck, i.e. medium rare. Many say the best method takes two and a half days to cook a goose. This method involves allowing the goose to sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for a full two days before roasting allowing for a crispy skin in the end.  Other preparations consist of blanching the fat out of the bird prior to roasting for several hours.

Foie Gras with Pineapple and Pistachios via Saveur Magazine

Apple Terrine of Foie Gras with Blackberry Sauce from SF’s Michael Minna

Stage 16 – Let them Eat Gateau!

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Reuters

Mourenx (Midi-Pyrénées)

to Pau  ((Aquitaine) Distance 180.5km/112.2mi

Today’s race finished in Pau in the region of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is home to nearly 5% of France’s population (2002) and stretches out over five counties: the Dordogne (also know as Périgord), is well-known for walnuts, walnut oil, truffles and foie gras; the Gironde and its prestigious wines, the Landes, and seemingly endless sandy beaches, the Lot-et-Garonne ; the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, (where we end up today) with majestic mountains and a culture heavily influenced by the Basques.

World-famous wines from the region’s capital Bordeaux include Graves, St Emilion and Médoc that mature into sought out names such as Margaux, Rothschild and Petrus. According to Nicks Nose Knows, “The Bordeaux AOC area is the largest in France…the average annual yield is…equivalent to 650 million bottles.”

Armagnac, a brandy, was the first distilled spirit in France. It’s similar to Cognac, in that it bars the name of the production region. The difference between the two is in the type of grape used, the soil, the climate, the method of distillation and the use of black oak wooden maturation casks. In addition Armagnac is distilled once (twice for Cognac) which yields a lower alcohol content. Armagnacs are also aged longer than Cognacs, typically 12-20 years, but can be aged up to 30 years.

As this is the land of geese and ducks, butter is considered a poor substitute in cooking preparations. Any cooking effort beginning with fat–a fried egg, sauteed peppers and onions or peppered duck breast in a creamy Armagnac sauce begins here. Autumn yields cepes and truffles. Another Basque regional specialty is ttoro, a peppery fish stew, which had it’s beginnings with the fishermens’ wives not wanting any of the unsold catch going to waste. This explains the long and varied fish called for in the recipe!

The following Gateau Basque is very simple. It is more of a coffee cake than a dessert-type cake. It is dense–scone like in fact. In my research I saw a few variations on this theme. One of them involving a involving an almond crème pâtissière.  A French website stated, "Il en existe presque autant de variétés que de villages, de pâtissiers ou de restaurateurs."  (i.e. there are a lot of variations!) The same website explained (if I have it right) that the reason that the former version has become more popular as the traditional Ixtassou black cherries are becoming hard to find. Sour cherry preserves are the filling for this cake.  However, since I had some challenges (my local gourmet pantry was closed for painting) I’ve substituted strawberry preserves from Four Star Provisions for a close to actual version.

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Stage 15- Espelette d’ Hincapie

Piperade

Lézat-sur-LèzeSaint-Lary Soulan

Distance: 205.5km/127mi

Well done George! Since 1999 no team member of Lance’s has one a stage (besides the man himself). If anyone has earned that honor it’s George Hincapie. And he has done it on the most grueling of days.  Now the fact that I was near tears in this victory says something.  Perhaps I’m always rooting for the unsung hero. Absolutely brilliant ride today boys!

The Basque region covers three regions of France and four of Spain. Emphasis is not on sauces put on fresh, local ingredients paritcularly fish, beans and pasture animals. Traditionally Hautes-Pyrénées produces such specialties as black pig, fatty ducks, Pyrenees lambs, ewe, goat or mixed cheese, but also superior fario and rainbow trouts. Local tarbais beans pair well with lamb, sheep, preserves and garbure (a sort of chowder). With the Barousse cheese, Etorki and goat cheese often served with cherry jam. These people don’t mess around–food is taken very seriously. Historically the food is simple country dishes.

The 1970s saw the rise of La Nueva Cocina Vasca (New Basque Cuisine) and its founding father, Juan Mari Arzak. According to Susan Herrmann Loomis, "New Basque cuisine retains the focus on simplicity and seasonality, but is lighter, with a French influence and exotic additions such as truffles or pineapple. Many chefs infuse their recipes with humor, playing with textures (vodka in gelatin form), sensations (fizzy dried fruit), and traditions (smoked sea salt)." 

A defining ingredient is the region’s chile pepper which arrived in French Basque country as far back as the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the area became famous for these beautiful red peppers. It’s not an aggressive heat so it’s a great replacement for black pepper.

As recently as 1999, AOC was granted to Espelette peppers and products, giving it the same protection as more famous names, such as Champagne sparkling wine.  There are only 10 villages that can use this seal. Dave DeWitt, of Fiery Foods provides a history:

"In the 17th century, chocolate became very popular in Europe both in candies and in drinks. Chocolatiers in Bayonne, perhaps influenced by tales of Montezuma’s favorite drink, combined Espelette powder and chocolate. A century later, hams from the Basque area were covered with Espelette pepper to redden the ham before curing. The powder was also used in the making of Bayonne hams and some pates, sausages, blood sausages, rolls, and pies. From this point on, Basque cooks began using the Espelette pepper in place of black pepper in seafood dishes.

About the same heat scale as hot paprika, the Espelette pepper is regarded by the French as a four on the scale of one to ten. In fact, hot paprika powder can be substituted, as can New Mexico red chile powder."

I picked up Espelette in ground form at the farmer’s market from Tierra Vegetables just north of San Francisco. But the AOC variety can be purchased online

One use is in the making of piperade.  As a breakfast dish it is more like a scrambled Spanish omelet.  Piperades also come in the form of the following recipe sans the eggs and avec chicken. There’s also a Basque piperade sauce that is typically served with grilled meats.

Read more about Basque food via Departures magazine.

Piperade

(4 servings)

1 tsp olive oil

3/4 c red bell pepper strips

3/4 c green bell pepper strips

1 minced garlic clove

3/4 – 1 c. Black Forest ham, chopped (or precooked bacon)

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp piment d’Espelette (use less if desired)

14 and 1/2 oz diced tomatoes — with juice

4 lg eggs, lightly beaten

Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell peppers and garlic. Sauté 5 minutes. Add salt, piment d’Espelette, and tomatoes; cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook 7 minutes or until bell peppers are tender.

Whisk together eggs, with salt and pepper.  Add tomatoes and ham. Pour into skillet with peppers. Reduce heat to medium low. As the eggs begin to set gently move spatula through skillet so that large, soft curds form. Cook until eggs thicken and there is no liquid from the egg remaining.

Stage 14 – Basque-ing in the Mts.

    Tdf_py

This effort is becoming a test of time and knowledge for me.  What keeps me going is the cyclists. As Lance said today, "You either fight back or go home."  And this from a man who fought without his team again.  If they can power themselves up and over these ascents I can certainly keep writing about the food. What’s up with T-Mobile today?  It was the oddest attack strategy.  Why were they chasing down team member Vino? They are the only team now that has the strength and position to threaten Discovery. Every year the spectators drive me crazy. There’s a rule (so many in this sport.) that if a rider is pushed by a fan that are hit with penalty points–do fans not know this?  As thise Bicycling report states, "Loony fans: Ullrich was nearly knocked from his bike today by an overexuberant fan, and too many other fans tried to “help” by pushing or pouring water on the racers. Stand by the road, cheer on your guys, but Get. Out. Of. The. Way."  P.S. The Red Sox destroyed the Yankees 17-1 moving the Sox 2 1/2 games up over the Yankees.

Agde to Ax-3 Domaines Distance: 220.5km/137mi

Region: Languedoc Roussillon – Midi Pyrénées

Situated at the intersection of the Mediterranean, the “Midi” Channel and the Hérault River, this region is actually comprised of two regions: the Languedoc, stretching westward from the bottom of the Rhone down to the Pyrenees hugging the Mediterranean coast, and that of Roussillon, which curves southward from north of Perpignan to the Spanish border.

The Roussilion region is also known as French Catalonia.  It’s here that Catalan is spoken before French.  You’ll hear it but you’ll also see it in signage and on menus. Basque cuisine famous for its use of tomatoes and chili, or the cuisine of Roussillon akin to Catalonian cuisine

Chefs have the best of both worlds–mountain and sea.  Bullinade, (garlicky bouillabaisse), cargolade (grilled snails), pa amb tomaquets (bread smeared with olive oil and fresh tomato), conill amb pebrots (rabbit and pepper stew) and paella.  This area is also where you’ll find the home (Toulouse) of cassoulet made with slow-cooked white beans, sausages and smoked pork. A good cassoulet has to include 70% of haricot beans, juice and aromates and 30% of meat. It simmers for a very, very long time.

Clifford Wright, Mediterranean food historian best describes the food of this region:

"The dishes of the Roussillon and Languedoc range from the Catalan snail, pork sausage, and lamb chop grilled repast known as cargolade to the Camarguais gardiane, a bull, red wine, and black olive stew. Other dishes are smoked tuna; fricassee of wild girolles (chanterelle mushrooms) with garlic and herbs; crème catalane, a lemon, vanilla, and fennel seed custard; moules de Bouzigues, the cultivated mussels of the lagoon; boules de picolat, seasoned meatballs with white beans; salade Catalane or Co llioure, greens with anchovies, peppers and tomatoes; cigalle de mer, sea cricket, a tiny crayfish-like creature, served grilled; and l’ollada, a stew.

This stew, a hearty one-bowl stew, is also referenced as ouillade, a mix of cabbage, beans, bacon and finished with the Roquefort cheese. 

Lanrou_1 The area is incredibly fertile and is also France’s oldest wine region primarily producing red wines based on the Carignan, Cinsault and Grenache grapes. Today it is in the midst of a renaissance with a lot of experimentation taking place with Mourvedre, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These varietals are non classics of the region. With five major appellations–Corbières, Coteaux du Languedoc; Côtes du Roussillon; Saint Chinian; Costières de Nimes–listing all of them is beyond my abilities–I leave that to a better source (French). These red wines are ready to drink 12 to 15 months after the vintage.  The Table Wine site is a content rich site that has tasting notes if you want to learn more.

Given the geography of the area herds of goats are present. One benefit is pélardon, a highly sought out small, round and flat goat cheese is made in the Cévennes. An AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) coveted cheese it wasn’t always so.  It took a bit of time and persuasion. First but goat was once believed to be the devil incarnate but over the years the goat became know as the poor man’s cow. After maturing for at least 11 days, the young cheese has a creamy crust, often marked with a blue or white mold on the outside. It’s fine and richly smooth, with a nutty, melting taste. With three weeks of further maturation it’s exterior darkens, becomes firmer and a stronger more goat cheese taste is present.

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Stage 13 – SHF in Provence

Brulee Stage 13: Miramas to Montpellier; 173.5km/108mi

There’s mountains ahead and mountains behind but today it was flat. Starting out in Provence the race winds into the Languedoc Roussillon region with strong Catalan and Roman influences. The Pyrénées are ahead.  My only sorry today comes in seeing my young Spainard drop. Sigh. Valverde.  So many cyclists; so little time.  Girls if you aren’t watching by now you may want to check your pulse. 

The timing of this month’s SHF, hosted by Nic at Baking Sheet conincides with my Tour de French Food. My challenge was two-fold as not only did I need to use honey but the entry needed to also be centered on Provence due to the TdF. One of my favorite wine country eating spots is the girl and the fig.  This place is not only relaxing but the food is exceptional.  Sondra Bernstein has got to be one of the hardest working chef and cookbook authors out there.  Her food is very reminiscent of the Provence region as it mirrors the flavors of the Mediterranean or as they say, "country food with a French passion." 

Yesterday the riders ended up in Digne-Les Baines a center for lavender cultivation. I have a certain degree of confidence that the riders no doubt rolled by fields of lavender. So my entry works on manyy levels including a delightful dessert.

First, I know that cooking with lavender makes some wrinkle their nose.  ‘It’s like eating perfume.’ Mon dieu! C’est deliciuex! If used correctly it should lend a mysterious, almost citrusy flavor note. Please, only use lavender labeled as culinary lavender, which means it has been grown without chemical sprays and has no additives–think organic here!

The French seasoning blend herbes de Provence traditionally includes lavender, along with basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme. The blend is great on poultry, fish or vegetables. Greek rubs for lamb often use combinations of lavender and oregano. Crème brulee translates as "burnt cream" in France.  It’s a custard, just like creme caramel or flan. Much like ice cream it has a custard base, but unlike ice cream, creme brulee falls into the "baked custard" category.  Although records suggest a 400 hundred year history throughout England, Spain and France, Americans are newcomers. We have Julia Child to thank for the introduction. Half the fun of eating this custard is in shattering the carmelized surface. Learning to prepare this dessert that presents itself as complex elegance is worthwhile as it is very simple to prepare at home.

Girlandthefigcookbook

Lavender and Wildflower Honey Creme Brulee

excerpted from the girl & the fig cookbook by Sondra Bernstein

2 1/4 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup milk

3 or 4 lavender springs or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried lavender plus lavender blossoms for garnish

8 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar plus about 4 tablespoons sugar for sprinkling

2 tablespoons wildflower honey

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan and add the lavender. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the lavender stems steep for about 15 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavor. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks, the 1/2 cup sugar, and the honey until smooth. Whisk into the lavender-cream mixture. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any foam. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Pour the mixture into 6 ramekins. Set the ramekins in a baking pan and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking pan with foil and place in the oven. Bake for 40 minutes or until set. (test for doneness by jiggling the ramekins.)

Remove the baking pan from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Before serving, sprinkle the tops with a thick layer of sugar and caramelize with a small torch or under a broiler set on high. Garnish each creme brulee with lavender blossoms.

COOK’S TIP:  Place the water bath in the oven first then place the ramekins in to the water bath.  This will help prevent water from sloshing into the ramekins potentially causing sogginess.